May 19, 2024

It’s a fight Israel didn’t want, but it’s one that will test a new approach to war in the 21st century.

Analysts say the unfolding Israel Defense Forces counterstrike against Hamas in the Gaza Strip represents the first real-world test run of a reimagined Israeli military doctrine that places less emphasis on potential large-scale clashes with traditional armies and a much greater focus on the marriage of special forces ground units, air power, intelligence-gathering and cyberwarfare capabilities to win a 21st-century asymmetric fight.

Israel’s new approach also recognizes the need for enough manpower and firepower to carry out a two-front war if necessary. While the IDF faces down Hamas in Gaza, it is also embroiled in a slow-burning conflict with the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah on its northern border.

Specialists say Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah and its capabilities in the fight against Hamas represent “two dramatically different chapters” in the IDF’s history. They point to the ability of IDF special forces commanders on the ground in Gaza to communicate in real time with fighter jets overhead or drone operators controlling unmanned craft, giving the Israeli military a much better battlefield fusion of air and ground assets that, in theory, allows for more successful surgical strikes with less collateral damage.

Some of the reforms might have had unintended consequences.

As far back as 2021, some military researchers warned that Israel might be leaving itself vulnerable by concluding that non-state groups such as Hamas likely weren’t capable of the kinds of traditional ground attacks or missile barrages that Israel confronted with its neighbors in past wars, including Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

In some ways, Hamas disproved that notion with its Oct. 7 terrorist assault. The well-coordinated operation killed more than 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals and resulted in more than 240 people being taken hostage. It was the deadliest single day for the Jewish state in decades.

With its evolving approach, “the IDF may not be properly prepared to contend with evolving complex threats as non-state adversaries grow in size and acquire rocket and missile capabilities that once belonged only to states,” Avi Jager, a research fellow with Israel’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, wrote in a 2021 study published by the U.S. Naval War College.

Mr. Jager served as a reconnaissance officer and team commander in the IDF special forces.

Changing the game

The IDF’s transformation can be traced back to the 2015 Gideon multiyear plan, which envisioned reforming the structure of the armed forces by shrinking some of its more traditional ground combat outfits and reorganizing battle group formations into more nimble, versatile units. The reimagining continued with 2019’s “Momentum” plan, which grew from Israel’s recognition that it would inevitably face a host of enemies in a variety of domains, some of which behaved like a traditional army and others that operated like rogue terrorist gangs.

“We may face a two- or three-front war — active areas or theaters simultaneously against different enemies and capabilities. We must address that,” IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said at the time, according to the U.S. outlet Defense News. “We want to shorten the time of combat for higher achievement on [the] battlefield at smaller cost for IDF and civilians. Think of a triangle with sides of time and achievement and cost. Imagine we want that to be small with achievement being high.”

He acknowledged that the IDF was entering “uncharted territory.”

The IDF’s approach appeared to fall short in at least one key area. The reform proposals called for an even greater focus on intelligence gathered on the ground and on physical sensors and other tools designed explicitly to detect incoming attacks. Hamas was able to physically invade southern Israel on Oct. 7 and wreak havoc, seemingly undetected beforehand by the IDF or Israeli intelligence services.

High-tech border sensors designed to alert Israeli commanders that the fenced Gaza border had been breached either failed to work or were taken out by relatively basic Hamas drones.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials have promised a full accounting of that apparent intelligence failure.

Some Israeli military observers say other policies will need to be tweaked, particularly if the IDF maintains an offensive military footprint in and around Gaza for years or if the war spreads and Israel needs to deploy ground forces elsewhere in the region.

“This will involve a pivot from the concept of prioritizing sensor-based border defenses, and aiming to achieve lengthy periods of quiet while allowing terror armies to build capabilities almost without disruption, to a more offensive doctrine involving a continuous cross-border operational posture,” Yaakov Lappin, an Israel-based military affairs correspondent and analyst at the Miryam Institute, wrote in a recent analysis for the Jewish News Syndicate.

