"IDF Must Regain its Maneuvering Capabilities"

Former Deputy Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, about what he regards as errors in the build-up of military power and in Operation "Protective Edge". Exclusive

Reality is changing rapidly and the IDF – like other organizations – must pick up the pace of the changes taking place therein in order to adapt to operating against "Hybrid organizations" that are not regular military forces. On the other hand, IDF should regain some of the ground maneuvering capabilities it had knowingly degraded, says Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, who recently retired from IDF service after having lost the race for the position of IDF Chief of Staff to Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, who will replace Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz in February.

Parts of this exclusive interview with Maj. Gen. Naveh were posted in January on the IsraelDefense website, but the complete interview, including Naveh's uncommon comments regarding the IDF force build-up issue, are presented here for the first time.

Maj. Gen. Naveh had retired from military service the first time around in the last decade, having served as the general commanding IDF Central Command. He was recalled to active duty after the Second Lebanon War and served as deputy under two Chiefs of Staff: Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz. Over the last two years, he has led various IDF projects, waiting for the contest for the position of Chief of Staff, which he has recently lost.

While waiting, Naveh spent the long summer of Operation Protective Edge as a member of Benny Gantz's think tank and in countless conversations with field commanders at all levels. "My assertion is that during Operation Protective Edge, our most prominent weakness was our inability to properly assess the enemy's intentions," says Naveh. "We knew exactly where each and every terrorist was located, but we were unable to properly assess what Hamas really wanted, what their red line was, what they were willing and unwilling to absorb and whether or not they will be deterred from taking action during the operation. It is a fact that in this confrontation we reached day 50.

"I think that our evaluation organs are problematic and call for a major change. Right now, they have to be deployed opposite al-Qaeda and ISIS, opposite the Salafists in the Sinai, opposite the changes taking place in Lebanon, where ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are also present in addition to Hezbollah. The Intelligence Analysis Division cannot be conservative. It must be highly flexible in its structure and adapt itself to the developments on the ground. All in all, the progress made by the Intelligence Analysis Division in recent years was far less significant than the progress made by the other Divisions, and some may even suggest that they have gone back rather than forward."

Did the Chief of Staff want to activate the ground plans of the IDF in the Gaza Strip, which had been prepared well in advance?

"Not necessarily. I do not know what had transpired between the Chief of Staff and the political echelon, but my assertion was that even the task of handling the (underground) tunnels should have been addressed after we have dissected the Strip, after we have reached the shore and imposed a threat to their government centers. Only then should we have gone back and handled the tunnels. I never thought it was right to operate against the threat in a frontal, broad manner, banging our head against the wall, without surprise and subterfuge."

Contrary to the Principles of War

"If you examine the activity of destroying the tunnels vis-à-vis the principles of war, it will fail to meet almost any parameter," continues Naveh. "No surprise, no concentration of the effort, no sequentiality and continuity – almost nothing. It is possible that if we had done those things according to my method, the results would have been worse, but I claim, nevertheless, that the approach should have been different.

"In my opinion, Operation Protective Edge had two basic problems. One problem was the fact that information leaked from a cabinet meeting according to which Israel had no intention of subduing Hamas, but only intended to 'deter' it. From that moment on, in fact, Israel provided Hamas with immunity. It was just like telling a boxer 'listen, you go into the ring, you will take a lot of blows but there will be no knock-out, and when you get out of the ring, you will be paid 50,000 dollars.' Hamas, on its part, went for the 50,000 dollar reward – the Cairo talks, and until that point it was perfectly willing to pay with its own people and with our people. Once you fail to threaten with a decisive overbalance of the most vital asset of a terrorist organization, namely – its very existence, you place it inside an immunity perimeter.

"Whereas the final objective of Hamas was not in the court between them and us to begin with, but was associated with the issues between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority and Egypt, deterrence became irrelevant. Hamas wanted its achievements in Cairo, not on the battlefield, so it was willing to pay any price that would support it.

"Now, in view of this assertion, people ask me what happened on the 50th day, when a ceasefire was achieved nevertheless. It is my assertion that the ceasefire was the result of the convergence of several processes. One – Hamas had reached a very low point with regard to inventories. Two – there was a serious controversy between the internal (local) leadership of Hamas and the external leadership, and the 'internal' leaders wanted to demonstrate that their word prevails. At the same time, a reasonable dialog was maturing in Cairo, and that was what they had been looking for. From our perspective, I think that the point of departure of this operation was problematic both logically and militarily.

"The second substantial problem with Operation Protective Edge was the question of what sort of operation we wanted. It is the mirror image of the previous issue, as once we decided on a deterrence-driven operation, thinking that if we stepped another rung up the ladder we would cause Hamas to stop fighting, then obviously it was all rather futile.

"Whereas in my opinion, we failed to understand the intelligence picture – during almost every evening meeting, there were those who said 'people, tomorrow we may have a ceasefire' – a situation emerged where the Chief of Staff did not have the means to say that he realized that Hamas were 'going for broke' and that they were willing to sacrifice anything in order to get to Cairo, so an overbalance-driven operation rather than a deterrence-driven operation should have been staged, or alternately, we should have opted for an operation based on the employment of stand-off fire only.

