—Winston S. Churchill
The planners of the Israel Defense Forces came to view Israel’s main threat as emanating from “asymmetric” forces, a concept that emerged in a context of clear Israeli military supremacy against all neighboring conventional armies. Since then, however, Iran has challenged Israel’s military supremacy both directly and indirectly. The arsenals of Iran’s proxies on Israel’s borders have required the enemy to be redefined as terror “armies.” Thus, the threat to Israel has grown significantly and changed in nature. The theoretical framework of the IDF’s “Operational Concept for Victory,” which is the basis for the 2020 “Momentum” Multiyear Plan, therefore defines Israel’s new reality, lays out an updated approach for decisive victory against capable adversaries, and provides a theoretical and practical outline for the necessary force design requirements.
During 2019–2020, the IDF released two important publications: “The Momentum Multiyear Plan” and a conceptual document, “The Operational Concept for Victory.” The two documents indicate a significant change in the way the IDF sees both itself and its adversaries. At the heart of these publications lies the IDF’s understanding that reactive measures are insufficient to confront contemporary challenges. Instead, the IDF must undergo a fundamental change.
This necessity for change is shaped by two core factors:
- The IDF’s new understanding of the military challenge—Israel’s adversaries are “diffuse, rocket-based terror armies” (i.e., not just guerrilla or terror organizations). The IDF must come to a new understanding of its enemies and reinvent itself in light of this understanding. That will be the focus of the first section of this article.
- The IDF’s potential for change—A driver for change is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Change happens when we also identify new opportunities of which we have not yet taken full advantage. In this case, our opportunities lie in the recent developments in the digital revolution, also known as the “fourth industrial revolution.”
The new IDF operational concept and the Momentum Plan rest on a theoretical framework based on these two factors.
The Emergence of Rocket-Based Terror Armies
The 1990s and 2000s shaped the IDF’s worldview and how it has perceived reality since then. These two decades represent a relatively rare moment in military history of near-total dominance of advanced Western militaries. This military supremacy was primarily manifested in airpower that increasingly looked like it could win wars on its own from then on, without any real danger to ground forces or to the country itself.
Israel’s foes had ample reason to take its air supremacy seriously. The dissolution of the Soviet Union suspended the development of Syria’s air force and its anti-aircraft missiles for more than a decade. The memory of the defeat of the Syrian air force and the destruction of its surface-to-air missile array by the Israeli Air Force in the 1982 First Lebanon War was still fresh in the minds of Syrian generals when they witnessed up close the overwhelming display of American airpower in the 1991 Gulf War.
As prominent military thinkers in the West and in Israel celebrated the seemingly historic victory of airpower in the 1999 Kosovo conflict, the other side had already determined the main elements of its response to Western airpower—concealment, transitioning from armored warfare to low-signature light infantry, proxy warfare, and long-range fires as a primary tactical and strategic tool. IDF researchers Carmit Valensi and Itai Brun called this development the “other revolution in military affairs.” This revolution is rooted in diverse conditions—the weakening of Middle Eastern states, the Islamic revolution in Iran, the breakup of the Soviet Union, and, of course, the revolutions in information technology and in military affairs (RMA) in the 1990s—leading to the total dominance of Western militaries and the IDF as a result.
The IDF called these enemies, which developed in the 1990s and 2000s, “asymmetric,” emphasizing their military inferiority. In Southern Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank, the IDF found itself fighting forces that were indeed inferior militarily. The main challenge, as the IDF saw it at the time, was in the limitations that the IDF had self-imposed, and not the enemy’s capabilities.
Still, worrying signs indicated an erosion of Israel’s air supremacy as early as the 1990s. All the IDF’s campaigns during the 1990s in Lebanon and Gaza featured extended periods of fighting, with rising costs and increasing strikes on the Israeli home front, a threat that remained relevant even after the introduction of the Iron Dome system in the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense against Hamas.
