Security and Defense: Preparing for war on all fronts

The IDF has drawn up a comprehensive multi-year strategy; planners hope their prudence will help protect Israel from all fresh dangers.

An IDF exercise in the South tanks helicopters  311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
An IDF exercise in the South tanks helicopters 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
The IDF’s multi-year plan, unveiled to the press this week, was for the most part a continuation of the last plan, Tefen, initiated in 2007 under former chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi.
Then, the IDF was reeling from its failures and mistakes following the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and Ashkenazi decided to invest in the ground forces by manufacturing more Merkava tanks, developing a new armored personnel carrier (APC) called the Namer and significantly boosting training.
An emphasis was also put on missile defense, the benefits of which we witnessed last week when the Iron Dome intercepted eight rockets fired from the Gaza Strip.
This has paid off, and the IDF is unquestionably better prepared today for another ground war in Syria, Lebanon or the Gaza Strip.
During his term as chief of staff, Ashkenazi oversaw nearly 100 different brigade-level exercises. In 2006, by comparison, the IDF held a total of two brigade-level exercises. The IDF has already received the first batch of Namer APCs and has equipped some of its tanks with the Trophy active-protection system. The ground forces are ready.
THE NEW plan, called Halamish and constructed under new Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz – some IDF officers have joked that Halamish is the Hebrew acronym for “I am missing 1 billion shekels” – continues the same line of thinking as Tefen, but may contain another focal point.
While both plans identify Iran as the greatest threat and challenge for Israel – followed by the northern front, which includes Syria and Lebanon and then the Palestinians – Halamish may be unique if it places Egypt on the list as well.
In the meantime, Gantz has decided to take the cautious and not hysterical approach vis à vis Egypt. This was done with the understanding that even if the Muslim Brotherhood takes over in upcoming elections – considered unlikely – it will still take some time before Egypt threatens Israel again like it did in the days leading up to the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
For that reason, the upcoming year will be spent mostly on learning about Egypt, dusting off old maps, remembering what it was like being in the Sinai and preparing conceptually for the future.
When it comes to Egypt, if the worst-case scenario comes true, the IDF will have plans in place to embark on an unprecedented procurement campaign that, in short, will set the establishment of new divisions, fighter jet squadrons and other military capabilities. If that doesn’t work and Egyptian tanks roll through the Sinai, Israel could always call on the US for intervention.
BUT WHERE Halamish breaks from Tefen is in the following assessment, which serves as the introduction of the new multi-year plan: “There is an increasing probability of conflict on multiple fronts.” While this concept – war on several fronts simultaneously – is not a new one for Israel, it is significant when it appears in a military multi-year plan for the first time in 15 years.
What are the chances for war? 50-50? 70-30? No one in the IDF will say. If they could, there would be no purpose in maintaining a massive branch in the IDF called Military Intelligence.
The new plan, though, is sophisticated and recognizes that the IDF is already at war on some of its fronts. It is waging a war against Iran’s nuclear program – mostly in the shadows and below the surface – and is also, at the same time, fighting on the high seas against weapons smuggling to Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon – demonstrated by the seizure of Iranian arms on the Victoria cargo ship last month.
But if a larger-scale conflict breaks out in the coming years, the IDF has a very clear idea of the way it wants to see it play out. The first principle will be to ensure a short conflict – with a clear and decisive victory for Israel at its end.
What this means, though, is unclear, mainly because the IDF no longer really talks in terms of victory and defeat in the conventional, historic sense of the terms. Years ago, after one side’s military surrendered and it had lost significant territory to its adversary, it was obvious who had won. Nowadays, when an enemy does not really own territory – as is the case with Hamas and Hezbollah – and when it cannot conquer Israeli territory, how is it possible to determine the outcome of a war?
That is why when the IDF talks about terms like victory and defeat, what it means is that the other side has been so badly beaten that it will be deterred for an extended period before engaging Israel again. While the IDF made major mistakes during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, the quiet that has prevailed in the five years since proves that the war was something of a victory. The country’s difficulty in understanding this new concept likely added to the public sense of failure at the time.
THIS UNDERSTANDING of the nature of conflicts was demonstrated during Operation Cast Lead in 2009, which, while it did not destroy Hamas, did create deterrence and restore quiet for the residents of the South. Unfortunately this deterrence eroded over the past month, culminating in last weekend’s cycle of violence, which included over 120 rocket and mortar attacks against Israel in just two days.
Then, too, the IDF’s entire operation was aimed at restoring deterrence and postponing what many in the defense establishment believe is inevitable – a large-scale Cast Lead-like operation in the Gaza Strip.
The IDF knew that it was facing a new round of violence two weeks ago after it bombed a car in the southern Gaza Strip carrying three senior Hamas operatives and suitcases full of money. The terrorists were planning to kidnap Israelis in the Sinai and then smuggle them under the border and into the Gaza Strip.
Knowing the group would try to exact revenge – one of the slain terrorists was a close confidant of Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari – the IDF removed troops and equipment away from the border, trying hard not to provide Hamas with a target. But by last Thursday, Hamas had had enough and, in the absence of a military target, decided to fire a Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missile at a school bus near Nahal Oz.
The IDF then began responding, but throughout the entire weekend did not attack major Hamas targets like bases or military compounds. Even though it killed nearly 20 Hamas and Islamic Jihad operatives, none was killed in targeted killings, but rather in routine bombings and air strikes against cells spotted in real time launching, or preparing to launch, rockets into Israel.
The idea was to send Hamas a message that Israel could cause it damage on many different levels. If Hamas had not understood the message by Sunday, when the cease-fire went into effect, Israel would have begun to escalate its response, and Hamas likely would have reciprocated. With every Israeli escalation, it is possible that Hamas will, eventually, finally decide to use its long-range Iranian-made rockets that are capable of hitting near Tel Aviv.
At no point during the operation did the IDF mention toppling Hamas or defeating Hamas. Instead, the idea was to restore deterrence and make Hamas understand that it would pay a price for its attacks against Israel. After almost a week of strained and tense quiet, the message seems to have gotten across – at least, for the time being.