Originally published in Hashiloach 25 (Hebrew, June 2021) following Operation Guardian of the Walls, this article was translated and re-edited for the Hashiloach Frontlines initiative due to its continued relevance.
In recent decades, a growing number of countries have gained experience in waging imbalanced warfare – that is, armed conflict fought against what IDF fromer Chief of Staff Aviv Cochavi describes as “terror armies,” consisting of militias, terrorist organizations, or a combination of the two. Imbalanced or asymmetric warfare is characterized by a large gap between the military, political, and economic power of the two combatants, and in great differences in their legal status, their public image, and the international community’s expectations of them. Such wars usually involve conflict between a state, considered the “strong” side, and a violent non-state actor, with these gaps affecting the modus operandi of the latter, “weak” side.
The Vietnam War is the most prominent example of imbalanced warfare. During that conflict, a guerilla organization succeeded in defeating the largest and most advanced army on earth, and made it withdraw from the conflict zone. Other commonly mentioned examples of imbalanced warfare are France’s war in Algeria (1954-1962), the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan (1979-1989), and America’s wars in Afghanistan (2001-2014) and in Iraq (2003-2011). In the Israeli context, we might mention operations in Lebanon during the Security Belt period (Operations Accountability in 1993 and Grapes of Wrath in 1996), the Second Lebanon War (2006), and the military operations and round of conflict in the Gaza Strip in the last two decades (from First Rain in 2005).
Imbalanced warfare in the modern era has a different strategic logic compared to conventional warfare between nation states. The main difference between the two is that the non-state party focuses on limiting the state army from making full use of its structural advantages — generally its superior military organization and the ability to leverage greater economic and manpower resources. Leaders of non-state actors hope that this pressure will exhaust the state, sap its national resilience, and ultimately force it to give up the fight.
Imbalanced warfare by non-state actors is based primarily on territory and population, and is characterized by mobility, stealth, disappearance, dispersal, subterfuge, deception, surprise, and avoiding decisive engagements. This fighting makes it hard for the opponent to destroy or even find the operational center of the non-state actor – which, according to some experts, often does not exist. As a result of these challenges, the core debate regarding imbalanced warfare revolves around whether decisive victory is even possible in this context.
Over the years, and based on accumulated historical experience, many came to believe that outright military victory was impossible in imbalanced conflicts, and that the very notion of “victory,” therefore, needed to be redefined such that it did not include success on the battlefield. Some even claim that the concept of “decisive victory” needs to be removed from the lexicon when state actors discuss their approach to conducting such warfare.
This discourse has encouraged the widely-held view that guerilla warfare and terrorism is an effective tool for dealing with strong opponents, with the corollary that the use of regular armed forces is not effective to stop terrorists and similarly decentralized rogue forces. It is a small step from there to the conclusion that the traditional military victory is irrelevant for conflicts where regular armies confront non-state actors. If extensive military force cannot be used effectively against such organizations, then they cannot be defeated the same way a state army can. And if they cannot be defeated, then their existence must be recognized, dialogue must begin, and some form of compromise must be reached – or else their terms accepted and the struggle forgone.
As I will show, this view is mistaken, based on partial historical lessons. There are certainly historical cases in which states succeeded in defeating non-state actors which chose the path of rebellion, guerilla warfare, or terrorism through decisive military action at the operational-tactical level. Let us examine a few of them.
The British Eliminating Communist Rebellion in Malaya (1948-1960)
Malaya, today part of Malaysia, was a federation of British colonies and client states. When war broke out there between communist rebels and British armed forces, the Supreme Commander of British forces in the Far East, Lt.-Gen. Sir Niel Richie, argued that an offensive strategy would drive guerilla forces from place to place and deny them the opportunity to organize among the locals. And indeed, thanks to Britain’s offensive strategy, guerillas were constantly on the run, denied food and weapons, and unable to recruit new troops into their dwindling ranks. The Brits’ near complete control of Malaya’s settled areas prevented the communists from building new bases and establishing manpower and food- supply networks. In addition, villages under British control were subject to a carrot- and- stick system:. The movement of residents was limited, inspections were held, and checkpoints established to catch those smuggling food and weapons to the guerillas, while certain villages suspected of aiding the guerillas were hit with economic sanctions and harm to their welfare conditions. At the same time, the declaration of a given village as being “clean” of communist guerillas allowed the lifting of such restrictions and even the granting of benefits to residents of the region. By 1960, most of the communist infrastructure in Malaya was eliminated, and the communist rebellion was effectively eradicated. Notably, success was achieved, despite the complex and challenging topography of Malaya (tall mountains reaching 2,000 meters above sea level, covered in thick jungles) which provided optimal conditions for rebels.
The British Repression of the Mau-Mau Rebellion in Kenya (1952-1956)
In the years following World War II, Kenya remained a British colony. From August 1953 onward, the British worked to defeat the armed struggle of the Mau-Mau rebels in Kenya, identified with and supported by the Kikuyu tribe, against European settlers and the African population which supported the colonial government. The main activity of the Mau-Mau was in the jungles of Central Kenya. Here too, the British chose an offensive strategy, a move which made coordinated military activity and even intelligence sharing between the rebel fighters difficult. In addition, as in Malaya, the British cut the Mau-Mau off from any support and aid from the villages. In the beginning of 1955, the British began to operate in the jungles to locate the remnants of the Mau-Mau fighting units. The tactics used by the British involved the operation of small, elite units, some of which included Mau-Mau fighters who had been captured or who had defected. The rebellion reached its end with the capture and execution of the Mau-Mau leader, Dedan Kimathi, at the end of 1956.
