Is the IDF ready for all-out war? In Israel, the debate rages on

The military’s state of readiness has dramatically improved, according to internal reports, but a senior analyst told JNS it had a lot more catching up to do after years of neglecting the ground forces, which will be essential for defeating enemies like Hezbollah decisively.

Israel Defense Forces' soldiers conduct training in a field near the border with Gaza in southern Israel on July 22, 2014. Credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90.
Israel Defense Forces' soldiers conduct training in a field near the border with Gaza in southern Israel on July 22, 2014. Credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90.

The question of just how ready the Israel Defense Forces is for war has dominated Israel’s headlines in recent weeks. The issue came to the fore following the stormy end to the 10-year tenure of the IDF Ombudsman, Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Brick.

Brick released a scathing report and multiple statements, claiming that the military’s ground forces are grossly underprepared for conflict. He went as far as to say that “the IDF is undergoing a process of deterioration that has reached its peak in recent years,” during an address last month to the Knesset’s State Control Committee.

Brick’s alarming assessments have been outright rejected by military chiefs, including the outgoing IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, and the Commanding Officer of the ground forces, Maj. Gen. Kobi Barak.

While Eizenkot has ordered the military to examine Brick’s claims, he has consistently affirmed that the IDF’s war readiness has improved dramatically in recent years. Eizenkot has focused his four years as chief of staff on improving readiness, meaning that Brick’s criticisms are being leveled at the heart of his efforts and legacy.

Israeli Military Ombudsman Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Brik speaks during a State Comptroller Committee meeting at the Knesset, on Dec. 12, 2018. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Dr. Eado Hecht, a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is a defense analyst specializing in military theory and military history, and a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. Hecht also lectures at the IDF Command and General Staff College.

Hecht told JNS that in general, he agrees with Brick and other critical voices who think the IDF is unprepared but added that this is not a zero-sum argument. “There are areas in which the IDF has done excellent work, and there is a reason why foreign militaries come here to learn from it,” said Hecht. “On the other hand, there are areas in which the IDF is not good enough.”

‘High-quality intelligence and long-range firepower’

Hecht explained that the way in which Brick and military command measure war readiness is different, and to understand this difference, it’s necessary to dive into the IDF’s history. The Second Lebanon War of 2006, he said, was the second-lowest point in the history of Israel’s military. The lowest point can be found in the years 1950 to 1953. “The difference between these two points is that while in 1950 to 1953, the IDF did not know how to conduct routine security missions and did not know how to conduct major wars, in 2006, the IDF knew how to do continuous security in an excellent manner, and hence, it defeated the Palestinians in the ‘Ebb and Flow’ War [the Second Intifada of 2000 to 2006],” said Hecht.

Soldiers with the IDF’s 906th battalion on a training exercise in the Negev Desert. Credit: IDF Spokesperson Unit.

However, it was during those years of the Second Intifada that new concepts were taking hold, regarding the future of warfare. The concepts held that there will be no “big, high-intensity wars” anymore, and in the unlikely event that such wars do occur, they should be fought with high-quality intelligence and through the use of long-range firepower, mostly delivered by fighter jets, to destroy enemy targets.

As a result, “the IDF deliberately neglected the necessary requirements for ground combat,” said Hecht. By the time Lt. Gen. (ret.) Dan Halutz became chief of staff in 2005, the ground forces had suffered major neglect, leading to significant failures in the war that erupted with Hezbollah the following summer.

The strategic gains that Israel received from that war came “despite tactical failures,” noted Hecht. Those failures led the next chief of staff, Lt. Gen. (ret.) Gabi Ashkenazi, to demand a “return to basics” for the ground forces. They underwent a major upgrade during Ashkenazi’s tenure. But then, under the leadership of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and chief of staff Lt. Gen. (ret.) Benny Gantz, this trend was stopped, according to Hecht, and the older trend of focusing on airpower and intelligence, which dominated before the Second Lebanon War, made a comeback.

Israeli soldiers cover their ears as a howitzer fires into Lebanon from Kiryat Shemona on July 20, 2006, during the Second Lebanon War. Credit: Guy Assayag/Flash90.

The current outgoing chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot “brought back Ashkenazi’s trend,” Hecht argued. “However, the reference point for Eizenkot and the general staff compares today’s IDF to the military of 2006. Brick’s reference points compare today’s IDF to the military when it was at its peak, 40 to 50 years ago,” he stated.

The bottom line, said Hecht, is that compared to its performance in 2006, the IDF of 2019 has “undergone a terrific improvement.” At the same time, he warned, there is a need to take stock of the growing threat posed by Hezbollah, which today is equivalent to some five infantry divisions, in terms of relative power.

