Photo: Flash 90

Get there fustest with the leastest

IDF’s doctrine, from little by little to lethal: Faster, Better, Cheaper

By Amir Oren

US Civil War Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest is usually quoted as having mangled the English language and ordered his officers, given a campaign objective, to “get there fustest with the mostest”, or even “with the most mostest”. It is not fair to Forrest, who actually said “get there first with the most men”, but then again, it got him into the quote books, out of reach for most (or mostest) soldiers, and drove the point better than the simple and accurate phrase.

Forrest was a cavalry leader. He wanted to get there fustest on horsest. When tanks were introduced into battles a century ago, Armor was seen as the rightful heir for mounted troops of the kind Forrest used to surprise and shock  a more conventional force in setpiece formations. Yet there is also a case for paratroopers and commando detachments keeping the cavalry spirit alive, with planes and helicopters, vehicles and their own feet replacing the horses of yesteryear.

 Aviv Kochavi (pictured above) and Benny Gantz are paratroopers. The regular paratroop brigade, the 35th, is the Israel Defense Forces elite infantry regiment. Both Gantz and Kochavi came up through the ranks to command it on their way to the military’s highest position, Chief of General Staff, which in the IDF has over-all command authority, rather than the mere advisory capacity of a Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. Three other former commanding officers of the 35th hold key posts under Kochavi, as Commanding Generals of the Southern (Hertzi Halevi) and Northern (Amir Baram) fronts and as the General Staff playmaker, Operations chief (Aharon Haliva).

Nine out of the 22 IDF chiefs so far have been paratroopers, a remarkable feat as the unit came to the fore, under an ambitious and creative 25-year-old Major, almost as an afterthought, when others failed to act against terrorist infiltration in the mid-50’s. The Major was Ariel Sharon, who in less than three years made the parachute battalion, then the brigade, a magnet for Israel’s conscription-age youth. The ethos was being always ready for an immediate retaliation, spoiling for a fight, mission first, casualties a regretable price but no reason to avoid or abort an operation.

Gantz (1959) and Kochavi (1964) were not even born during the heyday of the paratroopers. Their determination to join the 35th and aspire to its top, more than a generation later, speaks to its aura and legacy, as does the fact that the Halevis, Halivas and Barams keep coming up through the pipeline.

The Israeli society, however, changed significantly since Sharon and his company commanders and platoon leaders were almost nightly implementing IDF chief Moshe Dayan’s vision of a gung-ho, combat happy, tip of the spear military. The IDF has vastly exceeded expectations twice, in 1956 and 1967. It thus changed its own standard, much like a company listed on the stock exchange is judged by analysts, and disappointed with even performances, at best. Israel, used to week-long campaigns ending with unambiguous victories, could hardly adapt to drawn-out wars of attrition and mounting casaulties with no clear gains to show for them. Historically, military performances contributed to later peace agreements, notably the first and most important one, with Egypt, but the time lag between war and peace was too long to sweeten the bitter pill.

The most recent example, in 2014, was Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, when Gantz was Chief of General Staff and Kochavi – Director of Military Intelligence, an important position but not in the chain of command. Israelis adked themselves after 51 days of exchanges with Hamas and dozens of casualties, to what avail. The answer, as of late 2020, is the relative quiet of the last six years, but of course this could not be confidently predicted at the time, and as for deeper questions regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, they should be addressed elsewhere, to the political echelon.

So Kochavi’s mission as IDF chief, serving under his third Minister (Bibi-Bennet-Benny), is to sharpen the sword and wait for instruction to employ it, along with the shield which is always there, protecting civilians, infrastructure facilities and military assets.