The Military Campaign of Sri Lanka Against the Tamil Tigers (2006-2009)
The continuous campaign of the Sri Lankan government against the “Tamil Tigers” in 2006-2009 was the final chapter of the 25-years-long civil war in the large island nation. As part of this campaign, many military operations were conducted, whose modus operandi included the following: Effective blockading of the area by land and sea to prevent the rebels from maneuvering or fleeing, the deployment of dispersed- action tactics on the part of small infantry units over a broad front, with close cooperation by sea and air units, the application of constant pressure against rebel forces, and an offensive strategy that ensured that the rebels fought in their own territory. A significant increase in the size of the security forces allowed the army and police to be present throughout the region, thus preventing rebels from reestablishing themselves in areas they’d retreated from. Due to the necessity of rebels to protect their territory and their bases, they were repeatedly forced to enter into heavy firefights which led to heavy losses, until they were finally destroyed through attrition.
France’s War Against the Rebels in Algeria (1954-1962)
Even France’s engagement in Algeria, as part of what is now known as the Algerian War of Independence, can be defined as an operational-tactical success. In this era, the French primarily acted against the FLN, the National Front for the Liberation of Algeria. From the fall of 1954 until the summer of 1957, the tactics of the French forces were primarily defensive, based on establishing outposts in areas adjacent to rural villages. Patrols and ambushes were launched from these outposts. From time to time, large-scale operations were also launched, but these actions saw little success. Evidence of this came from the increased intensity of Algerian guerilla forces, and the increase in urban terror, especially in the city of Algiers.
The second chapter of the conflict began at the end of 1957 and continued until the end of the war in July 1962. During this period, the French changed their tactics and strategy, relying increasingly on elite French units from among the Paratroopers and the Foreign Legion. Regular French forces were also significantly reinforced. The French plan included the demolition of rebel outposts in the hills, the blockading of the border with Tunisia, and the arming of the villagers so they could defend themselves. Regions with a strong guerilla presence were declared security zones and isolated by army forces. Residents in the regions were resettled elsewhere, and abandoned villages were destroyed to deny the rebels food and shelter. During this offensive, movement was only allowed for French forces, which had permission to fire at will. The initiative of French elite units gradually eliminated the rebels’ infrastructure in central cities, and strong mobile task forces operated successfully in rural areas. In light of the proven strength of the French army, the rebels were forced to operate solely against isolated, weak units, and only when they were convinced they would succeed. Alongside their offensive efforts within Algeria, the Maurice Line was built for 300 km along the border with Tunisia, stopping infiltration and smuggling from the neighboring country.
These steps almost entirely eliminated the military power of the FLN. At the operational-tactical level, this was a French success, but because of mounting international pressure and domestic tensions at home, French President Charles de Gaulle decided to withdraw from Algeria.
American Actions in Operation Cedar Falls in Vietnam (1967)
Despite the many and partially justified criticisms of American military conduct in the Vietnam War, there were also successful instances in which America’s armed forces demonstrated that imbalanced combat can lead to decisive victory, at least at the operational-tactical level.
Against America’s conventional military forces and thinking stood the Vietcong, which followed the principles of guerilla fighting laid down by Mao. These principles dictated the strict avoidance of direct clashes with an enemy enjoying military superiority. Instead, Vietcong forces attacked only when they were confident that they could operate with a tactical advantage. American forces sought to prevent the Vietcong from fighting according to this method. They refused to conduct a static war based on defense, as the French did in Vietnam a decade earlier, and aimed to take the war to areas where the Vietcong was present and force them to fight. It was clear to the American command that if they succeeded in forcing such fights on the Vietcong, they could then make full use of their superior firepower and achieve victory. To this end, the Americans conducted hundreds of “search and destroy” operations, involving the sending of units of varying sizes to seek out the enemy and destroy its military installations: bunkers, tunnels, hidden rice and ammo stores, as well as training camps.
The most prominent example of this military decisiveness during the Vietnam War is Operation Cedar Falls, which occurred during a key strategic Vietcong-controlled area of South Vietnam in January 1967. The Americans allocated a corps worth of troops to the operation and made use of all the military capabilities of the US in Vietnam: airborne forces, mechanized infantry, armor, artillery, helicopters of various kinds, heavy bombers, planes for close air support, engineering forces, and even chemical warfare. The aim of the operation was to destroy the Vietcong infrastructure concentrated in the region known as the “Iron Triangle.” Despite its unconventional foe, the Americans applied conventional military strategy in an effort to exploit its large advantages in firepower, mobility, and advanced technology. The Vietcong’s guerilla forces had no answer to these. American forces succeeded in concentrating a critical mass of forces in various areas, thus denying the Vietcong the ability to hold their ground effectively. The concentrated application of force, and the rapid movement from place to place forced the Vietcong to move from its positions and expose itself to artillery and air bombardment.
