Security and Defense: The war between wars

Gantz increased covert operations conducted by IDF. Gantz believes Israel cannot sit idly by as enemies build up.

IDF wants to buy Osprey (photo credit: Reuters)
IDF wants to buy Osprey
(photo credit: Reuters)
‘The war between wars.” This is the term that IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz uses to describe the covert operations that the military’s special forces carry out during times of apparent quiet.
This war is fought by anonymous commandos whose missions mostly remain unknown to the public, as well as by large parts of the Israeli defense establishment. Once in a while, Israelis get a taste of what this so-called war entails.
Such was the case in April when operatives from the navy’s Flotilla 13 – better known as the Shayetet – boarded the Liberian-flagged HS Beethoven cargo ship as it was sailing almost 300 kilometers from Israel’s coast. The ship had set sail from Lebanon and was on its way to Egypt. The commandos searched the ship for weapons for nearly 12 hours without success.
Last March, a similar operation succeeded. Commandos from the Shayetet, intercepted a cargo ship called Victoria that was carrying some 50 tons of weaponry – including radar-guided anti-ship missiles – and was on its way to Egypt. The arms were believed to be intended for terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip.
But these are just two examples. A few months ago, The Jerusalem Post revealed that overseas covert operations conducted by the IDF have doubled over the past year, an indication of the growing threats Israel faces in the region.
Most of the details about these operations are classified, including the exact number, but according to foreign reports, the IDF has operated in places such as Sudan, Lebanon and Iran.
The increase in operations is not without purpose and, according to senior officers intimately familiar with the activity, the man responsible for the increase is Gantz, who believes that the IDF cannot sit idly by as its enemies – particularly Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad – build up militarily.
“He puts a major emphasis on this so-called war between wars,” a senior member of the IDF General Staff explained recently. “Not only do these operations provide tangible results but they also send a message to our adversaries and boost deterrence.”
Currently, the IDF has three main units that make up its elite commando force – the navy’s Shayetet, the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit – better known as Sayeret Matkal – and the Israel Air Force’s Shaldag Unit, which reportedly conducts target designation for IAF fighter jets behind enemy lines.
After almost a decade of consideration, Gantz finally decided in December to consolidate the elite units under a new formation called the Depth Corps. To lead the corps, Gantz brought out of retirement Maj.-Gen. Shai Avital, a former commander of Sayeret Matkal, who also happens to be a close friend of Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Avital has spent the months since the corps’ establishment hiring officers to fill its growing ranks.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Gal Hirsch, who resigned from the IDF after the Second Lebanon War in 2006 during which he served as commander of the Galilee Division, was appointed Avital’s deputy, a post he will fill as a reservist. Brig.-Gen. Moni Katz, former commander of the Givati Brigade, serves as the corps’ chief of staff.
The corps’ job is split into two categories.
While Israel’s special forces have had some spectacular successes in recent years, there has been a feeling within the General Staff already since the Second Lebanon War that the units could do more if they worked together more closely.
As yet, there are no plans to establish new units and the current situation, under which the IAF is in command of Shaldag, Military Intelligence is in command of Sayeret Matkal and the navy in command of the Shayetet, will remain for purposes of training.
What will change is that the operations from now will be directed by Avital, who will be directly subordinate to Gantz. This will mean that the units will be activated by a single command who will know best how to integrate their various capabilities with the objective of bringing out the best result possible depending on the mission.
In addition, another possibility under consideration is to beef up Shaldag which, while considered one of the most elite units in the military, is relatively small in manpower in comparison to the other two units – Sayeret Matkal and Shayetet.
The command’s second role is overseeing larger-scale military operations deep in enemy territory like Lebanon or Syria.
While each of these fronts has a regional command responsible for it, the Northern Command is set up to operate until a certain line in Lebanon and Syria and not further.
The same is the case with the Southern Command along the Sinai border.
The problem is that in a future war, due, for example, to Hezbollah’s new long-range missiles, the war will need to be fought not just in the villages of Southern Lebanon like in 2006 but also deeper inside Lebanon.
With the increase in the rate of operations and the bolstering of its special forces, the IDF is now looking at new platforms for how to transport the units to their destinations.
Currently, these units are mostly flown by Sikorsky CH-53 and Black Hawk helicopters, but the threat to these aircraft has grown with the proliferation of surface-to-air missile systems throughout the region.
This was demonstrated last August in the attacks along the Egyptian border when terrorists fired a missile at an Israeli attack helicopter. The missile, which missed the target, is believed to have originated in Libya where it was smuggled into the Sinai Peninsula as well as the Gaza Strip.
As a result, the IAF is pushing hard to receive a budget to purchase a number of V-22 Ospreys, the only tiltrotor aircraft in the world today that can take off and hover like a helicopter and then fly at speeds and altitudes like an airplane.
The IAF has had its eye on the V- 22, made by Boeing and Bell, for a number of years and last month, IAF chief Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan took it for a flight test during a visit to the United States.
What makes the V-22 unique is its ability to take off vertically like a helicopter, with its rotors in an upright position, and then to shift the rotors 45 degrees downwards, allowing it to fly like a regular transport plane, reaching speeds of up to 300 knots, almost double that of a helicopter.
The V-22 can transport 24 combat troops or more than nine tons of internal or external cargo, and has a range of more than 4,000 kilometers with a single aerial refueling.
“In light of the growing SAM threats we face, the V-22 is the right aircraft to use to insert and extricate troops quickly and safely in a wide-range of scenarios,” a senior IAF pilot recently explained.
With or without the V-22, the assessment within the IDF is that these operations will need to continue, particularly as the changing Middle East presents new challenges for Israel.