This week the IDF has been holding a five-day, multi-dimensional (Cyber and electronic spectrum included), two-front (Lebanon and Syria, or Lebanon and Gaza) exercise involving troops, formations and headquarters from throughout the Army, Air Force, Intelligence, Communications and other branches. Kochavi named it “Lethal Arrow”. On military maps, the arrow shows the intended move on the ground towards the enemy’s objectives. Choosing this term signals Kochavi’s insistence that his Army, and not only Air Force and various stand-off units, be they Naval or artillery, take part in the fight and bring it home to Hezbollah and Hamas. The 35th, metaphorically and literally, and not only the F-35.

As for the lethal half of the name, it has to do with another of Kochavi’s tenets. He does not believe in war on the installment plan; his is the cash and carry school. In a Marathon the runner admirably gets there, only to collapse and die.

“Lethal” is short for a powerful blow striking the enemy’s forces – not just paralyzing them and causing their leaders to beg for a ceasefire, but actually destroying their units, killing hundreds and perhaps thousands of combatants in the process. A body count is not the motive, and would not be a measure of success, but should hover over the councils of war headed by Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah and Hamas’ Yahia Sinwar. Some 50-60 percent of enemy units should be obliterated, Kochavi told assembled paratroopers during a summer event. In a 1000-man regiment, the human toll will be enormous.

Lethality is a three-pronged sword. Civilians could be inadvertently hit, even when the IDF would go out of its way to avoid collateral damage and focus on military targets (but is warning in no uncertain terms that whoever is hosting a rocket to enrich his pocket may suffer the consequences). More importantly, there will be Israeli casualties, uniformed as well as civilian. It is therefore incumbent on the leaders – political and military – and forces to decide and execute fastest and end up with leastest number of dead and wounded Israelis.

On the eve of the Six-Day War, when the assumption was that only Egypt was to fight, in a limited campaign at that, Deputy Chief of Staff Haim Bar-Lev prophetically said, “we will beat them quickly, powerfully and in an elegant fashion”, a veiled hint at the hope that the Air Force will mount a successful first strike clearing the skies over Sinai for armored and mechanized divisions.

Kochavi slightly updated the Bar-Lev triangle. He aims at a fast, powerful and lethal victory. When Bar-Lev spoke, his main target audience was a demoralized Israeli civilian population, fearful of an overwhelming Arab onslaught and badly in need of a confident voice reassuring it that the outcome will be totally different. Israeli civilians are once again a key audience, told in essence to bear with barrages of missiles and rockets for the few days – five rather than fifty – needed for the mission to be accomplished. But Kochavi, always keen on aiming at several levels at once, as in multi-front and multi-dimensional, has three additional audiences for his fast-powerful-lethal, ground maneuver along with air strikes narrative.

One of these audiences is enemy leadership, in Beirut and Gaza, Damascus and Tehran. They are to be convinced that the IDF is seriously going about its business, trains for war and will prevail upon its political masters to unleash it to the fullest extent called in operational plans, rather than half-heartedly.

Another audience is the Israeli government, whatever its make-up and whoever happens to serve as Prime Minister, Defense Minister, Finance Ministers and other members of the Inner Ministerial Defense Committee, or cabinet. They should be intimately acquainted with planning, force build-up and the translation into Shekels, as well as the dilemmas which would probably present themselves at wartime, though of course decisions could only be taken at the time and according to the actual circumstances. This is the kill-and-bill relationship of Defense and Finance.

Finally, or perhaps first of all, Lt. Gen. Kochavi tries to impress the full meaning of his faster-better-cheaper doctrine on the teenagers and 20-somethings of this generation of Israelis who will bear the brunt of the fighting. Those who wish to follow, at least for a while, in the the sole-marks left by the paratroop boots of Sharon, Gantz and Kochavi, among many fine officers and men.

A mindset is also important. Kochavi wishes to kick the Defense forces out of its defensive mode. Defensive Shield (in which Kochavi at the head of the 35th was actually on the attack), Protective Edge – these are reflections of a risk-averse military organization. A defensive national strategy, an offensive operational plan. And whether pre-emptive or following major provocations, an appropriate name for a campaign conducted under the Kochavi doctrine would be Pro-active Edge.