Security and Defense: Preparing for war by surprise

Israel will need to find a way to quietly place the IDF on high alert before an attack on Iran.

IDF ARTILLERY during Second Lebanon War 370 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
IDF ARTILLERY during Second Lebanon War 370
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
On Saturday December 27, 2008, Col. Ofer Levy, then deputy commander of the Givati Brigade, was out for lunch when he received a phone call informing him that Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip had begun.
Brig.-Gen. Herzi Halevy, the commander during the operation of the Paratroopers Brigade, was at home with his family when he received a similar call about the extensive air strikes the Israel Air Force had just carried out against Hamas targets scattered throughout Gaza.
Why weren’t they at their bases preparing for the operation that would see them a week later inside Gaza in the largest ground invasion since Israel’s withdrawal in 2005? The answer is simple; They didn’t know that the operation would be beginning that Saturday.
The reason for the high level of secrecy ahead of the operation was obvious: the IDF wanted to draw Hamas out from its underground hideouts to be able to hit as many operatives and command posts as possible in the opening series of air strikes, a mission referred to as “Birds of Prey.”
This meant keeping the operation a secret even from the brigade commanders who would be leading troops into Gaza just a few days later.
When considering possible Israeli military action against Iran, two challenges frequently overlooked are how to launch such a mission without the entire world finding out beforehand and how to ensure that the IDF is prepared for the war that will ensue without letting out that the war is coming.
In the Iranian case this applies mostly to the Northern Command, which would be expected to wage war against Hezbollah in Lebanon if the guerrilla group decides to attack Israel following a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, as Israel expects it will. The forces would need to be on alert and at a high level of readiness to be able to move into Lebanon and begin working to reduce the rocket fire into the Israeli home front.
But how can they do that if they do not know that a strike against Iran is taking place, let alone a war they will be called to fight in?
When comparing a possible strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities to the bombing of Syria’s reactor in 2007, there are some similarities but also major differences. The main difference is that very few people knew about the existence of Syria’s reactor – including top Syrian officials – let alone about Israeli plans to bomb it. This meant that when Israel finally carried out the bombing it had both strategic and tactical surprise.
With Iran, this would not be the case. Israeli political and military leaders say every few weeks that the IDF has a credible and viable military option that could be used to destroy and set back Iran’s nuclear program. Just this Wednesday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak – in some of the strongest remarks he has ever made on the issue – said that Israel was better off bombing Iran than living with an Iranian bomb.
This means that all that is left for Israel is tactical surprise regarding if, how and when it will carry out such a strike.
When it came to Syria’s reactor, the IDF not only needed to prepare for the strike itself but also needed to invent an excuse why war with Syria was possible.
Very few IDF officers knew what was happening, which made the invention all the more genuine.
That is how the IDF discovered the English word “miscalculation,” which senior officers repeated often throughout the spring and summer of 2007.
They were referring to a misunderstanding that could occur between Israeli and Syrian military commanders stationed along the border that could then evolve into an allout war.
President Bashar Assad, the IDF explained, was questioning the IDF’s strength and capabilities following its poor showing during the Second Lebanon War the previous summer.
Due to the potential for conflict, these officers explained, the IDF needed to ramp up training and beef up its troops on the Golan Heights.
The problem was that in Israel, people had difficulty believing that the Syrians would actually attack Israel due to the obvious advantage the IDF had over the Syrian military.
The IDF explained that the Syrians had learned the lessons of the Second Lebanon War the year before and that even though they were lacking the military capability to defeat the IDF and capture Israeli territory, they had developed a new strategy based on some of Hezbollah’s tactics used successfully against the IDF.
The IDF made sure to pump the Israeli media full of stories about Syria’s new Hezbollah-style antitank units, which even rode on motorbikes like their Lebanese counterparts. Reporters were then told about Syria’s investment in constructing underground defense and tunnel systems like Hezbollah’s infamous nature reserves to replace the famous Syrian pitas – small, pitashaped defensive positions they had constructed atop little hills along the border in previous decades.
The stories did the job and the IDF began to prepare seriously for a potential war with Syria. By the time Israel bombed Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear reactor on September 6, the country was completely poised for war.
For Israel, the question now is how to reenact the success of 2007. Most of the work on this is being led by Military Intelligence’s Information Security Department.
One way may be to use the current volatile situation in Syria – and specifically fears over the possible proliferation of its chemical weapons – as the pretext for why the IDF needs to be on alert at all times along the northern front. Then, when the military is prepared, Israel will attack Iran.
The other option is to simply place the military on high alert – even for a period of several months – and to explain that it is being done due to the possibility that Israel will attack Iran.
The advantage in this case is that by placing the military on high alert, Israel will get the world’s attention and possibly create pressure leading to the imposition of new sanctions. Putting the military on high alert might also get the Iranians scared to the point that they will finally believe Israel is serious about using military action and suspend their enrichment of uranium.
The problem with this option is that keeping a military on a protracted high state of alert comes at a price. It is expensive, soldiers will complain that they are not allowed furloughs and it will affect the military’s overall training program, which will need to be suspended.
No matter which option Israel chooses, the most difficult part appears to still lie ahead: a decision on whether or not it should attack Iran. In recent weeks, the political establishment has been rampant with rumors about how Barak is trying to persuade Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu about the need for an attack and vice versa. In the army, senior officers walk around with gloomy faces, as if war is inevitable.
Barak’s comments Wednesday night at the graduation ceremony for the IDF’s National Defense College about the need for an attack against Iran are a clear break from the quiet that had overtaken the government in recent months with regard to Iran. Speaking at the same ceremony by video, Netanyahu also spoke about how the best defense when facing a missile threat, like Israel does, is the ability to attack.
The political zigzag this week involving Netanyahu’s attempt to split Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima Party as well as Tzachi Hanegbi’s return to Likud and the government add to the confusion. On the one hand, if Israel was preparing an attack against Iran in the near future, how could Mofaz leave the government at such a critical time? On the other hand, why did he hint that Netanyahu’s decision to take Hanegbi into the government was part of a scheme to create a majority in a cabinet vote on a strike?
Barak, in his remarks, went even further, admitting that Israel and the United States view the threat differently and according to different timetables. Israel, he hinted, is limited in its capabilities and therefore cannot wait as long as the Americans, who could still attack and destroy Iran’s facilities even once they have been fortified and moved deeper underground.
At the end of the day, though, Barak stressed, Israel will decide what to do based on its own national interests. For the time being, this sense of urgency is mostly on the verbal level. Once it starts to take a physical form, it will probably be the right time to begin cleaning out the bomb shelters.