IDF’s Identity Crisis – and Increased Value
By Amir Oren
Two unprecednted events involving the Israel Defense Forces took place this week, seemingly unrelated, yet so contrasting as to paint an impressionistic drawing of an IDF struggling in an identity problem, perhaps even a crisis.
The first event was the death of a Border Patrol sniper, Staff Sergeant Barel Shmueli, following a violent Palestinian demonstration at the Gaza border wall. A Hamas operative sneaked up to Shmueli’s position and shot him blank point – on television. Shmueli never recovered from his head wound.
During the week or so of his hospitalisation, Shmueli’s parents and friends vehemently attacked the government headed by Naftali Bennett and the IDF High Command. They were joined by political rivals of the Bennett government, supporting former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The personal attacks intensified when Shmueli succumbed to his wounds. Bennett and the Generals were vilified for being too soft on Gaza, Hamas, the Palestinians, never mind the exact demarcation. If only the rules of engagement were looser, if the troops were allowed to disperse the crowd by shooting at it from afar, Shmueli would still be alive.
As Shmueli was buried with full military honor, the Israel Navy linked up with the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet for a first of its kind patrol in the Gulf of Aqaba. Four ships belonging to the American and Israeli maritime task forces navigated together, and a merry time was indeed had by all, as Israel was working with the U.S. Central Command the transition from the European Command in a body of water bordered by four CENTCOM states – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel. A lot has happened since 1967, when the American failure to organise an international flotilla and break the Egyptian blockade on the Straits of Tiran brought about the Six-Day War.
The Israeli Navy is too small to have a Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean and a Fifth Fleet in the Red Sea and southwards and eastwards towards the coasts of Yemen, Oman and Iran on the left and East Africa on the right, with one’s back to the port of Elath (which gave its name to one of the missile boats taking part in the joint patrol). Yet it was significant, and not only because of the agility and flexibility demonstrated by these sister sea services, one represented by NAVCENT’s Vice Admiral Charles (Brad) Cooper and the other by Naval Opetations’ Rear Admiral Daniel (Danny) Hagari, to plan and execute a seamless transition in short time.
Cooper on the American side and Hagari on the Israeli one represent the current crop of savvy officers, who blend distinguished command at sea with exposure to the civilian – read also political – aspects of running military organisations in the 21st Century. Cooper had stints as Executive Assistant to senior Admirals and ran the Legislative (Congressional) Liaison shop for the Navy. Hagari, who came up through Shayetet 13, Israel’s SEALS, served twice at the fulcrum of civil-military relations, as Aide-de-Camp and Executive Assistant to the IDF Chief of General Staff, a rare assignment for a Naval Commando. They are experienced in leading troops on dangerous missions – and in being intimately familiar with the circumstances surrounding the decisions on such missions. Both seem to be being groomed for the highest positions in their Navies.
But Cooper and Hagari are career officers, in for the long haul, accepting the risks as well as the rewards of the life they chose. This is universally true for the entire Department of Defense, where conscription ended in 1973 and the force is all-volunteer. It definitely does not apply to the Israeli military, based on a skeletal cadre of “lifers” – actually retiring in their early 40’s – and a steady inflow of conscripts serving less than three years and then going into the reserves.
In Israel, military service is for most not a profession, but a duty (which a sizeable minority shirks, for various reasons, legitimate or otherwise). As long as the country was perceived to be under permanent threat of invasion and extinction, induction into combat units was considered unavoidable, and in the case of elite forces desirable and competitive. Brad Cooper graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, preparing himself for his calling or career. There is no Israeli Annapolis; Danny Hagari enlisted in the IDF not knowing whether he will like the rigorous life of a Naval Commando enough to stay in after his initial commitment. But the Hagaris are more and more becoming the exception. Most Israelis in their early 20’s eagerly wait to start their academic studies and professional cateers, away from Air anything having to do with the military. They do not feel that their talents are best used in and by the IDF and they do not want to be supervised by uniformed bureaucrats.
The exceptions are the highly technologically sophisticated organisations within the IDF – Air Force, Navy, Intelligence, Cyber, Research and Development, Special Forces. These are attractive because they are secretive and leading-edge and the corridors to interesting and sonetimes lucrative civilian occupations upon release from the service.
