How will IDF intelligence set the pace for Israel's next big war?

MILITARY AFFAIRS: Hezbollah and Iranian proxies in Syria are the foci of the IDF, with the former being considered Israel's one true land warfare threat.

IDF Artillery Corps near the border with Lebanon, in northern Israel, July 6, 2023 (photo credit: AYAL MARGOLIN/FLASH90)
IDF Artillery Corps near the border with Lebanon, in northern Israel, July 6, 2023
(photo credit: AYAL MARGOLIN/FLASH90)

The next big war the IDF fights will see an unprecedented rapid pace of attacks, information warfare, and seamless information transfers and interactions between human soldier operators and machines, IDF field intelligence official Maj. I. told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview.

I. has been in the IDF for about 10 years and currently serves as the field intelligence official for the 460th Brigade, which though formally part of the Southern Command, in practice places much of its focus on the next potential war with Hezbollah, considered the one true land warfare threat Israel still faces.

Although I. did not say the words “Hezbollah” or “Iranian proxies in Syria,” these are the foci of the Northern Command and its corresponding intelligence arm, especially Hezbollah, given its more than 150,000 rocket arsenal.

The danger lurking on Israel's northern border

On Wednesday, both President Isaac Herzog and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Herzi Halevi visited the border to warn Hezbollah against risking a larger confrontation with Israel, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu having held a special meeting with Halevi and Mossad Director David Barnea and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) Director Ronen Bar this past Sunday on the issue.

In the last few months, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has multiple times threatened war, said that Israel is a “cancer” that is close to being removed from the region, and promoted a much more intense low-grade conflict with Israel on the Lebanese border.

 IDF FIELD intelligence official Maj. I. (left).  (credit: IDF)
IDF FIELD intelligence official Maj. I. (left). (credit: IDF)

One week, Hezbollah violated Israel’s sovereignty by building a small outpost meters over the border, another week it sent journalists across the border, ignoring warnings to retreat, until confronted by IDF crowd dispersal methods, and another week it destroyed an IDF surveillance camera.

When IDF officials warn Hezbollah to back down, much of what they are relying on is field intelligence collected to “shock and awe” the terrorist group in the event of a war.

“I can say the next war will be much faster in terms of the pace and volume of information and of [IDF] attacks. The challenge for combat soldiers, especially in the Armored Corps [a key part of the Northern Command], will be significant. All of the different weapons systems and base systems will be more interconnected. Soldiers will be more deeply engaged with machines,” said Maj. I.

The field intelligence official stated, “My pace must also be faster. We always need to be ready to raise our performance level and even the number of soldiers involved in intelligence. If before I could personally read through all of the intelligence cables and contextualize them with recommendations to the brigade commander, at the new pace of cables, I can’t do it all by myself.”

He added, “I need a large number of personnel backing me up to cover all of the cables.”

But what I. brings to analyzing these cables is wholly different from what his lieutenants bring, “It’s a question of experience. When you have lived through more operational episodes and drills, you learn more about what different kinds of intelligence information and scenarios really mean. This is a crucial area for the field intelligence officer. He sees a more textured reality which others do not see.”

Continuing, I. said, “Everyone else sees just the results. But the field intelligence officer also sees how the enemy works, the toll, what we can do, what the enemy can do, what are the enemy’s intentions – and then to know what will be relevant to tell the brigade commander or what can be handled by the lower-ranked staff.”

Based on the IDF’s increased intelligence and targeting capabilities, former IDF chief Aviv Kohavi told the Post in January that the military could send Lebanon back 50 years in the event of a war – assessments confirmed by senior defense officials to the Post more recently.

IN TERMS of his own background, I. started off as a combat fighter, but then he got injured. “I performed many roles in IDF intelligence, from the battalion level to the highest command levels, including advising the high command. I had experiences in many places which has given me a relatively broad perspective.”

One revolution that I. has been part of, which will massively affect any future war, is the automated wider digital sharing of intelligence within the IDF.

“During the Yom Kippur era and after, but before the computer era, you sent information to the military commander whom you were directly under, who would use it. Often the intelligence would arrive too late to be used by the combat fighters on the front, or the way the information was transferred would lead it to be misunderstood or misinterpreted,” he said.

“The benefit [of today’s automated digital intelligence sharing] is that they often don’t need to wait for me. The battalion commander can get intelligence indications much faster” and in a much more timely and relevant fashion, he said.

