In recent years, there has been a lively debate regarding the “Operational Doctrine for Victory” advanced by the current IDF Chief-of-Staff. The changes inherent in this doctrine have far-reaching implications for the IDF’s order of battle and approach to the use of force. The doctrine itself has many vulnerabilities that must be fixed.
In recent years, there has been a lively debate regarding the “Operational Doctrine of for Victory” advanced by the IDF Chief-of-Staff. The changes inherent in this doctrine have far-reaching implications for the IDF’s order of battle and approach to the use of force; and in part, even on the State of Israel’s national security strategy. At least in the public sphere, these matters are not being sufficiently discussed.
Israel’s May 2021 conflict with Hamas in Gaza (Operation “Guardian of the Walls”) illustrates many of the fundamental arguments in this paper. It is vital to take advantage of this rare intersection of military-security theory and practical experience to promote in-depth discussion of the doctrine.
Why the Doctrine Must be Updated
In the security and military worlds, doctrines and strategic guidance documents are used by leaders and high-ranking officers (and the professional echelon supporting them) to express their insights regarding the challenges posed by reality. Based on these insights, leaders can then select the tools for dealing with these challenges. It is obvious that as realities and challenges change over time, the tools for achieving security must undergo a process of updating and validation.
Therefore, the question is not whether the IDF needs a new operational doctrine in light of nascent changes and developing threats. It indisputably does! The question is whether the emerging “Victory Doctrine” deals with these challenges properly and whether it indeed provides the necessary response. It should be noted that any operational doctrine or plan has as its goal the attainment of victory over the enemy. Therefore, the question to be considered is whether the doctrine, which has victory branded at its core, can indeed achieve this purpose.
It should be noted that in historical perspective, the fundamental notions of Israeli national security coalesced in the early 1950s in face of the threat posed by the standing armies of the Arab nations and of the terrorist acts with which the country had to contend during its first years. The doctrine of military operation presented to the Israeli cabinet by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in October 1953 sought to turn these early notions into military capabilities and courses of action. It was formulated with the purpose of attaining swift victory against superior forces. This was to be achieved by means of a reserve-based, ground strike force; and the development of a maneuvering capability which utilized the mobility and command quality of Israel’s forces to carry out a speedy incursion into enemy territory and overwhelm its military force. This doctrine served the State of Israel well for many years and manifested itself in the Six Day War and to an even greater extent during the Yom Kippur War.
However, as has always been the case throughout the history of warfare, changing realities have led to the rise of new kinds of warfare and new threats. Formed to defend Israel against the existential threat of invasion or siege waged by standing militaries, since the 1980s the IDF has found itself facing organizations which use guerilla warfare and terrorism. These organizations attack Israel’s home front mainly through high-trajectory fire, with power, precision and quantities of arms that have gradually increased over the years. As a result, Israel has found itself stretched thin based on out-of-date operational concepts. The consequences of not having an updated security strategy and military doctrine have been highly evident. Although the IDF still enjoys overwhelming superiority in firepower and manpower, the outcomes of Israel’s military confrontations have been disappointing time after time.
An operational military doctrine does not function in a void. It is required to serve the ideas and goals of a broader concept – a national security strategy. This strategy is required to answer fundamental questions, such as what are the country’s national security objectives; what warfare goals the military must attain when an armed conflict starts; and in what way it is required to act for such purpose.
To the IDF’s credit, it should be noted that even in the absence of political guidance on these fundamental questions, it has intensively debated the question of how to win the new types of conflicts Israel has faced in recent decades, and how forces should be structured in anticipation of such conflicts. In this regard, the process led by IDF Chief-of-Staff Aviv Kochavi over the past two years to formulate a “Victory Doctrine” for the IDF is both necessary and welcome.
Nevertheless, some questions properly should be posed and some doubt cast (not regarding the necessity of the doctrine but rather) regarding the validity of recent thinking and the premises it is based on. Given its importance and broad implications, along with the fact that the “Victory Doctrine” challenges some of the most fundamental assumptions of Israel’s national security conception, it is critical to promote discussion of the new doctrine within in the military, in the political-security establishment, in academic circles, and amongst the public.
Preparing for the Right War
Military doctrine is always called upon to address the attributes of warfare in the future, and to prepare for the next war. History shows that this is one of the military profession’s most significant challenges. Warfare takes on many forms, substituting one for another and requiring revision of the paradigm used to interpret reality and to develop an appropriate doctrine to answer it.
The mental and psychological difficulty involved in this process, along with the fact that war is an eruptive and intermittent phenomenon rather than a consistent, continuous process, often causes states and armies to adhere to erroneous concepts. Errors will only become apparent during warfare. More than once throughout history, the clash of battle toppled within mere hours or days theories to which armies and states had clung for years. The challenge is more difficult in times of significant change, and it seems that now is such a time.
If botched, this challenge can affect the fate of the nation. Therefore, it is worthwhile to prepare for war based on experience including proven theories of national security. Here, three fundamental tenets are important to take into consideration.
Rule No. 1 – Shortening the duration of the war: The State of Israel cannot afford prolonged wars. As much as possible, Israel needs to mitigate the damage caused to the public and to infrastructures because of the fighting, and to reduce, as much as possible, the subjection of Israel’s citizens to threats and to economic shutdown. It is also important to avoid international pressures, which, as experience has showed, increase as fighting continues.
Rule No. 2 – The enemy will take the course of action most dangerous to Israel: The basic assumption is that any capability being developed by the enemy would be used in the manner and timing that grants the enemy the greatest advantage and causes Israel the greatest harm. Any assumption that the enemy is developing capabilities which it does not intend to use, or that it will execute its plan of warfare in a manner convenient to Israel, is fundamentally baseless and dangerous.
Rule No. 3 – Preparing the military for war requires that reasonable worst-case scenarios be taken into account: As derived from Rule No. 2, Israel does not and will not have the ability to anticipate the circumstances and conditions of the next war. Therefore, it always must prepare for the reasonable worst-case scenario. Otherwise, at the moment of truth, it could find itself vulnerable.
Ideas and Assumptions of the “Victory Doctrine”
With regards to the IDF’s current “Victory Doctrine,” one must ask: Does the doctrine meet the challenges of the expected next war? Is the paradigm underlying it, and the scenarios which it was formulated to answer, consistent with the expected challenges? Are the premises underlying it viable? Can its fundamental ideas be implemented under conditions that could develop on the battlefield? Can the desired results be achieved under such conditions? And finally, does the doctrine meet the basic tenets of Israeli national security?
This article casts doubt on the “victory doctrine.” It seeks to shed light on the doctrine’s vulnerabilities, and express misgivings about key issues. Of course, this analysis is based on our understanding of the principles, ideas, and assumptions underlying the doctrine. Due to the difficulty of addressing these matters on a non-classified platform, they will be analyzed on a general-theoretical level without resorting to a specification of abilities or referencing classified intelligence information.
As understood by the current writers, these are the main points of the “Victory Doctrine”:
- The doctrine will enable a shortening of the war’s duration.
- The doctrine will enable attainment of decisive victory.
- Victory will be achieved by “counter-destruction” of enemy capabilities, at a high pace, with a variety of precise fire capabilities and massive use of offensive autonomous tools (vehicles operated remotely and having certain independent action capabilities).
- The harsh strikes rained on the enemy will bring about an erosion of its operability, and cumulative damage to morale, to the point that its capability to absorb additional pain and damage is overwhelmed.
- The doctrine is based on the prerequisite of intelligence superiority for the purpose of exposing and striking the enemy. Such superiority will allow the IDF to have “a regular and stable supply of quality targets” to destroy throughout the fighting.
- The doctrine is based on linking peripheral assault capabilities (air, ground, and maritime) to fighting units, at a high pace and effectively.
As part of the doctrine, several assumptions have become established, some of them overt and others latent:
- Implementation of the “Victory Doctrine” will be carried out mainly by standing army units, which are most skilled in operating advanced weaponry and possess the highest fitness. Reliance on reserve forces will be limited.
