The IDF's New Commando Brigade: Evolution, Not Revolution

The IDF Chief of Staff decided to establish a commando brigade. Colonel (res.) Atai Shelach, former commander of the IDF Corps of Combat Engineers' YAHALOM Unit, about the implications of this move on the battlefield. Exclusive

The IDF's New Commando Brigade: Evolution, Not Revolution

few months ago, the IDF and Israeli defense establishment announced their decision to establish a new commando brigade within IDF, and that this initiative will be implemented in the context of the "Gideon" plan (the IDF's multi-year plan, to be launched in 2015/2016). This announcement was the culmination of years of discussions regarding this issue, which were conducted in several rounds and with regard to different options. The last round of discussions was held in 2006, even before the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War. In those days the new formation was to be designated "Special Forces Group".

The IDF has a plethora of unique and special operations units, made up of the cream of Israeli youth that can actually execute missions at the extreme limits of human capacity – each according to its respective function and designation. It is important to distinguish between the special operations units of the IDF – of which there are only a few – and the commando units. The main difference between them, at the end of the day, is the nature of the missions they are called upon to execute at the extreme range of their respective capabilities, although basically, the competence of the warfighters making up the units regarded as special operations units and those making up the commando units are almost identical. The newly established commando brigade, for example, includes all of the commando units of the IDF, while the special operations units remain the responsibility of the service branches that employ them – the IAF, the IDF Navy and IDF Intelligence Directorate.

Generally, the various units were established over the years in response to operational needs and to organizational conditioning, such as providing specialized solutions (which eventually evolved into professional solutions) for various needs and regions. Eventually, many units found themselves relatively busy performing peacetime and routine security missions, and severely under-exploited during wartime.

It is important to understand that the uppermost commandment of all (or most) of these units is to prepare for emergency and be ready for war. For this to happen, it is important to have plans according to which the units should prepare and deploy with regard to the required competence criteria and the actual capability to execute the plans and the missions they include. Generally speaking, the operational plans constitute the supreme force build-up compass as they specify the priorities and required allocation of resources viewed through a broad, integrative perspective.

The main and sometimes only criterion is the contribution these special operations units make to the State of Israel during wartime. This is the uppermost commandment through which we should examine, openly and without prejudice, the actual contribution made by the special operations units during the various wars in which the State of Israel was involved, vis-à-vis their potential and the massive investments made in them over the years.

Operational Effectiveness

To this day, each unit was independent within the chain of command in charge of it, vis-à-vis the unique activities assigned to it within the command or on behalf of the relevant command. Naturally, these activities were not always consistent with the other special operations elements and in some cases were not consistent with the operational competence. The establishment of the new brigade will lead to a situation where, all at once, a single element will view the operational whole and know how to make the necessary adaptations and create the additional derivatives. Once this has taken place, the new organization will be able to execute purposeful, effective and properly focused battle procedures.

It is important to note that prior to the establishment of the new commando brigade, IDF had established the Depth Corps and assigned to this command and the general officer heading it the responsibility for the employment of the IDF's special operations units during peacetime and emergencies. Consequently, the top tier already includes a central element in charge of synchronization.

The establishment of the new commando brigade will enable the IDF to plan for and assign the various commando units to specialized, unique efforts more easily and to adapt the executing element to the required capabilities and competence. The other and even more important advantage will be the ability to avoid employment duplicity or even a waste of resources, and achieve employment force multipliers owing to the synchronization, synergy and broad perspective of the brigade HQ. This is not the situation today, and units are being assigned clearly vis-à-vis their respective designations only in very few cases. Moreover, in some cases, owing to "internal politics", employment duplicity is common, mainly during the planning and battle procedure stages. Accordingly, the establishment of the new brigade will be a major benefit with regard to this important aspect.

Operational Envelope

Without delving into unnecessary detail, the operational envelope is made up of solid, relevant intelligence, specialized technologies and weapon systems and communication and surveillance systems. In commando operations, this envelope is infinitely more important. The establishment of the new commando brigade will enable the creation of a readily-available envelope that fits the planning and execution of the missions, so that the operational units may operate with maximum flexibility while utilizing their own resources (the resources of the commando brigade) rather than becoming a burden, which in some cases cannot be provided with effective solutions, for the HQs of the various regional commands, divisions and brigades which cannot always fulfill the needs of the commando units.

Today, as in the past, these units are made up of the cream of Israeli youth and are headed by the best commanders – our very finest. At the same time, they often encounter nearly impossible situations regarding the command span and the ability to conduct their efforts in a responsible and intelligent manner. This stems primarily from the heterogeneous, unnatural environment, which is not what these units need. The new brigade will have a training school with joint training programs that only split toward the end according to the respective specialized skills of the individual units. The selection and team build-up processes will be merged and characterized through a broad perspective, and the brigade HQ with its various functions will provide the commanders of the operational units with substantial latitude, so that they may focus on the operational aspects, while the force build-up and preparatory processes (mainly with regard to instruction and training) are conducted by the brigade HQ.

One of the most significant implications of the establishment of the new commando brigade is the opportunity to "organize and sort out", mostly in the positive sense, and to set forth uniform standards (with the broadest possible common denominator). Admittedly, the foundation of every special operations/commando unit contains a combat performance element of similar skills and competence, and the dedicated-specialized operational layer is placed over this foundation. So, at least with regard to the combat performance element, which includes such aspects as firearms handling skills, physical fitness, cross-country navigation, camouflage, etc. – uniform standards may be applied and strictly adhered to.

The bank of resources allocated for the force build-up of the units is immense – from the spotting, selection and team build-up processes, through the various training programs and the specialized elements they contain, to the training of commanders and the most important element of all – the operational employment during peacetime, routine operations and wartime. Today, any way you may look at it, you will find duplicity in the force build-up process as well as in the operational employment, and understandably – that leads to unnecessary allocation of resources, or in other words – waste. The establishment of the new commando brigade will immediately lead to efficiency improvement in all fields of activity. We experienced the same process in the past, albeit on a smaller scale, with the establishment of the reconnaissance battalions in the early 2000s and, regarding certain aspects, with the establishment of the YAHALOM unit.

It will take some time before all of the individual elements are consolidated into a smoothly functioning brigade that develops and employs the commando forces in each of the various situations: peacetime, routine operations and emergencies, but I have no doubt that the move is necessary. This move should have been initiated subject to a directive of "evolution" rather than subject to directives dealing with "revolution". Possibly because of this element, this move should have been initiated in the current timing and not before, as apart from the operational need, it is up to the human environment to lead this move – not to any machines. Reviewing past moves that were more or less similar, it is obvious that some labor pains will be experienced in this case, along with quite a few ego plays and arm wrestling, but as this move is as fully justified as it is – they will all be negligible.

I remember very vividly the labor pains experienced during the establishment of the reconnaissance battalions and the establishment process of the YAHALOM unit, in which I was personally involved. I see the current contribution these organizations make to the national security effort, and recall how difficult it was to envision it back in those days. But the persons who initiated those moves, as well as the establishment of the new commando brigade, are far-sighted and visionary. They realize it is a time-consuming process, but they can envision its undisputed contribution with regard to all of the various parameters and to any new parameters that may emerge in the future.

Possibly even more importantly, this move will turn our commando units into more professional, more competent and more lethal elements on the battlefield, during peacetime, in routine operations and in crisis and emergency situations. 

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