The disappointing results of these campaigns were usually attributed to the familiar challenges of counterinsurgency and counterguerrilla warfare. The IDF’s successful fight against terror in the West Bank in the early 2000s contributed further to the failure to distinguish between the phenomena emerging over the border in Lebanon (and later in Gaza) and the challenges posed by asymmetric adversaries. The apparent paradox between the total supremacy of the IDF and the ambiguous results of the campaigns against Hamas and Hezbollah caused frustration among both decision makers and the Israeli public.
In this regard, the Operational Concept for Victory, and the term “rocket-based terror armies” are important guideposts in the Israeli understanding of the challenge. The IDF no longer speaks of “asymmetric warfare” against “inferior forces,” in which Israel’s main limits on the use of force are self-imposed. It no longer sees Hezbollah and Hamas as challenges rooted in “insurgency” or “guerrilla warfare.” Rather, the new IDF operational concept describes the enemy as an advanced networked adversary that has cracked the secret of Israel’s military power and presents Israel with an operational challenge that serves enemy strategy. These are organized, well-trained armies, well-equipped for their missions, with straightforward operational ideas and tactics, all of which support a clear and dangerous strategy and ideology.
Moreover, the IDF’s recent publications represent an understanding that the paradigm of deterrence operations is a dead-end strategic and doctrinal pattern. Such operations were not meant to be decisive victories and only served to inoculate the enemy against IDF power by gradually exposing him to limited doses of our capabilities, while indicating to the enemy that his military concept is effective and that he should continue to develop it. The operational concept at the heart of the Momentum Plan effectively accepts this argument. Limited operations are still an available alternative for decision makers, but the main test of Israel’s military power is that of decisive victory. This includes the ability to not only defeat a terror army like Hezbollah but also to do it relatively quickly, at an acceptable cost to our forces and our home front, and in a way that is irrefutable.
The Main Distinguishing Attributes of the Military Threat Facing Israel
The enemy’s “system” can be defined by its strategic logic, its practical tactical manifestations, and the operational idea that connects the two. At the strategic level, Iran directs the enemy’s system, which seeks to deprive Israel of its regional position. This threat will gradually intensify Israel’s security challenges through deterrence and is based on fire bases created around Israel’s borders (at this stage, Lebanon and Gaza). At the operational level, these fire bases rest on two complementary principles—self-protection in complex environments and massive strikes. At the tactical level, this operational form is enabled by familiar tactics, like ambushes or other hit-and-run attacks, and especially by the ability to strike effectively from a distance. In other words, these are anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities (military capabilities designed to deter or delay deployment of the other side’s into a given theater or to prevent their effectiveness of operation in that theater) of tactical proportions.
The persistent attacks in recent years by Iranian proxies and/or by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps against Saudi and Emirati targets offer a model of action that could be turned against Israel.
In a similar manner, under the cover of the deterrence that fire bases along Israel’s border can create, Iran is trying to strengthen its hold on the areas adjacent to Israel. In parallel, Iran is working toward nuclear capabilities that will become, in its eyes, the ideal deterrent and will allow Iran even more freedom of action to undermine the regional order.
What can we learn from the changing nature of the threat Israel faces? Modern military history can be seen as alternating waves of the dominance of offense and defense, of maneuver and fire. The precision-fire revolution of the 1980s and 1990s negated the need for non-Western conventional armies to maneuver on the battlefield. The adversary’s adaptation to this reality has moved from reducing its vulnerabilities in airpower in the 1990s and 2000s to a new phase of gaining precision-strike capabilities of its own. Israel’s enemy can now strike from a relatively safe distance, beyond the range at which Israel—the target—can respond, thus threatening the IDF’s freedom of action on the battlefield. Effective fires cause damage and thus serves as a deterrent. This capability allows adversaries to carry out an escalating insurgent strategy, which undermines the existing order and the balance of forces in the region.
