The analysis below was released in December 2017. However, it still provided a useful look at the prospects of a possible conflict in the region.
The Current State of Affairs
At present time, Israel’s top political leadership is in the state of outright hysteria regarding Lebanese Hezbollah. Senior Israeli officials have repeatedly claimed that Israel will not allow Hezbollah and Iran to concentrate its forces in border areas and to expand their influence in the region, particularly in Syria and Lebanon.
The already difficult situation in southern Lebanon and Syria was further complicated by the series of events, which contributed to the growing tensions in the region in November and early December. It started with a resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri announced from Saudi Arabia on November 7, continued with Saudi accusations of military aggression through missile supplies to Yemen against Iran and rose to a new level on December 6 when US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital sparking further escalation.
Some experts also said Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US are conspiring to start a new war in the region. In this light, “The Light of Dagan”, a major military exercise named in honour of the former Director of Foreign Intelligence Service of Israel, Mossad, Meir Dagan, was described as a part of the preparations for armed aggression against Lebanon.
The exercise lasted eleven days, from 4 to 14 September 2017, and involved tens of thousands of troops from all branches of service.
The exercise legend posited that terrorists attacked the village of Shavey Zion, fifteen kilometers from the Lebanese border and, together with hundreds of Hezbollah fighters from the Radwan units, carried out the invasion in the north, captured civilians and occupied the local synagogue. Their ultimate goal was to plant Hezbollah flag of the movement on Israeli soil and send a photo to Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. In response, Israel carried out the evacuation of civilians, then units of the IDF conducted a large-scale operation in southern Lebanon, which was carried out in three stages. The first stage was defensive, including a counter-attack and the deployment of additional units to counter the Hezbollah movements. The second stage consisted of launching an assault on southern Lebanon. The third phase pushed Hezbollah forces back into Lebanon. The exercises were held in southern Galilee to the south from Highway 85 Akko-Carmiel. The goal of the exercises was the full capitulation of the Hezbollah movement, “depriving them of their ability and willingness to resist”. According to the IDF command, the IDF excelled at these tasks.
The IDF Today
Currently the IDF in the regional scale is a formidable force with the budget of 15.9 bn USD.
According to the yearbook Military Balance 2017, IDF numbers 176 thousand servicemembers, of which 133 thousand are in the Army, 34 thousand in the Air Force, 9.5 thousand in the Navy. In addition, there are 465 thousand troops in reserve. The border police (MAGAV) may provide 8000 troops to assist the military.
Land forces are organized into three regional commands (North, Central, South), two armoured divisions, five territorial infantry divisions, three battalions of Special Forces, and a team of special operations forces. Overall they command a number of separate reconnaissance battalions, three tank brigades, three mechanized brigades (consisting of three mechanized battalions, a combat support battalion and a signal company), a mechanized brigade (consisting of five mechanized battalions), a separate mechanized brigade, two separate infantry battalions, an airborne brigade (composed of three airborne battalions, a combat support battalion and a signal company), and a training tank brigade. Three artillery brigades, three engineering battalions, two military police battalions, a company of sappers, a chemical protection battalion and a brigade of military intelligence provide battlefield support.
The Navy consists of a surface ship group, a submarine group, as well as a battalion of commandos.
The Israeli Air Force consist of two fighter squadrons, five attack squadrons, six mixed fighter-attack squadrons (plus two squadrons in reserve), an ASW squadron, a maritime patrol and support squadron (patrol and transport aircraft, tanker aircraft), two EW squadrons, an AWACS squadron, two squadrons of transport and tanker aircraft, two training squadrons, two squadrons of attack helicopters, four squadrons of transport helicopters, an air ambulance division and three squadrons of UAVs. Additionally, on December 6, Israel officially declared its fleet of nine F-35I warplanes operational.
It is believed that Israel has nuclear weapons. The number of nuclear warheads is debatable, but its delivery vehicles include F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, the Jericho-2 ballistic medium-range missiles, and Dolphin/Tanin class diesel-electric submarines capable of carrying cruise missiles.
There are nine orbital military and dual-purpose satellites:
- Three Amos-type satellites.
- One reconnaissance satellite with remote sensing of the Earth of the EROS type, located on the sun-synchronous orbit.
- Four optical reconnaissance satellites of the Ofeq type (No. 7, 9, 10 and 11), located in the low earth orbit.
- One radar-reconnaissance satellite of the TecSAR-1 type, located in low earth orbit.
The IDF at the moment is a unique and astounding combination of nuclear weapons with delivery vehicles, an arsenal of equipment produced in the 1960s and of modern weapons on par with the leading world powers. This combination has its drawbacks and they do not make themselves wait for long.
