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Israel's military revolution

The changes in the Middle East have triggered a comprehensive transformation within the IDF, including its strategic doctrine, its battalion layout and the application of intelligence in combat operations.
An Israeli air force F-15I fighter jet releases flares during an air force pilots' graduation ceremony at Hatzerim air base in southern Israel December 26, 2013. REUTERS/Nir Elias (ISRAEL - Tags: MILITARY TRANSPORT) - RTX16UHR

One of my earlier articles for Al-Monitor, published in May 2013, featured extensive quotes from a retired Israeli general who raised a few questions: Why do the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) need so many armed divisions? Why is there a need for hundreds of fighter aircraft? Why does Israel need so many tanks? The region’s changing reality, in the setting of which almost all of the conventional enemies threatening the Jewish state have dissolved, should manifest itself also in its military’s structure, the general contended.

The said officer was a major general who had recently retired. He was not some voice from a distant past. According to his viewpoint, Israel continues to prepare for yesteryear’s war while ignoring the new reality, to wit, the blazing Middle East and the dissolution of dated frameworks. By doing so, it put itself in danger of being caught unprepared once again in the next round.

As it turns out, the statements by the Israeli officer were not said in a vacuum. Following in-depth background talks and internal discussions in the IDF, it is becoming apparent that in the past three years the Israeli military has undergone one of the most important revolutions in its history. Almost every area has been dramatically transformed — the military’s ORBAT (order of battle), target prioritization, operational doctrine, intelligence collection and dissemination, as well as its internal and external structure. Or, to quote a senior officer: “Today, no general in the IDF’s General Staff does the same work he did just barely three years ago. Everything has changed — the job description, the tasks, the modus operandi, as well as the agenda. Everything that existed prior to that is water under the bridge. Welcome to the new world.”

I have often written here about the changes taking place in the Middle East. Strategically speaking, the immediate threats to Israel have greatly diminished. The armies facing it have either been dissolved or have stopped being relevant. Beleaguered and having a lot on their plate, they are preoccupied with their own internal affairs. The menacing “eastern front,” consisting of massive Syrian and Iraqi divisions, is gone, having been replaced by a mixture of terrorist organizations and jihadist guerrilla groups which do not answer to regular forces. The Arab Spring has done away with the previous structure of the Middle East, whereby Arab countries and their regular armies were poised against Israel, confronting it once or twice every decade. Even though it is too early to assess where the region is headed and what these historic changes will spawn in the intermediate and the long run, it is abundantly clear, including to IDF generals, that Israel is not facing an existential threat at this time — the Iranian issue notwithstanding. A moot and controversial point in Israeli public, the topic of Iran is also being discussed in the decision-makers’ most classified forums.

Incidentally, the view among IDF top brass regarding the events in the Middle East is both interesting and refreshing. A high-ranking IDF official calls it the “golden arches concept.” Translation: Amazing as it may sound, the fact remains that countries that have McDonald's branches have never fought each other to date. To paraphrase that, never has a war broken out between two adjacent democracies. That being the case, there is no reason to go dancing in the streets just yet. The countries in the Middle East have yet to meet the criteria of democratic states. However, senior IDF and defense establishment officials, including Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and chief of staff Benny Gantz, are all of the opinion that all the Arab rulers, including Egypt’s next president, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, must henceforth take also, maybe primarily, into account the millions of demonstrators in the squares in every move that they contemplate. And that’s the start of a democracy.

“This is by far more important and meaningful than going to the ballots,” senior Israeli officials are telling their American counterparts in the framework of aggressive lobbying that Israel is conducting in Washington on behalf of its Egyptian neighbor. “Look at the substance,” the Israelis are saying. “The Egyptian people have spoken. It is the Egyptian people who dictate the events, and they are the ones who enthrone Sisi. This is not the same old dictatorship. Those days are gone and will never come back.”

