OPINIONS

Fri 23 Feb 2024 9:46 am - Jerusalem Time

How Israel Fights And Why Military Prowess Doesn’t Guarantee Strategic Success

By Shashank Joshi

On a hot, dry afternoon, a wave of aircraft surges into the sky. They are hunting the enemy’s surface-to-air missile batteries. The SAM batteries scoot around every ten minutes—aerial surveillance photos taken earlier in the day are useless. But the attackers have a solution. They send in decoy drones, simulating the radar cross section of jets, prompting the SAM operators to turn on their radars. As they light up, another set of drones beams back real-time video footage. The video is sent to a cutting-edge command-and-control computer that knows which attacking plane—100 are airborne at the peak of the battle—is where and armed with what. This orchestra of air power, conducted by an algorithm, smashes the SAMs.

The scene is not from the pages of military science fiction, nor is it from the war in Ukraine. Instead, this lopsided battle, known as Operation Mole Cricket 19, took place between Israel and Syria more than 40 years ago, in the early days of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. For Edward Luttwak and Eitan Shamir, the authors of The Art of Military Innovation, the battle exemplifies the sort of military inventiveness at which Israel excels.

Luttwak is an eccentric 81-year-old strategist who consults for governments and has written books on the grand strategy of the Roman Empire, an irreverent guide to launching a coup, and several tomes on warfare. This most recent book’s acknowledgments nod to his picaresque career: he thanks various Israeli generals, one of whom helped him wander the Sinai front in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, another who let him tag along in the invasion of Lebanon, and a third whom he cryptically describes as having invited him “to participate in the design of a special operations unit.” Shamir runs the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank in Israel.

It is awkward timing for a book extolling Israeli military prowess. On October 7, Israel’s armed forces were caught by surprise, suffering a terrorist attack that resulted in the bloodiest day for Israel since its independence in 1948 and the bloodiest for Jews anywhere since the Holocaust. In an assault led by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, around 1,200 people were killed, including 332 Israeli soldiers, and some 240 were taken hostage, including an estimated 18 soldiers. The resulting war has had mixed results for Israel. Hamas has been weakened but not destroyed. The group has enjoyed a surge of popularity among Palestinians in the West Bank, and much of Gaza lies in ruins.

Yet despite its failures on October 7, Israel’s military has punched above its weight since its founding. Luttwak and Shamir chalk up the success of the Israel Defense Forces to its ability to innovate, explained not only by operating in an environment of constant peril but also by its relaxed culture and streamlined structure. The authors give too much credence to innovation and technology, however, and understate three aspects of war. One is the interplay between technology and tactics: the IDF’s secret weapon has been its ability to adapt swiftly on the battlefield when crisis strikes. The second is that Israel’s apparent superiority in weaponry and intelligence has sometimes bred complacency about the intentions and capacity of its adversaries—a complacency that was exposed, brutally, on October 7. A third, and one admittedly beyond the purview of this book, is that tactical and operational innovation—designing a superb tank, building a new missile-defense system at breakneck speed, or discovering novel ways to use these weapons—alone cannot win a war.


LEAN, MEAN, FIGHTING MACHINE

Luttwak and Shamir’s basic proposition is simple. In 1962, Israel had a largely agricultural economy, virtually no electrical or mechanical industry, and a population less than half that of Sicily. By 1973, it had developed the world’s first sea-skimming missile and used it to sink 19 Egyptian and Syrian vessels. Less than a decade later came the computerized aerial blitzkrieg over Lebanon. These were not one-offs. Israel developed world-class tanks, pioneering tank-protection methods, and air defense systems that are the envy of the world. Israel has sold arms to China, India, and the United States, and officers from many of the world’s militaries flock to Israeli training centers.

The secret of this success, according to Luttwak and Shamir’s engaging and eclectic book, begins with the IDF’s egalitarianism. One of the first things that foreign military officers notice about the IDF is its laid-back culture. Most officers, other than defense attachés abroad, wear field dress rather than gold-braided uniforms. Soldiers address officers by their first names, and saluting is unusual. Women fill roles such as combat instructor that are normally performed in other armies by what the authors call “ultramasculine drill sergeant types.” The reliance on reservists also means that know-how can move from the civilian world into the military more easily than in other countries.

