Analysis: Under Ashkenazi, IDF takes itself more seriously

The chief of General Staff has shifted the army’s focus from anti-terror activities to fighting a war.

ashkenazi 311 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson)
ashkenazi 311
(photo credit: IDF Spokesperson)
In February 2007, several weeks after his appointment as IDF Chief of General Staff, Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi traveled to the Tze’elim Training Base in the Negev to oversee an exercise of the Paratroopers Brigade, it’s first following the Second Lebanon War.
On Tuesday, Ashkenazi was again down in Tze’elim watching a brigade-level exercise with the paratroopers.
RELATED:Ashkenazi: Hamas will pay if it fires rockets on EilatAshkenazi: Expect violence, but no intifada, if talks fail
Like most of Ashkenazi’s work days, Tuesday began before dawn, with a helicopter ride from near his home in Kfar Saba to the massive training base in the South.
From there, he was transported by jeep to the field where he watched as the artillery cannons pounded the imaginary Syrian targets, as the tanks maneuvered into their positions and as the paratroopers marched off to the front lines.
There is no hiding it – Ashkenazi is in his element watching military exercises and maneuvers. Dressed in a work uniform, Ashkenazi walks casually among the hundreds of soldiers and officers as if he is one of them.
He listens as the senior officers explain the different stages of the exercise unfolding before our eyes and then turns to the regular soldiers and asks how they feel, where they are from and if they are getting out for the Succot holiday.
At one point, he notices a group of officers with blue ranks on their shoulders – meaning they are from the air force – marching together with the paratroopers.
“Come over here,” Ashkenazi shouts out, above the loud artillery and gunfire.
His face then lights up.
“These are pilots who have come to spend the duration of the exercise with the paratroopers, walking with them through the desert to better understand the complexities of the ground operation and how they, as pilots, can assist from the air,” he explained to this reporter and the two others who accompanied him on the tour.
Being at the exercise also softens up Ashkenazi and gets him to speak more freely than usual.
He speaks at length about the IDF’s increased training regimens, the drop in draft numbers, the dangerous sale of Russian missiles to Syria, the Iranian nuclear threat, Israel’s decision to purchase advanced stealth fighter jets and other issues.
The feeling is that now that he sees the end of his term is on the horizon, Ashkenazi is more at ease with the media. While the so-called “Galant Document” affair caused him a great deal of damage, he is working hard to show that he has moved on and is focused today on continuing to prepare the military for the threats it faces.
Despite the Galant Document, Ashkenazi ultimately will be remembered as the IDF chief of General Staff who rehabilitated a broken military following the Second Lebanon War in 2006. The problem, he stresses, was not with the IDF commanders during the war but with the IDF thinking at the time – that it needed to prepare for limited warfare and not allout war.
He has worked on the opposite.
Instead of training just on arrest raids in the West Bank and Gaza, Ashkenazi has the IDF brigades practicing for war with Syria despite the low chance of a conventional war in the near future. In addition to training its compulsory units, next year the IDF will hold brigade-level exercises for reserve brigades, for the first time in 12 years.
“By preparing for the conventional war, soldiers and commanders will know how to derive the skills they require for counter-terror operations,” he said.
A visit to these types of exercises leaves a visitor with the feeling that the military takes itself far more seriously today than it did on the eve of the Second Lebanon War. While it has yet to be tested the way it was in 2006, the sense is that the IDF is better prepared.
This might be true, Ashkenazi said, but it does not mean that the military can now cut back on training.
“If it is tough for a soldier during training,” he concludes, “then it will be easier for him during a battle.”