Surrounded by Fences

The IDF finds its units operating more and more along the border fence systems. The price could be poor preparedness for deep incursion operations in the event of a large-scale conflict. How can this be prevented? An analysis by Col. (Res.) Atai Shelach

Over the last ten years, and more precisely since the IDF withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Israel has lost the strategic-military "depth" concept, which has various implications.

Israel has surrounded itself with fences, 'seam lines' and obstacles. Within one decade, the IDF evolved from a military organization that constantly prepares for war and uses routine security assignments as a primary 'playground' for those preparations, into one where there is hardly any connection between routine security operations and preparedness for war (as far as basic and operational competence and preparedness are concerned).

In the past two years, the situation has only worsened: as the internal situation in Egypt and Syria deteriorated, Israel was compelled to deploy more and more troops along these borders and further perfect its fence systems. Even along the very long border with Jordan, the sensors that should provide an alert for any attempted intrusion have become highly sophisticated.

Routine Security
In fact, the fighting currently takes place on the fences and around the 'seam lines', with hardly any linkage to deep-penetration operations. In view of the fact that the emphasis is currently placed more and more on long-range firepower and intelligence gathering capabilities, at the expense of deep-penetration friction and maneuvering, these days the IDF is becoming more and more static.

Over time, and unless substantial preservation mechanisms are developed, the IDF may find itself surprised by its own poor performance, whether called upon to maneuver inside Syria or operate against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, or engage in combat within Egypt in the context of an extreme scenario.

What is the significance of the new routine security activity and the fact that operations are currently conducted along the borders, and not deep inside enemy territory?

If you examine the IDF before and after the May 2000 withdrawal from the security cordon in southern Lebanon, two basic states may be discerned: operations in all dimensions, including the depth dimension, which had been the norm until the withdrawal, and a totally different reality ever since.

The IDF's operational activity since the summer of 2000 was and remains devoid of tactical depth, and numerous parallels may be found between Lebanon and the Gaza Strip before and after the withdrawal. The situation is somewhat different in the Judea and Samaria region, yet even there, as construction of the fence system progressed, the depth space gradually shrank and the operational activity focused more and more on the 'seam line' area, close to the separation fence.

In the Sinai, along the Egyptian border, a low grade fence system had existed until a few years ago, and the range of threats was indefinite. Over the last decade, and particularly after the IDF withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, intrusions from Gaza into Israel through the Sinai (through a route known as the "U route") has intensified. Smuggling activities and intrusions from the Egyptian side necessitated the establishment of a substantial fence or obstacle system, particularly after the collapse of Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt and the pursuant state of anarchy that prevailed in the Sinai.

So, Israel has been surrounding itself with more and more fences. How does this state affect the need to continue to prepare for escalation situations, all the way to a total war?

Emergency situations are also relevant to this discussion. During Operation Cast Lead (November 2012), the IDF employed massive fire from all of its existing systems, and also executed intensive air and intelligence gathering operations – but not a ground maneuver.

Does this routine security reality of "fighting on the fences" enforce upon us an increasing disability, as far as our preparedness for emergencies is concerned?

In the current reality, the IDF operates in the area close to the fence using ground forces as well as state-of-the-art intelligence gathering, C2 and data fusion systems. Israel's air superiority is total, and when an interception or a targeted killing operation should be carried out, there is no need for excessive friction or for ground operations. On one hand, this is a definite indication of operational effectiveness and ensures the safety and security of our own forces. On the other hand, this situation slowly leads to operational disability, which is an outcome of the fact that the current operational activity, for most of the forces, involves no significant friction with any tangible opponent.

The primary challenge is to 'cross the fence' or 'exit the enclosure', in every sense of the word.

Based on the current situation and in view of the evolving reality, the IDF needs to act on several operative levels and directions. This includes force build-up and the development of a routine security supporting 'competence package', as well as mental work that places the emphasis on awareness of these 'weaknesses' and on the development of a sense of competence. The operational weaknesses are obvious and should be addressed so that the solutions and the required operational compensations may be introduced and assimilated.

Firstly, from an operational point of view, the IDF is required to develop more substantial capabilities of powerful, fast maneuvering by dedicated brigades capable of maneuvering at any given moment, at the same time as the employment of fire or immediately after the primary fire effort. Today, the situation is paradoxical: excellent fire capabilities produce very good results along with reasonable maneuvering capabilities that require long, sometimes unrealistic deployment times, in view of the fact that the decision-makers aspire (quite justly) to cut deployment times down to an absolute minimum.

The IDF must continue to develop its deep-incursion maneuvering capabilities in order to shatter the paradigm of the opponent, who expects a "slow" maneuver in straight lines. The ability to arrive and maneuver deep inside enemy territory, while using the element of surprise and with minimum friction initially, will lead to a situation where the opponent, while expecting heavy maneuvering along short lines, will encounter "light", fast-maneuvering brigades at the front line, and forces maneuvering deep inside his territory at the same time.

Beyond that, the IDF should intensify the employment of its special forces. Throughout the history of the Israeli-Arab conflicts, the IDF special units were not employed intelligently. These units found themselves 'unemployed' most of the time, or 'hunting' for missions with no single element that concentrates the force build-up and employment activities in accordance with a structured operational concept during wartime. The advantage of the special units stems from the fact that they maintain a high level of operational competence despite the routine security activity. In the current reality of nearly static routine security operations, these units become infinitely more important in emergencies.

Another matter: the IDF is required to develop a routine security supporting "playground" in order to prepare the forces for emergencies even while they are engaged in exhausting routine security operations along the security fences. The exhausting routine security reality "on the fences" is a fact – a permanent working assumption. To bridge the gap that has emerged, forces should be allowed to engage in different operational activity profiles (in addition to the reserve forces' training programs), such as deep-incursion patrols, ambush operations, clearing routes with various operational characteristics such as obstacles, explosive charges and visible enemy elements.

In view of the current instability in the Middle East, the IDF may be required to operate only along the fences, with hardly any operations beyond the fences, for many years to come. As time passes, the fence systems, 'seam lines' and obstacles will continue to evolve and become increasingly elaborate and sophisticated. On the other hand, the fire and surveillance capabilities will continue to 'deliver the goods' and constitute an even more serious pillar of the strength for the IDF. New operational records will be set in the coming years in the realm of command and control centers and C2 capabilities as well.

If we judge the IDF against its operational routine security effectiveness, we will probably be able to place a capital check mark next to this item. It is feared, however, that this will not be the case with regard to IDF preparedness for a total war. Obviously, it is not our wish to conduct the next war on the fences, but rather deep inside the opponent's territory, through substantial ground operations.

The current routine security reality compels the IDF to produce a renewed set of insights and activities, in training as well as in routine security operations. This is so as not to become stagnant and wake up to this fact abruptly, on the day of reckoning, when it is too late.