The challenge that Israel faces is a particular manifestation of a global military phenomena—A2/AD-based defense-strike complexes. These are a global development and the product of the contemporary military era, whose essence is the dominance of fire over maneuver. IDF researcher Dvir Peleg coined the phrase “defense-strike complex” to describe the phenomenon of regional powers (Russia and China) taking advantage of stand-off fires technology in order to extract a high cost from the US if it chooses to intervene in regional crises. The Russians and Chinese are not “asymmetrical” but are instead “near-peer competitors” in American eyes. If the US decides to protect its interests and fulfill its commitments to allies threatened by Russia or China, it will face a real threat to its planes, ships, and regional bases. A broad escalation would also mean the US itself is threatened by ballistic missiles—a threat that includes nuclear weapons at its extreme. Under the cover of this threat, Russia and China are carrying out a gradual subversive campaign that rests on gray zone warfare—small steps, below the level of war, that gradually increase their influence.
Opportunities for Change
In the past, the IDF knew how to take advantage of technological advances in order to develop groundbreaking concepts. The precision-fire revolution, as mentioned above, forced the Syrian military to go from a strategy of strategic parity on land and in the air, to a concept of limited confrontation with Israel, relying heavily on proxy forces. If we have indeed identified the main directions of change needed to face our enemies, how can the technological potential developed over the last decade, part of the so-called fourth industrial revolution, allow us to achieve a new, much needed, breakthrough?
Automation and advanced information processing enable the creation of battlefield sensing, processing, and rapid strikes complexes—a form of reconnaissance—as part of the maneuvering force. As opposed to the main elements of intelligence gathering and processing, which operate detached from the maneuvering force, the tactical reconnaissance complex will be based on networked unmanned aerial vehicles and radars receiving and deciphering the signatures emitted by the enemy during combat. Interconnected data and advanced information processing could break through the current glass ceiling blocking more effective results from the intelligence/air force attack system and could allow more information to be processed more rapidly, in turn enabling more targets to be attacked more quickly and accurately.
The Momentum Plan is complemented by a conceptual framework that enables a clear set of practical priorities in a resource-starved reality. The theoretical framework must answer three fundamental questions:
- What is the foundational idea that enables a better use of military force?
- How do we fix the clock while it is still ticking? In other words, how do we change the force without replacing it at an exorbitant cost, while maintaining and improving its readiness for immediate challenges?
- What is all this meant to achieve? In other words, what is the operational goal of Momentum’s force design?
The IDF’s “Operational Concept for Victory” answers these questions through three primary principles:
Principle 1: Multidomain
The idea of multidomain should be understood as a new quality of combat-integration of air, land, intelligence, electro-magnetic, cyber, and other dimensions, never before possible by traditional command-and-control mechanisms.
The idea of multidomain comes from two insights: First, complex problems need complex solutions. Israel’s enemies present a complex problem that includes a closed, populated combat environment; stealth; diffusion; diverse strike capabilities; and legal and psychological snares. The multidomain principle expands military maneuver capabilities from geographic realms of land, air, and sea to other dimensions of cyber, electro-magnetic spectrum, information, and subterranean, and provide a new realm of opportunity to pose dilemmas to the enemy.
Second, we live in an age of integration. Not only does the nature of our adversary require it, but also the era we live in demands new, closer synergy that was not possible before. The age of integration allows us today to build forces that can operate cyber, electronic warfare, air, sensors, information processing, strike, and ground elements on the tactical level. These means will not replace the institutional services and the professionalism that provides highly advanced air, intelligence, telecommunications, and cyber capabilities.
The multidomain principle at the tactical level is simple. The more we develop independent, organic operational capabilities that function simultaneously in different domains under one command framework and toward one defined mission, the more room we will have to maneuver and confound our adversaries, while their ability to adapt effectively wanes. This is the guiding principle for developing capabilities in the Momentum Multiyear Plan.