- In September 2016, during the removal of the machine gun from a tank at the training base in Shizafon in the south of Israel several soldiers were severely injured.
- On 5 October 2016 on the approach to the Ramon airbase in southern Israel the pilot was killed as a result of the ejection from the F-16.
- In July 2017 during the course of an exercise, due to his own negligence Lieutenant David Golovenchick was shot dead by a soldier.
- On 8 August 2017 an AH-64 helicopter crashed at the Ramon airbase, as a result the pilot was killed, and others sustained injuries.
- On 9 August 2017 during IDF operations in the suburbs of Bethlehem, an Israeli soldier suffered wounds of moderate severity as a result of friendly fire.
- At the end of August 2017 ten soldiers were lightly injured at the Shizafon base in southern Israel after a smoke grenade exploded.
- At the beginning of September 2017 an Israeli soldier was severely injured by a grenade that exploded during military training on the base in the south of the country.
These incidents indicate that the Israeli military has serious shortcomings in the realm of personnel proficiency and equipment maintenance.
The Gideon Plan
In order to give the IDF the ability to confront modern threats from various armed groups, while implementing budget cuts and minimizing the number of accidents, Israel adopted the five-year Gideon Plan in 2015.
Main Provisions of the Plan:
- Reduction of the number of professional soldiers and officers to 40,000.
- Reduction of military service of male draftees from 36 to 32 months. (Reduction of military service of female soldiers from the draft is not considered so far).
- Reduction of the age of commanders. If the average age of the regiment staff officers, including the commander of the regiment, was 35 to 37 years, now for these positions officers from the age of 32 will be appointed. The staff officers of the brigade, including the brigade commander, 40 to 42 years instead of 45 to 46 years respectively.
- The reduction in the number of reservists to 100 thousand. The reservists who will remain in service will be trained and armed as support troops.
- Reducing the number of artillery and light infantry brigades.
- Eliminating two army divisions.
- Structures such as the Education Corps, Military Rabbinate, Chief Reserve Officer, the Chief of Staff’s Advisor on Women’s Affairs, Army Radio and the Military Censor must undergo reduction and optimization. The command of the Northern District will be merged with the command of the land forces.
- Creation of the cyber-troops. Jerusalem Post, citing a senior officer of the IDF, reported at the beginning of 2017 that it was decided to postpone establishing the cyber-troops center.
- Bolstering of the Navy group through the procurement and construction of surface ships and a submarine.
- Rearming the Air Force by purchasing the American F-35 and UAVs of American and local production. This includes the retirement of an air-force squadron, and the early retirement of F-16 multirole fighter aircraft.
- Ending deferment to students in yeshivas (religious high schools) is not mentioned in this plan.
These provisions indicate IDF’s leaders had decided to focus on transforming it from conscript army to a professional one, staffed with a large number of trained soldiers as well as young and promising officers, capable to implement and employ in practice new ideas. The fact that the command of the Northern District will be united with the command of the land forces indicates that this area (south of Lebanon and Hezbollah) is given special attention. The new army will be armed with more modern equipment and thus will be able to withstand modern threats.
The Israeli Missile Defence Systems vs. the Hezbollah Missile Arsenal
Knowing that Hezbollah will not invade Israel itself, its most capable units are involved in the fighting in Syria, and Hezbollah’s armored forces are in the development stages, for the Israeli military the biggest threat is Hezbollah’s missile arsenal.
Israel has a multi-layer missile defense network, which includes the following systems: Iron Dome, David’s Sling, Arrow and Patriot. Furthermore, a ship-mounted version of Iron Dome [Tamir-Adir] was declared fully operational for use on a gunship off coasts on November 27. However, so far, it has been installed only on one vessel, the Sa’ar 5-class INS Lahav.
There are 17 batteries of MIM-23 I-HAWK available for air defence but presumably due to their obsolescence they are not in active service.
For comparison purposes, the cost of Qassam type rockets of Palestinian production according to Israeli experts is in the neighbourhood of a few hundred dollars. Rockets for the BM-21 Grad cost few thousand. The cost of production of ballistic, anti-ship and medium-range missiles is unknown, but may be assumed that they do not exceed several hundred thousand dollars.
Of course, human life is priceless and the potential loss in this case from Grad rockets, not to mention Scud and Iranian missiles, exceeds the cost of the interceptor missile. While the Iron Dome control system will only launch missiles if incoming missiles are calculated to fall in residential areas, the cost balance is still not in Israel’s favor.
