The Lessons of Israeli Military Intelligence

The upheaval caused by the Second Lebanon War definitely led to the on-going "intelligence revolution" the IDF Intelligence Directorate has been undergoing since 2006

The Lessons of Israeli Military Intelligence

Photo: IDF

Two different incidents that took place during the first day of the Second Lebanon War reflected, to a considerable extent, the story of the military intelligence in that war. In the first incident, IDF intelligence had failed to provide a concrete alert regarding Hezbollah's intended abduction attack on the morning of July 12 and IDF failed to prevent that attack. Conversely, the second incident involved the "Night of the Fajr Rockets" and the success of Operation Specific Gravity in which IAF destroyed dozens of Fajr medium-range rocket launchers. These rockets had been concealed in houses and were a part of one of Hezbollah's top secret projects. The successful elimination of those rocket launchers was made possible by exceptional intelligence achievements and deep penetration. This accomplishment led to distress among the ranks of Hezbollah, as thorough backtracking and self-examination were required in order to attempt and understand how Israeli intelligence had managed to penetrate to such depths.

In an informal conversation with one of the members of the Winograd Commission during the preparation of this article, he stated: "The problem with the War did not concern the intelligence aspect." This is a substantial statement, as the intelligence balance during the Second Lebanon War was indeed mixed and complex and could not be defined in terms of success or failure, but rather as a collection of numerous failures in various activities alongside significant success stories. To make things even more complex, gaps and even tensions and differences between some intelligence elements and senior officers of the IDF General Staff were clearly evident.

The Winograd Commission of Inquiry for the Second Lebanon War addressed, in its overt report (and with even more detail in its classified report) numerous deficiencies of the military intelligence, regarding the over-all preparations in the period prior to the War as well as regarding the actual intelligence work during the War, mainly with regard to the performance aspect. In the preface to the chapter on intelligence in the overt report, the Commission stated: "All in all, the intelligence effort was successful with regard to several highly important fields. Some of the intelligence accomplishments were particularly impressive. However, on the day of reckoning – as predictable as it was – gaps became visible with regard to the intelligence information and capabilities, along with deficiencies in the conduct of the intelligence elements opposite the elements they were intended to serve, within the supreme political and military echelons and among the combat elements."

And to quell any remaining doubts, the Commission positioned the part played by the intelligence in that War in context and to scale: "As important as they are, the deficiencies associated with military intelligence matters – with the exception of the target intelligence category – did not directly influence the results of the War."

The Primary Failure – Field Intelligence

The prevailing concept since the War is that the primary intelligence-related failures occurred in the context of tactical intelligence and the preparations of the intelligence elements of IDF Northern Command and, naturally, the failure of the IDF Navy and Navy Intelligence in the absence of an alert regarding the possibility of attacks against Navy vessels using the C-802 shore-to-ship missile. But the report by the Winograd Commission that focused on military intelligence (and hardly addressed the Mossad and other intelligence agencies) made no concessions and an in-depth review of that report yields criticism as well as problems and failures along the entire length of the intelligence front, including the strategic level.

The report refers to two distinct periods: the intelligence preparations between the year 2000 and the outbreak of the War, and the performance of the military intelligence during the war. With regard to the aspect of "Operational Intelligence" (strategic intelligence) as per the Commission's definition, "The accomplishments of the intelligence analysis activity at the General Staff and Northern Command in the period prior to the war were substantial." In this context, they noted, with a kind of commendation: "There was full and correct understanding of the implications… regarding the essence of the threat Hezbollah had presented opposite Israel, including the issue of its diversified capabilities in the field of launching surface-to-surface rockets…" On the other hand, referring to the interface between the intelligence and the political-defense echelon and the decision-making process during the War, the Commission had some criticism that referred mainly to the gap between the potential and the actual ability of the intelligence to influence the decision makers and the actual occurrences: "Apparently, one area where the intelligence community had a more substantial ability to influence the War was in the context of the decision-making process on July 12 and the first few days thereafter, including the first few days of the War. This time, more than at any other time, when the professional echelons of the IDF Intelligence Directorate had the key to cracking the enemy's riddle, they failed to exploit it opposite the military and political leaders. While the intelligence concept was generally correct, failures occurred in the process of submitting it to the leaders. In essence, it was a time-consuming process that had numerous partners and implications. As stated, some of those 'missed opportunities' were not to be found exclusively in the courtyard of the intelligence, but some of them were definitely in that courtyard."

The Commission further ruled and found the IDF Intelligence Directorate responsible for another failure: despite the fact that a new Prime Minister and a new Defense Minister had taken office, no specific discussion focusing on the Lebanese sector and enabling a presentation of the entire range of threats and implications was ever conducted. The Winograd Commission ruled that "A sharp transition was made to a lower state of familiarity, which was not thoroughly complemented until the breakout of the War," and that "The intelligence insights regarding Hezbollah and their implications as far as Israel was concerned were not discussed in a thorough and serious manner between the Prime Minister and Defense Minister and the intelligence chiefs."