During the 19-day operations, American forces succeeded in destroying the operational infrastructure of the Vietcong in the region. The tunnel system was destroyed, and the Vietcong-supporting population was expelled. The summary report of the operation stated that the Vietcong command in the Iron Triangle was destroyed in a combined operation of infantry, engineering, and air forces. Thus, effectively, the central shelter and area of control of the Vietcong in the south was destroyed. Moreover, large numbers of Vietcong fighters were eliminated or taken captive. Many others defected in unprecedented numbers. Operationally, the operation was indeed a success – the Vietcong simply could not stand up against American firepower and maneuvering capability when they were brought to bear. But American forces soon withdrew from the Iron Triangle and the Vietcong returned to it. Here, as in the examples above, counterinsurgency forces failed to turn operational success into lasting and decisive strategic victory.
Operation Defensive Shield (2002)
Operation Defensive Shield, carried out in cities under Palestinian Authority (PA) control in Judea and Samaria, is a tangible testament to decisive victory against terror organizations in imbalanced warfare conditions. The operation began on the first night of Passover, March 29, 2002, two days after the Park Hotel suicide bombing in Netanyah. In preparation for the operation, the IDF called up some 20,000 reservists, during which five divisions were deployed in Ramallah, Shechem, Jenin, Bethlehem, Hebron, Tulkarem, Kalkilia, and Jericho. The military goals of this operation were the capture and killing of terrorists, the capture and confiscation of weapons meant to harm Israel, and the identification and elimination of terrorist installations, laboratories, factories, shelters, and bunkers. To that end, the IDF made use of large infantry forces, accompanied by combat helicopters, tanks, and armored bulldozers.
The operation began with an invasion of Ramallah. IDF forces besieged the Muqata, the residence of PA Chairman Yasser Arafat and his senior officers. Parts of the complex were demolished, while Arafat hid in his office with his assistants. Many terrorists were captured in Ramallah, including Marwan Barghouti, commander of the Tanzim, Fatah’s central terror arm. Many weapons were also seized throughout the city.
In the city of Shechem, defended by some 8,000 armed Palestinians, five brigades took part in the fighting, including the Paratroopers, Golani, and Yiftach. Movement around the dense central Qasba was achieved from house to house through wall demolitions. More than seventy terrorists were killed in the battle. In the eastern section of the city, the Yiftah armored brigade advanced through heavily fortified enemy positions, encountering dozens of IEDs placed along the roads and under sniper fire. Despite this, the brigade succeeded in subduing most sources of the enemy positions and in conquering the area surrounding Joseph’s Tomb.
On April 2, IDF forces entered the refugee camp in Jenin, which was strewn with booby traps. The IDF fought a fierce house-to-house battle, aided by armored units and heavy engineering tools such as bulldozers. IDF forces eliminated many terrorists and brought down terrorist fortifications. During these operations, many senior officers from various terrorist organizations were captured or killed. Ultimately, the terrorists in the city surrendered on April 12 and battle ended. In Tulkarem, the air force first struck and destroyed the old British police building where the terrorists were dug in, following which paratroopers from the 55th paratrooper brigade quickly took the city. Afterwards, the brigade also took the town of Qabatiya, considered then to be a highly hostile target. The cities of Bethlehem, Kalkiliyah, and Jericho fell with hardly a shot fired.
By the official end of the operation on May 10, 265 Palestinians were killed and 7,000 were imprisoned. Within four weeks, cities and refugee camps in Judea and Samaria were retaken after having served, especially in the year and a half prior to the operation, as a source of unending terror attacks. In the wake of the operation, fire against the neighborhood of Gilo ended, and terror attacks and Israeli casualties began to decline. All told, enormous numbers of weapons were taken from the PA, the Muqata – the symbol of their power – was destroyed, its leader, Yasser Arafat, was placed under siege and isolated, and many wanted men were arrested.
One could argue that a major psychological victory was also achieved—that the will of the terrorists to keep on fighting was broken. Brig.-Gen. Amit Yamin, then Deputy Commander of the Paratroopers’ 101st Battalion, which took an active role in the fighting, put it this way: “They didn’t fight to the death, and the decisive majority sought to surrender via various mediation organizations. At the end of the battle, we see them in their dozens and hundreds coming out with their hands over their head, and as soldiers it was clear to us that their level of skill is lower than a combat soldier in the IDF. Even when we saw them, they didn’t seem really like troops. [More like] Falanges. After they saw the power and the number of their casualties, they preferred to surrender.”
Clearly, even in the last few decades, there are more than a few examples in which states won decisive victories in imbalanced warfare, at least at the operational-tactical level. Ultimately, even in the cases where conflicts were eventually lost, it was poor political and strategic decisions – justified or not – that led to major failures to capitalize on decisive battlefield victories. In other words, these 20th-century examples demonstrate that it is indeed possible to defeat insurgencies in imbalanced warfare, in certain conditions and with specific means. I next intend to argue that the main strategy for victory in imbalanced warfare must be the ground maneuver.
Where Did The Ground Maneuver Go?
