A New Era of Long Wars

by July 2024
Ukrainian soldiers (left, photo credit: REUTERS/Marko Djurica), Israeli Soldiers (right, photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner).

The conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine signal a shift in the nature of warfare. The advent of long wars will affect both military strategy and broader national decision-making. Long wars require not just military readiness but also economic planning, especially civilian and military long-term logistical planning.

For Israel, this is a particularly challenging development, as the country’s defense establishment has spent decades operating under a doctrine based on winning short wars against conventional armies. In fact, the IDF’s Momentum Plan, in effect between 2020 to 2024, was based on enabling the Israeli military to do just that – achieve rapid victories over adversaries. 

Historically, Israeli strategy was characterized by swift, decisive victories, achieved by calling up mass reserves and taking the fight into enemy territory. This approach owed to Israel’s small size, lack of strategic depth, and limited national resources. The idea was to achieve lengthy periods of stability and prosperity between conflicts.

Israel’s enemies had other plans. They entrenched themselves as terror armies within and underneath civilian areas in both Gaza and Lebanon, leading to longer wars.

Wars in Gaza and Lebanon

The prolonged engagement in Gaza and the accompanying medium-term conflict with Hizbullah in Lebanon suggest the need for a paradigm shift towards sustainable approaches to combat that can endure over time.

Eran Ortal, former the head of the Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies, raised the concept of “sustainable strategy” in a April 2018 paper. A sustainable strategy goes beyond merely countering threats; it must allow a nation to persist in a military campaign by adapting to evolving threats and managing internal tensions. For Israel, this means balancing operational resilience and resource management while maintaining strategic agility.

Militarily, one of the lessons going forward is that Israel must significantly enlarge – and keep enlarging – its stockpile of munitions. This involves a combination of diversifying sources of import of ammunition and, where feasible, boosting domestic production. 

Israel cannot be sure that the United States will be able to keep supplying it with the ammunition at the pace that Israel needs, since other American allies – Ukraine today and possibly Taiwan in the future – could compete with Israeli requirements for key supplies like artillery and tank shells. 

The Israeli Defense Ministry’s recent shift towards greater domestic production of ammunition, following the exposure of Israel’s over-dependence on the United States, is a step towards this sustainability. 

The Defense Ministry’s plan, known as Independence, aims to reduce reliance on the United States by boosting domestic production of air-to-ground munitions and shells. This strategy includes substantial orders to local defense firms. However, the Ministry must also consider purchasing affordable munitions from abroad to maintain a sufficient stockpile for wartime.

The question of where to procure munitions such as mortar shells and bombs – domestically or abroad – should be guided mainly by economics. It may be more cost-effective to procure them abroad. It is not economical for Israel to simply start producing all of its own ammunition, when some of it can be purchased from other suppliers, such as countries in eastern Europe and Asia, more cheaply.

There is a political factor as well. Relying on emergency imports from the US creates a dangerous level of dependence on the latest whims and interests of the White House, which no one can assure will always line up with Israel’s own interests. In addition, certain munitions, like Iron Dome interceptors, must be produced in Israel for strategic reasons. 

The size of the weapons stockpile on the eve of the war is more important than a country’s ability to import arms or produce them after the war breaks out. Domestic production will not be able to keep up with the rate of wartime usage. The key is to ensure that Israel can amass a substantial stockpile swiftly before the next lengthy war begins. 

The IDF’s Galilee Rose war drill, held in February 2021, simulating extensive air strikes on Hizbullah targets, highlights the scale of munitions required for a prolonged conflict. 

The exercise revealed that the Israeli Air Force would need to strike approximately 3,000 enemy targets every 24 hours, suggesting that in the first three weeks of a full-scale war against Hizbullah, the Air Force alone would likely require at least 60,000 air-to-ground munitions. A longer war could easily see that number rise to around 100,000. 

These numbers go far beyond what Israel was likely stockpiling on the eve of the October 7 Hamas attack, and serve as a reminder that it is too easy to underestimate how quickly ammunition runs out in lengthy wars. The fact that Israel required hundreds of US cargo flights and shipments of ammunition during the Gaza war is testament to the tendency to dangerously underestimate the length of wars.

The scenario of a drawn-out conflict with Hizbullah means Israel must also stockpile food, medicine, and fuel, and ensure that every sector of the economy can function, meaning that government planners must look beyond military affairs, according to former Israeli intelligence officer Doron Tamir.

War in Ukraine

With a population of 45 million, Ukraine has demonstrated resilience and unity in the face of significant losses. The protracted conflict with Russia, which boasts a population of 150 million, underscores the importance of sustained military and economic efforts. Israel, with its smaller population and geographical size, must draw lessons from Ukraine’s endurance.

Russia was surprised by the length of the war that it launched, having falsely assessed that its initial February 2022 armored ground offensive, aimed at seizing Kyiv from the north and territories in the east, would quickly topple the Ukrainian state and force it into submission. 

As Russia’s tanks, armored personnel carriers, and trucks were destroyed in convoys targeted by anti-tank missiles on long roads, Moscow gradually realized that it would have to rearrange its entire economy, military, and international relations to remain in a lengthy war. 

Israel must be prepared for potentially simultaneous conflicts with Hizbullah and Iran, which could be triggered either by a strike on the Iranian nuclear program or by Iran joining a war in Lebanon. This kind of long war further underscores the need for readiness and preparation for worst-case scenarios. 

Yaakov Lappin
Yaakov Lappin is an analyst at the MirYam Institute, a research fellow at the Alma Center and a media analyst specializing in Israel’s defense establishment.
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