‘See beyond the corner’

On other fronts, analysts say, the IDF reforms have been successful to the point that the Israeli military is miles beyond where it was decades ago, particularly in 2006 when it battled Hezbollah to a draw in a major ground war.

“You’re talking about two different periods of time and two dramatically different chapters,” said Avi Melamed, a former Israeli intelligence official. “In 2006, the dominant concept of the Israeli operation [was] this is a battle that was going to be decisively won through the use of air power. That was wrong.”

Today, he said, Israel recognizes it is fighting a more “asymmetric war.” The IDF is pursuing victory not solely by unleashing its considerable air and ground forces.

“There has been an evolving, totally new modus operandi,” Mr. Melamed said in an interview. “You are taking your different military capacities — whether it’s aerial power, whether it is infantry power, tanks, intelligence — and you fuse them. That fusion results in a much more multiplied power that you can apply on the ground.”

Mr. Melamed said IDF special forces on the ground in Gaza can relay three-dimensional pictures of what they see to headquarters or aerial units overhead. He described it as “generating a constant bank of targets” that can be tweaked in real time as conditions on the ground change.

“It’s an enormously groundbreaking tool,” he said. “You can see beyond the corner without seeing around the corner.”

By traditional military definitions, the IDF remains one of the world’s most powerful, best-trained and most capable fighting forces. The IDF has about 170,000 active-duty personnel and roughly 465,000 reservists, the majority of whom have been activated in the weeks since Oct. 7.

Hamas claims to have as many as 50,000 fighters in its military wing, though most analysts say that number is inflated. Hezbollah says it has more than 100,000 trained fighters, but most outside estimates put the number at 25,000 to 50,000.

The Global Firepower Index, an online clearinghouse of nations’ military strength, places Israel fourth in the Middle East, behind Turkey, Egypt and Iran. Israel is also believed to possess nuclear weapons, which give it a decided edge over most potential rivals.

The information space

Raw military strength is only one piece of the equation. Today’s concept of asymmetric war also involves public relations, disinformation and carefully crafted media narratives to help advance one side’s military and political aims.

For Hamas, that approach was on clear display this week as Israeli special forces raided the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, where IDF officials said they found weapons, flak jackets and other Hamas tools of terror.

Hamas and its allies across the Arab world have painted the al-Shifa operation as the latest example of Israel’s indiscriminate, inhumane attacks on the more than 2 million Palestinians living in Gaza. Regional news reports focused on the fact that Israeli forces had failed to locate the warren of underground tunnels supposedly built beneath the medical complex.

The narrative that Israel’s claims about al-Shifa were overstated has taken hold across much of the Middle East and even in corners of the West.

“Hamas has, on top of its tactics, weapons and tunnels, it has another weapon in its possession. And this weapon is called international media,” Mr. Melamed said.

In the immediate aftermath of the Oct. 7 attacks, Israel appeared caught off guard as Hamas spun a narrative that cast the militant group as besieged Palestinian freedom fighters and Israel as the terrorist aggressor. Since then, the IDF has become more aggressive with its public relations operation. This week, the IDF released several long-form videos documenting its actions at the al-Shifa hospital, showing video proof of its claims of weapons discoveries and explaining in clear terms why such controversial actions are necessary.

“While we and most countries do everything we can to protect the sick, sadly that’s not the case in Gaza. Hamas sees ill Gazans as an opportunity — an opportunity to put the most vulnerable in the line of fire,” IDF Lt. Col. Amnon Shefler said in a social media post.

“We know Hamas has done this for years,” he said. “Hamas terrorists have embedded themselves deliberately in any place they could, be it schools, kindergarten, and hospitals. Hamas, in the most cynical way, is not only using the fuel, the electricity, the oxygen, the medicine from hospitals, but is using the most vulnerable, the sick and the ill as human shields. This is what we are up against.”