In the context of military science, the term “maneuver” has held different definitions over time. Even today, there is no single universally accepted understanding of what a “maneuver” constitutes. It is sometimes mentioned as the movement of fire and forces, or sometimes expresses the idea of using deception to outmaneuver an enemy. According to one definition, ground maneuver is “warfare characterized by the deliberate movement of forces, represented in primary structures which are battle forms, and secondary structures derived from these, such as flanking, suppressing, and so on.” Another definition is “offensive belligerent action – primarily of the land forces – as part of an effort in which land forces are dominant and make use of other forces and systems.”
The IDF 2015 Strategy distinguishes between two kinds of maneuver: (1) focused deep maneuvering, aimed at political or governmental centers of gravity; (2) dispersed and simultaneous maneuver into the enemy’s broad tactical deployment. Military doctrinal literature takes note of another characteristic of maneuver: It must include fire elements – whether effective fire or held—also known as potential—fire. According to this definition, maneuver without the ability to generate fire cannot be considered maneuver, even if it grants a certain advantage over the enemy. Military literature in the civilian context adds a defensive characteristic, per which maneuver is also the movement of weapons or a military unit away from danger. In other words, maneuver is not necessarily just meant to create an advantage, but also avoid a disadvantage. However, the way the term ground maneuver is used today overwhelmingly refers to its offensive context.
The aim of maneuver, taking the various definitions into account, is to deny achievements from the enemy, advance the aims of the war, and bring about victory through combat. In the past, the aim of maneuver referred to the conquest of land assets for the purposes of policy or the fighting entities. Today, it is assigned a different purpose: the killing of enemy soldiers and the destruction of their infrastructures or leaders.
From all of this, we can derive a possible general definition of maneuver, which we will adopt in this article: the invasion of a ground combat force into enemy territory to fight it frontally, take control of its territories, and strive towards its defeat on the battlefield.
After it was founded, the State of Israel found itself in a condition of geopolitical inferiority vis-à-vis the surrounding Arab states. This imbalance could be seen in the size of the states’ geographical territory, the size of their standing and reserve forces, and the quantity and perhaps even quality of their weapons. This reality led the country’s leaders to develop a national security strategy aimed towards shortening the duration of fighting in wars, and taking the fight from inside the country to the enemy’s territory as soon as possible. This strategy required rapid movement into the enemy’s area, concentrating the fight on their territory, striving for contact and the destruction of its forces and arms, and harming the enemies’ strategic assets. To apply this strategy, the IDF embedded the approach of land-based maneuver within its security doctrine.
The pursuit of land-based decisive victory continued to be present in IDF operational plans and doctrinal writings, but force construction plans, which direct resources, gradually shifted them to intelligence and counter-fire (artillery and air), at the expense of the ground forces. Cultural, conceptual, social, and technological changes, some of which we will list below, led over the years to the abandonment of the use of land-based maneuver – not just in Israel, but in Western countries in general. In Israel, land-based maneuver has been considered a last resort since the First Lebanon War. Even when the IDF used land forces during limited operations in Judea and Samaria, the Gaza Strip, and Lebanon, these maneuvering forces were meant to secure clearly defined and limited objectives, such as neutralizing indirect fire or destroying tunnels and terror infrastructures. Among the general changes which led to the decline in maneuver’s prestige, we can note the following:
An increase in terror threats alongside a decline in state military threats.
In the last thirty years, Israel has dealt primarily with the threats posed by terror organizations. Such groups operate in dense urban environments, striking from within a population that protects them and allows their violent attacks, deliberately aiming at the Israeli civilian population. They are even equipped with weapons adapted for the battlefield, capable of harming the IDF’s ability to maneuver. This reality makes it hard for the IDF to conduct penetrating maneuvers or outflank the enemy. The difficulty lies not only in the very maneuver, but also the great risk to the lives of soldiers and the ability to provide them with logistical support. Moreover, conquering hostile territory from a terror organization means that the IDF will then need to manage the area – a reality that risks exposing Israeli forces to continuous guerilla fighting and terrorism from remaining terrorists hiding among a supportive civilian population. To this we should add the aversion of the country’s leaders to managing a hostile territory requiring the investment of a great deal of money and resources to maintain and sustain the local population.
This change in Israel’s approach to warfare can also be seen in the increased emphasis they have placed on land defense. In recent years, terrorist organizations have based their offensive strategy around the primacy of attack on the Israeli rear, rather than attempts by infantry to invade Israeli territory. This “bypass” method has led to the IDF’s defense focusing on the aerial dimension (Iron Dome and the like) and in routine security and patrols along the border. The result is a reduction in the IDF’s capacity for defensive land maneuver.
Decline in threat levels against the State of Israel.
In the beginning, the State of Israel faced an existential threat from state armies of the first and second circles of countries around her. This reality did not leave policy makers much choice but to work with all available tools in the military field, in addition to those regarding general national security. Decisive victory in these conventional wars could only be secured by conquering enemy territory and hitting their main bases of power. Thus, the need for land-based maneuver was vital in dealing with the existential threat. However, in the last thirty years, the map of threats facing Israel has altered significantly. In particular, the states bordering Israel have weakened, in a process expedited in the last decade to the point of the near-collapse of Syria and the loss of power in Lebanon. Israel does not, at present, face an existential threat, aside from Iran’s nuclear program – a state in Israel’s third threat circle.
