Security and Defense: A mission for Shaldag

Shaldag, "Kingfisher" in English, is the hot unit in the IDF as Israel’s need for new targets grows amid regional instability.

A mission for Shaldag 311 (photo credit: IDF Spokesman)
A mission for Shaldag 311
(photo credit: IDF Spokesman)
In 1977, Matan Vilna’i was commander of the IDF’s Infantry Corps. It was a year after Israel’s remarkable raid in Entebbe, Uganda, and the military was looking to expand its special forces and bolster its ability to penetrate enemy countries and carry out covert operations.
A decision was made to establish Shaldag – “Kingfisher” in English – as a full-fledged unit that would work as part of the Israel Air Force, operate deep behind enemy lines and help locate and identify valuable targets.
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Until then, it had consisted of a single reserve company operating under the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, better known as Sayeret Matkal.
If foreign reports are to be believed, since that fateful decision, Shaldag has operated in almost every country of interest to Israel in recent years – from Iraq to Iran and Syria to Lebanon.
Vilna’i, today the minister for home front defense, recalled this week the day the decision was made. No one, he said, believed 34 years ago that Shaldag would succeed in cultivating a cadre of officers that would one day make their way into the IDF General Staff. They were wrong.
On Wednesday, when Maj.-Gen. Eyal Eisenberg – who served as commander of the Gaza Division during Operation Cast Lead two years ago – took up his new post as head of the Home Front Command, he joined Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz and OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Tal Russo as the former Shaldag commanders who have made it to the top brass.
Under former IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi, the Golani Brigade ruled. Today it is Shaldag. But there is more to it than the insignia on the officers’ uniforms.
With Egypt evolving possibly once again into a state hostile to Israel, these are the three positions that would be most critical in a future war – chief of staff; head of the Southern Command, which is responsible for Egypt; and head of the Home Front Command, which is responsible for the fallout from the war.
Shaldag’s expertise – locating targets – is also among the tasks the IDF is busy doing now as it prepares for conflict on multiple fronts – with Iran, Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Last week, The Jerusalem Post revealed that the IDF had increased its target bank in Lebanon from just 200 targets on the eve of the Second Lebanon War in 2006 to several thousand today. The same process is taking place in the Gaza Strip ahead of a possible future confrontation with Hamas.
As demonstrated by the arrest of American-Israeli law student Ilan Grapel this week, the winds of change in Egypt appear to be blowing in a radical direction. Where Egypt is heading is still unclear, but the possibility that Israel’s southern border will become a military front again is no longer considered far-fetched.
In light of recent regional changes, the IDF recently held a brainstorming session among its top brass to consider how it would fare in a war on each of its individual fronts, as well as on all of them together, and whether it currently has the means to emerge victorious.
The multi-year plan that the IDF is currently mulling ahead of its expected conclusion and approval in August, is of critical importance for Israel, possibly more than ever. But with uncertainty as the main theme of today’s Middle East, the IDF is being extremely careful as it considers its options.
In the air force, for example, there are commanders arguing for the possible procurement of two additional fighter jet squadrons, of either F-15s or F-16s, in addition to the stealth F- 35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), which will not begin to arrive here before 2017 - due to the changes taking place in the region.
The delays in the F-35 program also open up funds that were previously locked down for the plane and that could now be used for other platforms.
Other commanders believe that due to the changing Middle East there is a need – more than ever – for intelligence- gathering platforms such as more unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or more Nahshon electronic-intelligence (ELINT) gathering planes, which are already in use in the IAF based on Gulfstream G550 business jets.
“Both arguments make sense,” one senior IDF officer summed up this week. “On the one hand, more fighter jets means more offensive capabilities to be able to more effectively fight wars on multiple fronts. On the other hand, more intelligence systems means a better understanding of the region and the ability to better predict what will happen.”
Other branches of the IDF are obviously vying for a larger budget as well.
The Ground Forces Command believes it needs more Merkava tanks and Namer armored personnel carriers due to the ongoing Arab upheaval.
A few weeks before Ashkenazi left office, he had already begun initial work on IDF plans for facing future challenges. The Planning Directorate drew up two plans – one long-term, under which the IDF would grow over a number of years, and the other more immediate, under which the government would need to boost the defense budget soon and significantly to enable the army to expand as necessary.
Gantz has decided to take the first approach for now, while working under the assumption that a war with Egypt will not happen any time soon, and that an immediate new procurement plan announced by the IDF could actually have the opposite effect and set the entire region on edge.