Fight Not the Last War

by Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaacov Amidror, BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 273

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Operation Protective Edge in Gaza against Hamas was, in many ways, an exceptional operation that will probably not repeat itself elsewhere. The IDF fought in a unique set of circumstances: an inferior enemy a stone’s throw from the border with the IDF using its full force, in some cases entirely unopposed. The IDF must be careful not to make too many operational changes based on the lessons of this operation, because the next wars will likely be fought under completely different terms.

Lately, a lot has been said in praise of the way the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) fought in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge. Indeed, great courage and extraordinary sacrifice were displayed during the operation. The commanders led from the front and displayed the kind of vigor that field commanders ought to possess. We have been promised that the IDF will investigate and draw conclusions from the outcomes of this operation, and that is precisely what should be done. No serious, professional institution can ever develop and progress without delving deep into its own actions – for better and worse.

However, it is advisable to be very careful with the process of drawing conclusions. The term “conclusions” in the military sense stems from the understanding that it is possible to improve from one battle to the next by learning from mistakes. But in order to actually improve in the future, great care must be taken, because each battle is slightly, or extremely, different than the one that preceded it. There is a high likelihood that a conclusion drawn from one event will not apply to the next.

Thus, for example, in the 1967 Six-Day War the enemy Arab air forces were crippled and our air force became available to assist ground forces in a way that was purposeful and effective. The “conclusion” drawn by the military was that there was no need for artillery on the ground because the ground forces could be effectively covered from the air. Six years later, during the Yom Kippur War, this strategy did not work. The conclusion was misleading because it was derived from a unique set of circumstances that would not occur again. The result was devastating: Ground forces went to battle without serious artillery cover. It is important to remember this as a warning against drawing mistaken conclusions from unique events, both in a strategic and tactical sense.

The most recent campaign in Gaza was, in many ways, an exceptional operation that will probably not repeat itself elsewhere. The fighting was against a small enemy, and it was waged entirely within the confines of a small, crowded space. The enemy felt diplomatically isolated and was not receiving any aid from anyone during the course of the fighting. Meanwhile, Israel unleashed the full power of its air force – the fourth largest air force in the world – on this narrow swathe of land, and marched (almost) all its ground forces (only) half a step inside, rubbing up against the enemy’s protective shell but never confronting its main forces.

True, it was impossible to surprise the enemy – they knew exactly where and when to lie in wait for our soldiers.. But ultimately, just to put things into the right perspective, the IDF never “maneuvered,” it simply forged ahead, a very short way, along the entire front.

Due to these specific circumstances, there was never a logistical problem because all the fighting was conducted within a 20 minute drive of an Israeli base. There was no difficulty in evacuating casualties beyond the point of friction because everything happened so close to the border. There was no issue of assistance because the troops were constantly within the range of the artillery units deployed in advance. The fact that the IDF waged battle just a miniscule distance from its own border and its permanent bases and infrastructure carried enormous significance, but it precludes the drawing of any significant “conclusions.”

The characteristics of the enemy the IDF faced in the latest round of fighting were also extremely unique. So even when selecting the terminology to describe it, one must take extreme care: It was not a war, but an operation. It was even a limited operation, despite being techno-tactically challenging and despite the fact that several command centers were involved.

In large part, the enemy was static, beyond the most basic tactical levels. They did not possess tanks, armed helicopters, serious artillery, air defenses or anti-tank capabilities, beyond a handful of missiles. No depth and no provisions. As far as the IDF is concerned, that is not a war, even when its soldiers are fighting a bitter and painful fight –and it was certainly bitter and painful on the individual level as well as on the platoon and possibly even the squad level. For the purpose of drawing conclusions, the army must avoid being influenced by the great difficulty and low-level tactical challenges (and there were enormous difficulties and great personal risk).

The truth is that in terms of scope of the enemy battalion, they didn’t really set a high bar for our troops. It is unlikely that the IDF would have been forced to flex too many muscles, mainly because the enemy operated in small groups, and in most cases there was no organized hierarchy that would allow a large-scale military chain of command.

The terrain was one of the biggest challenges in tactical terms – crowded built up areas equipped with well-built underground tunnels. These characteristics put our troops in extreme danger and created a chaos that hindered the tactical fighting and made it difficult for the IDF commanders to keep tabs on their troops. But let us keep things in proportion: Despite all these difficulties, it is no big feat for the army and the operational units to fight an enemy outnumbered 3:1, under heavy fire, for which the army has been training its soldiers for generations.

