Tag Archives: Israel

Up, Close and Personal: How to Destroy the Enemy

Caracal battalion. Image from wikipedia

Deep southern Negev desert, Israel, there is a small town called Baladia, with a main square, five mosques, cafés, a hospital, multi-storey blocks of flats, a kasbah and a cemetery. Oddly, it also has a number of well-constructed tunnels. The only people milling around in its streets are Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers. Baladia, the Arab word for city, is part of the Tze’elim army base**. It has been built to provide a realistic training ground for the next time the IDF is required to go into Gaza to destroy Hamas missile launchers…Acceptance among Western armies that future fights are most likely to take place in cities. Megacities with populations of more than 10m are springing up across Africa and Asia. They are often ringed by closely packed slums controlled by neighbourhood gangs. Poor governance, high unemployment and criminality make them fertile territory for violent extremism.

It is hardly surprising that non-state adversaries of the West and its allies should seek asymmetric advantage by taking the fight into cities. Air power and precision-guided munitions lose some of their effectiveness in urban warfare because their targets can hide easily and have no scruples about using a densely packed civilian population as a shield.

Valuable lessons have been learned from the battle for Sadr City, a large suburb of Baghdad, in 2008, Israel going into Gaza in 2014 and the defeat of Islamic State (IS) in Mosul 2017….As General Mark Milley, the head of the US Army, puts it, “it took the infantry and the armour and the special operations commandos to go into that city, house by house, block by block, room by room…and it’s taken quite a while to do it, and at high cost.” He thinks that his force should now focus less on fighting in traditional environments such as woodland and desert and more on urban warfare.

To that end, he advocates smaller but well-armoured tanks that can negotiate city streets, and helicopters with a narrower rotor span that can fly between buildings. At the organisational level, that means operating with smaller, more compartmentalised fighting units with far more devolved decision-making powers…

Western military forces should still enjoy a significant technological edge. They will have a huge range of kit, including tiny bird- or insect-like unmanned aerial vehicles that can hover outside buildings or find their way in. Unmanned ground vehicles can reduce the risk of resupplying troops in contested areas and provide medical evacuation for injured soldiers, and some of them will carry weapons….

For all the advances that new technologies can offer, General Milley says it is a fantasy to think that wars can now be won without blood and sacrifice: “After the shock and awe comes the march and fight…to impose your political will on the enemy requires you…to destroy that enemy up close with ground forces.”

Excerpt from House to House in the The New Battlegrounds, Economist Special Report, the Future of War, Jan. 27, 2018

***In 2005, the Israeli Defense Forces, with assistance from the United States, built the Urban Warfare Training Center at the Tze’elim Army Base, at a cost of $45 million. Nicknamed “Baladia” it is a 7.4 square mile training center used to instruct soldiers in urban warfare techniques, and consists of an imitation Middle Eastern style city with multiple multistory buildings. It has been used to train various military organizations, including the US Army and UN peacekeepers.  Wikipedia

The Benefits of Being Located Among Failed States: Israel

IDF Alpine Unit Mount Hermon

Israeli defence spending remains the world’s fifth highest per person and young Jews continue to do up to three years of military service. In the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, the army’s hold on the body politic can still be felt, but it is no longer as strong as it once was. As Israel’s economy has boomed, military spending has fallen from 17.7% of GDP in 1991 to around 6% today. The Knesset sliced $1 billion off the most recent defence budget, the steepest cut in two decades. Led by a maverick hawk, Moshe Feiglin, politicians of all stripes are campaigning to professionalise what has long been a people’s army. “The compulsory draft produces adverse results,” says Mr Feiglin. “The IDF relies on cheap manual labour instead of specialisation and technology and this harms the country’s defences.”

Although stopping short of ending the draft, the Knesset this month approved a military restructuring plan that prods the army towards professionalisation. It urges a shift away from manpower-intensive armoured divisions in favour of the air force, intelligence collection and cyber-warfare. Conscripts are encouraged to extend their three-year terms.  Plodding ground forces increasingly feel like a burden, lawmakers say.

Out will go some 4,500 officers, an artillery brigade wielding howitzers and hundreds of ageing Merkava and M60 tanks, some as old as the Vietnam war. In will come the new training ground in the Negev desert. It resembles a high-tech park, fit for an age when a technician in Tel Aviv can attack a target in Teheran. “The current and future battlefields are totally different from what we knew in the past,” writes Moshe Yaalon, the defence minister, fittingly, on his Facebook page. One of the reasons behind Israel’s new order of battle is the Arab spring. The armies in the largest neighbouring countries no longer represent the conventional threat they once did. Egypt’s is too busy with domestic politics and Syria’s has ceased to exist as a coherent force. “We’re surrounded by failed states,” declares a minister. Syria and Iraq are “to a great extent” out of commission, an officer echoes. The gap in technical capabilities widens every year. Arab armies cannot keep up.

To be sure, Israel still has lots of mortal enemies. Hizbullah, the Lebanese party-cum-militia, controls tens of thousands of missiles. Extremist groups in Sinai, Gaza and Syria loathe the country and so does Iran, which sponsors some of them.  Yet, these outfits do not present traditional threats. Tanks are useless against Iran’s nuclear programme or a band of jihadists. Air force commanders praise rapid-reaction units that make use of fighter jets, drones, intelligence and cyber-warfare. They stress that operations using such forces cause fewer casualties and thus reduce the risk that a conflict will escalate. A series of Israeli strikes in Syria and Sudan on missiles apparently bound for Hizbullah and Hamas have resulted in no tangible fallout so far. They have also spared Israel the international condemnation that ground invasions tend to ignite. The IDF has already changed enormously in recent years. Its largest unit, 8200, is focused on cyber-warfare. The air force has taken over some tasks from ground forces. “In 2000 only 1% of Gaza’s terrorists were killed from the air. Today it’s 98%,” according to a senior air force commander. Last November’s offensive against Gaza militants was conducted almost entirely from the air, without the deployment of ground troops. “Fewer and fewer civilians are serving in the reserves and in combat roles,” says Yagil Levy, an Israeli academic who writes about Israel’s armed forces. “There’s a growing gap between the army and the rest of society.”  Israel still needs some boots on the ground, however. In a fight with Hizbullah, infantry would search southern Lebanon for hidden missiles aimed at Jewish population centres.

The Israel Defence Forces: Taking wing, Economist, Aug. 10, 2013, at 44