"The combination of failing to understand Hamas on the one hand and giving Hamas immunity against overbalance on the other hand led to a situation where all of our activity was like attempting to screw a bolt into a hole that cannot accommodate it. The hole is too small, a lot of aluminum chips are flying about, but the bolt cannot be screwed in."

How did it happen that IDF conducted an operation of not less than 50 days, despite the fact that IDF commanders had repeatedly spoken everywhere, including media interviews, about how in any future operation IDF would aspire to execute a 'fast and lethal maneuver'? In effect, they opted for a war of attrition…

"This is a highly essential matter," says Naveh. "Not me, but David Ben-Gurion himself, at the time, ruled out that one of the principles of Israel's national defense doctrine was transferring the actual fighting, as soon as possible, into the enemy's territory, with the aim of achieving overbalance as quickly as possible, owing to economic implications and many other considerations.

"Moreover, months before Operation Protective Edge, we sat down with the previous government in discussions that I was a participant of, and spoke about keeping the war short, and the former Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, kept preaching to us that we should keep the war short – as short as a single-figure number of days – owing to the implications of the damage to the rear area.

"Generally, it was clear that we had to keep the war short rather than prolonging it, among other reasons – because of the implications of international legitimacy, inventories and so forth. So we conducted those discussions with the government, made conscious rational decisions about reducing some of the inventories owing to budget problems and based on the understanding that the war would be kept short, and that is how we embarked on that operation.

"I think that a new political concept was in place and the military had not adapted its plans and inventories to it, nor its state of mind. What actually took place was the opposite of what IDF had prepared for over the last few years. During the operation they told us, in fact, that we were opting for a war of attrition."

Could this be the result of the tremendous success of the Iron Dome system, which lifted the pressure off the home front?

"This was undoubtedly a part of it. The Iron Dome system provided relative freedom for decision making, but my assertion concerns the substance of the decision to go for attrition (which may have been correct), except for one thing: if you want to change the operational concept of the military so dramatically, you must hold structured discussions with the government, decide what the implications would be and prepare yourself accordingly, not embark on a 50-day operation by surprise."

The IDF Force Build-Up Process

Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh is becoming a civilian for the second time. He is 57, has six grandsons and currently resides in Zikhron-Yaakov, having left his previous home in Givat-Shmuel after demonstrations had been held in front of his home and after suffering the hostile attitude of his neighbors even at the local synagogue during his term as the general commanding IDF Central Command. Between his first discharge and his return to service, Naveh served, among other positions, as CEO of the Jerusalem light railway corporation, which was being founded in those days.

"If that was possible, I would have recommended to every Deputy Chief of Staff to be a business administration graduate and enter this office after spending some time in civilian life, as it changes your perspective for a number of reasons," says Naveh.

"The military perspective is different, as a rule, from the civilian perspective, as in civilian life you have to earn money and not just to spend money, and as the money for paying the salaries of your people does not arrive automatically. Beyond that, your commitment to performance in civilian life is real and does not depend on office politics and connivance. When you head a civilian company, you are measured only by the results on the ground, and you come to understand another thing that is not normally understood in the military: the time dimension is, in fact, the primary resource.

"In the military, paradoxically, as time goes by and nothing happens you become content, while in civilian life, if time has passed and nothing happened, it means you have failed. In civilian life you realize that the time of your people, too, is worth money, and that a corporate culture of long waits only because someone had become stuck at some meeting costs the organization a lot of money."

Do you think that IDF succeed in adapting sufficiently quickly to the changing characteristics of the battlefield and to the fact that most of the regular military forces around us have disintegrated?

"I think that this is the number one question for the new Chief of Staff as it was for the outgoing one. When you build up the force, you need to determine which elements are, in fact, the largest pot that contains all the other pots, what is the effective preparation that would enable all of the secondary options. I was strongly opposed to the reductions in the training activities since 2013. Those reductions were not imposed only for economic reasons."

According to Maj. Gen. Naveh, a possible confrontation against Hezbollah is the most significant threat for which we should prepare.

"The military should be more disciplined, so that the Deputy Chief of Staff and Head of the Planning Division can review the elements of overbalance and improve them, instead of having each arm improve its own capabilities."

Has the range of threats imposed on us been reduced or increased over time?

"It has been reduced. We are now required to possess fewer capabilities associated with the mobilization of massive forces or with air-defense against enemy aircraft, and deal a lot less with the enemy's air-defenses. Air-to-air combat encounters have not been an issue we deal with for a long time now, and at sea we have no relevant enemy fleets, which means that the IDF Navy no longer has to adhere to its missile frigate concept. Consequently, owing to the economic constraints, I would have attempted to create an operational concept vis-à-vis the master scenario (in the north), assuming it also includes the secondary scenarios in the Gaza Strip and elsewhere."

