IDF next chief's Mission: Forming an Army Command

By Colonel David Eshel

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Maj. General Gabi Ashkenazi,  Currently the Director General , Israel Ministry of Defense,  will soon return to active service to become the chief of staff of the IDF. Choosing the next IDF chief of staff may have been reason enough to regain Israel's deterrence policy against the growing threat from its surrounding Arab and Islamic foes. However, without making some long overdue changes in its military infrastructure, even the best candidate, whoever defense minister Amir Peretz and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may have chosen, cannot improve the the effectiveness of Israel's armed forces.

A major inherent mistake in Israel's military command structure, which had grave bearing on last summer's Lebanon fiasco was already "in the cards" long before the firing started on July 12 2006.

Lt. General Dan Halutz, IDF Chief of StaffLieutenant General Dan Halutz, alone, was hardly to blame over this. He only tried to implement, what the IDF brass had accepted as its new warfighting doctrine: Asymmetric warfare, in other words, "Low intensive Conflict", or, "diffused warfare", both adopted as Israel's new defense concept, foreseen as the preferred modus operandi against lower tier threats, such as full scale high intensive warfare scenarios, regarded lesser threat contingencies.

Fighting largely anti-insurgency or anti-terror policing actions, combined with the newly adopted "accelerated kill chain" procedure had achieved significant success in subduing Palestinian suicide terror acts, which having caused over a thousand Israeli deaths during the first years of the second Intifada, was considered as the prime national predicament.

General Dan Halutz, as former air force commander and later chief of Operations at GHQ became the main proponent of this new kind of warfare and under his leadership, the ground forces, reduced in the new modus operandi, became secondary in counter-terrorist fighting, especially in the Gaza Strip. Suffering significantly less casualties as result, became marked national morale raiser in itself.

In contrast to the growth and sophistication of the air force, Israel's ground forces, suffering from severe cuts in national funding priorities, deteriorated in training standards, equipment and doctrinal procedures, all affecting its warfighting capabilities as demonstrated in the 2nd lebanon war

But unavoidably, Halutz' highly successful counter-insurgency doctrine failed miserably in the summer of 2006, when the IDF Land Forces were called upon to fight more intensive battles in Lebanon. The question why this mishap happened to an excellent army like the IDF requires in-depth understand into the underlying reasons, which unfortunately became inherent in the development of the its ground forces' command infrastructure throughout the last three decades.

According to its traditional structure, the IDF chief of staff directly controls all aspects of the Land forces as its primary commander. The air force and navy chiefs are largely independent service branches, regarded until lately, as supporting arms to the Land battle. During the 1991 Gulf War, the Israeli rear zone, came for the first time under threat from long-range ballistic missiles. As result, the strategic importance of the air force, became a decisive weapon and accordingly, a large part of the national defense budget priorities was re-allocated to air force requirements and long-range strategic weapons.

As the IDF became more and more embroiled in the Lebanon quagmire, with Hezbollah fighting the static ground forces virtually to a standstill, the air force came to the rescue, with a newly introduced and highly effective combination of real-time intelligence and rapid response targeting, with air assets pin-pointing Hezbollah hideouts. Following a similar trend in the Second Intifada, particularly in the Gaza strip area, the air force became the star player in a new tactical sphere of counter-terrorist warfighting, which saw unprecedented close co-operation between Shin-Bet (general security service), military intelligence, special forces, manned and unmanned air assets. Perfecting the techniques of precision strikes against time-critical targets (procedures called 'targeted killing'), this winning combination virtually destroyed the entire Hamas leadership. Unfortunately the price was high, as the ground forces, suffering from severe cuts in national funding priorities, deteriorated in training standards, equipment modernization and doctrinal procedures, all affecting its warfighting capabilities. The result of this short-sighted drastic decision, marked the Second Lebanon war fiasco, in which only the air force achieved significant achievement.

Halutz' surprising appointment to chief of staff, in Spring 2005, the first air force officer to attain such high office in the IDF, may not have been an unvary political failure, when regarding the growing strategic threats, which the political and military leadership presumed at the time as prime existential dangers to Israel's survival. With his excellent performance, an air force officer becoming IDF chief seemed only natural under the circumstances. Moreover, the decisive showing of the US air force in two Iraq wars only gave further credence to this unprecedented choice.

In fact, General Halutz as chief of operations, later deputy and finally chief of staff brought about a new concept in the restructuring process of the IDF chain of command, which envisaged strategic vision against long-range threats as Israel's top defense priority and as result, made the air arm its primary force to counter this looming threat. Although the new structure was not fully implemented before the 2006 war, its conceptual trend became already dominant throughout the IDF, with air force officers holding top jobs, such as Military Intelligence and Planning branches, posts that "Blue Coats" never held before.

