The ongoing campaign in Ukraine suggests what is in store for Israel, and not only on the battlefield. What remains of the cooperation between the Israel Defense Forces and Israel’s Arabs – which flourished during the height of the coronavirus pandemic – and will the shift in the balance of forces between the political decision-makers and the professional experts find its way into the army?
“We do not have to imagine the next war. It’s already here, before our eyes,” asserts an internal document circulated recently in the IDF’s General Staff. That war is, of course, the one that is raging in Ukraine.
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The Ukrainians surprised the world, and perhaps also themselves, when they succeeded in containing the Russian invasion of their territory in the winter of 2022, preventing Russian President Vladimir Putin from installing a puppet government in Kyiv. But the most murderous war Europe has seen this century continues intensively, claiming victims nonstop. Worse, Putin is apparently planning a spring offensive in which he will attempt once more to vanquish Ukraine. The latter, for its part, hopes to avail itself of a massive airlift of Western aid, which for the first time will also include hundreds of tanks, in an effort to stymie Russia’s next move. As part of the aid, The New York Times reported this week, the United States is flying large quantities of ammunition from its emergency stockpiles in Israel and has already shipped tens of thousands of artillery shells to Ukraine.
The war in Ukraine is relevant to Israel in two aspects. First, it is fomenting a strategic shift in the international arena and in the Middle East. The war obligated the United States and the European Union to adopt a harder line against Russian expansion, focused the West’s interest on Eastern Europe (in addition to China) at the expense of the Middle East and created an alliance of pariahs between Moscow and Tehran. The Iranian aid to the Russian war effort also further tarnished the regime’s reputation in the eyes of the West and likely put the prospects of returning to the nuclear agreement to the wayside.
Second, Ukraine has become, to its detriment, a vast combat laboratory, which is being monitored by most of the world’s armies in order to discern future developments. The IDF document cited above sums up briefly a few of the central phenomena, which will undoubtedly also be felt in Israel’s confrontations and wars that may erupt.
The document notes, in military jargon, some of the directions in which major developments are already discernible: industrialized precision (manufacturing far larger numbers of precision-guided rockets and drones, “low-altitude task saturation” (flooding the skies with drones), cyber and spectrum (electronic) warfare, psychological warfare operations, deployment of artificial intelligence and improvements that are required to protect the military forces.
The war, the document’s authors write, is moving “from the field of battle to the space of battle,” meaning that it is extending across more territory which includes built-up urban area. And it is becoming “multidimensional and multi-corps” – that is, being fought both below the ground and in the air – and is combining in physical proximity different professional disciplines. All this will be relevant also to the IDF’s future force-building plans under Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzl Halevi, who was sworn in on Monday.
His predecessor, Aviv Kochavi, began his assignment four years ago with a long series of workshops at the IDF’s various branches and in the General Staff. He then drafted an ambitious multiyear plan, called Momentum. The IDF as envisioned by Kochavi relied on a lethal fusion of intelligence, advanced technology and precise fire, while considerably streamlining the former levels of target acquisition and attack.
Ground forces were also bolstered slightly, though critics question Kochavi’s claims of a real revolution. They argue that structural faults and the weakness of some reserve units could prevent the army from meeting its goals in a crunch. Another unknown is the positions that will be taken by the government and the public in the event of an all-out war. Will the damage inflicted by rockets on the home front be so severe that Israelis will support, or even demand, a broad offensive despite the losses it will entail?
The Halevi era in the IDF will be marked by continuity. Halevi knows that part of his mission is to bring some of Kochavi’s loftiest aspirations down to earth. These have not yet been fully implemented and haven’t emerged from the confines of the elite units into the large ground army. In Halevi’s first months as chief of staff, he will need to evade two traps that are lurking for him and are in part interconnected.
The first is the acute political crisis, against the background of the government’s malicious intentions against the justice system. The second has to do with the possibility of escalation in the territories as a result of tension with the Palestinians that could intensify in the light of measures the government will take under the pressure of the far-right parties. Israel is liable to find itself in a two-pronged escalation: internally for political reasons, and militarily against the Palestinians. In the present circumstances, that combination could have an adverse effect on the motivation to serve in the IDF, particularly in the reserve units.
Kochavi was already poised on the brink of a third intifada last year. It didn’t happen, but a quite permanent situation has developed in the West Bank of moderate-level friction, which is requiring of the IDF increased attention, resources and forces. At the end of Gadi Eisenkot’s term as chief of staff in 2018, the army took pride in its return to the 17:17 weeks model, referring to identical periods of time for training and for routine security duties in the infantry and the Armored Corps. Last year, the time available for training plummeted because of the escalation in the West Bank.
Aviv Kovchavi (R) and Herzi Halevi on Monday.
Credit: IDF Spokesperson
This year, the General Staff hopes, at best, to arrive at a level of 12 weeks of training for the combat units – which everyone agrees is not enough. Halevi, who tends to the conservative side in his approach to force-building, will also have to deal, at long last, with the elephant in the room: the present model of service, which no longer suits the army’s needs and is suffering from problems all along the way – in the draft, in signing up officers for the career army (especially at the rank of captain) and in the reserves.
On Wednesday, the Jerusalem Institute for Security and Strategy held a well-attended conference titled “Are the reserve forces prepared for the next war?” Retired generals and active-service commanders of reserve units who spoke at the conference expressed a pessimistic view. The one official IDF speaker at the event, Maj. Gen. Sa’ar Tzur, did not join those who spoke of a crisis, but admitted that difficulties exist.
The army is aware of the load that is borne by an increasingly diminishing number of reservists – only about 1 percent of the country’s citizens do active reserve duty, meaning that they were called up for more than 20 days of reserve duty in the past three years (quite a low bar). However, the aggravation of the security situation in the territories is likely to increase the burden on reserve units in the year ahead. Tzur’s main message, which was coordinated with Halevi, was: The IDF attaches great importance to the reserve units, will continue to need them and does not plan further cuts in the reserve army in the years ahead.