The unique status of the air arm in the IDF and in Israeli society.
Since the Six Day War, the Israeli Air Force has enjoyed a status of great glory in Israeli society and a special role in Israel’s national security conception. The air force is nowadays believed to be capable of winning wars on its own. The vulnerabilities revealed in the Yom Kippur War further strengthened the air arm’s status. This can also be seen in the force construction and deployment of the IDF in recent years, which, as we said, has increasingly tended towards intelligence and counter-fire from the air.
Cultural changes in Israeli society.
Israeli society was formed from the first as an enlisted society determined to fight for the establishment of a Jewish Home in the Land of Israel, and then to protect it against the very real threat of annihilation. The shock Israeli society suffered in the Yom Kippur War led to the development of a more critical line of thought towards the IDF and the state’s leaders. This mindset intensified after the First Lebanon War. These two wars led to aversion and exhaustion among Israeli society towards wars and the loss of soldiers and civilians. Civilian opposition to “wars of choice” grew markedly—but the criticism and opposition to wars also harmed Israel’s ability to conduct operations in which there was no choice but to act, and in doing so, protect the Israeli rear. In particular, Israeli society witnessed an increased fear of endangering soldiers, even at the retroactive cost of endangering civilians. Due to fear of this kind of public criticism, and to the hesitation of the IDF itself, state leaders refused to make use of land-based maneuver. Subsequently, counter-fire increased as the main tactic.
Improved and developed technology at the defensive level.
In the last decade, Israel achieved significant advances in the field of defense against rockets and missiles. Tools such as the Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and the Arrow 3 missile – and at the tactical level, systems like Wind Jacket and Porcupine Arrow – became operational, swiftly redefining how national defense is conducted. The consequent improvement in Israel’s defense ability has provided Israel’s leaders with “industrial quiet” and the luxury of patience in deciding whether to launch a localized or broad military operation. In most cases, Israeli leadership has opted for a policy of containment, preferring localized and even surgical military strikes over broad military offensives. Due to the relatively limited and non-lethal damage to the Israeli rear, Israeli governments received public legitimacy and support for their ongoing preference to avoid all-out offensives.
The War Between the Wars (WBW).
Israel has greatly expanded the number of “war between the wars” in the past decade. This refers to covert military actions against targets serving as medium and long-term strategic threats to the State of Israel. Most of these actions are done through (primarily aerial) counterfire, and are aimed at the enemy’s force construction (especially Iran and Hezbollah): missile factories and warehouses, defense systems, the centers for the production of relatively advanced technological means (such as attack drones), the smuggling of weapons, and everything related to the nuclear programs. The WBW also includes surgical attacks done by special forces, and such “non-kinetic” actions done by non-military means. The secret nature of the WBW reduces the risk that actions done within its framework will escalate into a war, or even a large-scale military operation. Thus, the WBW effectively renders ground maneuver unnecessary.
All these changes, which have occurred in the last thirty years, have led to land-based maneuver being almost entirely absent from the IDF’s list of go-to tactics. We have witnessed an effective reversal of roles in the IDF’s fighting doctrine: If land-based maneuver was the main effort and fire-based efforts were made in support, now maneuver is, at best, done in support of fire efforts. In the many of the military operations it launched in the Gaza Strip, Israel did not use land-based maneuver at all, aside from one limited and narrow one during Operation Cast Lead and an even more limited and narrow instance during Protective Edge. In Operation Defensive Shield and in the Second Lebanon War, relatively limited use was made of ground maneuver. In the WBW, which is the heart of Israeli military operations today, there is certainly no use of ground maneuver, as there is seemingly no need. The consequences of this, however, are seen in the growing atrophy of IDF maneuvering capability and the decline in awareness of its importance.
The Decline of the Decisive Mindset
At the beginning of the nineties, the IDF began to develop a new operational approach, which attributed great importance to ensuring “limited conflict” in the course of imbalanced warfare. From the mid-nineties onwards, this approach was systematically developed by the Institute for the Study of Operational Doctrine, or ISOD, led by Brig-Gen. (res.) Dr. Shimon Naveh, Brig.-Gen. (res.) Dov “Duvick” Tamari and Dr. Tzvi Lanir.
The ideas developed by ISOD penetrated into the IDF senior leadership, and were even adopted by Chiefs of Staff Shaul Mofaz and Bogie Yaalon, and eventually also Benny Gantz. At their core lies Naveh’s doctorate, based on post-structural and post-modernist thinkers like Jean-Francois Lyotard, Claude Parent, Jacques Derrida, Paul Virilio, Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari. In an interview for Haaretz in 2007, Naveh described his efforts to embed post-modern ideas within the IDF. Among other things, he described how he used the strategies of the latter two thinkers to mimic the modus operandi of guerilla fighters. He also encouraged his officers to read and discuss the two’s works. Soldiers at the ISOD translated the works of French philosophers, including those two, and Naveh handed out texts of Virilio and Lyotard to students at the institute. “Aviv [Cochavi] speaks of whirlwind maneuver in Shechem. I didn’t say this to the IDF, but Deleuze speaks of… this kind of action,” Naveh said in the interview. He also told of how he embedded the post-modern idea of deconstruction (“the idea that continuous change is liberation”) within the IDF’s doctrines and took pride in meeting with people who “are more radical than the commonly accepted political approaches. I sat with Agamben [an Italian political philosopher of the radical left]. He understood that I’m ten times more subversive than he is, and I manipulated him. I also sat with Virilio.”
