(May 28, 2018 / BESA) Between 1948 and 1977, the Israel Defense Forces grew from 90,000 personnel and 12 brigades to 700,000 personnel and 44 maneuver brigades. Initially, it fielded only 20 obsolete tanks; 30 years later, it could field 3,800 tanks, most of which were state-of-the-art. During the same period, the Israeli Air Force grew from a single, ill-equipped fighter squadron to 20 fighter-attack squadrons armed with cutting-edge combat aircraft. The number of combat sorties the IAF could sustain daily grew from a mere 20 to 1,200. The navy grew from virtually nothing to the dominant force in the eastern Mediterranean with 24 very capable fast-attack craft. Since 1977, the IDF continued to grow and modernize. However, in 2003, and again in 2014, the IDF’s mobilizeable order of battle was significantly reduced.
Today, Israel stands out as the dominant military power in the Middle East. It has been able to accomplish this while reducing the burden of defense expenditure on its gross national product from a peak of 24 percent in the post-1973 war years to about 6 percent today.
Israel is estimated to be able to quickly mobilize some 740,000 personnel, well below its prior peak strength of about 930,000. Its ground forces are estimated to include 64 maneuver brigades organized into 17 divisions that are equipped with more than 14,000 armored fighting vehicles. The Israeli Air Force currently deploys about 300 exceedingly advanced F-15 and F-16 combat aircraft, and it is currently receiving new production F-35A aircraft. It can generate the world’s highest daily sortie rate because of its uniquely high aircrew-to-aircraft ratio—some 1,600 to 1,850 sustained daily F-15 and F-16 combat sorties. The IAF has an exceedingly advanced and capable C4ISR system, and maintains the world’s second-largest inventory of PGMs.
Israel currently deploys the world’s densest and most capable air-defense system, which can intercept long-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, short-range missiles and rockets, aircraft and UAVs. It has a small but very capable coastal navy that is equipped with advanced corvettes, fast-attack craft, attack submarines and very advanced small craft. It has the world’s second most effective space-based surveillance capability providing near-real-time coverage of its theater of operations. It fields IRBMs, land and sea-based cruise missiles, air- and ground-launched ballistic missiles, air-delivered bombs and artillery and rocket-delivered tactical warheads. It also has an aerosol chemical-weapon delivery capability, as well as an active biological warfare program.
Israel has an exceptional civil defense system. Finally, it is a world leader in cyber warfare.
The IDF has transitioned from a tank-heavy order of battle, conceived to fight and maneuver against conventional armies in the open desert to a far more balanced combined arms order of battle primarily optimized to battle non-state militias in urban areas.
Due to the changing nature of conflict over the past two decades—from all-out conventional wars to asymmetrical warfare where preventing or at least minimizing collateral damage is a priority—the current generation of senior Israeli officers lack the ruthlessness of previous Israeli combat leaders who could, and did, issue operational orders to attack and fight to the death. Moreover, many current senior general staff officers spent their formative years in relatively small special-forces units—something that has impacted their thinking. Therefore, it is not surprising that the current general staff places low priority on decisive large-scale engagement, heavy armor or tube artillery, having apparently forgotten that asymmetric warfare cuts in two directions, and that its militia enemies should not be able to dictate the style of combat or the rules of engagement.
The Israeli political-military leadership has similarly become politically correct, reluctant to accept casualties during training or even operational missions.
While the overall readiness of Israeli ground forces—primarily based on reserve units—has substantially declined from its level between the late 1950s and the mid-1990s, Israeli reserve units are far superior to any other international reserve units, such as the U.S. National Guard, being able to thrust into combat within days rather than months. The IDF has been able to exploit the advantages of modern technology far more rapidly than any other major military power. Its ability to foreshorten the sensor-to-shooter link is unparalleled internationally.
It has concentrated its investment on surveillance systems, real-time digital battle management command, and control systems and precision munitions. Israel was the first to deploy non-line-of-sight precision guided missiles. These advanced capabilities would be decisive against hostile conventional forces that lacked comparable technology and capability, though they have proven far less effective in urban fighting against militia-type forces under rigid and overly conservative self-imposed rules of engagement.
Israel has significantly reduced its tube artillery order of battle. It is assessed that they have cut far too deep and now have inadequate means to generate suppressive fire against light infantry forces equipped with long-range direct-fire anti-tank weapons.
It is estimated that the Armored Corps order of battle has been reduced from 36 to 24 brigades within the last decade, and, in the future, will likely be further reduced down to only 16 brigades by 2030. The future Armored Corps order of battle will, almost certainly, prove to be grossly inadequate if there is political upheaval in Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Jordan as, very likely, there will be, and, particularly, if Turkey becomes openly hostile to Israel. It is arguable that the Israeli military leadership has been naïve in assuming that it can continue to maintain overwhelming technological and tactical superiority well into the future, or that its current semi-friendly relations with many of the Sunni Arab states will be sustainable over the long-term.