According to various interviews that appeared in the Israeli media, some of the strategy on how to confront the tunnel threat was developed in real time during the course of the fighting, because the true significance of the tunnels wasn’t entirely understood before the operation. That, for example, is a good place to draw conclusions on how to implement the significance of new threats developed between rounds of fighting, and how to improve the learning process during the course of the fighting.

There is no doubt that armies of foreign countries, especially democratic countries, will study the steps the IDF took to avoid civilian casualties in Gaza. We have plenty to teach the world in that regard, and that is something we should be proud of. No foreign army can hold itself to the IDF’s standards, and that is nothing to complain about. However, we are allowed to, and should, demand more of ourselves. Maybe other armies will be able to learn the techniques developed by the IDF to combat tunnels in residential spaces, but not much more than that. Otherwise, during this operation, the IDF didn’t really innovate in any important military field.

In conclusion, beyond the techno-tactical topics, it will be difficult to learn anything of true value for the future from such a unique set of circumstances: an inferior enemy a stone’s throw from the border with the IDF using its full force, in some cases entirely unopposed. The IDF deserves accolades for its performance, but it must be careful not to make too many changes based on the lessons of this operation.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaacov Amidror is the Greg and Anne Rosshandler Senior Fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and former national security advisor to the Prime Minister.

October 20, 2014 | 9 Comments »

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9 Comments / 9 Comments

  1. @ yamit82:

    “Israel left most of the tunnel complex in-tact or partially intact easily repaired. “

    “Are there any written agreements to not go in again to destroy them?”

    “I don’t know but the question is irrelevant, as Israel has the right of preemption in her own defense and that is a legal precept in international law which overrides any bilateral or multilateral agreements if they do exist.”

    The right of preemption for defense goes without saying. But that does not make my question irrelevant. I asked it with an eye to the likelihood of substantial domestic pressure to desist from a return to destroy tunnels (in the absence of an ongoing war or major action).

    If there are no existing agreements attached to the cease fire, that will give GOI a freer hand to send in IDF (or perhaps a special force of some sort) at its discretion, and on its own timetable.

  2. LtCol Howard Said:

    To deter to all attacks on Israel, Israel must immediately respond by destroying Gaza infrastructure at an increasing rate for each incoming missile. The 1st one that comes in , 2 buildings are destroyed. The 2nd one that comes in, 4 buildings are destroyed. The 3rd one that comes in 8 buildings are destroyed. When Hamas stops, then Israel knows and the world knows that Israel’s response has been “proportionate”.
    The only effective weapon in the Gaza war was thehuman shield… It worked and Israel spent a fortune on helping to make it work.

    Sounds rational on paper but too slow and gives too much time for our enemies to mobolize against us both on the ground and in International forums.

    Gaza should be cut in three sections by Heavy Armor. Blocking the inter-connectivity between sections cut by the armor. I would leave an opening in the South to Rafah on the Egyptian Gaza border as an escape portal for the populations to flee to.

    Once cut our special forces based on good Intel will search and destroy heads of Hamas and if necesary hit the tunnels from the ground one by one Mosque and school each one by one.

    Air cover and drones should be able to keep the enemies heads down. We knew where all the heads of Hamas were hiding in tunnels beneath the Shiva hospital. Once all of the main leadership political and military are taken out of the equation Gaza will fall like a house of cards.

    An operation like this would take less than a week if Israel is willing to sacrifice our soldiers and civilians to achieve a quick end to the Hamas threat. Homes and neighborhoods should be destroyed from the air and artillery only when there is stiff resistance.

    I am not on favor of giving the enemy more fodder for anti Israel PR than is necessary….War aim should be to eliminate the threat to Israel and that can be achieved with a lot less shock and awe photo ops.

    In short like a snake chop of the head first…

    Note: destroying too much infrastructure would mean that after math if Israel winds up in occupying Gaza we would have to replace destroyed infrastructure out of our own pockets. Not a good idea.

  3. @ dweller:

    I don’t know but the question is irrelevant, as Israel has the right of preemption in her own defense and that is a legal precept in international law which overrides any bilateral or multilateral agreements if they do exist.

