TEL AVIV – Israeli deterrence is due for a wholesale overhaul, from basic theory and language to practical matters of intelligence targeting and operational planning up to the way the military fights and advises government leaders.
Such are conclusions of an internal document published by the research center of the Israel Defense Forces National Security College (IDF/NSC).
In the 43-page document, Maj. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, NSC commanding officer, and NSC research fellow Dima Adamsky, a senior lecturer at Herzliya's Interdisciplinary Center, deliver an academically couched, yet nonetheless sharp critique of Israel's high command and its abilities to finesse a fundamental niche in the art of war.
Israeli combat operations in recent years — and especially its latest Protective Edge campaign in Gaza — highlighted a pronounced need to develop sharper methods of designing and managing campaigns, they write.
Intellectual efforts in the field of deterrence are often improvised when they must be based on solid, methodological doctrine.
While authors acknowledge that there will never be precise algorithms by which to measure the effectiveness of deterrence, they urge greater investment in analytical thought.
Against terrorist organizations and non-state actors, Israel must develop "an alternative concept which is more contemporary, sophisticated and attuned to the complexities demanded when designing operations against hybrid actors."
Not nearly enough attention, they say, is devoted to what authors called "the otherness" of the enemy's unique culture, logic and strategic thinking.
Need for Discussion
The fact that such a detailed critique was published by the military's National Security College "testifies that the IDF is on the right track," said retired IDF Col. Omer Bar-Lev, a lawmaker from Israel's opposition Labor Party and member of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee
"We need to have a deep and meaningful discussion about how to improve deterrence. And about how, if deterrence fails, we can quickly recover through improved performance at all levels, starting with the political level that is supposed to be guiding some kind of grand strategy," he said.
Amir Oren, a veteran defense analyst with Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper, was less optimistic.
While many of the authors' findings are valuable — particularly those pertaining to the need for improved strategic intelligence and better tools to assess that so-called culminating point of deterrence — Oren did not anticipate a meaningful revamp.
"It's nice for the laboratory or in simulations at the Harvard School of Business," he said.
A senior officer on the IDF General Staff who was pivotal in planning Israel's latest Gaza war, acknowledged "conditions that are lacking," which could otherwise prevent escalation from surging beyond that culminating deterrent point of no return.
"Few places developed mutual deterrence like the US and the USSR. But in most other places, and especially here, there are no such tools. We don't have a red phone to pick up vis-a-vis Hamas or Hezbollah, " the officer said.
"Each side interprets actions his own way. Then add to that the complexity of dealing with a terror organization where part of its leadership is sitting pretty in a five-star hotel in Doha and the rest are hiding in underground command posts in Gaza."
Israeli intelligence, the authors write, needs to view the enemy as a complete and complex system. Otherwise, they warn, Israel's well-funded and continuously growing intelligence community risks marginalizing itself to a mere provider of targeting data.
"Today, more than in the past, it is expected that intelligence will create for operational designers an ongoing diagnosis of the 'otherness' of the enemy strategy and changes that will affect it over time," they wrote.
Likewise, IDF war planners tend to be overly focused on tactical thinking and specific weapons systems available to warfighters.
"Historically, IDF operational design does not testify to coherent logic … that connects high-value strategic aims with operational missions at a lower level."
Authors also take government leaders to task for relying on military might to compensate for lack of grand strategy. "The experience of recent years supports the claim that even though deterring operations can, in the end, deliver periodic quiet, it doesn't solve the basic problems" with respect to the enemy, they wrote.
"This can cause misleading self-satisfaction on the part of Israeli leaders, and therefore save them from the need to devise strategy."
They also noted the government's responsibility to communicate clear and credible messages to enemies and adversaries. Failure to do so can lead to a breakdown of deterrence.
"Threats need to be understood by the enemy and also perceived by enemy as real, rather than empty," they wrote.
As an example relevant to Iran, Syria and other enemies, they cited the need to "broadcast red lines without provoking escalation and large-scale war."
Yet another example relevant to Israel's latest Protective Edge operation against Gaza-based Hamas, they cited the need "to send a message that a particular operation is not targeted at the enemy's existence, but rather against certain unacceptable behavior."
Baidatz, a member of the IDF General Staff, and Adamsky, also a senior fellow at the NSC, said Israel mistakenly views deterring operations and those aimed at influencing enemy decisions as polar opposites.
In fact, they insist, they are "perfect counterweights" that must be employed jointly.
Finally, the study flags Israel's risk of overshooting what they call "the culminating point of deterrence," an adaptation of Carl Von Clausewitz's culminating point of offense, or victory, where actions aimed at deterring escalation actually end up provoking war.
First coined by Adamsky in a February 2013 study published in the Journal of Strategic Studies, miscalculation of this point can lead to a total breakdown of deterrence.
"In its need to ensure aspirations for tactical success, the IDF must not miss the culminating point of deterrence … that escalates or creates a more complicated and problematic strategic environment," he writes.
Danny Yatom, a retired IDF major general and former director of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, agreed that Israeli deterrent thinking and planning is in need of refreshing.
"Deterrence is based in large part on psychology and analytical art, and this key element used to be much stronger when we were dealing with nation states instead of terror organizations," Yatom said.
"No doubt better processes that strengthen deterrence will make it easier to convince the political level to make wiser choices from wiser military options proposed by the IDF," he said. ■