Think tanks

Think tanks

Armored officers say ground forces win wars, not the air force or navy. Is the Defense Ministry, slashing the Merkava tank budget, forgetting this lesson?

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Illustrative. An Israeli tank overlooks the Gaza Strip. (Courtesy: Yad L'shiryon)
Illustrative. An Israeli tank overlooks the Gaza Strip. (Courtesy: Yad L'shiryon)

The final exercise of the IDF officers’ course drill, conducted under a desert sun and the steady gaze of the chief of the General Staff last month, did not include the classic uphill battle against an entrenched enemy. Nor did it feature the sort of mass tank battles that decided the 1956, 1967, and 1973 wars. Instead, infantry soldiers, operating in pairs and with the support of precise rocket fire and a platoon of tanks, made their way into a mock Lebanese town, charging past the lovely red-and-green cedar flag of Lebanon and the far less lovely yellow-and-green Hezbollah one (which features a male hand clasping a Kalashnikov above a globe), and into the loose concentric circles of the town, where, presumably, Hezbollah fighters and civilians mingled.

The soldiers scurried to the appropriate “houses,” darted in, fired when necessary, and coordinated their actions with both the Merkava tanks, which commanded the town’s two main junctions, and the guided MLRS rocket launchers, positioned outside the urban area and able to respond to threats on the distant ridge lines around the town. Machine gunners, perched on either side of the advancing soldiers, produced happy showers of support fire, and the snipers clanged their rhythmic rounds against the steel targets.

After the drill, IDF Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz warned the soon-to-be officers that what they had just witnessed was a very anemic version of Israel’s future wars. “You’ll beg to receive this sort of assignment,” he said. “It’ll be a gift. E-v-e-r-y-thing will be more complicated and more lethal than what we just saw here with our eyes.”

He explained that while the nature of war has remained unchanged since the dawn of human history — the constants being: a dearth of information, surges of fear, an ever-shifting battlefield, and a gnawing sense of uncertainty — “the characteristics have changed.”

For Israel, in the near future, Gantz said, that means fighting in mountainous territory, amid thick foliage (an indication that Lebanon is the most likely site of Israel’s next war?) and against an enemy deeply embedded within a civilian population. That force is armed with first rate anti-tank missiles and the ability to simultaneously use three curved trajectory weapons — mortars against advancing soldiers, rockets against the army’s rear echelon, and more rockets against the civilian population in Israel.

IDF tanks during the officers' course drill in the Negev (Photo credit: Courtesy: IDF Spokesperson's Office)
IDF tanks during the officers’ course drill in the Negev (Photo credit: Courtesy: IDF Spokesperson’s Office)

To some, this reality of guerrilla warfare — a reflection of the Arab states’ utter failure to defeat Israel on the conventional field of battle — is an opportunity to cut costs as the state navigates through economic straits and the Defense Ministry grapples with a three-billion-shekel (some $825 million) budget cut for 2013. After all, they say, the fact that there could be a guerrilla war along the Golan Heights or a scenario in which the IAF will have to act deep in Syria or Iran, is just another way of saying that the threat of a large-scale war —  a simultaneous attack from several standing armies — has subsided. This will translate into less casualties, less potential for disaster, and less of a need for a large hulking army.

Therefore, they say, invest heavily in intelligence and the air force. Make sure you know where the enemy is and have the ability to hit it from afar. Invest in cyber offense and defense. But cut the duration of compulsory service, thereby injecting large sums into the economy; raise the retirement age up from 46 to something closer to the civilian 67; slash the pensions, currently at 6.8 billion shekels (about $1.8 billion) for 2013; and get rid of some of the vestiges of the army of the past.

The army has taken few of these steps. The IDF’s retirement age, according to financial daily The Marker, is set to reach 50 in 2029, by which point the civilian age will likely cross 70 for men and women alike. Talk of pension cuts, according to Defense Minster Moshe Ya’alon, is often an attempt to “blacken the faces” of the tens of thousands of career NCOs and officers who “are committed to their tasks 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

Instead, Ya’alon and Gantz, in trimming the 58.4-billion-shekel ($16 billion) budget, have their sights trained on the old army — the ground forces, and especially the armored divisions. Nearly all reserve duty, operational and training, has been cut for ground forces in 2013. No one imagines a scenario in which pilots cease their once-a-week flights. Conscripted soldiers will pick up the slack. They will train less and patrol more.