The ISOD formed the IDF’s operational approach on the basis of a combination of “system theory” – an interdisciplinary approach that aims to distinguish between the actions of a “system” through the interactions formed between its component parts, and their effect on the whole – and the operation theory developed by the Soviet Army, focused on bridging the gaps between the strategic and tactical levels of war. The assumption was that the IDF is no longer solely fighting armies, but is also conducting a “campaign” against the enemy’s system, which contains elements of society, culture, economy, and diplomacy, beyond the actual combatants. Moreover, terror organizations ostensibly lack a center of gravity which can be targeted to achieve decisive victory. As such, the IDF’s campaign cannot be conducted solely militarily – if at all – but primarily through psychological means. This would be done via cumulative “levers” and “effects” meant to undermine the “rationale” of the enemy’s “system” and lead to a mental collapse—resulting in an eventual unwillingness to continue the conflict.
This leads to the utilizing of approaches such as “indirect levers” and “effects-based operations,” focused on change in mentality and undermining the enemy’s intentions, at the expense of damaging his military capabilities and striving for decisive victory. But this diversion into the sphere of mentality did not occur only in the operational sphere, but also in the understanding of how command should function within the army. Instead of seeking decisive confrontations and considering how to best secure victory within them – including through historical and empirical study, alongside creative philosophical thinking as an additional but not exclusive component – the ISOD preferred to elevate the thinking process itself: It emphasized the need for an ongoing act of construction and deconstruction, ad infinitum, as reality never stops changinges. Originally formed as a body meant to build and plan the force for the next war, the General Staff became more like a philosophy or sociology department at Tel Aviv University.
However, this is not the place to conduct a thorough dissection of the poststructuralist ideas advocated by Naveh and his ISOD colleagues, or of post-modern theory in general. We will therefore suffice with one example, to demonstrate the mindset behind the IDF’s operational approach from the nineties onward. Take, for instance, the radical approaches of French architect Claude Parent and philosopher Paul Virilio, which were based on the famous Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (founder of cubism and forerunner of surrealism, and to an extent also postmodernism). Picasso undermined Euclidean geometry and instead exalted topographical geometry. Just as Picasso “deconstructed” and “exposed” impressionism and realist paintings into new sub-forms (by distorting and folding the object in question), Virilio and Parent called for abandoning the industrialized and planned cities – based as they were on straight lines and a predetermined layout – and instead aiming for cities based on the “diagonal function.” Diagonal functions allowed for a continuity of space, abolishing the fixed use needs and creating random potential situations. The aim of this approach is to create a continuity between the object and the subject, between architecture and user. Naveh explicitly adopted this approach of continuity – hence, for instance, the need he sees in the “operational level,” which creates continuity between the strategic and tactical levels. He used the approaches of Virilio and Parent to invent the term “rhizomatic maneuver.” This is a maneuver based not on Euclidean geometry and straight lines of advance, or even flanking maneuvers, and is not meant to win or conquer as such. Instead, its aim is to study and understand the rival system and then undermine the rationale of its system through various means, such as economics, diplomacy, and culture, supported by the army. According to this approach, the foundations of classical, linear military thought, such as that of Clausewitz, regarding the need for decisive combat to win battles, and even the linearl understanding of the battlefield itself should be abandoned in favor a multidimensional campaign in which angles are pulled in every possible direction, in order to undermine the rationale of the rival system.
The idea of “operational art” was attractive to the IDF, as it blurred – in the great post-modern tradition – the difference between concepts of war and peace, speaking of “low intensity conflict,” leading to a significant reduction in casualties. This reality led to the aforementioned reversal in the relationship between maneuver and counter-fire. Aerial firepower, in particular, became a central factor in achieving this new operational art’s desired “effects.”
Territory, once seen as an asset in military thinking, became a burden per the new approach—a needless and cost-heavy objective. And indeed, one of the ISOD’s clear effects on the IDF was the army’s changed operational approach in the 2006 Lebanon War, which contained a new interpretation of the issue of decisive victory. A distinction was formed between the “classical” notion of decisive victory and the new type of victory achieved in a “limited conflict,” defined as an imbalanced conflict between Israel and terrorist organizations, taking place in tangled or dense urban areas. This distinction in and of itself was sufficient to convey to the IDF and the political leadership the message that victory in imbalanced warfare is not the same as in conventional warfare. Instead of seeking decisive victory, the IDF’s operational approach began to promote “a possible continuum of mechanisms for the termination” of conflicts, as its formulators put it. “Along this continuum, preference is given to ‘arrangement,’ meaning creating a convenient strategic reality, including – the cessation of violence, even without clear ‘decision’ on the battlefield.” In other words, though conventional wars can be won through decisive victory, the imbalanced conflicts we now frequently fight against terror groups cannot.