What about the possibility of Iran becoming a nuclear state?

"Iran will be a nuclear threshold state, and as far as I am concerned there is no difference between a threshold state and a nuclear state, as once it has become a nuclear threshold state, you will still have to invest all of the resources required in order to cope with that threat, in the event that they decide to become nuclear within a year, and the West will have to invest all of the required resources and be much nicer to them so that they do not forge ahead. This provides them with all of the advantages of being a nuclear superpower without any of the disadvantages."

On the Palestinian front, did you anticipate the increase in terrorist attacks and the moves made by Abu Mazen?

"I think there is no connection between the activities aimed against terrorism and diplomatic processes such as negotiations. On the contrary, historically, whenever we were engaged in negotiations, terrorist activity intensified as it was the interest of the extremists to obstruct the process. The war against terrorism must be active and determined.

"According to my approach, the Judea and Samaria District is an area paved with hot coals, so you cannot refer to those glowing embers as if they are located in a field of sand. Any such ember can burst into a flame very quickly. You must spread a blanket over it very quickly and very forcefully, to prevent further violence and escalation – not to bring in more and more battalions after each incident. Excessive force reduces violence rather than intensifying it. The near future on that front will not be simple. There are glowing embers there and the most acute task during this period is to avoid casualties during the riots, with the emphasis placed on an attempt to avoid injuring youngsters, as this is the primary inflammatory element.

"I think that if elections were to be held in Judea and Samaria in the near future, Hamas would have won, so our interest is to maintain a strong Palestinian Authority that blocks Hamas, and there's no arguing about that. The alternative to the Authority is Hamas, not chaos, and this must be avoided."

In retrospect, has cyberspace justified the expectations that had envisioned it as a new combat zone?

"I had always maintained that there was a lot of 'hype' around the subject of cyberspace. Two or three years ago, I claimed that we had a window of opportunity as the field was relatively free-for-all. As there are no Geneva Conventions for cyberspace, I was a supporter of offensive activity in cyberspace.

"As far as defensive activity was concerned, my assertion was that in this field the primary locomotive is not the military but the civilian systems that have an economic incentive to protect such organizations as banks, insurance companies and so forth.

"I claimed further that contrary to what people say, in a war, the line of defense will always be breached. In cyberspace it is not like that. In cyberspace, if your defense is structured, effective and professional – you will stop the hackers. These are not the same rules. This is not connected with the concentration of the effort or with subterfuge. The smart thing here is to do it professionally. Accordingly, my assertion is that the window of opportunity, until hermetic defense has been established, is timed. As the spectrum of civilian defense expands, the offensive capabilities are blocked more effectively. Still, when you are a superpower, you have offensive capabilities."

Don't you think that cyberspace is a new combat zone, like the airspace had evolved at the turn of the last century?

"In my opinion, no."

What about the IAF? Do you think it enjoys a privileged status in the context of the IDF's force build-up process?

"I think it should enjoy a privileged status. In my view, the IDF is the defense forces of Israel. IAF is also a reserve of the State of Israel and in many respects – a reserve of the entire Jewish people.

"When you speak about strength and deterrence elements, infantry brigades are not counted. What they count is tanks and aircraft and surface vessels and submarines. It is good that the quantities we actually possess do not become public knowledge, as otherwise we would have been embarrassed. I am constantly surprised by the very notion of even considering a decrease in OrBat, including aircraft, when you look at it through the national perspective."

But the number of tanks in the IDF was significantly reduced over the last two years…

"In my opinion, they reduced more than was necessary. When I was Deputy Chief of Staff I developed a concept of 'Out with the old – in with the new', over time, they changed it to 'Out with the old – even if the new is not available yet'. So it turned out that the IDF is currently short of one to two tank brigades. Eventually, those brigades will be reestablished."

Are you among those who claim that the next war will be fought by robots?

"No. As far as I am concerned, the most technologically disappointing trend has been robotics. I was intensively involved in it, and in my opinion robots may be divided into three categories. The first category consists of controlled robots, and here the potential has not been fully utilized yet. For example, remotely controlled tanks, remotely controlled vehicles and so forth.

"The second category is the semi-autonomous category, namely – a platform that I dispatch to a certain position, and it should be capable of analyzing problems along the route on its own. Subsequently, it will be controlled from its destination. Are we there yet? No way!

"The third category consists of robots possessing artificial intelligence and capable of executing a complete mission. We are definitely not there either. If you look at the last ten years in the world of robotics, you will see that the technological progress made there has been very slow."

Are you saying that despite the substantial amount of UAVs on the battlefield, as was the case in Operation Protective Edge, for example?

"A UAV is not a robot but a remotely controlled system, and don't forget that a remotely piloted airborne platform faces only 10% of the difficulties faced by a ground platform, and we are still marking time in the 'controlled' category. Generally speaking, the world of robotics is not progressing because of technological difficulties but also because they are trying to advance telescopically, toward an autonomous platform, instead of first expanding the base of the pyramid – the controlled platforms." 

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