The Illusion of Deterrence, Early Warning, and Decisive Outcome

by March 2022
Minister of Defense Benny Gantz in Jerusalem, next to a photo of Six day war- Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, Chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin, Gen. Rehavam Zeevi (R) And Gen. Narkis in Jerusalem. Photo Credits: REUTERS, Ilan Bruner.

A precondition for any military strategy is the consolidation of a few principles of a country’s security doctrine to guide it. Israel’s first, unwritten security doctrine crystallized in the wake of the War of Independence in 1948 and answered the problems of the postwar geopolitical reality: hostile surroundings, indefensible borders without tactical depth—to say nothing of a strategic one, a large part of the population living within the enemies’ artillery range, and an army based on a militia of reservists mobilized to face the attack (at that time, full mobilization required a whole week). Two security principles resulted from this reality: (1) compensating for the lack of depth by moving forward or rapidly transferring the war to the enemy’s territory; (2) A strong air force that does not need a lot of manpower and can cover the mobilization, protect the civil population from the enemy’s artillery, and determine the campaign on the ground. Israel implemented this doctrine partially in 1956 and fully in 1967.

The Six-Day War in 1967 demanded a critical reexamination of Israel’s doctrine given the changed geopolitical realities. Such revision has never been done. Instead of a defense doctrine compatible with the new circumstances and established on appropriate principles, a virtual doctrine emerged, built upon on slogans and preconceptions. Its pillars were three tenets, which originated in the postwar atmosphere of hubris—deterrence, early warning, and decisive outcome. Unfortunately, they are still valid today.

The clearest definition of the meaning of indecision was given a few months before the Yom Kippur War by Chief of Staff Elazar: “A war that in its end both sides will claim to be triumphant will be a defeat for the IDF.” This was a prophecy that came true several times after the 1973 war both in Lebanon and in Gaza.

Let’s start with the tenant of governing assumptions or “concepsia.” It became a dirty word in Israel after 1973, a reference to the complacency inherent in the assumption that Egypt would not launch at attach at the Bar Lev Line across the Suez Canal. Conceptual assumptions are, however, essential to any process of thinking and any estimation of a situation. They reflect the preconditions for any course of action or an event. However, to be valid, an assumption’s point of departure and basic suppositions should be highly reliable/probable; otherwise it is no more than an illusion. Subsequently, from time to time, fundamental assumptions should be reexamined and reanalyzed to ensure that the necessary conditions have not changed. Such reexamination was not done from the Six-Day War to the Yom Kippur War. On the contrary, rather than regularly scrutinize its validity, the assumption became the covenant of the Israeli Intelligence Directorate. Instead of occasionally examining its compatibility with the changing circumstances, the Intelligence Directorate adapted the facts to the assumption

A similar, less prominent, less famous but equally harmful assumption was the operational one, which stemmed from three axioms: (1) the IDF will have an early warning of few days before the outbreak of war; (2) In case of surprise attack, the regular army and the air force will block the attack until the reservists can be mobilized and move to counterattack; (3) 300 tanks will suffice to defend the Sinai Peninsula.

Since Israel did not want and did not need a war, discouraging the Arabs from launching a new war became the central pillar of its defense doctrine after 1967. However, deterrence is a psychological construct that conceals many pitfalls, and it is difficult—if not irresponsible—to make it a foundation of a state’s security doctrine. The principal hindrance is that the deterring power may not know when its opponent ceases to be deterred. Deterrence does not end with the outbreak of war but long before, when the party that hitherto had been deterred until then made up its mind to hit the road and prepare for war in earnest.

During 1967–1974, Israel’s military leadership understood deterrence in terms of the balance of military power and the outcomes of local, limited skirmishes. It gained confidence from both the IDF’s technological superiority and the results of air battles, raids, and battle days. The army’s prestige and popularity after 1967 helped bolster its leaders’ self-confidence that war could be prevented by deterrence, and there was no need to concede anything to the Arabs and certainly not to accept all their stipulations. This persuasion increased over time, and their arrogance was reinforced when the Egyptian threats of war did not materialize.

The political leadership relied on the army and this confidence, which was not completely justified, made it easier to resist pressures to compromise and concede. The only advantage of the political leaders over the professionals who assist them in collecting the data and estimating situations lies in their assessment of the leaders of the opposing side. They alone are familiar with the isolation of those at the head of the pyramid and can empathize with, understand or, at least guess what transpires in their minds and hearts. Then Prime Minister Golda Meir, however, did not pass this test, as she admitted to and regretted her underestimating of Sadat.

Relying on the army’s approach to deterrence in topographic and military terms only blinded the Israeli leaders from seeing other factors that affected deterrence. The political leadership, more than warlords, should have considered leadership, motivation, national honor, sovereignty, perceptions of success and failure, the significance of casualties or the use of elements of national potential, such as economic power or international support. Moshe Dayan might have been somewhat of an exception, but he was inconsistent in his attitude toward these issues and did not fight for his ideas about deterrence when they exceeded the limits of consensus and provoked opposition among his colleagues.

