At two “unscheduled” meetings this month, Israel’s Diplomatic-Security Cabinet will reportedly discuss Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal for an NIS 1 billion ($280 million) project to boost Israel’s air defenses, specifically against Iranian cruise missiles and drones.
Israel’s various anti-missile defense systems, from Iron Dome to David’s Sling to Arrow 3, are designed mainly to intercept high-trajectory rockets and ballistic missiles. But the recent Iranian strike on Saudi Arabian oil facilities displayed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ remarkable skill with low-flying cruise missiles and drones.
The new threat to Israel is clear: Iran could respond to Israel’s many recent strikes on its regional proxies and weapons depots by flying in low and hitting key Israeli infrastructure.
Indeed, Israel must prepare simultaneously for a broad range of war scenarios. This includes the development of a credible Israeli capacity to strike Iranian nuclear targets; preparation for war on three fronts against an Iranian-led coalition; the ability to degrade enemy offensive capabilities, and the ability to withstand intense missile strikes.
In each of these scenarios, it will be vitally important to quickly quash enemy fire on Israel’s population centers; to deny Hezbollah and its Iranian masters, as well as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the comfort of launching at ease from territories under their control.
No defense system will be enough. Israel must have ground forces capable of swift and crushing maneuvers to attain decisive outcomes by taking the fight deep into enemy territory. In other words, Israel must bring back the doctrine of ensuring a decisive outcome in any conflict with the enemy. That is the upshot of the military chapter in the recent national security plan for Israel drafted by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
The plan argues against sole reliance on the “intel-firepower” nexus—intelligence, special operations and accurate standoff firepower—which has been the Israel Defense Forces’ operational doctrine since the end of the First Lebanon War in 1982. This approach is an important adjunct, not an alternative, to significant ground combat, say the JISS experts.
The equation of “accurate intel multiplied by precision-guided firepower equals destruction and collapse of the enemy” has led to suboptimal outcomes because it has not sufficiently considered an essential element: the enemy.
The enemy has learned lessons from every confrontation; becoming skilled in denying the IDF accurate intelligence and/or minimizing the effectiveness of pinpoint Israeli firepower. Enemy techniques aimed at undercutting the utility of the “intel-firepower” approach include fortifying facilities, going underground, dispersing and hiding assets, using human shields, and more.
In most clashes, a deleterious dynamic has repeated itself. Israel successfully launches attacks based on accurate intelligence gathered over a long period. Then follows a decline in the quality of targeting intelligence, with an attendant reduction in the number of targets which justify a strike, and then a recovery by the enemy and a continuation of its attacks against Israel.
Subsequent Israeli frustration leads to attacks on targets with high collateral damage or on useless targets, alongside an immense effort to acquire new quality targets, which can lead to an occasional success but does little to alter the general picture. What follows is a prolonged campaign, leading to public anger and frustration; and limited ground forces maneuver, not sufficiently effective to bring the enemy to the point of collapse.
Consequently, a return to combat along more traditional lines is inevitable in many cases. This means maneuvering in enemy territory, locating and destroying enemy forces (or capturing them, thus undermining the myth of the self-sacrificing jihadi “resistance”). Only this will break the spirit of the enemy.
JISS fellows argue that Israeli leaders hold exaggerated fears that such a military approach will entail heavy casualties. This can be reduced, they say, by swift and forceful forays that rapidly bring about enemy collapse. This will also reduce the time that the home front is exposed to enemy missile fire.
Indeed, some of Israel’s enemies today believe that its fear of ground warfare and its unwillingness to suffer casualties suggest a basic weakness in Israeli society. To restore deterrence, Israel must not shy away from convincingly demonstrating its capacity to carry out forceful ground offensives.
Ground maneuvers also have a moral dimension. It is the duty of the government and the military to remove any threat to the home front as quickly as possible. A situation in which civilians become the IDF’s shield—the home front takes casualties so that the IDF can avoid a ground war—is unacceptable. This amounts to abandoning the civilian population. See the suffering of Israeli towns in the Gaza envelope.
It should be recalled that at the beginning of the Palestinian terror campaign of 2000-2001, the government was unwilling to send ground forces into Palestinian cities, and even within the IDF it was common wisdom that the capture of the significant territory was unnecessary. Hundreds of lives were lost until the IDF was sent into action in the cities of Judea and Samaria. Then, indeed, the IDF was able to achieve solid security results.
Consider this, too: While no large conventional armies today threaten Israel, the situation could change. If a radical Muslim Brotherhood regime should rise in a country like Egypt, or if the Syrian army is rebuilt after that country’s civil war, the IDF must be ready. Bear in mind that building ground forces is a complex process that takes time. Neglecting IDF ground maneuver capabilities is, therefore, a dangerous gamble.
Unfortunately, there is little mention of a renewed focus on ground force capabilities in the national security doctrine document by former IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. (res.) Gadi Eizenkot, recently published via the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The new IDF chief, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, is said to be more attuned to the need to prepare for intensive ground combat and awaiting budget approval from the next Israeli government to invest in this direction—when a stable government is finally formed!
David M. Weinberg is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, jiss.org.il. His personal website is: davidmweinberg.com.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.