“Hezbollah is like the PLO and the Syrian army in Lebanon in 1982 combined. True, they [Hezbollah] do not have tanks, but they have many things that the Syrians and the PLO did not have then,” said Hecht, pointing to powerful guided anti-tank missiles as one example.

“They are moving ahead with the fortification of southern Lebanon at a scale that did not exist before, and they are much more professional and skilled than the PLO was back then,” he said.

According to public sources, in 2006, Hezbollah’s forces in southern Lebanon were equal to perhaps two infantry brigades, and the organization was armed with far fewer anti-tank missiles, mortars and other powerful weapons. Hezbollah today is some six times more powerful than what it was in 2006, said Hecht.

Is IDF’s order of battle big enough for enemies on multiple fronts?

Crucial questions revolve around the IDF’s ability to battle foes on multiple fronts simultaneously.

“What will happen if the IDF needs to fight against more than only Hezbollah? If, for example, a rebuilt Syrian military faces it in the Golan Heights, backed up by Shi’ite forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran? And, at the same time, Hamas begins bombarding our home front from the south? Does the IDF have a sufficiently large order of battle to deal with all of these enemies at the same time? We would have to call up reserves against Hamas on its own. Against a smaller Hezbollah in 2006, we had to call up reserves. Since then, we have cut reserves very sharply—entire divisions and brigades have been canceled,” posed Hecht.

He cautioned that there were also open questions about how long it would take to get reserves to emergency weapons storage facilities and the state of readiness among military vehicles in light of decreased maintenance personnel numbers.

While Eizenkot has placed a major renewed emphasis on the ground forces, “still, most of the focus is on increasing firepower. But is this firepower capable of giving the State of Israel the strategic reply it needs to force Hezbollah to cease firing and to prefer a ceasefire?” asked Hecht. “And until it does that, can this firepower decrease the quantity and efficiency of Hezbollah’s [own] firepower on the Israeli home front? The only way to effectively decrease Hezbollah’s fire is through a large-scale ground offensive. To do that, the IDF needs to conquer a large hilly area, containing dozens of Shi’ite fortified villages and towns,” said Hecht.

An Israeli army vehicle drives near a new concrete wall on the border between Israel and Lebanon near Rosh Hanikra in northern Israel on Sept. 5, 2018. Photo by Basel Awidat/Flash90.

Each Shi’ite village, however, will likely have a Hezbollah force as big as one or two military companies, lying in wait.

“This is what the IDF’s units will have to pass in order to reach the rocket-launch cells that are firing on the home front,” added Hecht.

The IDF has greatly increased its war training, Hecht acknowledged, but according to Brick, these have not yet reached adequate levels, particularly among the Armored Crops and the Artillery Corps.

‘We have made great improvements’

In one of his final speeches in uniform delivered on Dec. 23, Eizenkot gave an assessment of the situation. “At the end of 2018, the balance of Israel’s national security is greatly improved,” he said, while at the same time, an unstable region has created very high levels of explosiveness.

“Of course, this obligates us as a military to be at a very high level of readiness. We have made very big efforts to improve the IDF’s readiness. The IDF is a very large military by any standards, especially when reserve forces are added to it. And there are very high costs for holding a military of this scale, particularly the ground forces, at a very high level of readiness.”

Ultimately, stated Eizenkot, the IDF’s capabilities have been greatly improved.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot speaks at a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya on Jan. 2, 2018. Photo by Flash90.

On Dec. 19, the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee released a report that followed its own investigation into the IDF’s readiness. The report found that “the level of readiness in the IDF for war has significantly improved since ‘Operation Protective Edge’ [in 2014 against Hamas in Gaza].”

The inquiry found that in almost every parameter, “there has been a dramatic increase in the level of readiness—whether in the number of training sessions, the ammunition inventory, replacement parts and others.”

The report praised Eizenkot for leading a multi-year working program, dubbed “Gideon,” which prioritized the building of combat divisions that can fight on any front.

Two days after that report, an inquiry was launched by the IDF’s own Comptroller, Brig. Gen. Ilan Harari, in response to Brick’s scathing report, also found that the military’s state of readiness has dramatically improved.

At the same time, the inquiry agreed with Brick regarding the need to make improvements in areas such as logistics, personnel, command and control systems, and the service of non-commissioned officers at war-storage facilities.

According to Channel 10 News, the inquiry called for an increase in the military’s annual budget by 1.5 to 2.5 billion shekels ($400 to $667 million) to ensure that the ground forces remain in good shape.

“If the IDF is missing 2 billion shekels to complete its readiness in the list of aspects that it brings up, that means that Brick is actually correct,” Hecht told JNS. “The IDF isn’t ready.”

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