Such a relaxed atmosphere makes it easier for good ideas to flow up. Luttwak and Shamir’s book is full of compelling details, one of which emerges from their account of Israel’s stunning eve-of-war air offensive against Egypt in 1967. In the space of around four hours, the Israeli air force destroyed the bulk of the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian air forces on the ground—some 450 planes in all—paving the way for Israel’s ground forces to win a sweeping victory in less than a week of fighting. The conventional wisdom was that attacking jets should swoop at dawn or dusk, when the approaching planes would be less visible to observers on the ground. A 19-year-old Israeli corporal familiar with the routines of Egyptian pilots argued that the attack should instead take place at 8 AM, when the pilots took their breakfast. His commanders listened, and the attack was a spectacular success.

Another reason that Israel’s military excels at innovation is the relative youth of its members. Israel’s full-time army is small and promotes personnel quickly. Luttwak and Shamir note that Israeli officers tend to be a decade younger than their American or European counterparts. The United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force, which has fewer fighter jets than Israel, is led by a four-star general with several three-stars and more than a dozen two-stars under him. By contrast, Israel’s air force is commanded by a two-star major general, served by a far slimmer staff that has no choice but to devolve authority downward.

The result of this compressed hierarchy is that big decisions are made by officers in their 30s who are “much less shaped by the past and much more open to the future,” according to the authors. In combat, junior commanders can take the initiative without meddling from phalanxes of staff officers at higher levels. During the IDF’s first large-scale offensive, in 1948, the IDF general staff ordered Yigal Allon, the frontline commander, to drive out Egyptian forces; the instructions they gave him fit on a single page.

The structure and history of Israel’s military have also contributed to its success. Israel’s armed forces emerged in 1948 from the two major Jewish militias that had fought the British and the Arabs. Instead of re-creating the model of Western militaries, with separate—and feuding—armies, navies, and air forces, the fledgling IDF opted for a single service with one commander. One benefit was that funds for research and development were not diluted among separate branches that, as in the United States, might otherwise have designed and built the same weapons in parallel.

The absence of a standalone air force—Israel instead had a lesser “air command,” now an “air and space arm,” subordinate to the general staff—was particularly important. In other countries, pilots have resisted the notion that they ought to be removed from cockpits in favor of remotely piloted or uncrewed aircraft, which allow for smaller airframes, longer flights, and riskier missions. Israel, then a poor country of a few million people, pioneered the use of drones in the 1970s. Eighteen years later, during the first Gulf War, a conflict in which technology had a starring role, the United States had no drones, the authors point out, other than those that the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps imported from Israel.


MOVE FAST AND WIN WARS

These cultural factors play out in a context of constant threat. Since its establishment, Israel has fought five large conventional wars, including the present one in Gaza, and many smaller campaigns between them. The specter of war accelerates innovation. Consider the case of the Iron Dome missile defense system. During the October 7 attack and in the months since, Hamas has launched more than 10,000 rockets into Israeli territory. But only a handful of people have died in those strikes, thanks in large part to Iron Dome, which tracks incoming rockets, works out where they will land, and intercepts those that are headed for built-up areas or other valuable targets.

The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah compelled Israel to develop this system after the militants fired 4,000 rockets at Israel in 2006. “As happened repeatedly and on all sides during the second world war,” write Luttwak and Shamir, “groups of engineers and scientists personally committed to an urgent national mission that might avert the deaths of loved ones achieved a critical mass of dynamic creativity otherwise not only unattainable but unimaginable.” Most missile projects take 15 to 20 years to reach fruition, so developing such a sophisticated system in such a short time—Israel managed to create Iron Dome in four years, from 2007 to 2011, albeit with significant financial help from the U.S. government—was “unheard of,” they write, given that the system’s radar, software, and interceptor missiles were all entirely new.

Iron Dome also illustrates how the line between bottom-up initiative and outright insubordination is often blurred. Danny Gold, the head of an IDF weapons agency in the early years of the twenty-first century, pushed ahead with the design and manufacture of the system despite instructions not to, which were rooted in intense skepticism in the IDF about whether it would be economical. According to Luttwak and Shamir, Israel’s state auditor saw it as a case of “sustained, piratical insubordination, budgetary misappropriation, and administrative irregularity on the largest scale.” But after Iron Dome was completed, Gold was promoted and honored by the state. Another case in point: in the 1973 war, an IDF commander named Ariel Sharon disobeyed orders by leading his troops across the Suez Canal and into Egyptian territory. But when his operation was later deemed to be a success, he was forgiven and celebrated—and eventually became prime minister.

