(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The IDF's Staff and Command College has undergone several widespread changes in recent months.
On the superficial level, the Glilot base - just north of Tel Aviv - is a construction site. Millions of shekels are being poured into it, making the base begin to look more like a college campus than a highly-guarded military installation. New buildings with leather furniture, refurbished libraries and sun decks with reclining armchairs are some of the perks senior officers get to enjoy while taking courses.
The changes don't stop there, however. Last week, a year after the Second Lebanon War, the IDF launched its first cross-branch (ground forces, navy, air force) staff and command course, essentially putting an end to a 50-year period during which each branch trained its own senior officers.
The course is the rite of passage for all senior officers, and 60 majors pass through its doors annually on their way to becoming lieutenant-colonels and being appointed battalion, squadron and flotilla commanders.
Under the command of Brig.-Gen. Avi Ashkenazi - the younger brother of Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi - the college has integrated the major lessons of last summer's war into its curriculum. By combining all of the branches into one course, the Ashkenazi brothers are hoping to create a single language throughout the IDF that will be used when drafting operational orders, planning missions and analyzing a battlefield.
The decision to unite all the branches into one course was made following a visit the younger Ashkenazi made last year to the UK's Staff and Command College, which underwent the same process a decade ago. "Interoperability" is the key word being used to describe the move, with the aim being that through joint learning, ground forces will better understand the role that fighter planes and attack helicopters play in a battlefield, and vice versa.
Students are also learning about regional issues, not just from a military perspective but also on a diplomatic level. International relations is a mandatory course, and former ministers like Dan Meridor come as guest lecturers to explain what the government's expectations from the military are. By analyzing historical events, such as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the future commanders are also expected to obtain tools that help them better understand the small role they play in the larger picture.
"The idea is to synergize among the various IDF branches, so when they operate in a battle zone they know how to operate together," a high-ranking officer in the college explained.
According to Maj.-Gen. (res.) Ya'acov Amidror, a former commander of the IDF's National Defense College and currently vice president of Lander College in Jerusalem, the decision to create a cross-branch course was way overdue. The failure to establish such a course, he said, was one of the causes for the operational failures apparent during last year's conflict with Hizbullah.
"Since World War II, modern armies around the world have understood that by fusing all of their branches, they gain power," he said. "For different branches to work together, they need to get to know one another, including each other's capabilities and deficiencies."
THE NEW course is based on the IDF's operational doctrine, which is currently being drafted by a team of strategists led by Brig.-Gen. Itai Brun, former deputy head of Military Intelligence's Research Division and currently head of the the IDF's Operational Theory Research Institute. A large focus of his work is on creating a new "tactical language" that will be used by all military branches.
Brun is scheduled to submit a final copy of his report to Ashkenazi in the coming months, but what is known already is that it will be based on a number of key principles - quickly resolving conflicts in enemy territory, creating more effective deterrence and minimizing damage to the home front.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak has ordered the defense establishment to speed up development and production of missile defense systems to minimize damage to the home front, and OC Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin told a Knesset committee last week that the country's deterrence against Syria and Iran has been reinstated since last summer's war. His remarks might have been related to the almost daily reports in the foreign press about the air strike against a North Korean nuclear installation in Syria three weeks ago.
QUICK RESOLUTION to conflicts has yet to be tested, however. Only the next war will determine if all the time and money invested in the IDF's unprecedented training regimen was worth it.
Every infantry and armored brigade has trained this year for wars on two fronts - Syria and the Gaza Strip - and in the Command and Staff College, equal emphasis is being given to conventional warfare and low intensity conflicts.
This strategic understanding was demonstrated earlier this month in the presentation of the IDF's multi-year procurement plan to the General Staff by Brig.-Gen. Nimrod Sheffer, head of the Planning Department, and outgoing Deputy Chief of General Staff Maj.-Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky. Sheffer, a former F-16 squadron commander and a Harvard graduate, presented the IDF's analysis of its strategic environment which led to the decisions made in the procurement plan. Four main threats were presented - Syria, Hamas, Iran and Iraq.
The underlying common denominator among the threats is that wherever you look in the Middle East, you see an arms race. Over the past two years, Syria has spent on its military what it did in the eight years before. Iran is racing toward nuclear power and is building up a powerful missile array. And Hamas continues to smuggle unprecedented amounts of weapons into Gaza.
Iraq made the list this year, ahead of the planned withdrawal of US forces. Israel fears that with the Americans gone, Iraq has the potential of building up a powerful military that could once again pose a dire threat. Egypt and Jordan were also taken into consideration, particularly the possibility that the moderate regimes of President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah II could be overthrown by radical Islamists.
The byproduct of this analysis is that Israel is currently facing four different types of challenges: regional instability (Iraq), conventional war (Syria), asymmetric warfare (Palestinians) and a nuclear Iran.
The assumption within the defense establishment is that Syria will still respond to the alleged air strike three weeks ago. President Bashar Assad has several options, among them launching an attack on the Golan Heights or using terror cells abroad to attack Israeli or Jewish institutions. On the Palestinian front, Barak has been warning that each passing day brings a large-scale operation in Gaza closer.
Brun's three principles will not be easy to implement in such a volatile environment, but at least officers from the navy, air force and ground forces are finally studying together.