For tank crews, this is especially problematic. Serving in the West Bank or along the Egyptian border, manning a post, infantry soldiers remain in their natural environment — on the ground with a rifle in their hands. Tank crews do not. Additionally, parts of the Merkava tank project are on the chopping block, with 150 workers from Merkava-part-producing factories facing termination in light of budget cuts and a reduction in demand from the IDF .

Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz watching the combined drill (Photo credit: Courtesy: IDF Spokesperson's Office)
Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz watching the combined drill (Photo credit: Courtesy: IDF Spokesperson’s Office)

To some, this makes sense. Not only has the chance of conventional war subsided, but the tank itself, they say, is an ancient and obsolete tool — a war horse meant to fight in the open country. In the alleys of Gaza and along the steep slopes of Lebanon, against an enemy keen to exploit any sort of civilian casualty, it is more liability than asset.

To a large extent, this reporter, having witnessed the futility of the armor during the Second Lebanon War — the helplessness and fear so apparent on the faces of the timid tank crews — shared those feelings. Several conversations with current and former armored officers, and the observation of two small scale drills, however, cast the issue in a new light.

Tanks during and after the war

There are, according to foreign sources, some 2,000-3,000 tanks in the IDF. The corps’ motto has long been “The man in the tank will win.” But ever since the First Intifada in 1987, the army has cut back drastically in tank training, and tank soldiers have slipped to the very bottom of the IDF combat food chain. Nowhere was the corps’ lack of readiness more crudely exposed than during the Second Lebanon War. One example, which took place on August 10, 2006, some four days before the end of the war, is particularly illustrative.

Brig. Gen. Erez Zuckerman, the commander of an IDF armored brigade, ordered one of his battalion commanders into Lebanon to join the fighting around Marj Ayoun. Zuckerman was a former Special Forces and infantry officer with no command experience whatsoever with tanks, itself an appointment that would have been unthinkable one decade earlier or in any other branch of the armed service. The officer, Lt. Col. Benny — whose story was revealed in now-MK Ofer Shelah and Yoav Limor’s book “Captives of Lebanon” — refused to go in as the commander of his troops. Zuckerman reminded him that the country was at war, and that his decision would have enormous significance. But Benny maintained his refusal: he was not scared to go into Lebanon; he simply did not trust himself to go in as the commander of the untrained battalion. He told Zuckerman that when the former battalion commander arrived at the front, he would get into his tank and proceed.

“Had he told me that he was flat out refusing, I wouldn’t have said a word to him,” Zuckerman told the authors. “Straight to the Military Police. But what I saw was not a coward. I saw a battalion commander who had been in his post for a year, had not done any training, and did not believe in his own capabilities. I also knew that Motti was on the way and that soon the battalion would have a commander that believed in himself and one that they believed in. I decided not to punish him at that moment and to settle the account with him after the war.”

What followed, during the final surge of the war, after weeks in which the ground troops were deemed unnecessary and then hastily called up and poorly deployed, was a tragic display of buffoonery. IDF tanks, traveling along exposed routes, either waiting for a concrete assignment or driving back and forth to help rescue injured infantrymen, fell prey to Hezbollah anti-tank crews, drove into ditches, and generally proved ineffective. A total of 48 tanks were incapacitated during the 34-day war, and Hezbollah managed, despite the presence of four IDF divisions in south Lebanon, to fire some 120 rockets a day at Israel.

Gantz, the newly appointed commander of the ground forces at the time, summoned Emanuel Sakal back into the army in an advisory role. Sakal, a former general, had been awarded the Medal of Courage for his actions as an armored battalion commander on the southern front during the Yom Kippur War and had gone on to command the ground forces in the early ’90s.