Even when use is made of maneuver in a limited way, such as during the Second Lebanon War, the consequences of the new “operational art” approach could be seen. The operational and tactical levels of the IDF were now rife with complex, vague, and generally unclear terms from the field of systems theory and post-modern ideology, replacing basic and familiar military terms such as “goal,” “intent,” “method,” “forces,” and “missions.” These new terms took root not only in the IDF General Staff, but also permeated into the regional commands and various field commands. Among the new terms which accompanied the changes were similarly uncertain phrases such as “snailing” (reducing enemy exposure), “absorbing tissue” (endurance), “pathway attack” (the arrival of relatively small forces to a specific point or points from a number of directions), “cricketings” (quiet movement of infantry in enemy territory), “wasp cloud” (widespread and covert infiltration), “maneuvering minds” (actions meant to have a psychological effect on the enemy with the aim of altering their decisions), “burning consciousness” (conveying “shock and awe” onto the enemy), “aerial dominance” (granting preference to use of aerial counter-fire), “distance feeling” (the surveying and mapping of territory and forces, or intelligence gathering from a distance), “dynamic molecule” (small, combined arms units, meant to create the “needed effect”) and a whole other host of expressions and instructions difficult for the tactical and even strategic command to understand.
The higher ranks may have studied the concepts in depth, such was not the case for many field commanders, who had difficulty in translating these muddled messages into action and adapting them to reality. Soldiers and commanders, and even senior officers, could not distinguish between the descriptions of actions and their aims. Reservists were especially befuddled, having not taken regular part in the philosophical lectures and briefings informed by these French thinkers. The result was conceptual confusion which negatively affected the IDF’s operational performance.
As noted, Israel also felt the influence of the “limited conflict” theory during their military operations in Gaza post Hamas taking control, all of which ended with no ground maneuvering, or with very limited maneuver, and without the military defeat of Hamas or other terror groups. The classic military doctrine—based on initiative, conquest, and decisive victory—was entirely abandoned. Conquest of territory or initiative or offensive were no longer the goals of the IDF, but rather “containment” and waiting for the enemy to undergo a change in mindset. Having evidently entirely lost faith in the possibility of defeating terror on the battlefield, the IDF’s goal in confrontation shifted to convincing Israel’s enemies to pursue the diplomatic peace process.
Influence on Force Construction
As a result of all this, the IDF’s force construction policies in the last few decades were developed with a generally deficient perspective, one clearly tilted towards technology and counter-fire, especially from the air. If the IDF’s goal is to create “effects” which change the thinking of the rival “system,” then there is no need for decisive victory, and certainly not for land-based maneuver as a tool for securing it. In the absence of a need to achieve decisive victory, the IDF ceased offering tactical options to the political leadership that required ground offensives. This, in turn, means that the Israeli government’s options for pursuing decisive victory are limited at best and non-existent at worst. Meanwhile, as the IDF’s focus turned away from ground maneuver, Israel’s ground forces themselves were neglected, soon becoming another part of the problem, rather than the solution.
A preference for counter-fire in force construction primarily led to the stressed primacy of the air force and intelligence efforts, as can be seen in the creation of a target bank meant to provide support to the air force. In addition, the IDF chose to equip itself with exceptional intelligence capabilities, but invested much less in defining their aims, thereby failing to properly adapt its forces to changing times. Thus, even if the IDF now wished to change this pattern of thinking and return to ideas of decisive victory, the tools for doing so are no longer present, after having spent years preparing for a “mentality struggle.”.
Unfortunately, the enemy the IDF has been primarily fighting the past few decades is less interested in French philosophy and more interested in efforts to eradicate the State of Israel and its citizens. Obviously, Hezbollah and Hamas devote a great deal of thought and resources to the battle of minds with Israel, but they do so as part of a broader general policy or military strategy. Terror organizations – having since become terror armies –as opposed to the IDF, devote most of their energy and resources to attacking Israel using tactical military means and with the aid of military operations, “rounds of conflict,” and initiated and “random” attacks—without becoming bogged down in casuistry over abstract and ongoing discussions of military theories. These terror armies also regularly replenish themselves and increase their strength: They acquire and produce weapons (with an emphasis on long-range rockets and their increased precision), improve their soldiers’ skills, embed weapons and ammo in densely populated areas, improve their command-and-control capabilities, and expand warfare dimensions to new realms such as underground (tunnels), undersea, and close to the ground (with drones and skydivers).
In a document written in 2005, one IDF commander stated that the main lesson gleaned from fighting Hezbollah in the 1990s and early 2000s was that “the capabilities of ranged fire (from the air and a distance) did not provide a full response to the challenge in dealing with targets with a short life span, which were sometimes hidden under a bush or fired from a camouflaged cave opening. The ability to alternate between counter fire on the one hand, and ground maneuver and close combat on the other, is a prerequisite for decisive victory against Hezbollah’s guerilla tactics. We cannot defeat Hezbollah without close contact.” Despite this, throughout the First Lebanon War, the Second Lebanon War, and the various operations in Gaza, the IDF preferred to employ systems of operation based primarily on counter-fire and less on maneuver. If there was maneuver, it tended to be limited in scope and often hesitant and incomplete.