That is the positive side of the revolution. But on the flip side, “Now, for example, we are not sure whether the intelligence officer has gotten to weigh in on or contextualize the intelligence [for field commanders], because of automation and algorithms.

“A seemingly fully wrapped intelligence product just jumps to the platoon commander or other combat fighters on the front,” according to I.

I. explained that “the downside is [that] this is a new kind of event, so it takes time for platoon commanders and the rank-and-file soldiers to get used to this, to base their decisions on only part of the information, which no one has had a chance yet to contextualize for them.”

Moreover, “the situation can degrade some of the commanders. If they knew nothing, then they would have to look at the full playing field and analyze where the enemy positions are or are not. But when you get special information, even if it is very basic and limited, it can become very easy for you to place too much emphasis on it” (and ignore or become complacent about fully analyzing the physical data in front of you).

“If you have information about the location of some of the enemy, that it is in the center of the relevant battle space, it becomes very easy to think that this enemy is the only enemy you are facing. You may stop thinking about other options or scenarios where additional enemy forces may be concealed on your right or left flank,” I. warned.

He posed the question, “How can we better teach commanders about how to cope with this problem? All of the advances have added complexities in dealing with the systems and information, so there is much more technology and everything is more complicated.”

Another key aspect of modern field intelligence is the effect of new intelligence collection and distribution capabilities on strategic maneuvers and on preparing “target banks” in the event of conflict.

I. said, “It used to be that intelligence officers had two main options for collecting intelligence: you could come close to the battlefield front and would use binoculars to see with your own eyes, or you would even need to circle behind enemy forces to collect intelligence from that position.”

“If the information is not with you [the field intelligence officer], there is more of a chance that the information will not be fully [and] properly explained or will arrive too late. In the last one to two years, there is a new body, whose purpose is to bring together all of the disparate intelligence officials to sit in one place,” he said.

In addition, he noted, “It used to be you would need to ask, almost like a favor,” to get intelligence units to examine an issue for a [mid-level] brigade-level commander (versus higher brig.-gen. or maj.-gen. commanders whom they normally work for), which they were not as naturally interested in.

“Now, we can focus on what the brigade commander wants, and special collection roles can be directed to this body. It’s dedicated to his assignments, and he does not need to ask for favors,” he explained.

MAJ. (RET.) Avraham Ben Zvi, who did field intelligence for the Northern Command during the Yom Kippur War, told the Post that the world of intelligence has changed night and day in comparison to field intelligence in 2023.

“I was in the Armored Corps intelligence during the Yom Kippur War, after going through a variety of different field intelligence courses, including an advanced intelligence official course,” said Ben Zvi.

“I served in places where I was exposed to planning and operations issues,” he said. “I was fluent with the militaries in the area – Egypt, Syria, and Jordan – what capabilities they had... in terms of what kinds of tanks they had, what their strategies were, what they looked like in the field, and the possible scenarios of conflict with them.”

Further, he said, “We had a defensive mentality. We couldn’t defend within our borders. We needed all the wars to be in the territory of the enemy because our territory was so small.”

Next, he stated, “The assumption was that the Egyptian Army was not capable of attacking Israel. All of the defensive plans were based on this premise – one of the greatest mistakes Israel made.”

Further, he said, “We were training new intelligence officials and explained intelligence to commanders, and intelligence for the Armored Corps at a general level. But we were not preparing for war in a serious or imminent way. There was no larger or more formal intelligence branch in terms of quantity, since all I had was one assistant.”

Ben Zvi added, “We would help obtain useful maps and resolve logistics issues. Suddenly, with the outbreak of the war, we switched from general tank training to working with and preparing combat unit 460 for war in the Sinai.”

“I saw the Egyptian Air Force attack our airports, so we needed to try to stop the Egyptians. There is significant importance to having an intelligence capability for each distinct unit,” to catch up, since with the surprise attack, “everything you had learned no longer existed,” according to Ben Zvi.

Finally, he said, “There is greater access to collecting intelligence today, and it is more exact,” saying that the field of intelligence has radically changed over 50 years.

The radical expanding capabilities of IDF intelligence, especially as compared to the 1973 Yom Kippur War era, are very good news for Israel in the event of a conflict with Lebanon, and will likely make Hezbollah think twice, despite its bombastic public statements.