- Building-up of, and maximal reliance on, regional capabilities, to be allocated to the fighting units by Regional Commands, or directly by the General Command.
- Operations will be controlled by the Principal Commands (Front Commands) or through the General Command, in a centralized manner.
- Intelligence information and assault targets will be “injected” into the fighting units in real time based on a secure and reliable communications network operated at a high pace.
- Victory will be achieved by massive, cumulative destruction of the enemy’s capabilities. (This is an approach in military theory called “attrition approach.”)
But What if This is Not the Case?
The chief of IDF Military Intelligence in 1973, General Eli Zeira, has told of the lessons he personally learned from the Yom Kippur war. He says that he always kept a note in his pocket with the question “What if that’s not the case?” What if intelligence analysis is wrong? What if experts do not have the complete picture? What if the enemy takes an unexpected and inexplicable course of action? Later in life, Zeira admitted he had not fully considered these matters before the 1973 war. And in that, Zeira is not alone.
The fact that since 1973 Israel has not paid heavy prices for erroneous intelligence assessments does not mean that such assessments were not made, and that similar mistakes will not be made today. Since Israel faces an unstable environment and enemies who exhibit strategic resolve, it must maintain sufficiently wide margins of error. This is true especially regarding the threat posed by Shiite axis and Islamist Muqawama groups, who have graduated from being a security nuisance to posing fundamental threats.
Therefore, the doctrine’s premises must be reconsidered. What happens if they are mistaken, if only partially, and scenarios less convenient for Israel will materialize? What if events or failures occur which cannot be foreseen? What then? Will the doctrine still be effective? Will Israel be able to attain its goals? Is the doctrine flexible enough to deal with the unexpected?
To answer these questions, it is necessary to analyze the likely features of Israel’s next wars. It should be emphasized that this is not a forecast. As stated above, no one can predict the shape of the next war. On the other hand, without attempting to anticipate the difficulties which the battlefield might pose both for frontline troops and the home front, Israel may discover that it has been preparing for the wrong war.
Potential Threats: What War Israel Must Prepare For
The next war will be different. Emerging trends suggest war scenarios and threats very different from those which characterized the Second Lebanon War, Operation ‘Protective Edge’ and Operation ‘Guardian of the Walls’. These campaigns cannot be used as reference points for IDF preparations for the next war. The IDF has not had to deal with some of the challenges presented below, for almost five decades or not at all. What, then, are the challenges which may intensify over the coming decade, and how might this affect implementation of the “victory doctrine”?
A threat to the Air Force’s freedom of action: Since 1982 (Operation Mole Cricket 19 against Syria), the Israel Air Force (IAF) has enjoyed full latitude in the aerial theater. The ability to carry out sorties for bombing, for intelligence collection, or for other missions has never been in doubt. These abilities are critical to the victory doctrine’s implementation. But air force freedom of action may be challenged. Hezbollah is developing air defense capabilities which are expected to pose a challenge to aircraft and to aerial assault arrays, and Hezbollah is not alone. Iran is a regional and technological power too, which guarantees further challenges to Israeli air dominance.
Indeed, Iran seeks to undermine the absolute aerial superiority of the IAF. It should be assumed that some of Iran’s efforts will bear fruit. Beyond Iran and Hezbollah, there also is the Syrian military, which is currently undergoing a process of reconstruction. Under certain circumstances, Syria is likely to attain air defense capabilities that, even if they do not restrict the IAF, considerably will drain its resources.
Russia’s presence in the region, and the chance that during a war its interests may be threatened could create a threat of a hitherto unknown magnitude to IAF freedom of action. If aerial action capability were to be curtailed, the IDF’s ability to fully implement the victory doctrine would be impaired.
The threat to the naval sphere, and consequently to the home front’s functional continuity: Hezbollah’s strike in 2006 on the Israeli navy’s Saar 5-class corvette, the “Hanit,” was an isolated incident which serves to illustrate emerging threats. Shore-to-sea missiles and an Iranian presence in the Mediterranean could create threats and constraints with which Israel has not had to contend for many years. This also could include attacks by Iranian submarines on commercial vessels en route to Israel.