Unfortunately for General Halutz and Israel as a whole, this concept backfired immediately as a "real" war started last July. Under his leadership, the air force performed brilliantly during the first days of the war and in unprecedented precision attacks, destroyed the entire Hezbollah strategic missile infrastructure in Lebanon. Tehran had painstakingly deployed these missiles as deterrent against a potential Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities. Now, in one stroke, billions of dollars invested into Iran's strategic forward base went up in smoke.

However, when the short range rockets kept raining relentlessly down on Israel's north it was time to act on the ground and it was precisely in this domain that Halutz' professional experience hampered his leadership. In order to be able to direct land warfighting, a commander must be intimately versed with the nature of the fire saturated battlefield. To rightly apprehend the needs and morale pressure of the tactical commander, the supreme leadership must have personally experienced the horrors of combat -- which naturally a pilot, fighting high in the sky and far detached from the noise of battle, cannot understand. This psychological phenomena, was the precursor of Halutz' major mistakes in conducting the war once the ground battle started, which became especially evident during the last 48 hours, when a mistaken apprehension of operational timing, brought about a series of questionable operations and the later repercussions, ending finally with last week's painful resignation.

As mentioned, the IDF Chief of Staff is traditionally, the direct commander of Israel's ground forces. He is assisted in his command function by a professional staff and by the Army Land Forces HQ (ALF HQ) which is only responsible for building, training and equipping the IDF land forces -- but has no command function over these forces. The next in line are the three territorial commands, which are responsible for operational implementation of the GHQ directives. In contrast to ALF HQ, the air force and navy, where the respective chiefs have full building, training and operational command over their forces.

With the Chief of Staff (COS) being the direct commander of army operations and with ALF HQ having no command function- such an infrastructure actually prohibits any COS coming from other than land forces. An air or naval officer, lacking professional background or combat experience cannot hope to gain full confidence of his subordinate ground commanders. In creating this strangely incomplete model of a Land Forces Headquarters, without operational command functions, the IDF leadership went only half way towards a viable solution of its land battle warfighting doctrine. This shortsighted failure was certainly the major cause for the Lebanon debacle.

However, in order to meet Israel's future threat contingencies, it may become necessary to appoint a Commanding General Staff (CGS) who is well versed in strategic operations, depending primarily on deployment of long-range air, naval and strategic forces. For such a contingency a veteran air force officer could be excellent choice, directing a complex strategic campaign. By restructuring the ALF HQ into a separate service arm, on the same level to air ground and possibly strategic commands such an arrangement can be achieved. But under such a structure, the ALF HQ must be given full command power over all land forces operations, i.e. full command of territorial headquarters.

While operating under the strategic directive of the CGS staff, directing all operations within the strategic overall warfighting framework- ALF HQ will carry out the territorial operations under its command. By streamlining and restructuring such a clear command doctrine, it would in future become possible to appoint any officer from either Army, Navy or air force to the post of CGS to meet whatever contingencies necessary.

Still, restructuring the IDF General Staff alone, would not solve the problem entirely in order to prevent future recurrences, as happened during the Second Lebanon War. In order to conduct an effective wartime crisis management, the political establishment must have an independent security advisory board, functioning on a fully legal foundation to perform its duties within the framework of the national defense community. Unfortunately the Israeli version of a National Security Council (NSC) has sofar not been implemented and was sorely missed during the recent crisis.

According to the findings of the National Comptroller, published last September, the NSC was not involved in handling central issues of national security, such as the management of the conflict with the Palestinians, the withdrawal from Gaza, large scale defense projects and most importantly, the Lebanon War 2006.

Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu told the Knesset State Control Committee that in his view, the National Security Council should be charged with coordinating Israel's campaign against Iran's nuclear weapons program, but the body established by his government in 1999 existed unfortunately only on paper. In contrast to foreign nations, which ably use their professional security advisory teams to reach crucial decisions of national security, the prime ministers of Israel have preferred to have their own intimate consultants forum for decision making rather than a special body that would be responsible for providing orderly staff work for making critical decisions. Under political leaders, having prior experience in defense issues, such a method could perhaps be tolerated. But with a leadership of "civilian politicians", like Amir Peretz and Ehud Olmert, both totally devoid of any military and strategic experience, this combination became catastrophic, as was proven by Israel's recent predicament in Lebanon.

Read David Eshel's past commentary here



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