Maj. Gen. (res) Emanuel Sakal (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/ Times of Israel)
Maj. Gen. (res) Emanuel Sakal (Photo credit: Mitch Ginsburg/Times of Israel)

The Times of Israel met up with Sakal at the Tanks Memorial at Latrun, where he seethed at the notion of yet again cutting the armored budget and training time. “In May 2006 [two months before the war], Gantz spoke at a forum about the need to cut entire units from the ground corps. Out of respect to him, I didn’t say anything. I just got up and left,” he said.

After the war, he reminded the man who now heads the army of what he sees as an unassailable truth: “Wars are won on the ground.”

It doesn’t matter if the battle is fought in Tora Bora or Vietnam, the Casbah of Nablus, or along the dense brush on the slopes of southern Lebanon, he said. The portrait of a battle that has been decided is always the same — “the panting infantryman alongside the canon of the tank.”

The problem, Sakal said, is that this truth is slippery. “It’s forgotten between wars and remembered only during wars.”

In times such as now, during what the commander of the IAF Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel called the war between wars, Sakal said, leaders swoon before the sleek “profiles of the silvery birds” of the air force and the intoxicating intelligence of their operators; somehow they manage to forget, each time they sit before a budget decision, that tanks and ground forces will decide the next war.

Sakal suggested a scenario whereby al-Qaeda-like groups assert control over large swaths of Syria in the coming months and, having reached some sort of agreement with their internal enemies, turn their fire toward Israel. “Then what?” he asked. “Who will stop the artillery and the surface-to-surface missiles, the air force?”

This did not happen in Lebanon or Gaza, he said, and it will not happen in Syria either.

The open wars of old. A photo taken from Sakal's tank during the Yom Kippur War (Photo credit: Avi Gur/ courtesy Yad L'shiryon)
The open wars of old. A photo taken from Sakal’s tank during the Yom Kippur War (Photo credit: Avi Gur/ courtesy Yad L’shiryon)

In 2010, Sakal, who has a doctorate from Bar Ilan University and is affiliated with the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, wrote a book about the Yom Kippur War. The book, “Hasadir Yivlom?” (“The Standing Army Will Hold Them”) is a rare document in Israel: it is critical of the air force. He wrote that the IAF’s contribution on the southern front during the Yom Kippur War was “nil” and accused it of pursuing its own objectives — striking enemy airfields and surface-to-air missile batteries — rather than stopping the Egyptian army from swarming across the canal into Israel.

In a BESA paper about the Second Lebanon War, Sakal acknowledged the “strategic importance of the air force.” After all, the reason the missile threat against Israel is so prominent is precisely because the IAF has ruled the skies for so long. During the Lebanon War, Israel downed 90 Syrian aircraft and lost none. Ever since, Syria and other enemies of the state have been arming themselves with missiles, rockets, and mortars. His contention is not that the IAF is not stellar. It’s that the air force’s contribution in a war is not proportional to its budget. Sakal quoted the much maligned commander of the Southern Command during the Yom Kippur War, Maj. Gen. Shmuel Gonen, who said after the war: “Where was the air force, which was given 52 percent of the defense budget?”

Today, Sakal said, the distribution is “roughly the same.” The IDF Spokesperson’s Office, in reply to a query about the IAF’s share of the defense budget in 2013, said that such information is “very confidential.”

Sakal accused the IAF of “cutting a giant coupon” on account of the Iran threat, acquiring an ever-growing arsenal — including a projected three squadrons of F-35As, to the tune of $15 billion — despite what he called the near certainty that “there won’t be anything” done by the IAF against Iran.

The discussion about priorities, which extend to the acquisition of a sixth Dolphin-class submarine as well as other expensive weapons purchases, obscures the question of whether the armored corps, even if it’s well-trained and equipped, is capable of adequately addressing the threats lurking in Lebanon and Syria.

Reuven Pedatzur, a former fighter pilot and the director of the Center for Strategic Dialogue at the Netanya Academic College, said the armored corps was “not useful” in Lebanon and contended that, even if the army had learnt an array of lessons and adapted its fighting style to meet the guerrilla threats, “only the first three tanks are useful. All the rest are just waiting in line.”

He said that hundreds of tanks, some nearing 50 years old, should be retired from service and the units should be shut down.

Sakal scoffed at the notion that tanks were ill-suited to the Lebanese landscape and the guerrilla enemy therein. During the Lebanon War, the IDF’s first campaign against a terrorist force, he led an armored division through south Lebanon, he said. They reached their 40 kilometer objective within 48 hours. Within a week, by June 12, IDF tanks were on the outskirts of Beirut and, despite all that later went awry, by the end of August, Yasser Arafat had been forced from Lebanon to Tunisia. “All you need is to operate the tanks properly and with some brains,” he said.

What he meant by brains was the ability to operate in tandem with the infantry, engineering corps, artillery, and air force. This inter-connectivity was a total failure during the Second Lebanon War. IDF armored officers claim this and other failures have been rectified in the interim.

An image taken during the Yom Kippur War (Photo credit: Avi Gur/ Courtesy Yad L'shiryon)
An image taken during the Yom Kippur War (Photo credit: Avi Gur/ Courtesy Yad L’shiryon)

The first problem to be fixed, said one mid-level armored corps officer, was training. The Times of Israel met up with this officer at the gate of a settlement just outside Nablus, where his troops were stationed. He conceded that his soldiers were at the tail-end of a six-month stint in the West Bank, but said he had parked a Merkava tank at the entrance to the settlement to keep the soldiers in touch with the tank during the long hiatus and that they would soon have 17 straight weeks in the field. He acknowledged that this was quite different from the four-months-operational-duty / four-months-training that he recalled from his earlier days in the military, but maintained that it was sufficient.

The second shift was in the nature of the training. “The army is in a different place today,” said Lt. Col. Isham Ibrahim, a battalion commander in the armored corps, who spoke to the Times of Israel after a combined infantry and armor drill in the Negev. “Today, you won’t find a drill that isn’t combined.”

The more senior officer, not cleared to speak for attribution, said that the cooperation today between infantry and armor is so close that one will not proceed without the other. “Go ask the Golani Brigade commander and he’ll tell you. They won’t go into a village without tanks,” he said.

The army has also shifted technologically to address the threat that Hezbollah and other terror groups represent. Tank ammunition today is geared toward the concrete of urban areas and the open country rather than the penetration of armor, the officer said. The wi-fi target acquisition technology means that, as opposed to previous wars, once military intelligence has acquired a target, whether by UAV or other means, the knowledge is transferred immediately to the screen of each tank — and, in fact, to the entire army, according to a recent Walla! news interview with Col Boaz Kavina, the head of weapons technology in the IDF’s computerized wing. If, say, the IAF takes out a target, it’s deleted in real time.

“The armor has adapted itself to the developing battlefield and to guerrilla warfare,” said Lt. Col. German Giltman, a deputy brigade commander in the armored corps.

The officer who was not cleared to speak for attribution elaborated: The primary threat to tanks, he said, is on the road. “That’s where the anti-tank ambushes are sprung.”

During the Second Lebanon War, he maintained, not a single tank was hit within an urban area. “It was all out in the open. And not a single tank was hit while in motion.”

This was why he had convened his platoon and company commanders and, even before the 17 weeks of training began, asked them to plan a navigational route through the deep ravines of the terrain, which he said were quite similar to Lebanon, based on an analysis of the possible vulnerable points along the way. “For my soldiers today, the possibility of tank vs. tank warfare is a wet dream,” he said.

Instead they train to control and conquer urban areas — densely populated centers that were once perceived as off limits to the military, and today, due to the nature of Israel’s sub-state enemy actors, are grimly recognized as focal points for any future Israeli conflict. But the officers contended that contrary to popular perception, the urban environment, which has seemed like a trap for an armored unit that takes civilian casualties into account, is today a sort of haven.

One said the density of a city was like a concrete shield against anti-tank weapons, which must be fired from some distance, and that the height, firepower, and maneuverability of today’s tanks mean that they can hold down large swaths of city as the infantry advances.

“Without a doubt there’s been a fundamental shift in our thinking,” said the other officer, Lt. Col. Ibrahim. “Today, as an armored battalion commander, I’m looking to get into the city. I want to be in the urban area.”

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