Israeli ground forces have simply been underfunded. They currently lack the ability to rapidly and decisively simultaneously overcome Hezbollah and Hamas at low-cost. A limited increase in their budget of about 1 percent of the Israeli GDP would dramatically increase their near-term readiness and capability, thereby allowing Israel to reduce both its civilian and military casualties during operations against Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. Doing so will dramatically improve the strategic options available to Israeli political leaders.
The future mobilizeable order of battle of both the Armored Corps and tube artillery should be increased. This would require an increase in the conscript filled active force structure in order to generate a larger number of mobilizeable reserves. This will also require the previously noted increase in annual defense funding.
Over the last 30 years, the order of battle of the IAF has been significantly downsized. At the present time, it seems adequate given that its non-state enemies lack air forces or significant ground-based air defenses, while the Iranian air force is obsolescent. However, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states cumulatively can deploy a much larger quantity of state-of-the-art fourth generation aircraft, and have been the beneficiaries of Western training and exposure to Western tactics and doctrine. There is no guarantee that these states will continue to represent a benign threat in the long-term future. Consequently, it seems vital for Israel to increase the IAF’s order of battle and replace its overage aircraft. For Israel, the high cost and limited air-to-air performance of the F-35—the only fifth generation U.S. aircraft available—creates a huge problem.
Replacing all of its existing with F-35s on a one-for-one basis would likely be financially impossible, while the F-35 lacks the aerodynamic performance to replace the F-15 as a premier air-to-air platform. The lack of an available F-15 replacement for use in the air superiority role creates a huge long-term problem for the IAF.
The IAF also lacks the funding necessary to procure adequate numbers of C-130J transports to replace its existing fleet of C-130s, V-22s for the special mission role and new production heavy-lift helicopters to replace its aging CH-53s. It currently has an inadequate number of transports and heavy helicopters to support the available ground force’s deep strike order of battle.
Israel currently has one of the world’s most advanced C4ISR systems, which enables it to maximize the lethality of each attack sortie. It also has an extremely large and diverse inventory of high-quality air-to-ground munitions. Because of its uniquely high aircrew-to-aircraft ratio and exceptionally competent ground support teams, it is able to generate the world’s highest daily sortie rate. Today, the IAF can generate more daily fast-jet sorties than any conceivable combination of regional enemies. Moreover, each of these sorties would be of far higher relative quality. However, it is doubtful whether Israel can continue to maintain overwhelmingly superior technological superiority into the future. Moreover, its aircraft depend on a relatively limited number of runways, which in the future will be vulnerable to preemptive destruction by enemy-delivered precision-guided ballistic missiles. This could severely disrupt Israeli sortie generation.
Israel today deploys the world’s most capable ground-based integrated air-defense system. Nothing equivalent exists elsewhere. However, no missile yet developed can achieve a single-shot kill probability that approaches 100 percent. Capable air-defense missiles are expensive and, consequently, the Israeli inventory of air-defense missiles will inevitably be limited. The Israeli air-defense system can be saturated and can never provide airtight protection. In the future, the system, which depends on a relatively small handful of high-quality radars, will be vulnerable to preemptive attack and disruption by stealthy missiles.
Overemphasis on air-defense systems, which has been politically attractive, is assessed to have been strategically catastrophic for Israel. The financial aid provided by the United States, dedicated to Israeli air-defense systems, minimizes the likelihood of Israel preemptively mobilizing for offensive operations. This aid has been provided because it is in the strategic self-interest of the United States, not because it best serves Israel’s interests.
The Israeli navy currently has far fewer corvettes and fast-attack craft than it requires and, almost all of these have never been fully outfitted with their designed number of fire-control systems. All but one cannot currently provide 360-degree active self-defense against inbound anti-ship missiles.
Israel is building towards a fleet of six highly capable diesel-electric attack submarines. With blue-white crewing (i.e., about 10 complete crews for the six boats), three to four of these could be continuously deployed. These submarines are all very likely able to launch long-range cruise missiles. However, they each carry very few reloads and, therefore, they do not, by themselves, represent a creditable deterrent force. Israel has a substantial number of small relatively high-speed coastal patrol boats, which now mount stabilized 25mm cannon and relatively long-range missiles, which can precisely strike enemy ships or targets ashore, but which have very small warheads.
This excerpt is part of a longer and more comprehensive monograph, titled “The Israel Defense Forces, 1948-2017,” published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.