It is against this backdrop that the IDF has undergone a radical transformation in recent years. It started by closing and writing off many units from its ORBAT. The IDF has given up a large percentage of its armored forces. Divisions and brigades were wound up and headquarters were abolished. The Israeli air force closed quite a few squadrons. The number of heavy vehicles has dropped dramatically. Logistics were considerably reduced. At the same time, the number of special forces have gone up. Infantrymen and commandos have been given much greater prominence. There was a time when the IDF used to be a huge armored force that also had a bit of infantry and commando. Today, it’s the other way around. The IDF has emerged as a military of special, sophisticated units with many commandos and elite forces supported by a thin layer of armor.

There are still people in Israel who feel anxious about this trend. When they find out how many tanks defend the country against its enemies these days, they are appalled. To allay their concerns, they are then presented with the number of tanks threatening Israel today. Since those tanks are virtually nonexistent, a sigh of relief might well be in order.

The most dramatic change has taken place in the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate. Israel’s past wars were conducted almost without intel. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the little intel there was brought about the horrible blunder that resulted in thousands of soldiers killed in a desperate effort to defend the country. During the 1967 Six-Day War there was no need for intel. Quite a few battles were conducted without it (such as the battle over Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem). And there are many such examples.

Knowing, ostensibly, the mindset of a few dictators long was enough to allow Israeli leaders in Jerusalem to sleep soundly. Today, it’s a whole different ball game and the change occurred almost overnight.

Israel now deals with the Shiite terrorist organization Hezbollah, which has acquired semi-state skills and capabilities but which balks at the prospects of a head-on confrontation.

At the same time, Israel faces what Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is going through as well as several al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist terrorist organizations that threaten the Golan Heights. Once a remote, serene place, the Sinai Peninsula is a seething base of global jihad, Jabhat al-Nusra and other terrorist groups. The smuggling route of munitions from Iran to our region — via sea, land, Sudan, Damascus, Beirut, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean and other places — commands a major intelligence effort. There are countless possibilities around us, and there is a whole giant universe of capabilities and attempts that Israel’s intelligence services need to identify and thwart ahead of time.

There was a time when the IDF used to have intelligence. Today, we can already say that the intelligence has the IDF. Back in the day, intel was important. Nowadays, it is crucial. Everything starts and ends with intel. A special cyber division has been established in which a great deal of resources has been invested. Almost overnight it became one of the world's leading entities in its domain. Israel’s intelligence capabilities have been significantly upgraded and massive resources have been allocated to this end. These capabilities sprawl into all spaces, both real and virtual, using satellites, cyber, the Internet, digital and cybernetic means. Working around the clock, thousands of people are engaged in this activity, making sure that every cell member from northeast Syria planning to transfer something dangerous to his counterpart in the Golan Heights is targeted by Israel’s special forces that operate nonstop in what is known here as the “campaign between wars.”

One of the IDF's historical problems was its inability to instill this intel on the ground and relay this information in real time to soldiers. During the 2006 Second Lebanon War, this was very conspicuous, resulting in serious blunders. Although there was intel, soldiers were nevertheless wounded in battle because they had not received it. Today, each IDF unit has what is called Beit Midrash, or a classroom. This is a joint forum for local officers as well as officers from Israeli Intelligence Corps Unit 8200. It is somewhat similar to the US National Security Agency (NSA). All the information is relayed immediately and in real time to the ground.

These Beit Midrash forums are active year-round. The officers, including those in the reserves, are called up for special service during which they study the arena in front of them, learning everything that Hezbollah is preparing for D-Day.

Additionally, the IDF has undertaken a historic enterprise that is said to be “dramatic and one that will change the face of the military.” According to the plan, the entire military will have its own private network, a kind of an internal, Israeli-made “Google” specifically tailored for the military. In its framework, for example, an Israeli helicopter gunship pilot will be able to fly over a terrorist zone, take aerial photos, upload them onto the web and receive instantly all the relevant information about that location. The same goes for an Israeli officer, who, while watching a southern Lebanese village through a telescope, will immediately get everything he needs to know.

