Sunday, December 25, 2011

Israeli military prepares for a new type of war

Ben Frankel

The Israel Defense Force (IDF) has created a new military command – the Strategic Depth Command; this new command, and the new, commando-heavy, look of the IDF’s higher echelon, should tell us that Israel is preparing for a new type of war; adversaries of Israel who have been entertaining the thought that sheer distance from Israel would offer them some protection, may want to think again

At times it is not enough to read a given text — you have to read between the lines as well to get at the deeper meaning. This is the case with the news from Israel that the Israel Defense Force (IDF) has created a new military command – the Strategic Depth Command.

During the past five years the United States, too, has created new military commands to meet new security challenges in new theaters or domains. Thus, the U.S. Cyber Command is now responsible for developing defensive cyber policies which will protect U.S. military and infrastructure assets against cyber attacks. The Cyber Command is also working on information warfare, that is, offensive cyber measures the United States may take to undermine the military and economy of an adversary during a conflict. The U.S. Africa Command was created to address to growing presence of Islamic terrorists in the continent’s failed states, such as Somalia, and in weak states such as Niger, Mauritania, Nigeria, and others. Another mission of the Africa Command is to develop policies for protecting U.S. interests on the continent in the event that climate-driven droughts and water shortages will generate mass migration of people across borders.

The IDF’s new Strategic Depth command should be considered in this light: an organizational and doctrinal response to new security challenges.

Some journalists referred to the new command as the “Iran Command,” but the challenges Israel faces in areas far from its borders are not limited to Iran. Two recent examples:

A few months ago, during the height of the anti-Qaddafi rebellion in Libya, Israeli commandos killed two Hamas operatives in Sudan. These operatives were on their way back from Libya after negotiating a deal with some rebel leaders to sell Hamas chemical warheads from Qaddafi’s arsenal. Iran was paying for the chemical weapons to be delivered to Hamas.
A couple of years ago a Syrian general was assassinated in his vacation home in north Syria. The general was in charge of Syrian-Iranian cooperation on ballistic missile and nuclear weapons, and Israel decided that that cooperation had gone far enough and needed to be slowed down.

Some may argue that Israel already has three arms doing, or planning to do, work in areas far from the borders of Israel:

The Mossad, Israel’s secret service, has been killing Hamas and Hezbollah operatives, and Iranian nuclear scientists and generals, for a decade and a half now. During the past five years the Mossad has also added blowing up Iranian nuclear labs, missile bases, and weapons storage facilities (not only in Iran, but also Hezbollah’s depots in South Lebanon), to its menu.
The IDF’s secretive 8200 Unit has successfully launched cyber attacks on Syria in September 2007, and on Iran in 2010 (Stuxnet).
The Israel Air Force will be the military arm trusted with taking out Iran’s nuclear facilities if the order to attack Iran is given.

Yet, there was a growing sense in Israeli security circles that there was a need for more. Israel has several Special Forces-type units, each with different specialties and capabilities. It has been the case, however, that these units were utilized more effectively between wars. When wars broke, these units’ heavier siblings – the army, air force, and navy – took over, relegating the specialized commando units to the margins.

Supporters of the new command pointed out that the new reality of war required a new approach, entailing a more effective harnessing of these commando units’ qualities and capabilities. For example, in the event of growing tensions with Syria, it may be a better idea to disable Syrian missile batteries by inserting Israeli commando units deep behind Syrian lines to paralyze these batteries by means other then aerial bombardment.

We should note that during the first Iraq war, in 1991, Israel was readying specialized ground forces for operation in western Iraq. Their mission was to hunt down and destroy mobile Scud missile: U.S. Air Force pilots found it exceedingly difficult to locate these missiles from the air, and Israel was growing increasingly frustrated with the nightly barrages of Scuds falling on Israeli cities (some forty Iraq missiles were launched at Israel, causing some damage to building). Israel eventually relented to American pressure and agreed not to send Israeli forces to Iraq.

In the case of Iran, there may well be nuclear labs and other nuclear-related sites which the Iranian leadership has purposely located near – or under – civilian population centers in order to deter an attack on such sites. A commando operation would be more suitable way to destroy these facilities than attacking them from the air.

To disrupt Iranian command and control in the run up to a war, Israel may find it useful to take out a few political leaders and commanders of the Republican Guard. Some of these operations may require a presence on the ground, and the new command will have at its disposal very good commando units to carry out such missions.

The new command will not rely solely on special forces. Rather, it is understood that it will also plan to use land, air, and naval forces for coordinated attacks deep in enemy territory, aiming to disrupt and destabilzie adversaries.

The creation of the new command dovetails with another interesting development at the higher echelons of the IDF. Both Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu served in the hush-hush Sayeret Matkal (the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit). The two of them have appointed — or will soon appoint — to the top positions in the IDF officers who had their formative military experience, and who rose to prominence, in the IDF’s equivalent of the Special Forces or the Navy SEALS (the special forces background of these generals is given in parentheses):
Aviv Kokhavy, head of Military Intelligence (paratroopers’ “Orev” unit)
Ram Rotberg, commander of the Israeli Navy (Flotilla 13, the naval commando unit)
Tal Russo, head of the Southern Command (Sayeret Matkal; Unit 5101 [Special Surface-Air Designation Team, also known as the Shaldag Unit]; Unit 212 [Sayeret Maglan])
Yair Golan, head of the Northern Command (paratroopers’ “Orev” unit)
Nitzan Alon, head of the Central Command (Sayeret Matkal)
Eyal Isenberg, commander of civil defense (Unit 5101)

We should also recall that the Barak and Netanyahu preferred General Yoav Galant (Flotilla 13) to succeed General Gabi Ashkenazi as the new chief of staff, but their plan was scuttled owing to problems with Galant’s conduct regarding personal real estate matters.

The IDF’s new Strategic Depth Command, and the new, commando-heavy, look of the IDF’s higher echelon, should tell us that Israel is preparing for a new type of war. Adversaries of Israel may have entertained the thought that sheer distance from Israel would offer them some protection. They may want to think again.

Ben Frankel is the editor of the Homeland Security NewsWire

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