The primary failure involved the various activities of the field intelligence. Regarding the tactical intelligence, the Commission's report states: "At the tactical level – the picture regarding the ground forces was characterized by lapses and gaps. The assimilation of the intelligence by the operational units was deficient… Some of the information was partial in its contents, or not sufficiently detailed." The report stated further: "At the operative and tactical levels as well as at the cultural-ethical level, the intelligence picture was not so good, revealing substantial and even crucial gaps."

The Difference between Knowledge and Awareness

The opening incident of the Second Lebanon War at Report Line 105 – the ambush and abduction of two IDF soldiers – constitutes an example of the failure of the tactical level intelligence. Without getting into the internal investigations conducted after the War or the question of whether or not advance information had been available but was not reported in time, the intelligence failed, in this case, to identify the complex preparations for the operation by Hezbollah, which consisted of numerous stages, involved numerous forces and took place within arm's reach of our own forces. That failure had also been indicated in the operational analyses regarding the combat operations of the IDF 36th Division even before the Winograd Commission was appointed.

The criticism leveled against the field intelligence and regarding substantial deficiencies in the way it conducted its activities and in the way other elements conducted themselves opposite it (for example, the failure to deliver materials prior to and during the War, the fact that intelligence aids had been left at the emergency storage depots) was not only reflected in the Winograd Commission's report but was also raised by the field echelon. It was alleged that in many instances relevant intelligence was not reported to the company and platoon level. Additionally, numerous allegations were made that in the Second Lebanon War, the warfighters on the ground experienced the same problem the IDF warfighters had experienced during the Yom-Kippur War: the intelligence elements up to a certain level were thoroughly familiar with Hezbollah's anti-tank, surveillance and artillery capabilities, but the forces on the ground were taken by surprise, which once again highlights the difference between knowledge and awareness.

In this context, Major (res.) Amir Dahan, a judge in civilian life as well as in IDF and a deputy commander of a reconnaissance company in his secondary capacity, stated in an article he published in the periodical "Ma'arachot" after the War, that one phenomenon encountered again during the War involved the fact that excellent intelligence had been available at the brigade and battalion level, but that intelligence almost never reached the company and platoon level and the individual troopers, and the intelligence that they did receive was faulty. Other commanders supported that allegation and confirmed "We did not have intelligence," while also claiming that they only learned about Hezbollah's "nature reserves" when they actually ran into them. Major Dahan suggested that a layout of "intelligence squads" be established within the reserve companies, to provide a solution for the intelligence gaps.

Brigadier-General (res.) Yuval Halamish, who served as the IDF Chief Intelligence Officer during the Second Lebanon War, has addressed this issue in detail last week, stressing that "The intelligence had a very good understanding of Hezbollah's deployment, their strategic missile layouts and operational doctrine," but conversely, "The intelligence picture regarding the deployment of the short-range Katyusha rocket layout was mediocre to weak," and admitted that one of the primary problems of the intelligence prior to and during the War was the performance and capabilities of the field intelligence elements.

A New Generation that Knew Nothing about Lebanon

The most prominent manifestation of the failure in the tactical intelligence field was the dramatic way in which Hezbollah's "nature reserves" surprised the IDF warfighters. The statements made by Halamish clearly reflect the severity of the gap between the knowledge of the facts and the assimilation thereof at the field level, as the Winograd Commission also noted: "The intelligence was fully aware and familiar with the 'nature reserve' issue. We may have not been familiar with all of the locations, we did not always have in-depth details of what was actually happening in each village, but the general picture was well known. Moreover, IDF had even built a model of a 'nature reserve', for training the various units. Much to my regret, owing to (budget) cuts and the activity in the territories, only a handful (of units) actually trained there. Additionally, the quality of Hezbollah's camouflage was very high, so it was very difficult to practically impossible to spot those complexes from the air within the dense woods. As a result, units that reached the gateway to a 'nature reserve' on foot sometimes stood over a (Hezbollah) position and still could not identify it, even from the ground."

This is the point where the story of the "closely-guarded material" comes into the picture. Whereas the information regarding the "nature reserves" had been obtained from highly sensitive sources, the information about those "reserves" and about Hezbollah's deployment in the rural areas was treated as "closely guarded" material that was only revealed to the superior echelon and waited under lock and key for the day of reckoning. Every brigade had its own "closely guarded" aids that were to be disseminated to the forces when the time has come. This, as Halamish explains, was where the major disruption occurred: "The primary mistake was that as soon as the decision to go to war had been made, the material should have been opened immediately, disseminated and assimilated among the commanders on the ground, but this was never done." According to him, today the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme: "Too much information is currently being reported to the lower echelons, despite classification problems."