Persistent danger has also encouraged Israel to improvise. In the 1940s, Jewish militias (and later the IDF) were starved of weapons from abroad. But they managed to get their hands on 3,000 ten-ton U.S. “half-tracks”—lightly armored vehicles with wheels at the front and tank-like tracks at the back. Some carried troops. Others had Czechoslovakian guns bolted on. The United States retired its half-tracks as soon as it could, but Israel was still using them in Lebanon in the 1980s. The IDF similarly recycled Soviet tanks it captured in its wars against its Arab neighbors, raising an entire division out of such second-hand kit, allowing it to keep up with far larger Arab armies. Bigger, better-resourced, and more complacent militaries would not have bothered.


SENSE, NOT SENSORS

Luttwak and Shamir believe that technological innovation is the key to military success. Big “macroinnovations,” as they call them, “not merely new and improved versions of what already existed, but weapons or techniques that did not exist at all until then,” such as the digitized drone-enabled assault in 1982, can be revolutionary because they catch an enemy by surprise before it has time to prepare a response—what the authors refer to as a “countermeasure holiday.”

But their own argument shows that what matters is not the invention of new gadgets but how they are combined and used. The United States had pilotless aircraft before Israel did, long before the attack on Syrian SAMs, but it was Israel that turned U.S. target-practice drones into revolutionary decoys in 1973. A similar story took place ahead of World War II. The United Kingdom had tanks first, but it was Germany that exploited them to the fullest. And Germany’s blitzkrieg against France in May 1940 was devastating not because tanks, aircraft, and artillery were novel weapons but because they had been stitched together in what would come to be called “combined arms” tactics.

The precise relationship between technology and warfare lies at the heart of many of the most important debates in military science over the past 50 years. In the 1990s, American thinkers argued that a “revolution in military affairs” was underway, in which new sensors, precision-guided weapons, and computer networks to connect the two would enable a new sort of blitzkrieg, one demonstrated by the U.S. victory over Iraq in 1991.

What matters is not the invention of new gadgets but how they are combined and used.

But some scholars have questioned the primacy of technology in such military outcomes. In a seminal book, Military Power, the political scientist Stephen Biddle argues that what really mattered was tactics. Well-drilled armies built around small, cohesive units capable of using the terrain for cover and concealment could still survive in the face of modern weaponry. Biddle points to the example of al Qaeda’s ability to evade massive U.S. bombardment in Afghanistan’s eastern Shah-i-Kot Valley and Arma mountains in March 2002. One dug-in al Qaeda command post was ringed by five craters caused by large U.S. precision-guided bombs. Its garrison survived and had to be cleared out by infantry.

The war in Ukraine has given a twist to that debate. The technologies of the revolution in military affairs have, in one sense, fulfilled their promise. Sensors are better than ever and have proliferated widely—Ukraine has access to radar satellites, capable of spotting Russian tanks in woodland, that most large military powers could only have dreamed of 25 years ago. Artificial intelligence is fusing data such as electronic emissions detected by satellites and mobile phone signals to find high-value targets, including Russian generals and Hamas leaders.

Yet in Ukraine, at least, the result has not been a fluid war of shock and awe. The frontlines seem viscous. Ukraine’s counteroffensive last year resulted in paltry territorial gains. In October 2023, Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s top general, gave his own diagnosis for this state of affairs. “Just like in the First World War, we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate,” he said. “We see everything the enemy is doing and they see everything we are doing. In order for us to break this deadlock we need something new, like . . . gunpowder.”

The problem is that this is a dangerously deterministic way of looking at technology. Zaluzhny was right in suggesting that new—perhaps hitherto undiscovered—means of clearing mines, jamming drones, or locating Russian artillery batteries would smooth the path out of the stalemate. But as Biddle has pointed out in these pages, the same technological environment can produce dramatically different outcomes. In World War I, Germany’s initial invasion of Belgium and France made huge progress despite the existence of the same machine guns and artillery that later produced the Battle of the Somme in 1916, in which the Allies advanced a mere seven miles at the cost of more than one million casualties on all sides. Later, in its spring offensive of 1918, Germany took 4,000 square miles of ground without using tanks.


RISK AND RETURNS

Luttwak and Shamir argue that the culture of the IDF has encouraged bold and daring tactics, often involving tremendous risks. That is partly because smaller armies facing larger foes must rely on guile over brawn. It is also to do with which skills are rewarded. “In the IDF the commando element . . . is not peripheral,” they write, “because many senior officers are promoted from the commando units.” Israel’s prime minister and defense minister are former special forces officers. The IDF’s chief of staff, as well as his predecessor, were both paratroopers.

