Analysis

The Israeli Army Has Ambitious Plans in Case of Next War. Now It Just Needs a Government

But even as he awaits proper budget, the army chief is already introducing significant changes

Israeli army tanks in the Golan Heights, January 4, 2020.
Gil Eliahu

On Tuesday, after two days of rocket fire in the country’s south came to an end, the Israeli army’s Golani Brigade conducted a military exercise in the Golan Heights as part of what’s being called a “northern scenario.” The brigade’s combat personnel deployed to stop a simulated surprise attack by Hezbollah and then stage a counterattack against an enemy presence around a village across the border in Lebanon (a Druze village in the Golan was used as a stand-in).

The Israel Defense Forces has been practicing this scenario for years, but it’s interesting to see what changes are being made as part of policy trends led by Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi. The army is more aware of the need to prepare for a commando assault by Hezbollah’s elite Radwan units, which have returned from the civil war in Syria to again establish themselves in southern Lebanon. The IDF is also concentrating more on efforts to quickly and effectively destroy the enemy’s capabilities and less with taking control of territory on the ground.

It is also expeditiously integrating new technologies in its combat units to upgrade the use of fire power at both the battalion and brigade level as well as increase the commanders’ capabilities and control over their subordinate forces.

All of these directions are sketched out in the details of Kochavi’s multiyear plan, which is now awaiting the March 2 election and the formation of a new government (if that is possible) in the hope that it will be propelled ahead. In an effort to market the plan, Kochavi presented it to President Reuven Rivlin, senior army officials and the press.

Israeli army chief Aviv Kochavi at an event honoring reservists, in Holon, February 24, 2020.
Ofer Vaknin

He was also convincing with the argument that he can implement it with military assistance from the United States and through the army’s internal reallocation of budgeted funds. But fully carrying out Kochavi’s vision will require huge additional defense funding, money that the Finance Ministry insists simply doesn’t exist. And despite the enthusiastic statement in support (from the defense minister) and reservations of sorts (from the prime minister), there has still been no real consideration of the plan by the security cabinet. Such a debate will have to wait until after the election, if it ever takes place.

In the interim, Kochavi is implementing other structural changes included in the plan. In the past two weeks, he announced a series of steps and appointments, notably splitting the planning directorate in two and the appointment of two new major generals. They will both come from the Israel Air Force and are thought to be future candidates for the position of IAF commander: Brig. Gen. Tal Kalman will be appointed head of the Strategy and Iran Directorate, while Brig. Gen. Tomer Bar will be responsible for the Force Design Directorate.

The choice of Kalman for the first directorate has raised some eyebrows. The need to focus on Iran strategy is clear, but since when has the name of an enemy country been mentioned in such a context? The Northern Command was never called the Syria Command, even in years when war in the Golan Heights was at the top of the agenda.

Another question relates to serial promotions of senior air force brass. There is no denying that the air force is an incubator for quality and that the entire army can benefit from its output. What is less clear is placing a pilot as the head of a directorate that will have to deal first and foremost with decisions such as renewing the army’s truck fleet.

The new general staff that Kochavi has been assembling will depend all the more so on paratroop officers (which is where Kochavi has his roots), special forces and the air force. The question is whether it won’t reinforce the senior command’s natural tendency to focus on the campaigns between the wars.

It’s clear that covert activity against the Iranians and their emissaries, far from the border, requires close and cautious leadership oversight on Kochavi’s part. But that’s also his comfort zone.

When it comes to the triad of intelligence, special forces and the air force, the skills are of the highest order in the army. But Kochavi knows that this is not where his real test will come from. Every morning that the army doesn’t get up focused on preparations for the most difficult challenge – a third Lebanon war, should it erupt – might turn out to be a day wasted in the future.