Security and Defense: Preparing for a possible confrontation with Hizbullah

The defense establishment is honing its interoperational skills.

2nd lebanon war cool 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
2nd lebanon war cool 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The Golan Heights looked like a war zone this week. Helicopters and fighter aircraft zipped over the wet, green hilltops, as thousands of soldiers practiced war against Syria and Hizbullah in a massive exercise involving the Golani Brigade, cannons and Merkava tanks. This exercise, like the dozens that have been held since the Second Lebanon War, is aimed at improving interoperability among the different IDF branches - intelligence, air and ground forces. To achieve such interoperability, the Officer's Training School has established a new course to train future cadets in the infantry track how to use artillery support during a war, and coordinate their movements with artillery firepower. Whereas before the war in 2006, only a select number of officers in infantry units were trained to be "artillery liaison officers," now, all are. One of the officers overseeing the exercise was Brig.-Gen. Michael Ben-Baruch, the chief artillery officer. He climbed the ranks in the Artillery Corps, taking command of it last year after serving as the head of training in the Ground Forces Command during the war. He was the officer appointed after the war to investigate the use of cluster bombs against Hizbullah. In a candid interview with The Jerusalem Post on the sidelines of the exercise, Ben-Baruch spoke about the war as a "missed opportunity," one that was caused by "poor management" at the highest levels of the military. Artillery, Ben-Baruch revealed, fired more than 170,000 shells into Lebanon during the war, an average of 5,000 a day. While the number is astounding, he says the artillery fire was misused. "In the last war, we fired to disrupt Hizbullah activity," he explained. "The next time we will fire to destroy." The way to do this, he said, is to have better targets. For that, he ruled, you need not only good intelligence, but also new technological systems. One such system is a new radar the corps hopes to declare operational next year, capable of detecting the exact location of rocket launchers, and of transmitting the information digitally to the cannon or rocket systems deployed nearby. Another new technology is a small, lightweight, unmanned aerial vehicle which, in the coming months, the IDF will supply to infantry and tank battalions to enable commanders to see "over the hill." To prepare for another possible war with Hizbullah, the IDF has also drawn up operational plans that it believes will succeed in ending the battle - with a clear and decisive victory - in four or five days, not like last time. In the event of a war, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi's recommendation to the cabinet, defense officials said this week, would be to give the IDF the green light to heavily bomb Lebanese infrastructure, now that Hizbullah is part of the Lebanese government. "In the last war, we made a distinction between Hizbullah targets and Lebanese national targets," a senior IDF general told the Post. "Now that Hizbullah is in the government - with veto power in the cabinet - there is no longer a reason to make this distinction, since a Hizbullah attack against Israel is essentially a Lebanese attack against Israel." DEFENSE MINISTER Ehud Barak conveyed this exact message two weeks ago during an address to the Knesset plenum. "In practice, UN Resolution 1701 isn't working," he said. "And Hizbullah's integration within the Lebanese republic exposes Lebanon and its infrastructure to a more massive strike in the event of a future standoff." While during the last war, Israel defended itself against accusations that its response to the abduction of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser was "disproportionate," today the IDF makes no secret of its plan to respond "disproportionately" from the outset. In general terms, the plan consists of two stages. The first: to strike hard at Hizbullah infrastructure from the air, and to hope that this is devastating enough to force Hizbullah to end the war. For this reason, the air force continues to fly regularly over Lebanon to gather intelligence and track the weapons shipments that are being smuggled in from Syria. The second: to conduct a massive ground attack, probably up to the Litani River, the area where most of Hizbullah's short-range Katyusha rockets are believed to be deployed. The difference between the next war and the last is that the IDF will not wait until the final 24 hours of a month-long war to recommend sending troops to the Litani; they will do so immediately. DUE TO the deployment of UNIFIL and the Lebanese Armed Forces south of the Litani, Hizbullah has encountered difficulty in building up positions in open areas. Instead, it has put its focus primarily on Shi'ite villages, where it has set up command-and-control posts and deployed its rocket launchers. For this reason, the question of whether the army will be able to strike back freely at the villages has been raised. "No village will be immune," explained the senior general. "We will give them about a 12-hour warning, and then strike back." Ben-Baruch says that the decision of whether to fire artillery into inhabited villages will be up to the political echelon and top IDF brass. "We need to make sure not to hit uninvolved civilians," he said. "That is why we have smart, precision weapons, for when they fire at us from within cities or villages." The larger question involves if and when the next war will break out. There is no clear answer. Some members of the General Staff are even in favor of launching a preemptive strike against Hizbullah, due to its unprecedented military capability, though this is the least likely scenario. The assessment is that even though Hizbullah is a member of the Lebanese government, it still believes in the destruction of Israel. To justify its existence as an armed militia, it will need once again to fight against the IDF. Meanwhile, the IDF is still on high alert for a Hizbullah retaliatory attack to avenge February's assassination of arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus.