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More than half a year after October 7, the Iron Swords War is still going on. Before after-action investigations have been completed, experts have already begun to draw conclusions about key strategic aspects of the war. One central aspect concerns the future force build-up of the ground forces. Should the number of divisions and brigades be increased? What level of readiness and competence must they have? How does the concept of territorial defense fit into the army? What is the right balance between investment in advanced technologies and the size of combat forces available at any given time?


In a recent article, Prof. Azar Gat warns against drawing incorrect conclusions from the October 2023 failure. He notes that “Since Hamas’s attack and the outbreak of the war in the Gaza Strip, the public discourse has been impressed by the view … that the IDF is too small given the threats; that reliance on technology has led to dangerous neglect and reduction of the ground forces; that the air force is disproportionately funded at the expense of the ground forces; and that there is a need to increase the defense budget significantly and permanently, beyond covering the expenses of the war.” In his view, “These claims are misleading and even damaging, both militarily and economically.”  Gat also claims that the forces that were in the Gaza Strip sector on the morning of October 7, which included about 400 fighters and 12 Merkava 4 tanks, could have, had they been in position, thwarted the Hamas attack. Combat helicopters and helicopters on standby, combined with the forces of the standby units, would have completed the defeat of Hamas, according to Gat.

Gat’s bottom line claim is that there is no need to increase the scope of the maneuvering forces. It is necessary, he says, to invest more in resurrecting the territorial defense organization and continue building the existing force, the main elements of which are investments in technology that are the key to the IDF’s advantage on the battlefield and to the current achievements.

While we take issue with his overall conclusion, Gat is right in two key matters. First, territorial defense forces must be rebuilt so they can provide an immediate response to an all-out attack or targeted raid on a civilian settlement until the arrival of military forces. Many plausible scenarios, including a ground attack on several fronts or several sectors on the same front by many invading forces, would keep the military forces too busy to rapidly reinforce every civilian settlement in the areas being attacked even if the army is ready, and this is even more true if the enemy achieves surprise. Properly equipped and trained forces organized on a local basis in each settlement would be able to provide a reasonable response to a wide range of scenarios of this type until the army is able to provide forces to support them.

Secondly, Gat is absolutely right that a proper balance must be maintained between defense spending and the state’s ability to continue to maintain a growing and developing economy, for both civilian and military reasons. Maintaining a large well-equipped and well-trained army requires a well-balanced and strong economy. An overstretching of resources to defense could lead to an economic collapse. One of the lessons learned by the IDF and the Israeli governments from the Yom Kippur War was that if the regular army had been larger, the enemy’s initial achievements would have been radically diminished. Furthermore, Israel’s ability to conduct a protracted war required an increase in reserve forces and larger stocks of ammunition, spare parts and other essential commodities. However, the extent of the increase in Israel’s military, which was 2-2x the 1973 figures, was too large to be financed by the Israeli economy. This was one of the reasons for the collapse of the Israeli economy in the first half of the 1980s.

Our dispute with Gat is about the optimal balance point. Gat claims that the current war proves that the size of the IDF’s ground force is sufficient, and that there is therefore no need to increase it. We believe, to the contrary, that the war proved and continues to prove that the size of the existing force is insufficient. Had it been larger, we would be in a better operational situation today, which would also have had a positive effect on Israel’s political situation.

Even discounting the effect of the surprise on the outcome of October 7, 400 soldiers and 12 tanks are not sufficient to hold a front that is about 60 kilometers wide. So the question arises: Why was this the size of the force that was left on that front? The answer is that over the past two years, many forces have been diverted to fight in Judea and Samaria (Operation Breakwater) due to a sharp jump in the frequency of attacks there and the need for a significant increase in forces to address the increase and reduce it.[1]

We further ask: How many soldiers, tanks and other military equipment were deployed on the other borders of the State of Israel on October 7? Was the situation on the Lebanese border better than on the Gaza border? The answer is no. There too, the size of the force deployed across the front was tiny compared to what was required. That being the case, what would have happened if, on that day, not only Hamas had attacked Israel but Hezbollah as well? And what about the Golan Heights? After all, Hezbollah does not stand alone. Iran and its other proxies stand behind it.

Part of the solution is the regular recruitment of more reserve units, but this will not suffice – due, among other things, to cuts in reserve units that have concentrated reserve days among a relatively small group of people.

