IDF report card

An in-depth look at the pluses and minuses of Israel's military operations.

iaf fighter jets 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
iaf fighter jets 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
On July 11, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz picked up the phone and called a hotel in the North to make a reservation for a family vacation. Two days before that, OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam held a security assessment at headquarters in Safed and decided to lower the level of alert along the northern border, raised two weeks earlier following the kidnapping of Cpl. Gilad Shalit in the Gaza Strip. On July 12, however, Halutz's plans for a vacation went down the drain and instead of going up north to relax, the chief of staff flew up to direct Israel's war against Hizbullah. Two reservists had been kidnapped in a cross-border attack and the government had decided to launch a military offensive in Lebanon. The decision itself was a major shift in Israeli policy. Since the IDF's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Israel has largely restrained itself in the face of Hizbullah provocations. The kidnapping of three soldiers in 2000, as well as the attempted kidnapping in December 2005, all went unanswered by Israel and Hizbullah guerrillas were still allowed to maintain their outposts just a stone's throw away from the northern border. This time however, the "Zimmer Policy," according to which Israel turned a blind eye to the Hizbullah buildup as long as the zimmers and hotels in the North were full, was discarded and Israel went to war. There is no doubt that Israel was completely taken by surprise by the kidnappings of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser on July 12. Halutz claims that he ordered the Northern Command already back in March to begin preparing for an escalation with Hizbullah in the summer of 2006. In June, the Northern Command held a massive exercise during which it drilled scenarios following the kidnapping of IDF soldiers by Hizbullah, including a massive invasion into Lebanon. Nevertheless, Halutz's call to reserve hotel rooms in the North and Adam's decision to lower the level of alert point in a different direction. But the lack of intelligence was not the only mistake made throughout the month of fighting in Lebanon. Defense Minister Amir Peretz quickly set up an inquiry commission - led by former chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Amnon Lipkin-Shahak - to investigate the IDF's management of the war. But that panel has now suspended its work as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert deliberates the establishment of another commission, possibly state-appointed. These are some of the issues whichever commission is ultimately appointed will have to deal with. Ground Invasion While there were many disagreements throughout the entire month of fighting, on a whole, the top IDF brass admit that there has never been such a willing and supportive political echelon as the Ehud Olmert-Amir Peretz duo. On July 12, several hours after the kidnapping, Halutz went to the cabinet and presented the IDF's air campaign, which included strikes on Beirut's International Airport, as a possible response. To the IDF's surprise, the cabinet immediately approved the plan. But the air raids quickly exhausted themselves and it became clear that Hizbullah would not be sufficiently weakened by air. Instead, the IDF began launching pinpoint raids into Hizbullah strongholds such as Bint Jbail and Maroun a-Ras along the northern border. Those also proved to be ineffective. Dozens of soldiers were killed and Hizbullah continued to succeed in firing over 100 rockets a day at northern Israel. The next natural step was to launch a larger-scale ground invasion. But something delayed both a ground invasion, and the call-up of reservist forces. This is where the versions become conflicting. Version A: Adam claims that he was ready at the end of July to launch a widespread ground invasion into Lebanon and that for two weeks troops milled outside Lebanon awaiting orders. Troops inside Lebanon were also frozen in place and, according to frustrated brigade commanders, the lack of movement put the forces on the defensive and gave the upper hand to Hizbullah fighters. Version B: Sources in the General Staff claim that it was in fact Adam who was hesitant in launching the massive ground operation. He was scared, they said, of the results. There was also Halutz, who for the first three weeks of the war repeated in closed-door meetings that he was opposed to a ground invasion, and that he would only recommend one if there proved to be no alternative. The heavy loss of life in Bint Jbail and Maroun a-Ras also assisted in reducing the support for such an invasion. Then there is Version C: Olmert's version. He claims that the first time he saw a plan to invade Lebanon with tens of thousands of troops was the day before the plan was approved by the cabinet on August 9. (That contradicts Adam's version that the force was in place already by August 1.) Factually, Olmert might be telling the truth, and it could be that he only saw the plan on a map laid out on his desk at the Prime Minister's Office on August 8, but he was certainly familiar with such a plan way before then. Indeed, Peretz ordered the IDF on August 3 to begin preparing for a large-scale incursion and an advance to the Litani River - 40 kilometers into Lebanon - in a bid to gain control of Katyusha launch sites. Logically, the Litani Plan made sense and high-ranking members of the General Staff were already pushing it in the first weeks of war. According to Military Intelligence, close to 70 percent of the rockets raining down on Israel were fired