Israel’s early leaders, experimenting with armored warfare, opted to send troops to West Germany’s military schools—not without some reluctance—rather than British ones because they believed they had more to learn from a military that had managed dynamic maneuvers in the deserts of North Africa during World War II, an environment similar to the Negev desert, as opposed to a military that, in the IDF’s estimation, had relied on firepower, attrition, and superior numbers.

Many of Israel’s greatest military triumphs have indeed come from audacious tactics such as the aerial bolt from the blue in 1967 and Sharon’s dash across the canal six years later. But the same attributes that produced such successes have also contributed to Israeli vulnerabilities. In October 1973, Israel convinced itself that Egypt would not launch an attack. That was, in large part, a political misjudgment, but one rooted in deeper pathologies. Israeli military intelligence, AMAN, failed to predict not just the war but also Egypt’s innovative tactics and the training that had occurred since its defeat in 1967. “A common factor behind all these failings,” writes the journalist Abraham Rabinovich, in his book on the war, “was the contempt for Arab arms born of that earlier war, a contempt that spawned indolent thinking.”

The question, one left unaddressed by Luttwak and Shamir, is whether technology reinforced that complacency. In 1973, AMAN experts believed they would be able to provide a warning four to six days before the beginning of war, thanks to battery-powered signals-intelligence devices planted in the sand outside Cairo and in the hills west of Suez City. But these sensors were switched on too late and did not alert Israeli officials to the coming assault.

Luttwak and Shamir argue that the debacle of 1973 reinforced the IDF’s culture of egalitarianism. In Unit 8200, Israel’s equivalent of the U.S. National Security Agency, even rookies are free to contact senior officers regardless of the chain of command. AMAN established a “devil’s advocate” department that reports directly to the head of military intelligence. Yet there is now copious evidence that such dissenting channels failed in the months before October 7, when Israeli sentries and junior intelligence officers picked up many signs of an impending Hamas attack, such as exercises to blow up the border fence and enter kibbutzim, only for their warnings to be dismissed as “imaginary scenarios.”

It is too early to say conclusively why senior officers were so resistant to evidence for a likely attack. Intelligence failures are complex, but many of the factors at work in the lead-up to October 7 likely echo those that afflicted the IDF in 1973: a rigid political conception of what the enemy would or would not do, a systematic underestimation of the enemy’s competence to conduct a military raid deep into Israel, and a conviction that high-tech means of surveillance and defense, such as vibration sensors and border cameras strung along the perimeter with Gaza, would be adequate.

Even world-beating innovation and adaptation will get an army only so far.

Indeed, focusing on Israel’s successes can distract from what really matters: the response to failures. Israel’s armor corps was shocked in 1973 by the onslaught it faced from new Soviet antitank weapons and Arab tanks. The IDF eventually realized that its tanks were vulnerable by themselves, so it placed mortars on them to fire at locations where antitank squads might be hiding and used smoke to obscure their own positions. Tank losses fell quickly. Israel’s success was not in having the best weapons or the boldest commanders—welcome as these are—but in swift adaptation under fire.

For all that, even world-beating innovation and adaptation will get an army only so far. Israel’s offensive in Gaza exemplifies many of the strengths that Luttwak and Shamir highlight. Israel has deployed cutting-edge drones, one of the world’s most advanced armored personnel carriers (the Eitan), and an artificial intelligence system (Gospel) capable of identifying at least 100 potential targets per day—all capabilities that would be envied by larger and better-resourced armies.

These technologies have doubtless helped the IDF advance deep into Gaza, kill over 9,000 Hamas fighters, and keep its own casualties down to fewer than three Israeli soldiers killed per day, a remarkably low tally by the standards of grueling urban warfare. But wars are fought for political reasons, and waging them well is not just about winning battles, which Israel has always done proficiently, but translating those victories into political outcomes, which it has not.

Innovation is not enough to root out and destroy an enemy that has spent almost two decades burrowing in and under dense urban areas. Nor does it help to persuade Israel’s Arab neighbors to underwrite the reconstruction of postwar Gaza and participate in its governance. Luttwak and Shamir rightly praise the IDF for “striving to surprise the enemy by novel schemes of action, inevitably by accepting major and sometimes extravagant risks.” If only Israel’s political leaders were willing to take the same bold leaps into the unknown.

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How Israel Fights And Why Military Prowess Doesn’t Guarantee Strategic Success

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