Israeli’s Military Is World Class. But Is It Ready?

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Israeli Defense Forces are widely respected as a cutting edge military machine. The IDF is equipped with extremely lethal cyberwar capacity, eyes-on-the-world intel, star-wars level missile defense systems, a justly famous air force and a small but superbly trained cadre of special forces troops.

But a scathing critique of the IDF's culture and readiness from a retired general has created a debate within Israel about whether the country has become complacent. It's a debate worth having, even if some of the fears are likely overblown.

The criticism came earlier this month from Yitzhak Brick, a hero of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, who has been the IDF ombudsman for the past decade. He is not a member of the IDF general staff, but an independent actor who is leaving his post on Jan. 1, after a 10-year stint.

In a thick dossier sent to the Minister of Defense and the Knesset Committee on Foreign Affairs and Security, Brick detailed what he sees as serious weaknesses in the IDF’s operational abilities and war-fighting doctrine. The report is classified “secret” but its wide distribution ensured it was efficiently leaked.

According to Haaretz military correspondent Amos Har-el, Brick raised concerns about what he sees as the erosion of the IDF’s ground forces, and also the general staff's unwillingness to investigate itself and correct its mistakes.

Brick's critique comes just after IDF Chief of Staff General Gadi Eisenkot, who finishes his four-year stint at the start of 2019, presented the Israeli government with a document certifying the army’s high level of preparedness under his leadership, writing:

As the person who is responsible for the readiness to go to war, I state that the IDF is ready to carry out every required mission. [It is] an army with intelligence and air superiority, ground capabilities and rich operational experience that meets the test every day in the realm of war.

Eisenkot took the unusual step of getting his subordinate generals to sign off on the document. There were, as far as I can tell, no dissenters. So which account of the IDF is right?

Senior officers immediately rallied behind Eisenkot's, pointing out, correctly, that the role of the ombudsman is to deal with soldiers’ complaints, not judge the quality of the army. They are also right in noting that Israel's military is world-class. But Brick’s critique, which calls into question the IDF’s ability to fight a successful ground war on two fronts, has awakened a small but persistent voice of anxiety over Israel’s economic and military power.

Back in 1973, a supremely confident Israeli high command was caught flat-footed by a combined Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack that, according to the IDF’s vaunted intelligence, was impossible. And when the invasion came, Israel’s ultimate weapon, its supposedly invincible air force, lost about a third of its fighter jets to SAM 6 missiles supplied by the Soviet Union.

A total Israeli disaster was averted only by a gambling counter-attack by infantry and armored troops, a good many of them reservists. In all, more than 2,500 soldiers were killed, and upwards of 8,500 were wounded (including Yitzhak Brick) — a horrific price for a country of four million.

Brick, who belongs to the Yom Kippur generation, thinks that Eisenkot and his generals have forgotten the lesson of the 1973. If they have, some of the blame lies with Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu, another member of the Yom Kippur generation is, at once, both a security hawk and a loss-averse strategist. During his decade in office, he has fostered a new military doctrine, based on Israel’s technological superiority -- hence the flashy star-wars capabilities.

And yet, these tools fit Israel’s geopolitical circumstances, which no longer include threats from neighboring Egypt or Jordan. They maximize its ability to fight from a distance. The present campaign in the Syrian skies is an example. So is the nearly flawless performance of the Iron Dome anti-rocket system on the Gaza front. 

This kind of fighting has made the old way seem antiquated. There is no obvious need for a large armored corps like the one that saved the day in 1973, or the reserve units that were once the backbone of a smaller, weaker country. Even the length of compulsory military service is shrinking.  

Most Israelis welcome these changes. They inspire confidence. People feel protected. When Eisenkot says that the army is ready to meet any challenge, he is believed.     

From that perspective, Brick seems like a messenger from another time, reminding Israelis of the cost of complacency. But while the IDF is a very strong army, it is not omnipotent and its leaders make serious mistakes. In 2015, intelligence underestimated the number and danger of Hamas tunnels, and the infantry did not perform well at all. More recently, no one foresaw the effectiveness of weaponizing balloons and the IDF still has no answer to them.    

The timing of Brick's message has played a big role in stirring debate, and it is not accidental. Yom Kippur is a time when even the most confident Israelis feel at least a hint of anxiety.

The day after Yom Kippur, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin eulogized the fallen at the 45th commemoration of the war. “We need an end of leadership that comes from a single place, that speaks with one voice and that rejects dissent because, as we have learned, the price is very, very high.

Yitzhak Brick, an old warrior, probably exaggerates the weaknesses of the IDF. But by challenging the public's acceptance the IDF's self-evaluation, he is also helping to plan for the next war. If that causes some more introspection, even an inquiry, that's no bad thing and Israelis may one day thank him.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.