Ex-No. 2 in IDF intel. talks war: 'Attrition and maneuver'

Working with the Israel Intelligence and Heritage Commemoration Center, Brun, who headed IDF intelligence analysis from 2011-2015, tries to find a middle ground in a range of debates.

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August 26, 2018 09:04
4 minute read.
Brig.-Gen. Itay Brun at

Brig.-Gen. Itay Brun at the annual Herzliya Conference, June 9, 2014.. (photo credit: EREZ HARODI - OSIM TSILUM)

War and military intelligence are constantly changing. As they evolve, how should Israel and its intelligence community rethink their tactics and goals?

In a recent Jerusalem Post interview with former head of IDF military intelligence analysis Itai Brun relating to an English version of his book Intelligence Analysis: Understanding Reality in an Era of Dramatic Changes, the retired brigadier general probed the dilemmas raised by this question.

Brun’s book deals with intelligence analysis – the process by which knowledge about the enemy and the environment is developed to serve decision- making in the fields of policy design and operational planning, including in combat and force build-up.

Working with the Israel Intelligence Commemoration Center, Brun, who headed IDF intelligence analysis from 2011-2015, tries to find a middle ground in a range of debates, including on the spectrum between classical intelligence research and post-modern approaches to that field.

He favors using non-traditional intelligence methods, such as proposing hypothetical paradigms and then measuring whether evidence supports those paradigms. The goal is to avoid group-think, to clarify between reality and deception, and to avoid surprises.

Where do these theoretical approaches impact on intelligence gathering and analysis, and thus contribute to achieving Israel’s war and peace aims? Brun explains Israel is dealing with the challenges of the “disappearance” of the enemy. If before, Israel’s adversaries’ tank and troop deployments could be monitored, now Hamas and Hezbollah attack clandestinely from tunnels or fire rockets concealed in civilian sites.

Brun credited Aviv Kochavi, the head of IDF intelligence during his tenure as chief of research, in determining the IDF needed to invest more intelligence resources on an operational level to locate Hamas’s concealed targets. “Otherwise we would not find them.”

He describes two methods of war-making: by attrition and by maneuver.

While the IDF has always excelled in maneuvering warfare, using creativity and speed to destroy its foes, now the IDF has moved to a mixed approach combining maneuverability and attrition.

Brun writes today the IDF is still employing a maneuver warfare concept to locate and destroy Hamas assets. But the IDF is also investing huge resources in an attrition warfare way of thinking to systematically identify and destroy Hamas’ war-making capabilities.

Brun suggests some military and intelligence power invested in locating and destroying a large volume of targets might be wasteful and inefficient.

“Large ‘target factories’ operate in order to meet this demand and must constantly contend with the question of quality vs. quantity. When it is not possible to point to a small number of quality targets, quantity starts to become important, in the assumption (whose basis in reality is doubtful) that quantity will have an accumulative effect on the enemy’s desire to continue to fight,” he writes.

How does Brun square his observation that the quantity of targets destroyed often plateaus in its impact on an adversary with his encouraging the use of intelligence for attrition- style systematic destruction of small targets to wreck an enemy’s fighting ability? Brun suggests that while attacking a single rocket launcher may have an insignificant military impact, cumulatively the destruction of rocket crews makes it harder for Hamas to justify continuing its fight.

The thrashing that Hezbollah received in 2006 has kept the border with Lebanon mostly quiet since then, and Brun believes that the beating Hamas took in 2014 is having a similar effect, though the border “is not hermetically quiet.”

In that sense, an innovation he proposes is to dispose of using the word “deterrence” completely as a Cold War-era relic when there was absolute deterrence or none. Instead, he suggests emphasizing convincing the adversary to comply with a relative level of quiet.

Ultimately, says Brun, intelligence must answer the question of what pressure is necessary to get an adversary to end a round of fighting.

Brun avoided the question of whether cyber and big data tactics or classical humint, or human intelligence, are preferable in discerning Hamas’s views on ending fighting. Rather, he said, both classical and modern intelligence tools in the hands of a seasoned analyst are necessary to understand the thinking of Hamas’s leadership.

The writings, internal verbal communications and public messaging of that leadership are all integral to that understanding, he stated.

Moreover, sometimes “the enemy himself does not even know” what his goals are since when “they go into a bunker under a hospital, they don’t even know” fully what is happening around them.

Intelligence cannot eliminate all uncertainty and has often misunderstood adversaries in the past, Brun said.

In that light, his more scientific approach of proposing and testing hypotheticals against reality is designed not to eliminate uncertainty, but to reduce it and avoid being completely blindsided by group-think.


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