LATRUN, Israel — Uniformed officers from nearly a dozen countries and hundreds of Israeli defense and industry representatives convened here last week for Ground Forces Israel Defense, an international conference and exhibition on the future of maneuvering war.
Over two days at Israel's Armored Corps Memorial Center in Latrun, where commanders throughout time have fought for control of the strategic road to Jerusalem, current and former Israeli brass shared lessons from recent wars in Gaza and Lebanon and trends driving investment spending.
In the four wars fought by Israel since 2006, Israeli ground forces were deployed only after extended and punishing standoff campaigns or not at all, as was the case in the Pillar of Defense Gaza operation of November 2012.
That has to change, said retired Maj. Gen. Udi Shani, chairman of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) Armored Corps Association, which co-sponsored the May 5-6 event with Israel Defense.
"There's no possibility to achieve control of territory without maneuvering," Shani said in his keynote address. "It doesn't matter which theater. … There needs to be ground maneuvering from the very first day."
According to Shani, a former director-general of Israel's Defense Ministry, ground maneuvering is essential for capturing and controlling territory in order to advance diplomatic and strategic objectives.
"I'm happy you can 'hold' territory from the air… but to capture territory and control it, you need the ground forces from day number one."
"It's impossible to complete a mission with air power alone … and tie-breaking weapons have yet to be discovered," said Boaz Cohen, vice president for land systems at Elbit Systems.
Therefore, ground maneuvering is essential. In the next war, said Cohen, "It will apparently be required at the very early stages of battle."
Robotics, Long-Arm Precision
Israel is investing heavily in new operational concepts, robotics and connectivity with air and sea services in order to improve effectiveness and protect its own while minimizing risk to the enemy population where it is forced to fight.
At the same time, it is testing so-called long-arm, precision weapons designed to take on some missions heretofore reserved for the Israel Air Force.
Last week, the Armored Corps' 7th Brigade, Israel's oldest armored fighting force with primary responsibility for the northern theater, drilled for the first time with unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs), and Romach, an Israel Military Industries (IMI)-developed rocket launched from an MLRS system -launched system that is designed to strike within five meters of targets some 35 kilometers away.
"Robotics is a very essential element in the future ground maneuvering force," said reserve Maj. Gen. Eyal Ben-Reuven, a former land war consultant for Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) who now serves in the Israeli Knesset.
"It's happening now with 7th Brigade and will soon start in the 188th Brigade. … Once commanders in the field realize what they have in hand, we'll run toward this new direction, and rightfully so," Ben-Reuven said.
In the past year, Brig. Gen. Shmuel Olansky, IDF chief Armored Corps officer, has presided over the merger of traditional infantry missions into Israel's armored order of battle. The move to incorporate UGVs is the way of the future, he said, yet declined to provide specifics of the 7th Brigade drill.
Maj. Gen. Guy Tzur, commander of Israel's Ground Forces Command, said the pace of an ever-changing, multidimensional battlefield obliges the IDF to change and adapt not only in how it implements force, but how it builds its force.
Whether fighting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria or Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, Israel is struggling to adapt its force to answer what he termed "professional and ethical" conflicts, Tzur said.
"We can't take apart entire cities where uninvolved people are present, and fighting with tweezers is impossible. … The IDF must find a way to neutralize this phenomenon, and to evacuate civilians in a manner that allows us to fight with minimal harm to the uninvolved," Tzur said.
On and Under the Ground
In addition to tactics honed for urban warfare, the IDF is implementing hard-fought lessons learned from its battles last summer in search of assault tunnels and subterranean command centers throughout Gaza.
"We cannot allow the underground world to be owned by the enemy," Tzur said. "This demands special research and development of systems in sufficient quantities, and that's what we're dealing with."
Ben-Reuven stressed that UGVs won't replace tanks or infantry, but will become an inherent element in large quantities for tactical ground forces. "They will help us finish wars in a different way; in a decisive manner where there is no debate as to who won or lost."
When asked if IDF anti-tunnel investment also includes new means of commanding and controlling forces as they maneuver underground, Brig. Gen. Eyal Zelinger, chief of the IDF C4I Corps, responded in the affirmative, yet declined to provide details. due to security constraints.
"We want this capability as soon as possible," he said.
Offense, Defense in Single Platform
Yet another trend is to augment lethality while merging offensive and defensive capabilities in single platforms, experts here said. Future vehicles will all be linked into the network, where all benefit from integrated C4ISR and shooter systems.
The IDF is already doing this on the Merkava Mk4, with advanced 120mm tank rounds from IMI, networked connectivity provided mainly by Elbit, and the Trophy active protection system (APS) by Rafael, experts here said.
Soon, this self-protecting lethality concept will extend to the Namer, a heavy troop carrier based on the indigenous Merkava Mk4.
