‘The war between wars.” This is the term that IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny
Gantz uses to describe the covert operations that the military’s special forces
carry out during times of apparent quiet.
This war is fought by anonymous
commandos whose missions mostly remain unknown to the public, as well as by
large parts of the Israeli defense establishment. Once in a while, Israelis get
a taste of what this so-called war entails.
Such was the case in April
when operatives from the navy’s Flotilla 13 – better known as the Shayetet –
boarded the Liberian-flagged HS Beethoven cargo ship as it was sailing almost
300 kilometers from Israel’s coast. The ship had set sail from Lebanon and was
on its way to Egypt. The commandos searched the ship for weapons for nearly 12
hours without success.
Last March, a similar operation succeeded.
Commandos from the Shayetet, intercepted a cargo ship called Victoria that was
carrying some 50 tons of weaponry – including radar-guided anti-ship missiles –
and was on its way to Egypt. The arms were believed to be intended for terrorist
organizations in the Gaza Strip.
But these are just two examples. A few
months ago, The Jerusalem Post
revealed that overseas covert operations
conducted by the IDF have doubled over the past year, an indication of the
growing threats Israel faces in the region.
Most of the details about
these operations are classified, including the exact number, but according to
foreign reports, the IDF has operated in places such as Sudan, Lebanon and
The increase in operations is not without purpose and, according to
senior officers intimately familiar with the activity, the man responsible for
the increase is Gantz, who believes that the IDF cannot sit idly by as its
enemies – particularly Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad – build up
“He puts a major emphasis on this so-called war between
wars,” a senior member of the IDF General Staff explained recently. “Not only do
these operations provide tangible results but they also send a message to our
adversaries and boost deterrence.”
Currently, the IDF has three main
units that make up its elite commando force – the navy’s Shayetet, the General
Staff Reconnaissance Unit – better known as Sayeret Matkal – and the Israel Air
Force’s Shaldag Unit, which reportedly conducts target designation for IAF
fighter jets behind enemy lines.
After almost a decade of consideration,
Gantz finally decided in December to consolidate the elite units under a new
formation called the Depth Corps. To lead the corps, Gantz brought out of
retirement Maj.-Gen. Shai Avital, a former commander of Sayeret Matkal, who also
happens to be a close friend of Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
spent the months since the corps’ establishment hiring officers to fill its
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Gal Hirsch, who resigned from the IDF
after the Second Lebanon War in 2006 during which he served as commander of the
Galilee Division, was appointed Avital’s deputy, a post he will fill as a
reservist. Brig.-Gen. Moni Katz, former commander of the Givati Brigade, serves
as the corps’ chief of staff.
The corps’ job is split into two
While Israel’s special forces have had some spectacular
successes in recent years, there has been a feeling within the General Staff
already since the Second Lebanon War that the units could do more if they worked
together more closely.
As yet, there are no plans to establish new units
and the current situation, under which the IAF is in command of Shaldag,
Military Intelligence is in command of Sayeret Matkal and the navy in command of
the Shayetet, will remain for purposes of training.
What will change is
that the operations from now will be directed by Avital, who will be directly
subordinate to Gantz. This will mean that the units will be activated by a
single command who will know best how to integrate their various capabilities
with the objective of bringing out the best result possible depending on the
In addition, another possibility under consideration is to beef
up Shaldag which, while considered one of the most elite units in the military,
is relatively small in manpower in comparison to the other two units – Sayeret Matkal and Shayetet.
The command’s second role
is overseeing larger-scale military operations deep in enemy territory like
Lebanon or Syria.
While each of these fronts has a regional command
responsible for it, the Northern Command is set up to operate until a certain
line in Lebanon and Syria and not further.
The same is the case with the
Southern Command along the Sinai border.
The problem is that in a future
war, due, for example, to Hezbollah’s new long-range missiles, the war will need
to be fought not just in the villages of Southern Lebanon like in 2006 but also
deeper inside Lebanon.
With the increase in the rate of operations and
the bolstering of its special forces, the IDF is now looking at new platforms
for how to transport the units to their destinations.
units are mostly flown by Sikorsky CH-53 and Black Hawk helicopters, but the
threat to these aircraft has grown with the proliferation of surface-to-air
missile systems throughout the region.
This was demonstrated last August
in the attacks along the Egyptian border when terrorists fired a missile at an
Israeli attack helicopter. The missile, which missed the target, is believed to
have originated in Libya where it was smuggled into the Sinai Peninsula as well
as the Gaza Strip.
As a result, the IAF is pushing hard to receive a
budget to purchase a number of V-22 Ospreys, the only tiltrotor aircraft in the
world today that can take off and hover like a helicopter and then fly at speeds
and altitudes like an airplane.
The IAF has had its eye on the V- 22,
made by Boeing and Bell, for a number of years and last month, IAF chief
Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan took it for a flight test during a visit to the United
What makes the V-22 unique is its ability to take off vertically
like a helicopter, with its rotors in an upright position, and then to shift the
rotors 45 degrees downwards, allowing it to fly like a regular transport plane,
reaching speeds of up to 300 knots, almost double that of a
The V-22 can transport 24 combat troops or more than nine
tons of internal or external cargo, and has a range of more than 4,000
kilometers with a single aerial refueling.
“In light of the growing SAM
threats we face, the V-22 is the right aircraft to use to insert and extricate
troops quickly and safely in a wide-range of scenarios,” a senior IAF pilot
With or without the V-22, the assessment within the
IDF is that these operations will need to continue, particularly as the changing
Middle East presents new challenges for Israel.