Beyond the existence of important assets in Israeli economic waters and Israel’s need for naval platforms to mobilize forces, the enemy could pose a threat of much bigger scale to Israeli ports and to freedom of movement on shipping routes to Israel. Enemy attacks could impede Israel’s ability to use seaports (and airports) for resupply of weapons and more. This could be devastating in a situation where fighting is prolonged and becomes a war of attrition. Despite Israel’s plans for short wars, it must be taken into account that this could fail, especially when the battle plan underlying the doctrine is an “attrition approach.”
Threats of Iranian technology: Israel has enjoyed immense technological advantages over Hamas and Hezbollah. But with Iran providing its proxies with advanced technologies, Israel must recognize that technological gaps gradually are closing. The advanced capabilities to be used against Israel in the future could be highly disruptive of IDF systems. Command and control systems could be subjected to cyber and electronic warfare attacks; precision munitions could have to contend with sophisticated disruptive capabilities; and IDF troops could face enemy weaponry such as precision munitions and UAVs.
There also is the possibility that Turkey under President Erdogan will provide advanced military technologies (such as UAVs) to Hamas.
In sum, in the next war the IDF may discover not only that its technological advantage has diminished, but that the technological capabilities on which the victory doctrine is based have become Israel’s Achilles heel.
The possibility of the enemy occupying Israeli territory: Hezbollah (and the Syrians alongside it) would not be content with merely providing counterfire, but will carry out, as early as at the outset of the fighting, attacks by commando forces into Israel’s territory in the Galilee and the Golan Heights. The preparations for such attacks effectively reflect the enemy’s lessons learned from the Second Lebanon War. They are intended to protect the launch capability by adding an additional tier of attack carried out into Israel’s territory. Their aim is to form a front line of defense – with the intent of delaying and eroding the IDF’s assembled ground forces before they reach the international border, thereby allowing maximal latitude to the launch array.
If the enemy can occupy territories within Israel, Israeli citizens may find themselves under enemy control. Though the IDF is preparing to deal with such a threat, one cannot guarantee its full success. If such a scenario does indeed occur, even at isolated points, it could have serious implications on morale and on operations. Unregulated movement of citizens flocking south could cause difficulties in mobilization and in the units’ travel north. Such a situation could disrupt the plans at their very outset and require the diversion of resources to take back occupied territories, even before the IDF can direct its might toward vanquishing the enemy.
Concurrent fighting in several theaters: This is a scenario not experienced by the IDF for many years now. The fact that Israel faces the Shi’ite axis could lead to activity in, at least, the theaters subjected to that axis’s direct influence – Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza. There may also be active theaters on the second and third sphere – in Iraq and perhaps even in Iran, as well as unrest in Judea and Samaria and in the domestic theater. All these will impose a high pace of occurrences and could impair the General Staff’s attention and its ability to conduct the operations in the manner used by it for the limited operations.
The civil home front taking massive fire: If Israel has a historic vulnerability, that vulnerability hinges on the fact that the strategic home front, on which the entire war effort relies, is within strike range. The strategic home front’s ability to support the war effort never has been significantly disrupted, even during Israel’s harshest wars. That is no longer the case. The threat of high-trajectory fire (HTF) and rockets on Israel’s home front is clearly becoming a strategic threat rather than a mere nuisance.
In point of fact, that is the very heart of the enemy’s campaign concept – implementing extensive firepower from several theaters and to various ranges so as to disrupt Israel’s warfare capability and erode its citizens’ morale. Swift removal of the threat to the home front will be vital especially so that the strategic home front could support the war effort. The Iron Dome, effective though it might be, cannot suffice to achieve that purpose.
The Victory Doctrine’s Vulnerabilities and Flaws in View of Future Challenges
As noted, this analysis should not be viewed as a forecast but rather as a point of reference, based on an analysis of the emerging trends. The analysis reveals flaws and vulnerabilities in the notions and premises which are at the heart of the “Victory Doctrine,” and which cannot be disregarded.