Responding to the events of October 7 as they occurred, or as they could have occurred in a much more severe manner (i.e., on several fronts at the same time), is not the end of the discussion. After mobilizing all possible ground forces of the IDF, Israel was facing war on only two fronts, and it immediately became clear that it lacked ground forces. As long as the threat of a major Hezbollah offensive remained relevant, it was not clear whether the fighting in the north would remain at the level of low-intensity attrition or escalate to high-intensity fighting. The IDF was thus unable to concentrate enough forces to properly attack Gaza. Instead of attacking the Gaza Strip simultaneously in all, or at least most, of its sectors, the IDF was forced to carry out a sequential attack, an act that took a lot of time and had negative strategic and political ramifications.

Today, after more than six months of fighting against an enemy substantially weaker than the IDF, the IDF’s achievements are good, but not enough. The task of destroying Hamas and the organizations that help it remains uncompleted. Meanwhile, most of the reservists had to be discharged to ease the pressure on both their personal livelihoods and the national economy, so the size of the active fighting force has been greatly reduced. A larger ground force on October 7 would have made it possible to ensure a solid front against Hezbollah, including the possibility of a simultaneous all-out multi-sector attack across the entire Gaza Strip.

There are of course other considerations that prevented Israel from attacking the entire Gaza Strip at once (among them the need to leave quiet areas into which the population could be moved), and there are further reasons why the war was prolonged and taken from high-intensity warfare to the low-intensity warfare that is taking place now. However, the lack of sufficient ground forces was the main inhibiting factor. Had the IDF begun the war with more ground forces, the scale of the achievement by the time it became necessary to release the reserve forces, after about four months of mobilization, would have been greater and would have reduced the time needed to conduct the low-intensity combat phase in which we are now engaged. Furthermore, the first offensive phase could have been conducted with larger forces that could have operated in several sectors at the same time. Had more units been available, the IDF could have sequenced their mobilization in turns in order to maintain a higher intensity of action over a longer period of time while conducting the multi-sector offensive.

The offensive fighting in Gaza has drawn the bulk of the IDF’s effort. Meanwhile, approximately 100,000 Israeli citizens cannot return to their homes on the Lebanese border, and no one is able to commit to a date for dealing with this problem. Again, there are several reasons for this, but the most influential is the lack of sufficient forces. The IDF was unable to simultaneously conduct major ground offensives in both Gaza and Lebanon. Although the IDF’s achievements in the ongoing war of attrition on the Lebanese front have been good, they are far from sufficient to achieve Israel’s political goal: the removal of Hezbollah forces from the border to allow our citizens to return home.

Consider the lessons of the Yom Kippur War. After that war, the IDF increased its standing forces to deal with the threat of another multi-front surprise, but it also increased its reserve forces to enable victory to be achieved faster. Over the past few decades, the IDF has drastically reduced both its standing and reserve forces (about 170,000 soldiers were dismissed from the reserves due to a decision by IDF leadership that they were no longer required). The current war has demonstrated that this reduction of the reserve forces was a mistake in every possible respect. Not only were they reduced numerically, but most of those not cancelled had their training budgets drastically reduced. It is no coincidence that it took almost three weeks of retraining before the IDF was able to go on the attack in the current war. In the Yom Kippur War, reserve forces were fighting in large numbers within a single day on the Syrian front and within two and a half days on the Egyptian front.

The IDF has always depended on the reserve forces to complete its combat power on the battlefield – in fact, the reserves were considered the main force. However, the mobilization of reserves dictates short wars. Israel is also committed to short wars because of the intense political pressure it is invariably under to stop fighting before it has reached the achievements required to guarantee its security.

This is not a new situation. But the need for short wars returns us to the issue of the size of the force, and this war created a chain reaction: the inability to attack the whole Gaza Strip simultaneously led to the prolongation of the fighting, which led in turn to the release of reserves before the mission was completed. The continuation of the war also led to the loss of patience of countries that had supported Israel, which ratcheted up the pressure on Israel and led to the partial stagnation that now prevails in Gaza.

The fact is that after over six months of war, despite all the operational achievements of the IDF, politically and strategically the State of Israel is still in the basic state of defeat it suffered on October 7. Israelis remain expelled from their homes with no possibility of defining a clear time limit on their status as internal refugees, and this is because the full sovereignty of the State of Israel has not yet been restored to all its territories.

The military technology used by IDF forces, for all its sophistication, cannot change this strategic reality. Over the past two decades, some of the most advanced technologies in the world have been acquired by the IDF. Much has been said about the use of computer network warfare technologies, precision weaponry and remotely operated means to replace old and supposedly obsolete means that are no longer needed. This concept failed in the war in Ukraine, and it failed once again in the war in Gaza.

