The tools that prepare Israel for the future war

How multidimensional joint operations, lessons from past wars and new technologies have transformed Israel’s army, navy and air force.

An employee stands next to an Elbit Systems Ltd. Hermes 900 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) at the company's drone factory in Rehovot, Israel (photo credit: REUTERS/OREL COHEN)
An employee stands next to an Elbit Systems Ltd. Hermes 900 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) at the company's drone factory in Rehovot, Israel
(photo credit: REUTERS/OREL COHEN)
‘We get up in the morning with one mission,” says a lieutenant-colonel in Israel’s air force. “From north to south, in combination with the ground forces, the mission is how to win the war of maneuver.”
Israel’s next war is coming, and when it comes, Israel must land a knockout punch, using the latest technology and combining all its units, from the sea to land and air, in a coordinated assault that will defeat its enemies with maximum power but a minimum of harm to civilians.
“The most important thing for an officer is the decision-making in combat, in relation to the enemy’s ground forces and our forces,” says Lt.-Col. Elad Efrati, an Armored Corps commander.
He is training the next generation of officers to practice the latest combat techniques, debriefing and learning from mistakes, and applying them on the ground; he puts his officers under pressure, to see how they make decisions, to improve planning and decision-making.
“We need to know the enemy’s perception of fighting, whether it is Hamas or Hezbollah. We teach officers and commanders how the enemy perceives the battle, and to use that to put the enemy at a disadvantage.”
Dozens of kilometers away from the dusty tank treads of the Merkava IV tanks that Efrati is used to, Lt.-Col. Ran Shtaygman of Israel’s navy surveys his patrol boats in preparation for duty off the coast of Gaza.
“One of the most important things we are doing today 24/7, from summer to winter, day and night, is patrolling to keep the border from Gaza to Israel safe and prevent terror.”
These are Israel’s key soldiers at a place and time in their mid-career where they have seen the heavy cost of wars in the past and know how to prepare the future generation for the conflict on the horizon.
Shtaygman, 36, came up through the naval academy and then, after several years, became a commander in Squadron 916, whose patrol boats confront terrorism near Gaza. He began running one vessel in 2005, and continued through stints in 2010 and 2011 with the missile boats in Haifa, and then went to the US briefly to spend time at Rhode Island’s Naval War College.
Now his unit contains the Devora-, Shaldag- and smaller Tzir’ah-class vessels. The larger patrol boats, ranging in length from 21 m. to 24 m., with its Typhoon weapon station and 25-mm. cannon, and 15-member crew, are the muscle that keeps the coast off Gaza safe from terrorism. At any time of day or night, there are Israeli naval assets off the coast of Gaza, a particularly sensitive area because of the water border with Egypt and the gas rigs that now festoon the coast.
His counterpart on land, Efrati, is 37 and a commander of the 196th “Shahak” Tank Commanders Training Battalion today. He is a veteran of the 401st Armored Brigade. It has trained over the years to use its latest Merkava Mark IV tanks against threats such as Hezbollah. With the latest technology, including the Trophy defense system that secures it against anti-tank missile attacks, it is the hammer the ground forces have to deal with enemies across the border.
“Tanks bring power to the field, as a shield for infantry and providing mobility,” the officer says. “They bring leading technology as well, such as monitoring systems, and we are leading the way in the ground forces [in technology].”
The tank commander has seen the transforming effects of past wars. A trainee during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, he initially served with one of the older Magah tanks that were based on the M60 Pattons that were first developed in the Vietnam era. In 2004 he moved to the modern Merkava IV and served in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and then in Operation Protective Edge in 2014 in the 52nd Battalion of the 41st. Armored units have adapted to new technologies and learned the lessons of the failures of the Second Lebanon War (2006).
By the end of that war, some 50 Israeli tanks had been damaged in 34 days of conflict, most of them in several days of tough combat. More than 30 Armored Corps personnel were killed and 100 wounded in the conflict.
The Armored Corps took a deep look after that war at what went wrong and how Hezbollah, with a few thousand anti-tank missiles, had confronted Israeli armored forces of several hundred tanks.
Assessments after 2006 concluded that the tanks had not maneuvered but remained “static,” and had not used their own capabilities against the enemy. The Merkava IVs were not used effectively, despite being some of the best armor in the world.
Now those lessons, as well as those learned in wars in Gaza, have been digested and studied. The enemies are the same, but Israel’s armed forces have been transformed in the last decade and a half.
THE AIR FORCE officer we spoke to – who for security reasons cannot be named – is a 40-year-old deputy commander in his unit. Beforehand, he had been involved in intelligence. His current role is in a unit that deals specifically with cooperation between the air force and other units.
That is a mission that dates back to Operation Peace for Galilee – the First Lebanon War – in 1982 but is now a unique unit dealing with integrated missions. That means improving communications and operations with ground forces, supporting both services with intelligence and technology to help win on the ground.
Technology in the IDF today includes the use of advanced algorithms to aid in detecting enemies using radar and imaging, as well as integrating data sharing between units, communications networks, and precision weapons.