It is not only IDF intelligence that is undergoing transformation. The entire military is shedding its old uniforms, habits, modus operandi, intelligence and operational concepts, becoming a whole new military. This is a military that no longer needs to crush Syrian divisions, simply because there are none. This is a military that does not need to break through into Sinai or launch a large-scale ground maneuver in Iraq. This is a military that will see short yet intense engagements with guerrilla and terrorist organizations in urban areas or underground, with tunnels, fortifications and bunkers. Those guerrilla fighters will never show up for a face-to-face combat. Instead, they will try wearing you out with a barrage of thousands of rockets on the home front.

Although short, these rounds will nevertheless be traumatic. Both sides — Israel and the other side — will have to prove to their public that they were necessary. Hezbollah, for that matter, will have to come up with a pretty good excuse vis-a-vis the Lebanese people whose infrastructures will be aggressively obliterated by the IDF. By contrast, Israel’s political echelon will require broad public support and consensus once it becomes apparent that hundreds (at best) of civilians have been killed in the barrage of tens of thousands of rockets (up to 10,000 rockets daily) that were showered on the home front for a fortnight. Israel will try to condense the confrontation to the smallest time frame as possible. It is believed that the last day will be the most difficult one, whereby each side will try to prove that it remains the last one standing.

The Israeli air force also looks entirely different today compared with a few years ago. While it has downsized the number of fighter aircraft and logistics, it has nevertheless significantly increased its capabilities. A senior Israeli air force official recently said that he needs only one day of fighting to carry out the same number of bombing sorties and target handling that he generated throughout the entire Yom Kippur War. Ten years ago, it would take an entire squadron one week to do what one jet fighter can achieve in one hour today. Nowadays, four F-16 fighters flying over the Mediterranean Sea can simultaneously handle multiple targets in different locations, using a huge quantity of cutting-edge “smart” munitions. A few years ago, it would take a whole squadron and many fighting days to carry out a similar operation.

Unlike the past, the Israeli air force does not launch two offensive sorties — one in the morning and another in the evening. Instead, it now carries out continuous, massive, smart sorties around the clock, including during the night and also during relatively inclement weather conditions. Its planning division has been substantially reconfigured and its operational division has undergone a deep transformation. An Israeli air force pilot can now talk in real time with a commander of a small ground force while dropping smart bombs just 250 meters (0.15 miles) away.

Such changes are now taking place across the whole military. Divisions were closed and commands were altered. Every territorial command now has one low-intensity security division and a dedicated “vanquishing” division that can address threats perceived by this specific command. The other units are General Staff vanquishing divisions that can be assigned anywhere. A depth command has been set up to carry out long-range operations, the number of which has steadily risen in recent years.

According to foreign sources, the IDF operates in Sudan, the Red Sea, Syria, Lebanon and in much more remote areas. Using every imaginable and unimaginable means at its disposal, the military operates nonstop. The campaign between wars is replacing war itself. This endeavor is much more complex, complicated and volatile than ever before. The definitions were reset. Yesteryear’s victory could be tomorrow’s downfall, and vice versa. To this end, the military’s teaching aides, courses and refresher classes have also been modified. Most efforts are being invested in cyber.

“Soon,” an officer versed in this area recently told me, “We will be able to become a world leader also in terms of cyber and cybernetic warfare. Our standing will be similar to our standing in the area of unmanned aerial vehicles.”

The whole world is headed in that direction, I told the officer. Terrorism embraces cyber. Neighboring countries, including Iran, are all investing in the digital world, in the cyber world, in preparations for the new, next war. “That’s true,” the officer replied. “They all have cyber, they all have surveillance units and they all have unmanned aerial vehicles. What we need to do is to make sure that ours are the best. We do not have the luxury of lagging behind.”

This article is dedicated with appreciation and great longing for our colleague, Reuven Pedatzur, who was killed in an unnecessary road accident this week, on Passover eve. Pedatzur, who wrote for Al-Monitor, too, was a journalist, a pilot, a researcher and a wonderful man. Standing out with his original thought and swimming against the stream, against almost any stream, in a determined and consistent fashion, he was not deterred even by Israel’s defense establishment. With talent and perseverance, he oftentimes criticized it, setting out against its prevailing premises. In our times, when so few dare face the stampeding herd to voice a different, defiant view, your absence, Reuven, is all the more poignant.

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