Debating the future of the IDF

Does the air force have a dangerous monopoly on firepower, should the army be investing more in cyber-ops and special forces, or are boots on the ground what is needed to win a war?

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon  (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni, Defense Ministry spokesman)
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon
(photo credit: Ariel Hermoni, Defense Ministry spokesman)
As the Middle East becomes ever more anarchic and unpredictable, a group of high-ranking former and current military figures gathered at Bar-Ilan University this week for what would turn out to be one of the liveliest and frank public debates on the future of the IDF ever held.
The conference, called IDF Force Structure, was organized by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and Israel Defense magazine, and contained two panels of speakers, each of which used their rich personal experience in the security world to build up deep and well-founded arguments on how Israel should tailor its armed forces in the first quarter of the 21st century.
The former navy chief, R.-Adm. (res.) Eliezer Marom, used the opportunity to say that the Israel Air Force enjoys an unreasonable monopoly over the IDF’s firepower. The monopoly was in fact dangerous, Marom said, since an unpredictable challenge to air power would severely limit Israel’s ability to direct long-range fire at enemy targets.
“If something happens to the air force, like it did during the Yom Kippur War, there won’t be firepower directed at the depth of the enemy’s territory,” he warned.
Most of the IDF’s guided weapons systems are launched autonomously these days, and it would be easy to spread out the weapons more evenly among the air force, ground forces, and navy, Marom said.
The ex-navy commander cast doubt on the idea that squadrons of fighter jets have to take off every time a target needs destroying. “It would not be a problem at all,” he said, to direct surface-to-surface missile fire when needed.
In truth, senior elements in the IDF agree with Marom’s analysis, believing that the navy can and should play a bigger supporting role in ground combat.
Navy vessels should serve as floating guided- weapon launch pads. That said, they still regard the air force as Israel’s supreme strategic branch.
In the IDF’s coming four-year working plan, called Teuza (Hebrew for “valor”; the plan is awaiting government approval), the air force and its guided weaponry appear to take second place in the military’s priority list. Intelligence would appear to be in first place.
The air force continues to be perceived as the most effective operational tool for strategic gains in war.
Ground forces hold third place in the priority list, and are seen as an inseparable component of an Israeli victory in any full-scale war.
Moreover, the navy might find itself playing additional, classified roles that could be game-changers in a future conflict.
During his address, Marom paid tribute to the IDF’s networking capabilities, in which the three branches – air, ground and navy – and their various platforms are merged into one. In effect, this means that today, an infantry battalion commander can order an attack on a target in Gaza by simultaneously employing missiles on navy ships and tank fire.
Yet with all due respect to technology, Marom pointed out, “in the end, in order to win, we need boots – with human legs in them – on the ground.”
Maj.-Gen. (res.) Gal Hirsch, deputy head in the reserves of the IDF’s Depth Corps, presented one of the most fascinating and radical visions during his address. Hersch argued that technological advances and regional changes have prepared the ground for a second revolution in military affairs (the first occurring in the late 1970s to the early 1980s).
Faced mainly with enemies that know no limits, and which employ terrorism, guerrillas or subversion rather than organized military forces, Israel now has to create its own surprise force, Hirsch said.
He showed a graphic of a floating iceberg, and then a second image, in which an intricate matrix of wires, signals and colors pulsed inside the iceberg.
“What you see is not the whole picture. We need to know what is happening underneath the iceberg,” he explained.
“We need capabilities and forces that know how to exit the frame,” Hirsch said, adding that a combination of secret services, commando units and special forces fit the bill.
Creating a force based on what Hirsch described as the “Six Cs,” command and control, computing, intelligence, surveillance, cyber and special forces, would make the IDF “far more effective.”
Amir Rapaport, editor-in-chief of Israel Defense magazine and a member of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, noted the intensive debate being held in the IDF on whether to prioritize firepower, or ground maneuver capabilities.
A lack of training and proficiency in basic skills, neglect of ground forces and a failure to invest in armored vehicles led to systemic failures during the Second Lebanon War, Rapaport noted, adding that the IDF repaired these shortcomings between 2007 and 2011.
Now, he said, some of this work is being undone.
According to Rapaport, in the coming years, cyber warfare capabilities will be at the top of the IDF’s its priority list – higher even than the air force.
“If there is a recruit suitable to become either a pilot or a cyber-operator, he will be sent to be a cyber-operator,” Rapaport said. The Intelligence Unit 8200, which according to reports, runs cyber war programs, can inflict as much damage with the press of a button that paratroopers can with weapons, he said.
Intelligence-gathering units are next on the list of priorities, enjoying an enormous budget, followed by the air force, which is due to receive the F-35 fighter jet in the coming years.
But budget cuts will affect numbers of armored fighting vehicles (AFVs), tank units and ground forces combat training. “I’m not sure there will be enough AFVs in the next clash,” Rapaport said.
Rapaport’s concerns for the future of the ground forces are well-founded.
The Ground Force Command’s special staff, who oversee key functions, have experienced a 20-percent budget cut in 2013-2014. When combat units resume training programs this year, the drills will be limited to frontline fighting forces.
Combat support units will not train much – if at all – unless the IDF’s budget is increased again in 2015.
Conscripted soldiers this year will spend nine months carrying out operational duties, before holding short war-training exercises, and returning to normal duty.
Nevertheless, in the eyes of army brass, robust ground maneuvering capacities remain a vital component in Israel’s ability to strike deep in enemy territory, making conflicts short, and, unlike past clashes, making an Israeli victory appear convincing.
The current cuts appear to be guided by an element of risk management for the coming year, rather than a permanent downgrading of ground forces.
During the panel, Brig.-Gen. (res.) Avigdor Klein, former Armored Corps chief officer, argued in favor of cutting back on armored vehicles, saying that such tools were becoming increasingly irrelevant.
He supports focusing more on firepower, and less on ground maneuver force build-up.
With no current existential threats facing Israel, and enemies seeking to inflict damage on Israel’s civilian sector, the ID F should focus on being able to strike the enemy’s infrastructure, weapons and commanders, while minimizing harm to Israeli civilian casualties and noncombatant deaths on the other side of the border.
“I very much agree with the reduction [of heavy vehicles]. What will remain constitutes an enormous core [of military forces] in comparison to other armies in the world,” Klein said.
Maj.-Gen. Meir Kalifi, former military secretary to the prime minister, said Israel should seek to build a flexible military, guided by its capabilities, rather than trying to design the IDF according to a forecast of future developments. Strategic and security forecasts are less relevant now than ever, he argued.
Maj.-Gen. Gershon Hacohen, current corps commander of the General Staff, looked at how differing cultures play a part in military force build-ups, and offered some salient perspectives.
Whatever technical advantage Israel develops, hostile Arab entities like Hamas and Hezbollah will work to neutralize them, he said, turning disadvantages into advantages. Israel’s enemies adapt quickly, and leverage their inferior strategic conditions as tools against the Jewish state. Recent examples include Hamas’s movement of human shields to rooftops of buildings designated for destruction via air strike.
“When we identify a problem, we look for a technical solution. We think like graduates of a business school. They focus on primitive adaption, and then watch how it creates a new situation,” Hacohen said.