Like the tank units mauled in the 2006 war, the air force also had to learn the lessons of 2006. It had been sent, in the first days of the war, to destroy Hezbollah, flying up to 500 missions a day for a total of 19,000 sorties in the war. That added up to a lot of ordnance being fired at the enemy, some 350 combat missions a day, 7,000 targets struck, and 2,000 missiles fired. Around 35% of the munitions used were precision guided, according to one study. But Hezbollah still pounded Israel with 4,200 rockets, necessitating a ground offensive that did not go as planned.
The lessons of both the 1980s and the 2006 war in Lebanon led to the understanding of the need for the air force and ground forces to speak the same “language” about using air power effectively. Headquarters units need to speak clearly at division level and below. 
The objective after 2006, and after lessons learned in 2009, 2012 and 2014 in Gaza, was how to achieve objectives with minimum losses to IDF forces.
“We are changing at a rapid pace,” the air force officer says. “Technology is enabling capabilities that didn’t exist in the past, and also the enemy is changing.”
Since he joined, he has seen this pace of change accelerate and the need to adapt quickly to operate effectively.
Israel’s motto today for fighting war is “mutlidimensionality.” That is part of the current Momentum plan that is supposed to provide battalion and lower level commanders with the technology and intelligence assets they need to conduct a swift war using massive firepower from above and from ground forces.
Israel is creating armored vehicles, artillery and even laser weapons against drones, to decimate the enemy in future conflicts.
It will have mutlilayered air defense and a multilayered offense that sees units working closely together so that land, air, sea and cyber are brought to bear on the enemy at the same time.
No more piecemeal wars, where Israel uses just air power or just counterinsurgency tactics. That was what failed in 2006 and during the first years of the Second Intifada. It also largely failed to deter Hamas between 2005 and 2014.
Israel wants to maximize its advantages now. Those advantages are in the realm of information and digitization and connectivity, using things like tablet computers to control drones, for instance.
The idea that a mission will come down to just an infantry unit is a thing of the past. The future war for Israel is to use its incredible abilities as a force multiplier. This allows flexibility and precision in tactical operations, the air force officer says.
For instance, Israel’s advances in drone technology and packing the correct sensors and optics on the drone to send video back to the commanders are the key to reducing exposure to our forces in the field and bringing the battle scene to the commander’s hand, he says.
“The tactical UAV brings capabilities that were not here before…. These capabilities are expanding, improving and bringing new advanced technological capabilities.
“Looking at the long term, it is taking us to a new era in which we are still learning and discovering the infinite range of possibilities it brings to the battlefield. This is because the technology development process is exponential, and the rate of adoption of operational capabilities is high.”
The Armored Corps will need to have close cooperation not only with the air force but with infantry and engineers in the future war.
“We can win if we know each other and know to work as a combat team, as a company or a battalion,” Efrati says.
He notes that intelligence provision to smaller units is better than in the past, and tanks have better defensive systems, like the Trophy protection against missiles. There is also upgraded night vision equipment inside to help the tanks fight at night. 
Like the air force, the tanks are using drones more as well. Not only do they train to detect enemy drones, which have been used to drop explosives on tanks, but “we use our own drones to simulate enemy drones in the training.”
While the Momentum plan of the IDF foresees reducing some of the heavier tanks, the officer says he is looking forward to the future armored vehicles that the IDF will deploy. The Vietnam-era M113 armored personnel carriers will be retired soon and replaced by better vehicles. The Armored Corps may face other changes, such as incorporating women one day into the tanks, which has not happened yet.
“I think the armored corps is very advanced and leading in technology, and I hope that this technology will spread to other units such as engineering and infantry, because I feel now the Armored Corps is two steps ahead of the others.”
Although Israel’s past wars mostly focused on defeating terrorism on land, Israel’s dominance at sea is essential. In the South, where Shtaygman oversees 25 patrol boats, they must be on watch 24 hours a day.
The units must guard against coronavirus as well, sleeping on their boats and being isolated from the general population.
Hamas in Gaza has been frustrated lately, as Israel’s Iron Dome stopped its rockets, and its tunnels were discovered. Detecting its attempts to smuggle weapons into Gaza is essential. Israel maintains good relations with Egypt to prevent the smuggling. There are also Gazan fishing boats that must be monitored.
“If I just look at the last week, every night and day we had, from the Mediterranean to Gaza, more than 200-300 fishing boats a day,” Shtaygman says.
But the enemy may use civilian-style boats for terrorism.
“They are doing their best to smuggle weapons and thinking about plans, how to cross the border in different ways. We do our best to understand what they are planning; we are always there at the right points to stop them. They continue to smuggle and drill. I don’t see a change in their tactics,” says the navy officer.
Like the tanks, the navy is dealing with new technology and drones. Patrol boats now have small quadcopter drones and work closely with the air force to monitor the threats from Gaza and at sea.
“We will continue to work closely with the army and air force…. It’s not just integration; we work 24/7,” he says.
The navy is becoming bigger, with new Sa’ar 6 missile boats and submarines, and its capabilities are increasing. The new Sa’ar 6 will be packed with the latest Barak 8 missiles, Iron Dome’s sea version, anti-ship missiles and torpedoes.
Like his counterparts on land and in the air, Shtaygman is excited about the future and wants to continue serving his country. “Absolutely,” he says.
The other men agree. This generation, hardened by the Second Intifada, are now training the next generation of Israel’s land, sea and air warriors, who will have at their hands technology that their parents never dreamed of, to confront an enemy that is also adapting and improving.