Viewed from the top, there is another plus – no parental involvement. Casualties in combat or training are extremely rare now in Israel, a blessing in high contrast with earlier r, but when occurs, the criticism hurled at the chain of command is much harsher than ever. The fatalism in which death in the IDF was accepted and the norm of grieving in private were replaced by public and politicised recriminations. These do not have to follow a certain logic. Shmueli’s mourners expressed their bitterness at the “containment” policy of the government, conveniently failing to mention that this was Netanyahu’s line, too. Because of the strict orders to refrain from indiscriminate fire at the demonstrators, they claim, Shmueli’s killer managed to approach him. They ignore the rationale for the policy – more fire, more friction, more funerals, calls for revenge, escalation, rockets on Israeli towns, combat with the cost of more Shmuelis.
Much like President Biden’s rationale for withdrawing from Afghanistan – and as he pointed out, following a decision made by his predecessor (and reflecting public opinion, without which no policy can survive for long) – the upshot is that the balance has turned. It us no longer cost-effective to have boots on the ground, and ever more boots as force protection for the original ones. Whatever military missions are still necessary to pursue clear and vital national interests, as distinct from nice-to-have ones, will best be conducted “over the horizon”, by stand-off weapons, sometimes manned, more often not.
Western democracies are risk-averse, reluctant to pay the ultimate price. And not only these societies – Russia would rather use mercenaries and Iran prefers proxies, in their offensive or expeditionary operations.
For Israel, this is not an option. If it must conform to the spirit of the time while defending itself, strategy and policy and doctrine must all flow from the realisation that the civilian market will no longer bear military casualties, even while protecting that very civilian population.
Thus, calls by critics of the defense establishment to shift priorities from the Air Force to Armor and other ground forces are divorced from reality. The political leadership of the nation would be reluctant to invade Lebanon or Gaza, even if the operational plan is sound, for fear of casualties and calls for accountability by ministers and Generals. It will take an extreme scenario, a Pearl Harbour or a 9/11, where the price is being paid in what triggers the campaign, for Israeli Isociety to approve of Army Divisions being sent to battle.
The priority is going to be given, even more than recently, to Air Force and other stand-off (surface-to-surface missiles, precision-guided artillery) fire units; Navy, too, where applicable. The IDF does not have Aircraft Carriers or heavy surface combatants – while the Fifth Fleet operates Cruisers and Destroyers, the Israel Navy has only frigates and corvettes, much lighter (and with a smaller crew, a blessing when a ship is hit), suitable for Israel’s modest needs – especially if it can complement its fleet with America’s. That, of course, is only the visible fleet. What submarines and commandos are stealthily doing may usually be guessed but hardly ever verified.
There is yet another lesson to be learned, between Kabul and Aqaba. -There is a growing, or retro, need for military bases in friendly countries. Not in the target countries ththemselves, where the raiders-r are by definition targets, but in relative proximity and where defenses are effective should an enemy chance a pre-emptive blow.
Persian Gulf oildoms are close enough, but it works both ways – they can be struck without enough early warning, for example Saudi Arabia from Yemen, Iraq or Iran. If American troops are hit there, it not only -degrades from their combat effectiveness; it puts pressure on Washington to retaliate, escalate and perhaps be drawn into an unwanted war.
By contrast, Israel has excellent Air Force bases, Naval facilities and logistics depots, some built to American standards because they were constructed courtesy the U.S.A. One can imagine several contingencies where CENTAF – CENTCOM’s air component – along with NAVCENT’s carrier-based Air Wings would be happy to land their F-35’s at Nevatim IAF base and enjoy their buddies’ pre-arranged hospitality. Ditto the Fifth Fleet at Elath – for smaller boats – and the Sixth Fleet at Haifa.
Israel has always picked up fashions from the West with some delay. Perhaps the civilian resentment at military casualties, especially among non-career servicemen, is gaining so much traction in Jerusalem as to influence decisions on war, though not yet on peace. The IDF is also under siege because of the pensions paid to career officers at retirement, even 30 years or so prior to their civilian counterparts. In this regard, and in others, the professional military in the U.S. and Israel are growing closer to each other, even as, darlings no more, they are not as close to the mainstream in their societies as they used to be.