  4. If Israel doesn’t win decisively, it loses. THE WINNER WILL BE DECIDED IN THE MINDS OF HAMAS, HEZBOLLAH, IRAN, ETC.
    To obtain deterrence the enemy must review the situation and say “never again” to themselves. Otherwise,Israel hasn’t defeated Hamas…..Israel needs a decisive victories to convey to the entire Middle East, including Hezbollah, ISIS and Iran, that you don’t mess
    This mind set and these pronouncements are a major reason why Israel appears impotent to the Moslem extremist community. Netanyahu would be well advised to get rid of these under cutters since they jeopardize Israel’s security.
    Shame on the defeatist leftists who do not learn from the Oslo failure from the Lebanon withdrawal failure, from the Gaza withdrawal failure, and from Israel’s reluctance and failure to decisively damage Hamas to the point where Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, etc. say “never again” and mean it.
    The IDF ground offensive meant that body bags were going back to Israel and that was just great with Hamas. When Israel began to assassinate Hamas leaders and take down the tall towers, Hamas realized that Israel has stopped playing games and they got serious too. Israel should have realized that they had a very limited time window to accomplish their objectives.
    Immediately they should have shown that they were at war. They should have cut off electricity, food and other “humanitarian” activities.
    To deter to all attacks on Israel, Israel must immediately respond by destroying Gaza infrastructure at an increasing rate for each incoming missile. The 1st one that comes in , 2 buildings are destroyed. The 2nd one that comes in, 4 buildings are destroyed. The 3rd one that comes in 8 buildings are destroyed. When Hamas stops, then Israel knows and the world knows that Israel’s response has been “proportionate”.
    The only effective weapon in the Gaza war was thehuman shield… It worked and Israel spent a fortune on helping to make it work.

  5. @ yamit82:

    “Israel left most of the tunnel complex in-tact or partially intact easily repaired. “

    Are there any written agreements to not go in again to destroy them?

  6. Agree. Netanyahu’s hands were tied, or he felt they were tied, by Obama. Only way to deal with the Hamas problem is to break with the US presidency. Congress, to some degree, will have Israel’s back. The presidency is more important.

  7. I used to have a lot of respect for Amidror before he left the Army and became a political hack,

    Facts:
    Israels military intelligence did not have an accurate handle on the Tunnel complex built under their noses with material largely supplied by or through Israel to Hamas.

    Failure big Time!!!! And conclusions need to be drawn!!!

    Fact The IDF and the IAF never stopped the rockets/ missiles fired into Israel by Hamas nor the short range mortars fired into our border settlements. It’s a safe deduction that the reduction in firings of longer range rockets into Israel was more a matter of dwindling finite stocks of Hamas than to the operations of the IAF. Failure!!!!! and conclusions need to be drawn!!!!

    Israel left most of the tunnel complex in-tact or partially intact easily repaired. Operational failure!!!! as well and lessons should be drawn!!!!

    The government put tens of thousands of our sons in danger by not fighting an aggressive fight and maintained them as easy targets in static positions. Stupidity!!!! and goes against all rational concepts of war.

    The Israeli government and the IDF allowed our civilian population to be place at risk for over a month without making a serious effort to end the threat using whatever force was necessary to achieving that end. Shameful abrogation of first principles national responsibility.

    Again Israel and the IDF were willing to sacrifice our sons and daughters and a million or more civilians to pacify foreign leaders and reduce pressure on our political leaders.

    Shameful: Lessons should be drawn by the people of Israel. If not it will happen again.

    What ever happened to the concept of sovereign borders???? Israel was attacked by air and ground yet violations of our national sovereignty a Casus Belli for full invasion of the enemies territory and by force eliminating that enemy using what ever force is required without any consideration to Obama or any one else.

    Obama holds up supplies??? Then we go low teck and burn em to hell with cheap Napalm. Many lessons to be drawn.

    What has never been reported but I can attest to the accuracy is that Hamas fired rockets at Dimona home to our primary Nuke reactor and facilities. Direct hit’s potentially could have caused for us a major disaster. That one act should have brought the full wrath and weight of the mighty IDF down on their head. Next time we might not be so lucky.

    Amidror is a BB adviser and apologist. Fuck him to hell.