Principle 2: “Smart” Responses
Often the term “transformation” is seen as a utopian fantasy of a state-of-the-art modern military force, which takes massive investments in time and resources to build. Indeed, the question is often asked—how can a military organization change at acceptable cost and in a reasonable time frame, while maintaining its readiness for war?
The principle that resolves this tension is the idea of the “smart suit.” The idea can be explained by the “smart city” metaphor. The city already exists—paved roads, municipal services, places of business, neighborhoods, traffic lights, cultural and athletic institutions, and, of course, the residents are already there. To create a more effective, “smart” city—one that uses less energy while providing better services, one that makes do with fewer police while providing more security, in addition to being more accessible and less crowded—more investment in the traditional infrastructure is not necessary. Instead, a new layer is needed—a communications and sensor network built on the basis of existing infrastructure, which will gather and process information in order to provide insights on how to better make use of existing resources. Digitization of production processes, including agriculture, medicine, and industry, is another example of adding a layer of sensors and data processing on top of existing infrastructure.
By donning a “smart suit,” Israel’s existing military force can adapt to the challenge of fires-based stealth enemies without harming its immediate readiness for war and without demanding impossible budgets. In practical terms, this means a reconnaissance screen-based on squadrons of UAVs belonging to tactical forces, synergy of intelligence and sensing means, all of which is connected to joint databases and effective information extraction systems. This will allow us to locate the enemy more precisely and more rapidly. Creating this platform is not cheap, but the “smart suit” allows us to base our solution on the existing force while clothing it in affordable and practical modernization elements.
Principle 3: Negating Enemy Capabilities
In the past, the IDF defeated Arab armies by using maneuvers in enemy territory to threaten encirclement and to cause them to collapse. This is how the IDF brought about the collapse of the Egyptian army in the Negev and in the Sinai deserts in the four major wars from 1948 to 1973, forced both the Jordanian army to retreat from the West Bank and the Syrian army from the Golan Heights in 1967. However, against fire-based terror armies, it is unlikely that in a future conflict capturing territory and threatening to surround them will achieve similar results. Territory is an important asset for the enemy system, but it is no longer the ultimate purpose of the system. The new enemy fights to maintain continuous fire into Israeli territory. Since the IDF cannot stop the fire attack through intelligence/stand-off fires alone, the central aim of the Momentum Plan is to design a force that can negate the enemy’s combat capabilities, first and foremost fire capabilities.
In conclusion, two central elements of the response to the enemy’s defense-strike complex threat are being developed, utilizing the technological potential of the fourth industrial revolution:
- A quicker and more precise ability to locate enemy forces—This is attainable primarily during tactical contact that forces the defender to take actions that emit signatures. Locating the enemy and striking its prepared hideouts or as the enemy moves between them will neutralize the enemy’s ability to operate as a system.
- Fire suppression—The tactical purpose of enemy actions is to enable fire on Israel’s civilian home front and fire against the IDF’s maneuvering forces. Enemy fire is the only time that the enemy reveals himself in an unequivocal fashion. The moment of fire is thus the main weakness of an adversary whose main strength is stealth. This moment must become a core component of the effort to locate the enemy. Destroying the sources of fire in this window of time will neutralize the combat capabilities of fire-based adversaries.
The new operational concept comes largely from the new understanding that the nature of threats facing the State of Israel and the opportunities inviting the IDF to change. At the heart of the updated IDF operational concept and the Momentum Plan is a fundamental change. The challenge of the Momentum Plan is to match the IDF’s existing might to the evolved threat, and to enable Israel to go on the attack—to return to short wars, decisive victory, and removal of the main military threat to Israel, that of rocket fire. Negating the threat of rocket fire will give Israel significant strategic freedom of action and will thwart the adversary’s rebuilding efforts after the war. The Momentum Plan aims to address this challenge by taking full advantage of the emergent technological potential in order to make the IDF a “smart” war machine.