Security and Defense: Coordinating capabilities

With today’s battlefield requirements, a joint special-forces command in the IDF is once again on the General Staff’s agenda.

Transporting elite units 311 (photo credit: IDF Spokesman’s Office)
Transporting elite units 311
(photo credit: IDF Spokesman’s Office)
Last weekend, a US Army Chinook helicopter carrying 30 American soldiers – among them 22 special forces members – and eight coalition military personnel went down in central-eastern Afghanistan.
While the military still has not confirmed the cause of the crash, all indications are that the twin engine heavy-lift helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fired by a Taliban insurgent. The use of RPGs, as well as other shoulder- launched missiles, in the role of surface-to-airmissiles (SAMs) is a threat well known to the Israel Air Force in recent years.
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In August 2006, Hezbollah shot down an Israeli Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion transport helicopter – called Yasour in the IAF – with an anti-tank missile just two days before the end of the Second Lebanon War. During 2009’s Operation Cast Lead, Hamas reportedly fired a number of SAMs at IAF aircraft over the Gaza Strip.
Since then, the threat has dramatically grown along Israel’s borders. In 2008, as intelligence reports about the growing presence of SAMs in Gaza, the IAF instituted new guidelines for the way it flies over the Hamas-controlled territory and particularly the altitudes.
Hamas is believed to have obtained a significant quantity of Russian SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles from Iran. In Lebanon, the IAF believes Hezbollah has obtained a much larger quantity of missiles, and is acutely concerned by reports that it might also have received the SA-8, a Russian tactical radar-guided and truck-mounted SAM system reported to have a range of over 30 km.
The IAF’s Yasours are similar to the American Chinooks in the type of missions they carry out.
Both were created to transport troops behind enemy lines – sometimes special forces, like the 22 members of the Navy SEALs elite Team 6 aboard the Chinook in Afghanistan last week, and sometimes regular infantry, like when the IDF made a last-ditch effort in 2006 to surround Hezbollah by airlifting troops to northern Lebanon.
Despite the SAM threat, these helicopters will be critical in any future Israeli or American conflict.
For that reason, and as reported in The Jerusalem Post last month, the IAF is looking to develop a missile defense system for helicopters, like the combat-proven one that was recently installed aboard IDF Merkava tanks.
Transporting troops and elite units deep into enemy territory is essential these days in the face of the changing nature of warfare, which requires militaries to be capable of engaging in counterinsurgency and anti-guerrilla operations while maintaining a high level of flexibility, mobility and rapid deployment.
Adm. William McRaven, who took over as commander of the US Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida, on Monday, made this point clear in written answers he provided the Senate Armed Services Committee before his confirmation hearing in June.
“The world’s strategic environment has evolved toward one that is characterized more by irregular warfare activity rather than major nation-state warfare,” McRaven reportedly told the committee.
He would know. McRaven was the ranking commander on the ground in Abbottabad, Pakistan, during Operation Neptune’s Spear in May, launched to capture Osama bin Laden. That operation was carried out by Navy SEALs Team 6.
Team 6, whose official name remains classified, is one of the US military’s most elite units. It often operates together with the CIA – which explains why it was chosen for the Abbottabad mission – and was established following the botched military operation to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980.
Despite its high level of secrecy, Team 6 members have visited Israel, and a unit plaque hangs in an IDF base near Tel Aviv, where they held joint maneuvers several years ago with Israeli special forces.
In 1996, McRaven, who started his military career as a Navy SEAL, published a book called Spec Ops, which studied the art of special operations and analyzed eight case studies, including Operation Yonatan, the IDF’s covert raid on Entebbe in 1976.
In the book, McRaven sets a number of guidelines for successful operations. The first is “Get it over with” – basically the need for speed and the ability to get to one’s target as quickly as possible without being detected.
The second principle is the need to maintain an element of surprise, which McRaven says can sometimes be achieved simply by choosing the right time for an operation.
“Most attacking forces prefer to assault a target at night, primarily because darkness provides cover, but also because at nighttime the enemy is presumed to be tired, less vigilant, and more susceptible to surprise,” he writes.
Despite being aware of these principles, during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, the first ground troops sent into Lebanon from the Egoz unit were sent in during the day. The operation ended with five dead soldiers, including a company commander.
By the end of the war, when the IDF launched its final effort to take up strategic positions north of the Litani River ahead of the cease-fire, the operation was conducted at night, as was the first entrance of ground troops into the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead.
There is also the question of depth.
While Israel shares a border with its most immediate enemies – Hezbollah and Hamas – there are more ways to enter enemy territory than simply walking across the northern or southern border.
The ability to operate deep inside enemy territory – without an immediate logistics supply line – as well as at night are two capabilities that require specific training and preparation in which any military, American or Israeli, would need to invest.
In recent years, the IDF has given serious thought to the way it employs its special forces, such as the Navy’s Flotilla 13, better known as the Shayetet; the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, better known as Sayeret Matkal; and the IAF’s Shaldag Unit, which reportedly conducts target designation for fighter jets behind enemy lines.
As opposed to the US Army, which incorporates all of its special forces under one Special Operations Command, each of the IDF units belongs to a different branch: Shayetet to the navy, Sayeret Matkal to Military Intelligence, and Shaldag to the IAF.
While this method creates healthy competition among the units, resulting in a high level of motivation, it also creates gaps in professional knowledge and training, and leads to limited cooperation.
During the Second Lebanon War, the IDF made an effort to publicize the covert operations carried out by the different units – for example, when Sayeret Matkal and Shaldag took control of a medical compound in the Bekaa in northern Lebanon, even though the operation did not lead to any significant results.
Another operation near the coastal city of Tyre, carried out by the Shayetet, was deemed a success after the unit captured a Hezbollah command center and killed a senior Hezbollah operative.
All of the operations were documented using thermal cameras, and festive press conferences were held the same day to present the results to the public. Nevertheless, there was a feeling that the units had failed to prove their worth and had provided weak results.
The possibility of establishing a joint special forces command in the IDF is once again on the General Staff’s agenda.
The idea would be to create a clear hierarchy for the units and to take advantage of each one’s capabilities more effectively in independent and joint operations, all with the ultimate goal of shifting the balance on a future battlefield.