Last week, MoD announced that all new Namer heavy APCs — those built here as well as US-based production kits provided by General Dynamics Land Systems — would be integrated with Trophy. The decision to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the next six years on self-protected Namers was a direct result of lessons learned from last summer's war in Gaza, according to MoD.
"This year, we'll start integrating Trophy on Namer against anti-tank missiles," Brig. Gen. Baruch Mazliach, head of MoD's Merkava Tank Directorate, told conference participants.
Later on, he said in apparent reference to a prospective second-generation system by Rafael and IMI, APS capabilities will be upgraded. to "give a certain protection against kinetic 120-mm rounds," he added.
In his May 7 presentation, Mazliach noted that more than 95 percent of threats encountered in the last war came from so-called hidden enemies, who were able to launch anti-tank missiles up to five kilometers away against not only the front, but also the sides of IDF armor.
He said the IDF has added what he called fourth generation armor to Mk 4 tanks and Namer carriers. "But it's not enough to give full defense" against Kornet anti-tank missiles, which can penetrate 1.20 meters of armor. "We can't develop armor for this… that's why APS has become so essential," he said.
Shooting Back in 5 Seconds
Retired Brig. Gen. Halutsi Rudoy, former IDF chief of IDF Armored Corps, said the biggest challenge is finding and destroying hidden enemies before they strike.
"Today we don't see the enemy…. And if we can't see the targets, we become targets," he said.
Eli Cohen, Optigo manager for tactical land systems at IAI's Elta Systems, said the goal is to detect and "shoot back" to the source of fire within five seconds.
In last summer's Protective Edge operation in Gaza, Elta subsidiary fast tracked deliveries of multiple ELM-2133 WindGuard radars to detect and automatically track anti-tank rockets and missiles; and the ELM-2138T Green Rock system, a mobile autonomous tactical counter rocket, artillery and mortar system.
Now the firm is readying Granite and Black Granite ISR vehicles to provide tactical intelligence for forces on the move, said IAI Land System's Amnon Ben-Yair, a colonel in the IDF Artillery reserves. Designed for manned or unmanned vehicles, the ELI-3302 ISR suite integrates X-band movement detection radar with two types of cameras and signals intelligence capabilities.
"The idea is to launch at terrorist rocket-launching cells before they fire at our forces," said Ben-Yair. Versions of the ISR Granite systems are already operating with the IDF, and plans call for integrating them with shooter systems through the IDF's Digital Army Program by Elbit.
Lighter, 2-Crew Fighting Vehicle
IDF reserve Brig. Gen. Didi Ben Yoash heads the Israeli Defense Ministry's Future Armored Vehicles project. At a panel devoted to platforms on the modern battlefield, he rejected those who argue that tanks are unsuited for urban war.
"You hear some say that tanks are obsolete and cannot fight in the so-called modern battlefield. But that talk stops the moment the first enemy shot is fired. After that, everyone is clamoring for tanks. Nobody wants to move before a tank platoon, company or battalion is operating alongside them," he said.
Ben Yoash said the Merkava remains "the best tank that fits our requirements" and that the Namer is the world's most heavily defended troop carrier. That said, MoD is focusing on a new generation of much smaller armored vehicles. better suited to congested, built-up areas.
The new vehicles are likely to weigh half that of the nearly 70-ton Mk4. And the advancement of robotics, said Ben Yoash, may allow in many scenarios for only a two-man crew.
"We hope to have our first prototype within five years," he said.
In an invitation-only briefing on the eve of last week's event, retired Maj. IDF Gen. Ya'akov Amidror, former Israeli national security adviser, offered a sobering and somewhat controversial assessment of a region in flux. Excerpts included:
On regional angst of American pivot to Asia: "The fact that the US president set red lines in Syria and didn't act on them is very important. More and more leaders in the Middle East understand that America is going out, not totally, but it is not the same America that these people and these leaders could count on 20 years ago.
On Europe's role in the region: "Europe is not a factor anywhere in the Middle East. They don't have military means; they don't have determination; they don't have the stamina; they don't even have the system in which to make decisions. The only place where Europeans have some influence in the region is in Israel because it's a group of 28 democratic countries and what they think about us is very important for us."
On Russia: "They look at the Middle East differently. They think that it's better to deal with the terrorists they know than to let new terrorists come in. That's why they continue to support [Syrian President Bashar] Assad. And another thing, unlike the Americans, they keep their promises to their allies."
About Syrian civil war: "What will happen to the losers in Syria? I can tell you. They will disappear. If tomorrow Assad is losing control, the Alawite will be murdered within three months and from the Alawite sect, no one will survive. And vice versa, by the way."
Israel's red lines: "Don't believe all the conspiracy stories. We don't interfere in events around us. But if there's something from our point of view — a very narrow point of view — that will endanger our ability to defend ourselves, we at. if something is a game changer that will be transferred to one of our enemies, we'll do everything to stop it."