Scenarios for the Third Lebanon War
Over time, IDF’s military effectiveness had declined. Israel has won the 1967 fully and unconditionally. The Egyptian and Syrian armies were dealt a powerful blow, and the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula and the western shore of the river Jordan were occupied. The war of 1973 was won by Israel with heavy human and material losses; however, neither the Egyptian nor the Syrian army was completely defeated. In the 1982 war, where the IDF had numerical superiority, it had won a tactical victory but the task of reaching Beirut to link up with the right-wing Christian Phalangists was not completed. In the Second Lebanon War of 2006 due to the overwhelming numerical superiority in men and equipment the IDF managed to occupy key strong points but failed to inflict a decisive defeat on Hezbollah. The frequency of attacks in Israeli territory was not reduced; the units of the IDF became bogged down in the fighting in the settlements and suffered significant losses. There now exists considerable political pressure to reassert IDF’s lost military dominance and, despite the complexity and unpredictability of the situation we may assume the future conflict will feature two sides, IDF and Hezbollah. Based on the bellicose statements of the leadership of the Jewish state, the fighting will be initiated by Israel.
The operation will begin with a massive evacuation of residents from the settlements in the north and center of Israel. Since Hezbollah has agents within the IDF, it will not be possible to keep secret the concentration of troops on the border and a mass evacuation of civilians. Hezbollah units will be ordered to occupy a prepared defensive position and simultaneously open fire on places were IDF units are concentrated. The civilian population of southern Lebanon will most likely be evacuated. IDF will launch massive bombing causing great damage to the social infrastructure and some damage to Hezbollah’s military infrastructure, but without destroying the carefully protected and camouflaged rocket launchers and launch sites.
Hezbollah control and communications systems have elements of redundancy. Consequently, regardless of the use of specialized precision-guided munitions, the command posts and electronic warfare systems will not be paralyzed, maintaining communications including through the use of fibre-optic communications means. IDF discovered that the movement has such equipment during the 2006 war. Smaller units will operate independently, working with open communication channels, using the pre-defined call signs and codes.
Israeli troops will then cross the border of Lebanon, despite the presence of the UN peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon, beginning a ground operation with the involvement of a greater number of units than in the 2006 war. The IDF troops will occupy commanding heights and begin to prepare for assaults on settlements and actions in the tunnels. The Israelis do not score a quick victory as they suffer heavy losses in built-up areas. The need to secure occupied territory with patrols and checkpoints will cause further losses.
The fact that Israel itself started the war and caused damage to the civilian infrastructure, allows the leadership of the movement to use its missile arsenal on Israeli cities. While Israel’s missile defence systems can successfully intercept the launched missiles, there are not enough of them to blunt the bombardment. The civilian evacuation paralyzes life in the country. As soon IDF’s Iron Dome and other medium-range systems are spent on short-range Hezbollah rockets, the bombardment of Israel with medium-range missiles may commence. Hezbollah’s Iranian solid-fuel rockets do not require much time to prepare for launch and may target the entire territory of Israel, causing further losses.
It is difficult to assess the duration of actions of this war. One thing that seems certain is that Israel shouldn’t count on its rapid conclusion, similar to last September’s exercises. Hezbollah units are stronger and more capable than during the 2006 war, despite the fact that they are fighting in Syria and suffered losses there.
The combination of large-scale exercises and bellicose rhetoric is intended to muster Israeli public support for the aggression against Hezbollah by convincing the public the victory would be swift and bloodless. Instead of restraint based on a sober assessment of relative capabilities, Israeli leaders appear to be in a state of blood lust. In contrast, the Hezbollah has thus far demonstrated restraint and diplomacy.
Underestimating the adversary is always the first step towards a defeat. Such mistakes are paid for with soldiers’ blood and commanders’ careers. The latest IDF exercises suggest Israeli leaders underestimate the opponent and, more importantly, consider them to be quite dumb. In reality, Hezbollah units will not cross the border. There is no need to provoke the already too nervous neighbor and to suffer losses solely to plant a flag and photograph it for their leader. For Hezbollah, it is easier and safer when the Israeli soldiers come to them. According to the IDF soldiers who served in Gaza and southern Lebanon, it is easier to operate on the plains of Gaza than the mountainous terrain of southern Lebanon. This is a problem for armoured vehicles fighting for control of heights, tunnels, and settlements, where they are exposed to anti-armor weapons.
While the Israeli establishment is in a state of patriotic frenzy, it would be a good time for them to turn to the wisdom of their ancestors. After all, as the old Jewish proverb says: “War is a big swamp, easy to go into but hard to get out”.