In this context, Halamish lists and refers to other aspects of the field intelligence: "Poor quality information systems at the field level that compromised the ability to report information in real time. Emergency aids and materials, some of the aids were not current and some of the intelligence officers had left their emergency kits at the emergency storage depots." In this context, intelligence officers who operated in the sector of IDF Northern Command reported "A severe problem with aids that were unsuitable for the various types of maneuvering, not current, not delivered to everyone, not enough for everyone and so on."

One of the explanations Halamish offered regarding the circumstances of the field level intelligence, with regard to commanders as well as intelligence officers, was that "IDF had been busy in the territories in the years prior to the War. A new generation had grown, made up of young commanders and intelligence officers who knew nothing about Lebanon, and in my estimate the general feeling was that after the pullout from Lebanon tranquility was restored to the area, the abduction in October 2000 notwithstanding. The commanders and intelligence officers thought they were coming to an operation. Some of them had arrived directly from the Judea and Samaria sector and when they reported to the area, their first question was 'where is the ISA man?' They did not know what a POW interrogator was and why he should be with them in Lebanon. Some of them had even left those interrogators in Israeli territory and did not assign them to the combat elements."

At the same time, Halamish maintains – and this is also backed by the Winograd Commission: "I think the problem with the War had nothing to do with the intelligence aspect. The problem was the lack of operational decision-making as to what we wanted to accomplish and what the objective was. The operational plans changed every day and units were shifted from one sector to another with no logic whatsoever." He goes as far as pointing to a conceptual problem at the supreme command level and to the gaps between IDF Northern Command and the General Staff: "The IDF Chief of Staff thought Hezbollah could be eliminated from the air only, and consequently he was not enthusiastic about committing the ground forces, although he had been authorized to do so by the political echelon." At the same time, gaps were forming between IDF Northern Command HQ in Safed and the General Staff in Tel-Aviv: "IDF Northern Command and the General Staff regarded different objectives for the operation, and that was where a substantial part of the problems was created."

Analyzing and Implementing the Lessons

Halamish remained in his position as IDF Chief Intelligence Officer until 2009, and along with Major-General Amos Yadlin, head of the IDF Intelligence Directorate, was in charge of the debriefing/analysis and lesson drawing process (a process further encouraged and supported by the subsequent heads of the IDF Intelligence Directorate, Major-General Aviv Kochavi and Major-General Hertzi Halevi). Numerous debriefing and analysis teams were established within the IDF Intelligence Directorate in those days and one of the primary conclusions they reached was that conceptual, organizational and operational changes should be introduced with regard to the "connection" between all of the layouts of the Intelligence Directorate and the field intelligence elements. One of the primary lessons was to "bring home", back to the Intelligence Directorate, the field intelligence officers from the Chief Field Intelligence HQ, established in 2000: "My primary lesson from the War, which is further supported by my tenure as Chief Field Intelligence Officer, was that the intelligence cannot be divided between the Chief Field Intelligence Officer and Chief Intelligence Officer. Accordingly, immediately after the War had ended, we initiated the process of returning the field intelligence back to the IDF Intelligence Directorate (a process completed in 2009-2010, G.M.), and I think it proved itself in the various operations in the Gaza Strip. Since then, there is one element that handles intelligence from the ground up and from top to bottom – and that is the IDF Intelligence Directorate."

Halamish testified that in the context of the lesson drawing and implementation process, most of the lessons derived from the Second Lebanon War were learned and implemented, and the intelligence even benefited from a budgetary priority that enabled it to implement the changes: most of the lessons were addressed and implemented as far back as during Operation Cast Lead and the period thereafter and during Operation Pillar of Defense, down to the brigade level, for example – in the form of teams of the imagery interpretation and charting unit, as well as technical teams and representatives of such intelligence gathering elements as the SigInt and HumInt units. These teams can now link and operate with the brigades. Additionally, a significant improvement has been noted in the cooperation between the intelligence officers at the various levels and the intelligence gathering layouts. A current infrastructure of intelligence aids was prepared subject to quality standards and on a scale that would ensure it is sufficient for all of the forces. A marked improvement has been noted with regard to the collection capabilities at all levels. The process of disseminating high-classification information to the forces on the ground has been expanded and consolidated, and state-of-the-art information systems were developed and deployed. In addition, Halamish noted that pursuant to the Second Lebanon War, the quality of the field intelligence officers improved and in recent years they have been performing better than before. Most of them had graduated from analysis positions at the IDF Intelligence Directorate's Analysis Division and/or at the regional commands, and, possibly the crowning achievement of the entire process: "A better connection has formed between the intelligence and fire elements, and even as far back as during Operation Cast Lead, the Intelligence Directorate was highly praised at all levels." 


Gideon Mitchnik served as Intelligence Assistant to the Military Secretary of the Minister of Defense during the Second Lebanon War

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