from areas just south and north of the Litani River. It was in these parts south of the Litani that Hizbullah's elite Nasser Unit was waiting with thousands of troops and functioning command and control centers in underground bunkers, spread out in some 130 villages, laying mines, ambushes and just sitting and waiting for the Israeli tanks to come rolling in. Only a ground presence there, IDF officers claimed, could have curbed the rockets. But when the push to the Litani finally began, it no longer made much sense due to the looming cease-fire. On Friday August 11, the United Nations Security Council convened and approved a French and American-backed cease-fire resolution. Despite the decision, the IDF pressed forward with its invasion and in some of the fiercest fighting during the war, 12 soldiers and some 80 Hizbullah gunmen were killed as a tank column suffered numerous hits from Hizbullah-fired anti-tank missiles as it tried crossing the Saluki Stream. This all happened a mere couple of hours after the cease-fire was passed and left soldiers from Armored Brigade 401 wondering what their comrades had died for, considering that IDF officers had said from the outset that the Litani Plan would likely take a week. What was the point of the brief and very bloody operation, those artillery soldiers asked, especially considering that two days after crossing the Saluki, they crossed it again - this time heading home? Anti-tank missiles Going into this war, the IDF knew Hizbullah was armed with some of the most advanced anti-tank missiles in existence. Soviet-built Sagger, Cornet and Fagot anti-tank missiles, the French MILAN and the US-built TOW were all known to be in Hizbullah warehouses. What surprised the IDF was the amounts. They seemed at times to be endless. The anti-tank missiles were not only lethal against tanks, as in the battle of the Saluki, but were also effective when fighting against the IDF's infantry forces, such as during the fighting in the village of Dbil, not far from Bint Jbail, where nine reservists were killed August 9 when a building they occupied was hit by missiles and collapsed. Contrary to public perception, the number of tanks penetrated by missiles was not as high as it originally seemed during the fighting, when the IDF Spokesperson's Office seemed to be constantly updating reporters of another tank hit. Thousands of anti-tank missiles were indeed fired during the 35 days of fighting, but while soldiers told stories of deadly missile attacks on IDF tanks, Commander of the Armored Corps Brig.-Gen. Halutsi Rudoy told The Jerusalem Post that out of the almost 400 tanks that operated in Lebanon, only a few dozen were hit by anti-tank missiles and only 20 were actually penetrated. In total, 40 tanks were damaged and 30 tank crewmen were killed. Altogether, the Merkava tank stood up well against the missiles and the explosive devices Hizbullah planted on roads leading to villages in southern Lebanon. No tank, officers explained, is fully resistant to missiles and bombs, but the Merkava did prove the claim that it is one of the most protected tanks in the world. What these officers take issue with is the Defense Ministry's refusal to push ahead active-protection projects for the tanks, such as the Rafael-developed Trophy system, which is designed to detect and eliminate a missile threat with a launched projectile. The Trophy, senior officers involved in the design of the Merkava tank told The Post, was capable of neutralizing all of the anti-tank rockets in Hizbullah's arsenal. "Money is what is killing and injuring soldiers," explained a high-ranking officer involved in the development of the Merkava. "The Trophy system is supposed to be there to provide the answer to this threat but due to budget constraints the soldiers are paying the price." Navy Off the coast of Beirut everything looks different. The fighting in Lebanon seems distant as the waves lap against missile ships. The war is certainly not at sea. That is what the Navy thought until the fateful night of July 14 when an Iranian C-802 radar-guided missile struck the INS Hanit patrolling off the coast of Beirut. The Navy is in the midst of an internal investigation into the attack, in which four soldiers were killed, with the main questions surrounding a decision by commanders not to activate the Barak anti-missile system, designed to intercept incoming missiles like the C-802. Senior officers claimed this week, however, that since that unfortunate incident, the Navy has proven its effectiveness in the war. On July 13, a day after the kidnapping of Goldwasser and Regev, the cabinet instructed the IDF to impose a sea blockade on Lebanon, which will remain in effect, a high-ranking Naval officer estimated this week, possibly for several more months or until a multinational force completes its deployment in southern Lebanon. Most of the Navy's vessels are participating in the blockade, which is the longest and most extensive operation the Israeli Navy has ever carried out. According to the officer, the decision by the Lebanese government to send the Lebanese army into southern Lebanon for the first time in over 30 years was partially due to the pressure the blockade created. "The blockade was effective," the high-ranking officer said. "The Lebanese economy is paralyzed and that was our goal." The Navy has since learned its lesson from the Hanit incident and has activated the Barak systems on all its missile ships operating off the Lebanese coast. A commission of inquiry will, however, have to try and answer why the Navy was unaware that Hizbullah possessed such missiles and why the Barak was not fully activated. IAF The first 34 minutes of this war were dazzling. IAF fighter jets swept across Lebanon and wiped out in just over half-an-hour most of the