Bringing Maneuver Back, Front and Center
In the last two decades, terror groups fighting Israel have accumulated meaningful – and disturbing – political and military gains. Hamas presently rules a defined territory and population, while Hezbollah effectively rules Lebanon. They possess tens-of-thousands of rockets and missiles, as well as specifically anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, drones, special night-vision technology, electronic-warfare systems, cyber capabilities, naval commando and ground special forces, subterranean combat capabilities, and, in the case of Hezbollah, combat experience against other militias.
Terror groups and organizations have thus become terror armies. They possess conventional and sub-conventional military strength, a relatively clear hierarchy, command and control systems, and the support of various political institutions. Terror armies are therefore “hybrid actors,” combining components and capabilities of terrorist activity, guerilla activity, and regular warfare. These are – as has tragically been proven in recent weeks – the strongest enemies in Israel’s first and second circle today and for the foreseeable future, presenting a fundamental threat to the state.
A “fundamental threat” is defined as a threat greatly endangering the lives, assets, and vital interests of the state. This threat may be realized in the form of the conquest of Israeli territory and continued attacks along a number of fronts. It’s likely that the enemy will continue to try to harm not only national Israeli infrastructures but also military capabilities and assets in the strategic rear, with the aim of disrupting recruitment, preparation, mobility, and activity of IDF forces. To this end, it will direct its fire towards air force bases, command centers and vital installations, emergency warehouses, roads, and IDF staging areas.
The terror armies which Israel is dealing with have high survival and concealment capabilities, making it hard to disable them and their infrastructure. In these conditions, we cannot rely solely on the air force’s power; we saw this clearly in the last two rounds of violence. Nor will exclusive reliance on secret operations carried out by special forces or addiction to WBW operations be enough. The IDF needs to establish a prepared, lethal army ready to strike in the name of decisive victory. Such a war as the one we are currently embroiled in requires a ground maneuver, as there is a clear need to reach the rear of the enemy and utterly destroy him, his weapons, and his military and infrastructure assets.
Decisive victory will be achieved through an attack on the enemy’s center of gravity – and these very much exist, contrary to the views of the researchers, commentators, and elected representatives who claim otherwise. These centers of gravity generally constitute senior leaders, concentrations of troops, and territories under the enemy’s control. Decisive victory will therefore be achieved with maneuver into an area which allows the occupation, possession, and isolation of territories, the neutralization of a large number of their forces and destruction of their military assets, and the airborne elimination of senior organization leaders.
A combined, synchronized blow will reduce the enemy’s capabilities to harm the Israeli rear through rockets and other means, deny it strategic capabilities such as terror tunnels within Gaza, hit it with “shock and awe” on its “sacred ground” (meaning conquering and holding its territories at least during warfare), and harm its will to continue fighting through targeted strikes and attacks on combatants in the field. This will ensure the enemy’s rapid surrender and provide the State of Israel with the time and security it needs to make political decisions – whatever these may be.
To sum up: War, including one in which the sides are not balanced in terms of power, can be decided only by use of ground forces, deployed as part of the general use of military and non-military capabilities. Clear evidence of this can be seen in past wars between state actors and guerilla or terror groups. During such conflicts, enemy insurgents cannot be defeated in “clean” wars from the air, and are not impressed by efforts to influence them mentally with the pyrotechnics of smoke and fire.
This is also true of the Israeli case, despite its unique circumstances. The enemy’s military buildup and transformation into a terror army requires the State of Israel, and the IDF especially, to currently wage a war which will certainly require use of ground maneuver as part of a broad combined arms effort. Maneuver needs to be aimed at military decisions in stubborn and complex fighting, which will very likely lead to serious losses.
This point is a particularly sensitive one, and justifiably so, for both Israeli society and western societies in general. But it seems we have forgotten that the main aim of the armed forces is to protect citizens and the rear, not vice versa. We should not rush to employ the army, but when we have no choice, we must – and in such cases, we should use it as effectively as possible for the sake of the state and its citizens.
To improve the IDF’s currently flawed system of conducting war, its senior leaders at the operational and strategic level need to change how they think. This can only be achieved, with a new focus on studying historical cases and returning to the foundations of military theory, as based on military thinkers and historians like Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Josephus, and Machiavelli, as well as later theorists such as Clausewitz, Jomini, Strachan, Hanson, Howard, and Macgregor. Only a restoration of the fundamental, basic terms and concepts to the military lexicon will lead to real change in use and deployment of forces leading to decisions in battle. As American General James Mattis, later Defense Secretary, best put it while commander of CENTCOM in the wake of Israel’s experience in the Second Lebanon War:
“The use of “effects” has confused what previously was a well-designed and straightforward process for determining “ends.” Furthermore, its use has created unrealistic expectations of predictability and a counterproductive information appetite in American headquarters. It requires unattainable levels of knowledge about the enemy exercising its independent will. The best way forward is to re-baseline our terminology and concepts by returning to time-honored principles, such as mission type orders, unambiguous commander’s intent, and clear articulation of ends, ways, and means that have been tested in combat and are historically grounded in the fundamental nature of war while incorporating, where logical, the issues introduced by today’s more complex environment.”
Omer Dostri is a doctoral student in military and defense at the Political Science Department at Bar Ilan University and a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
This article was translated from its original Hebrew form by Avi Woolf and edited by Gavriella Cohen.