The most efficient and useful tools turned out to be the “unnecessary” ones that had been reduced in number and were not sufficiently available for the forces – tanks, bulldozers, mortars, etc. This does not mean the new technologies have no value; they add additional performance, but do not obviate the need for the old means. In the war in Ukraine, the leading powers in the field of cyber warfare did not achieve a single achievement of strategic significance. Also, despite the use of many varieties of precision weaponry and remotely operated aircraft, battles are decided by “outdated” statistical artillery and mass. If the IDF had had two or three additional divisions available, even equipped with less advanced technology, Israel’s strategic situation would have improved considerably.

Advanced technology is important, but the question is which technology and at what level of investment and equipment. Most of us have phones and computers with many tools and options we don’t use or need, but we pay a lot for the latest models anyway. The IDF has spent huge amounts on advanced technologies whose overall contribution to the results on the battlefield is less than their alternative cost. Interception systems for the defense of the home front are a necessary technology; systems such as the “Trophy” (which has saved hundreds of fighters) are necessary; but many other technologies, while scientifically amazing, cost more than they are worth.

For example, a basic Merkava 4 costs 150% more than a Merkava 3. An advanced Merkava 4 costs even more. But some of the additions and upgrades it contains do not provide sufficient tactical value to justify the additional cost. The lack of sufficient tanks was due not only to the perception that they are unnecessary but also to their increasingly high price. Among other things, the steep price led to a reduction in training in a way that diminished the competence of commanders and crews. Cheaper tanks in greater quantity, with advanced technology limited to specific tactically important capabilities rather than the best that can be created whatever the cost, would have enabled maintaining larger and better-trained tank forces – forces that were lacking during this war.

Another example is drones. The cost of professional military drones is much higher than that of commercial civilian drones. Military UAVs have important capabilities that civilian models do not, and a certain number of them is required – but, as was proven in the war in Ukraine and again in athe current war in Gaza, cheap civilian UAVs and drones of all kinds are able to provide most of the required capabilities at a negligible cost. It is possible to distribute them widely in the army, not only to a small number of specialist units, and thus better exploit their unique tactical contribution.

In conclusion, the IDF needs more ground forces than it currently has at its disposal. It is important not to exaggerate and increase forces to dimensions the State of Israel cannot sustain without intolerable financial cost. Technology is an important component of war-fighting too – but again, it is important not to exaggerate. Operational experience, not only from the current war but also from Israel’s previous wars and the wars of others, shows that not every technological innovation is beneficial. Sometimes their costs cause more damage than the added capability they provide because acquiring them reduces the ability to acquire other no-less necessary capabilities.

In our opinion, considering the existing and emerging threats surrounding the State of Israel, the IDF needs at least two more armored/mechanized divisions, and preferably three. It is desirable for Israel to have technological superiority over its enemies, but the benefit of this superiority is not equal in every field. There are areas in which it would be advantageous for the IDF to equip with the most modern technology available, provided it is able to purchase a reasonable amount – a “critical mass” – and still have a budget that enables the training of operators and the purchase of quantities of older tools. Inadequate skill levels due to a sharp cut in the depth and quality of training over many years led to Israel’s paying a price in casualties and insufficient performance, despite the very advanced technologies the forces had at their disposal.

In most cases, an improved technology that is “good enough” in large quantities is many times better than an excellent technology, even the most advanced that exists, but in a tiny quantity. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule that must be identified and invested in.

One area where a particularly large shortage was discovered is ammunition. The ammunition shortage is not unique to Israel. Russia and Ukraine have also discovered that they do not have either enough stocks or sufficient capacity to produce new ammunition, and this shortage has severely limited their ability to conduct operations. The NATO countries are behind Ukraine, but all of them put together are unable to meet the needs of the Ukrainians. Russia’s situation is a little better, and this gap is greatly affecting the results of the fighting. Although there is a huge effort by many countries to increase production, there are also shortages in raw materials, production machines and skilled workers, slowing down the industrial build-up to increase production. To this must be added fear of an escalation of conflict in East Asia over the issue of Taiwan or other possible flashpoints, which, if it occurs, will create an even greater shortage. Therefore, Israel should do as much as it can to increase its independent production capacities and accumulate stocks much bigger than the ones with which it started the current war.

[1] According to data from the General Security Service, during the years 2016 to 2020, there was a gradual decrease in the number of attacks each year, from approximately 1,535 in 2016 to approximately 1,320 in 2020. In 2021, the number of attacks increased to about 2,135; in 2022, to about 2,615; and in 2023 (before October 7) to about 2,370.

{Reposted from BESA}

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