(February 21, 2019 / JNS) In recent days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved the appointment of a new commander of Israel’s ground forces: Maj. Gen. Yoel Strik.
Strik, currently head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Northern Command, will take up the position of Commanding Officer of the ground forces in the coming months.
He will have the highly demanding job of making sure that the ground forces are prepared at any time to decisively and rapidly move deep into enemy territory. The overall mission, in the event of a war, will be to extinguish rocket and missile fire on Israel’s cities and sensitive sites, by reaching the enemy’s most important assets and destroying them.
Strik’s time as head of the Northern Command means that he is intimately aware of the threat posed by Hezbollah in Lebanon to Israel’s security. He also has the most in-depth knowledge of Iran’s ceaseless efforts to construct a second war front in Syria. Iran has been trying to set up of missile factories, missile bases, and move tens of thousands of militia members under Iranian command in Syria.
Before heading the Northern Command, Strik served as commander of the IDF Home Front Command, which prepares the civilian world for mass enemy rocket attacks. These roles, when joined up, tell one story. It begins with the fact that the Iranian-backed Hezbollah—the most significant military threat to Israel—has adopted the strategy of targeting Israel’s civilians with its arsenal of rockets. The “second chapter” is that the IDF has, years ago, decided that in the event of a new full-scale war, air power alone—no matter how massive or accurate—will not be enough.
An indication of this approach can be found in comments made by the outgoing commander of the ground forces, Maj. Gen. Kobi Barak, who said last year that “the next offensive will be wider, faster and deeper. Even now, we are better-trained and more battle-ready.”
In the IDF, the commander of the ground forces oversees preparations for war and the build-up of military power. This build-up must be fine-tuned to adapt to the Middle East’s changing battlefields. The position does not, however, include actively commanding the ground forces during operations. That job is done by the IDF’s regional commands and by the chief of staff.
The IDF has factored in the fact that a future war could involve multiple fronts raining down rockets on Israeli cities and border attacks on communities. Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran in Syria and Hamas in Gaza are all active threats, though none are seeking to deliberately start a war at this time – due to Israel’s powerful deterrence.
While Lebanon remains the primary arena, the ground forces will need to be able to deal with all three fronts simultaneously, if necessary.
New armored vehicles, more training
This need was recognized by the former IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot. Under his tenure, Israel mass-produced new Merkava 4 tanks that come with active protection systems, which intercept anti-tank guided missiles of the kind that Hezbollah and Hamas possess.
New armored personnel carriers are also rolling off production lines and come with these active protection systems, making them far more survivable. The question of whether enough of these platforms are being made remains open.
In terms of training, the ground forces have received a benchmark of what their level of readiness must be. Starting last year, the conscripted forces began training for war 17 weeks for every 17 weeks of active-duty missions (in the West Bank and along the borders).
These measures reflect a recognition by Israel of its need to remind its enemies that it can seize their territory, and destroy their capabilities.
The ground forces are made up of the armored corps, the infantry, the artillery corps, combat engineering and special forces, among others. These forces are being integrated into joint combat teams out of an understanding that this is the most effective way to fight.
Field commanders are receiving their own drones and their own ability to have accurate firepower, giving them more independence, and making them less reliant on the air force, which will be busy with many of its own tasks in the event of a future war.
In recent months, a debate has been raging in Israel over just how prepared the ground forces are for war. The former IDF Ombudsman, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick, issued a stark warning about an unprepared army—a message that has been rejected by Eizenkot.
In the shadow of this debate, Strik will enter his post in the knowledge that a ground maneuver is Israel’s central answer to the threats posed by its enemies. The question of whether the state can rely on air power alone has long been settled.
What remains to be seen is how well-adapted the ground forces are to the asymmetric, urban-warfare tactics of the terrorist armies on the other side of the borders. Israel’s adversaries are also building up their forces and studying the past to improve for the future.