When the deterrent stops deterring, early warning then becomes important. If the deterring party is warned of the loss of the deterrence or even of its weakening, steps can then be taken to reconstruct it. Although if there is no early warning, the deterring party continues to live with the illusion that it is successfully deterring the adversary, and ultimately, that party will be surprised to find out that a war has broken out. This is precisely what happened to Israel in 1973, and several times later until most recently in May 2021.

If deterrence is a psychological trap in wars between states, then all the more so when fighting against guerilla and terror organizations—especially suicide terrorists. Actually, the concept “deterrence” does not exist in this type of warfare. The goals of the adversaries are far apart; the balance of power and casualties have no meaning; the initiative for war always starts with the irregular side, while the counterguerilla troops are restricted to responding; the principles of international law and war ethics are central only to the regular army and limit its freedom of action and movement. Under such circumstances, it is possible to thwart and reduce terrorism but seldom can it be routed out completely. A lesson learned from the last confrontation in Gaza is that Israel needs to reconsider its security doctrine and adapt it to Lebanon and Gaza of the 21st century. To repeat the follies of 2006, 2009, 2012, 2014, and 2021 will be far worse than stupid.

Early alert or warning has been perceived in Israel as the “golden nugget of information”: unilateral news about the enemy’s intention to launch war and its time table. This was the kind of information that the Israeli Intelligence Directorate waited for before the Yom Kippur War. However, such an animal has yet to be born in real life. Even the “golden news” that arrived in the early morning hours of Saturday, October 6 would not have been perceived as such without the infrastructure of earlier information that preceded it. Early warning is a process, not an act or an event that is parallel to the preparations of war on the other side. Such a process took place in Gaza in the last year; but for all we know from the media and the press writings about a temporary accord and how much Hamas strives for it and does not want war, Israel’s intelligence and/or their political bosses appears to have missed it this time as well.

Decisive outcome (or what some would call a “victory”) is an even more vague concept. At the end of the 1980s, Ehud Barak attempted to define it through the concept of destruction: hitting X percent of a unit meant its destruction. Still, the concept itself remained vague; for example, is a tank considered destroyed when its turret is hit and it has lost its capability of producing fire? Is it destroyed when it loses its mobility and cannot maneuver? Or is it destroyed when the crew is killed or injured and stops functioning? It is easy and requires only a little imagination to extrapolate from the individual tank to a unit, a formation, or a whole army.

The Six-Day War, dramatic as its course may have been, ended in what can be described retrospectively as a partial decisive outcome. The Arab armies lost their combat capacity, but the outcome was insufficient to force the Arab states to accept Israel’s minimum political demands. The Yom Kippur War ended with no clear-cut decisive military outcome , as after the ceasefire Golda Meir admitted to her colleagues that “it is a draw. We are on the west side and they are on the east side.” Wars of attrition continued on both the Egyptian and Syrian fronts after the ceasefire (in the long run, the war brought about the Israel–Egypt peace agreement). The first war in Lebanon in 1982 also ended indecisively and was followed by a long war of attrition that lasted until the IDF’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, which led to the Second Intifada. The clearest definition of the meaning of indecision was given a few months before the Yom Kippur War by Chief of Staff Elazar: “A war that in its end both sides will claim to be triumphant will be a defeat for the IDF.” This was a prophecy that came true several times after the 1973 war both in Lebanon and in Gaza.

At that time, Elazar meant regular war between armies. Decisive outcome is an even more evasive concept in fighting against guerilla or terrorist organizations. In such cases, there is little meaning in measuring the percent of destruction, while excessive harm to non-combatant populations may act as a boomerang. Decisive outcomes are usually achieved when the enemy has lost its capability of fighting. Only in very few wars did armies manage to subdue guerrilla organizations to this level. A good example is the British army’s success against the Arabs in Palestine in the fall of 1938 and against the rebels in Malaya in the early 1950s. A more recent and relevant example is the IDF’s operation Defensive Shield in 2002–2003. At the same time, a guerilla or terror organization has no chances of winning a campaign against an army. A guerilla or terror organization can only harass an army to accomplish political goals like national liberation in the campaigns of decolonization, or become itself a regular army capable of winning on the battlefield, as Mao Tse Tung showed in 1949.

Israel’s defense doctrine should thus be reassessed, if deterrence is irrelevant to anti-guerilla and anti-terror warfare and given the difficulties in achieving decisive outcomes against guerilla and terror warfare. It needs a reset, followed by an analysis of the geopolitical situation in the Middle East in general and in every potential arena of military activity from Iran to Gaza. This analysis, in turn, should yield a short list of principles that will guide the rebuilding and operation of Israel’s armed forces. This is not a subject for speeches, statements, and declarations but for quiet consultations and debates, drawing conclusions and taking the necessary actions.

Yoav Gelber
Yoav Gelber is professor emeritus of history at the University of Haifa and the author of over 20 books on modern Israeli history.
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