Controversial, innovative general calls for new approach to war

Advocating for a fighting force based on technology, intelligence and commandos, Gal Hirsch says new divisions will require new tactics and a new set of rules

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Former IDF Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch (Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)
Former IDF Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch (Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

The deputy commander of the IDF’s Depth Corps, seeking to balance out the battlefield in the age of non-conventional warfare, called recently for new divisions, staffed by intelligence officers and Special Forces personnel, which would operate beyond the ordinary bounds of both expectation and the regular rules of war.

Referencing Nassim Taleb’s black swan theory — which depicts the drastic effects of unexpected events — Brig. Gen. (res) Gal Hirsch wrote in an essay in Israel Defense that, faced with an enemy that operates within civilian populations and shuns the rules of law, Israel should field “a lethal black swan of its own,” which would operate “solely in the fourth dimension, the conceptual dimension of uncertainty, illegality and disorder, far away from the expected and from the accepted conceptual pattern.”

Armies at the service of democratic nations, Hirsch wrote, are bound by pre-formulated modes of action, standardized weaponry and a rigid code. The new fighting force, he continued, “will operate between the lines. They operate away from the highway, not in line with what can be expected from a military force and not even within the framework.”

These actions, coupled with cyber operations, would necessitate a “legality [that] is new and current,” and “surprising” new rules to the game, which would negate the current and seemingly entrenched asymmetry between Israel’s military and its enemies’ fighting forces.

After an address this week at Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Center, Hirsch clarified that he did not mean that soldiers would be asked to operate in violation of the law. He likened their task to “Israel Police officers in the West Bank, who operate as if they were soldiers under fire.” He refused to say, practically, how that sort of shift would look for soldiers operating behind enemy lines.

Hirsch, a former commander of the Israel Air Force’s Special Forces unit, Shaldag (kingfisher), was the commander of the Galilee division during the Second Lebanon War. He came under intense scrutiny and criticism in the wake of the abduction of two Israeli soldiers on the eve of the war and was perceived by some as having led a new screen-based style of leadership, replete with incomprehensible orders.

Others, however, noted his stellar record with Shaldag and his role during Operation Defensive Shield, when he, as IDF Central Command’s chief operations officer, faced down criticism from the General Staff and crafted that mission’s overwhelmingly successful battle plan, essentially taking the entire West Bank in a matter of days and choking the flow of terror.

The view from the barrel of an IDF Special Forces soldier's weapon during a raid deep in Lebanon during the Second Lebanon War (Photo credit: IDF/ Flash 90)
The view from the barrel of an IDF Special Forces soldier’s weapon during a raid deep in Lebanon, in the Bekaa Valley, during the Second Lebanon War (Photo credit: IDF/ Flash 90)

Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, the chief of the General Staff, also a paratrooper-cum-commander of Shaldag, is a supporter of Hirsch’s. He fought for him to stay in the army after the war in 2006 — Hirsch wrote in his 2009 memoir that he felt betrayed by then-IDF commander Dan Halutz, who did not back up his field officers — and then appointed him in 2011 as deputy commander of the depth corps.

The depth in the title, at least in Hebrew, is often understood as synonymous with Iran. Hirsch, who heads an international security company called Defensive Shield and reportedly wishes to be incorporated fully back into the military, sees it as something far more extensive.

The traditional notion of a military based on heavy fighting machines maneuvering on land, water or in the sky, he wrote, viewed commando operations as “spices” added to the main dish or “a boutique capability” that had little to do with the fundamental defense role of the military. Today, he wrote, Israel is faced with fast, sophisticated and diverse enemies, who leave a very faint intelligence trail.

Facing this unique rival, he said at Bar-Ilan University, means Israel’s defensive forces must be “born again,” with small forces, once seen as peripheral, “now carrying the entire army on its back.”

Hirsch, whose intricately worded essay is written in a nearly post-modern style, asserted that in recent years the revolution in military affairs was perceived largely as a matter of technology. Today that is insufficient, he wrote. Instead, the state needs to develop “a response that is unique to the point of revolution… a conceptual-organizational-national revolution combined with technology.”

The security apparatuses of the state need not adapt to the new reality, he wrote, but rather reorient entirely. Israel should develop divisions that are radically different in size and conception from the current fighting units. They should be small, linked to technology, capable of holding territory, comprised of commando, Special Forces and intelligence operatives and, most importantly, he wrote, “they should rely primarily on state of mind, a different approach, agility and on being prepared for and capable of taking calculated risks responsibly. These forces may operate under their own legislation and procedures. They are educated to improvise, to develop relevant knowledge, to initiate and to evolve constantly.”

Hirsch, for understandable reasons, refrained from fleshing out his ideas any further. In order “to break the symmetry, introduce a ‘tiebreaker’ and change the rules of the game,” he wrote, Israel must develop “new players and new game boards.”

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, asked to comment on the article, said it had “nothing to add” to what Brig. Gen. Hirsch had already written.

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