guerrilla group's long-range missiles and launchers. In total, over 94 targets were hit, strikes made possible by precise intelligence and perfect execution by well-trained IAF pilots. Those first 34 minutes were characteristic of the IAF's overall contribution to the war in Lebanon. In total, the IAF few over 15,500 sorties in Lebanon and struck over 7,000 targets. Pictures now emerging from Beirut and other parts of Lebanon show unprecedented destruction, flattened buildings and split roads and bridges. The Air Force was also behind much of the damage caused to Hizbullah infrastructure, especially in the Dahiya stronghold in southern Beirut. F-16 fighter jets repeatedly bombed Hizbullah command and control centers and destroyed some, although not all of them. But alongside the successes, the IAF also encountered some difficulties throughout the fighting in Lebanon. One such difficulty was the attempt by the Air Force to copy its successful targeted-killing policy from the Gaza Strip to Lebanon. These attempts were unsuccessful and at one point, a frustrated head of IAF Intelligence, Brig.-Gen. Rami Shmueli, announced during a press briefing that he had ordered his subordinates to stop analyzing Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's taunting daily televised speeches, implying there was nothing of substance to them. There was also the strike on a bunker in Beirut when a wave of F-16 fighter jets dropped 23 tons on the target after obtaining what turned out to be incorrect intelligence that Nasrallah and other Hizbullah leaders were holed up inside. The upside to the difficulty in obtaining intelligence, officers explained, was that it caused Israel's three intelligence organizations, Mossad, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Military Intelligence, to forgo their "daily ego wars" and to work together during the war in unprecedented harmony. The IAF's helicopter squadrons also suffered losses throughout the war in three different incidents: One transport helicopter was shot down over Lebanon, two Apache attack helicopters collided midair over northern Israel and another Apache Longbow crashed in Israel under mysterious circumstances, most probably due to a mechanical failure. There was also the accidental bombing in Kfar Kana in which 28 people, including children, were killed after what now appears to have been an unexploded IAF bomb blew up and destroyed homes in which Lebanese refugees were hiding. The IDF insisted it had warned residents of Kfar Kana of the imminent air strikes and that the village was a launching pad for Katyusha rockets, some of which were fired at northern Israel from the vicinity of the bombed home. The Kfar Kana incident demonstrated the weak side of Israel's PR machine. The morning of the bombing, every news network in the world connected to the live feed Al-Jazeera was providing from Kfar Kana which showed rescue workers removing the bodies of children from under the rubble. But while Israeli spokespeople claimed that Kfar Kana was a launching pad for Katyusha rockets, they failed to present proof until a military press conference 12 hours later. An earlier presentation of those pictures might have minimized the damage to Israel's reputation. As it was, the damage wrought by the attack convinced US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice that Israel should suspend air activity for 48 hours. Israel acquiesced. Logistics This war was definitely the reservists' war. It began with the kidnapping of two reservists in a cross-border Hizbullah attack and continued with the mass recruitment of reservists who fought in Lebanon. In total, 46 reservists were killed during the month of fighting. But while the IDF reported a 100 percent enlistment among reservists, the soldiers who have now taken off their uniforms are complaining of shortages in equipment and entry into battle without proper training. Possibly one of the greatest disgraces of the war were the shortages in water and food described by reservists. Other soldiers spoke about shortages in equipment. Reservists from the elite Egoz unit were forced to collect donations from abroad after they were sent into battle without flak jackets. Others spoke about how they were left with no choice but to loot local Lebanese stores. One reservist said he knew beforehand that the IDF would fail to provide for its soldiers and brought US dollars with him, leaving bills in family homes where he and his comrades ate. Chief IDF Reservist Officer Brig.-Gen. Danny Van-Buren told The Post this week that the military will investigate the run-up to the war and will work to better prepare reservists for future challenges. "We need to train the reservists more than in the past," Van-Buren said. "We also need to ensure that there is better equipment for reservists and that if they are sent into battle they will be equipped with the best equipment the IDF has." Responding to reports about reservists who collected money abroad to purchase flak jackets, Van-Buren said: "This is a reality we cannot accept and we need to ensure that our soldiers have everything they need." The IDF acknowledges that there were glitches in the supply of food, water and equipment to soldiers and reservists but places most of the blame on the current and past governments which over the years have slowly cut away at the defense budget. "Since we didn't have all the money we wanted, we had to give preferences to soldiers fighting in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank," says head of the IDF Logistics and Medicine Branch Maj.-Gen. Avi Mizrachi. "I wish we had money to buy all the equipment we wanted but when there are budget constraints we need to decide what our preferences are." Apparently, the preferences weren't with the reservists.