The emerging doctrine adopted by the IDF effectively perpetuates stand-off operations as a primary component, in the form of implementing firepower and massive, deadly autonomous capability deep in the territory. Experience shows that stand-off capabilities alone will have trouble providing the required achievement in reasonable time. The absence of an endeavor of concurrent ground maneuvering, which quickly moves the fighting into enemy territory, impairs the enemy’s capabilities and threatens its leadership’s survivability, could prolong the fighting, and deepen the damage done to the civil home front in a manner seriously detrimental to its function. Not only does the “Victory Doctrine” not consider maneuvering to be a central tool – but it effectively continues to weaken that measure.
Even if we were to assume that this approach could hasten the enemy’s defeat, it would necessarily conflict with the notion of shortening the war’s duration. The approach proposed by the “Victory Doctrine” requires time and considerable resources, both of which we may not have. In a scenario where the Israeli home front is taking fire, time would be of the essence and, on the other hand, the ability to replenish stocks, based on the seaports and airports, would be doubtful. The need to spare resources and the need to shorten the duration of the wars were in the first place the reasons for which the Israeli Security Strategy preferred maneuvering over attrition. The “Victory Doctrine” effectively continues, though in a sophisticated manner, the same ideas repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempted in the past four decades.
The doctrine assumes that if we deploy our capabilities against the enemy’s assembled forces, we could destroy the enemy at a high pace and bring about its surrender; but it almost entirely disregards the fact that all those capabilities would, from the war’s outset, be subjected to unprecedented firepower. Such assault could disrupt the operation of the Air Force’s bases, mobilization at the reserve storage units and the assemblage of forces at the front. It could impair and disrupt the strategic Homefront; damage the power stations, disrupt the activity of seaports and airports, cripple the hospitals, et cetera. The Air Force would not be able, certainly on its own, to neutralize the threat to the home front, which would require massive ground maneuvering.
This effectively exposes the doctrine’s fundamental weakness. It requires reliance on a series of conditions which could hardly be assumed to always be met – certainly not during a large-scale war. It does not prepare for the graver scenarios, those which could disrupt the IDF’s operability during the war’s first few days. It assumes that we could prepare before the enemy executes its strikes; that we would catch the enemy off guard, rather than vice versa. It operates on the premise that the effect of the enemy’s actions might cause damage but will not succeed in disrupting the execution of our own plans. It properly expresses the thinking that the IDF will continue to enjoy the absolute superiority it enjoyed in the operations and campaigns of the past four decades. The notion that the enemy could disrupt the IDF’s operability is not present in the doctrine’s fundamental tenets. Therefore, it would be paramount to ask: “What if that’s not the case?”.
Moreover, any doctrine based on future capabilities must retain the competence of the existing capabilities until the prospective capability matures to the point of constituting an effective operational mass. The concern is that the reliance on potential future capabilities reflects negatively on the way commanding officers prepare the force for the current operational threats. Experience on force design and build-up processes indicates that the process required for the purpose of building up primary capabilities, from the moment of its formulation as a concept until its maturation into operational capability, requires time periods spanning long years (at least a decade). When the capabilities in question are ones based on new technologies, such as autonomous tools, these periods could extend even further. These lessons require us to make two assumptions which are disregarded by the doctrine: First, that the implementation of the ideas posited by it would have to rely on existing capabilities, within the coming decade; and second, that when the new capabilities mature, they would operate on a battlefield different from the one we currently envision.
Maneuvering versus attrition: The “Victory Doctrine” continues to rely on the assumption that deep and swift ground maneuvering is a thing of the past and that the probability of its being used is low. It develops a “multidimensional maneuvering” capability – a “boutique” capability based mainly on the abilities of the standing forces – and continues to erode the reserve array morally and operationally. This ground maneuvering is characterized by firepower, much more than by its mobility capabilities. In this sense, even though the doctrine ostensibly concerns ground maneuvering, it further entrenches the ideas which have dominated the IDF’s thinking in the past four decades, that the enemy would be vanquished by sheer firepower. The doctrine creates a dependency of the ground maneuvering forces on firepower, and effectively imposes on the maneuver the linearity and operational pace which characterize the use of firepower.
Not only does the “Victory Doctrine” fail to solve the imbalance existing between the two strategic arms/corps (the air and ground forces), but rather, it perpetuates that imbalance while effectively achieving a reversal of the desired situation. Rather than the air arms/corps (in addition to its independent missions deep in the operational theaters) being the one to assist the ground forces in attaining victory by means of swift and unexpected maneuvering, it is now the ground force which assists the aerial fire effort in destroying enemy capabilities at a rapid pace, to lead to its defeat.
It is here that often blurred nuances must be clarified. The “Victory Doctrine” does indeed assume, quite rightly, that victory by aerial firepower alone is not possible. Without achieving close contact/friction by means of ground forces, there will be no way to reveal the enemy’s forces and create the quantity of targets reaching a critical mass which would allow the destruction of the enemy’s capabilities. However, in doing so, it remains deeply entrenched in the attrition approach – an approach which expresses ongoing, methodical action whose achievements are accumulated over time (and can be characterized in terms of a “body count” rather than of a change in the geostrategic situation).
It takes optimism to overlook the vulnerabilities and extensive sensitivity to battlefield chaos that mark the “Victory Doctrine.” Even at its best, it relies on an achievement of massive destruction which, though repeatedly attempted throughout history, including in recent IDF recent operations, has never succeeded in meeting expectations. Massive firepower never made wars any shorter; rather, the opposite is true. In the vast majority of cases, it failed to achieve victory – certainly not decisive victory. In this context, we should recall the findings of the “bombing survey” conducted after World War II in Germany’s territories, which demonstrated the limitations of extensive air strikes.
Optimism is important and even vital. But one cannot disregard the fact that Israel’s enemies have plans which are quite the opposite, and they are developing capabilities which pose real challenges to Israel’s security apparatus – challenges the likes of which Israel has not dealt with for years. These trends require Israel to support its theories with proven experience or assumptions which have been shown to be valid. They require that Israel not hinge its entire security on a single strategic brace – strong and sophisticated though it might be.
“Duality is the very essence of war, although curiously overlooked,” said Liddell Hart. Just like a boxer required to use both of his arms, the IDF is required to build up two muscular and well-balanced arms – the air and ground forces – operating in integration and synchronization in defense of the home front, to quickly proceed to attack and rain a swift series of integrated blows deep in the enemy’s territory. Neither the Air Force nor the ground forces, sophisticated though they be, can withstand this challenge on their own.
The notion of massive action by autonomous tools deep within enemy territory is an important one and should be further developed; but it cannot substitute for ground maneuvering action. The doctrine must therefore develop a sufficiently large ground force which would be required to act in several theaters concurrently, breach the front’s “shell”, move swiftly into the depth of the territory with the intent of destroying enemy capabilities and removing the threat of fire from the home front as quickly as possible. Conversely, the IDF’s ground forces have gradually weakened in the past four decades, and its use in operations conducted has gradually lessened. The IDF increasingly has deepened its reliance on the capabilities of the air force and of intelligence, and these capabilities may not be sufficient to handle the challenges occasioned for Israel by the battlefield of the future.
Operation ‘Guardian of the Walls’ has shown that even when fighting in a single theater, in almost optimal conditions, the IDF has not been able to remove the threat from the home front, and certainly has not come close to attaining decisive victory. That operation should serve as a wake-up call for the security apparatus.
The next war will be different. It might require Israel to exert a national effort that has not been required from Israelis for many years. The IDF toolbox must contain tools appropriate for dealing with the challenges posed by that coming war; tools created out of professional thought, in sober consideration of the harsher and less convenient scenarios ahead; with the understanding that in the next war, like in the previous ones, Israel will not have the privilege of not emerging as the victor – even if such outcome exacts heavy prices.
* Prof. Col. (res.) Gabi Siboni is a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. Brig. Gen. (res.) Yuval Bazak is a military and security researcher and chief (in the reserves) of the Galilee Division Staff.
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Photo: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit