Middle East

Israel plans military 'revolution' to face new regional threat

Israeli soldiers in a tank near the Syrian border (10 July 2013)

Israel's armed forces - the most powerful and best equipped in the Middle East - are changing. Older tanks and aircraft will be retired. Some 4,000 - maybe even more - professional career officers will be dismissed.

A range of other changes over the next five years are intended to make the Israeli military leaner but more effective.

Elements of the plans were set out by the Israel Defense Forces' Chief of Staff, Benny Gantz, earlier this week.

Once implemented, they promise what some analysts have described as "a revolution" in Israel's military affairs.

In part, of course, this is all about money. The defence budget in Israel is under growing pressure - social protest has erupted on Israel's streets too. Significant cuts have to be made.

This is one reason why units equipped with older tanks like derivatives of the US M60 will be disbanded, as well as some Air Force units with older aircraft that are much more expensive to maintain.

Streamlining the career military may also save funds in the long run.

Shift of emphasis

But what is really going on here owes less to budgetary pressures and more to the dramatic changes that are under way in the strategic geography of the region around Israel.

The Arab world is living through an upheaval that shows no sign of ending. The big military players like Egypt, Syria and Iraq are either facing political uncertainty, full-scale civil war, or have been exhausted by invasion and more than a decade of bitter internal violence.

The Israeli military's five-year plan has been postponed over recent years - partly due to the budgetary uncertainty and partly due to the dramatic changes sweeping across the region.

As retired Brig Gen Michael Herzog, a former head of IDF Strategic Planning, told me: "The prospect of a conventional war breaking out between the IDF and a traditionally organised Arab army is now much less than in the past.

"However, the risk from non-state actors, of asymmetric warfare, and greater unrest along Israel's borders (with the exception perhaps of Jordan) is increasing and it is these threats that the Israeli military has to plan for."

So what will change ? Gen Herzog says there will probably be fewer tanks, but this goes much further than simply changing the IDF's order of battle.

There will be a much greater emphasis upon intelligence and cyber-warfare.

Given the instability in Syria, there will be a new territorial division covering the Golan front. There will be significant investment in the capacity to strike deep into enemy territory and to improve the co-ordination between air and ground forces.

There will be an even greater emphasis upon speed and the deployment of weapons that can strike targets rapidly and with great accuracy.

The use of the Tamuz system, a highly accurate guided missile, during recent months against sporadic fire coming from Syrian positions is a pointer to the types of weaponry that will be more important in the future.

Tamuz is actually a relatively old system, recently declassified, but its successors will play an important part in Israel's new order of battle.

"The Israeli military concept has always been to shorten the duration of any conflict, but this has become more important than ever before because of the growing missile arsenals of groups like the Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah, which means the Israeli home-front is under threat like never before," Gen Herzog told me.

Israel already deploys a variety of defensive measures like the Arrow and Iron Dome anti-missile systems, but improving its offensive capability is seen as the key to managing the tempo and duration of any future conflict.

Transition 'risks'

By and large, Gen Herzog welcomes the new military plan.

However, he says that "there are of course risks during any period of transition".

Budget constraints mean that in the short-term training is being cut back. This, he notes, "is the easiest way to save money in the short term". He points to the IDF's problems in Lebanon in 2006 as an example of an army that had spent too little time training for large-scale manoeuvre warfare.

"Training is definitely down this year, but is set to rise in future years," he says, adding: "This is a risk albeit a calculated one."

Nonetheless, the assessment among the Israeli High Command is that this risk is bearable, given the disarray afflicting its Arab neighbours.

In Egypt, the peace treaty with Israel may not be popular but the Egyptian army is wedded to it, not least as the ticket that opens the way to large-scale US military aid.

Image caption Budgetary constraints mean that military training will be cut back in the short-term

Iraq is no longer a serious military player. Syria is in crisis and the regime's future remains in doubt.

Instability and uncertainty characterise Israel's strategic environment with the risk of rapid escalation that could see conflicts on a number of fronts.

Many military analysts accept that reform is justified. Perhaps the greatest risk is that the government will not make good on future defence spending pledges and this ambitious programme could just look like retrenchment.

Of course the Iranian nuclear challenge remains a potential threat, against which Israeli Air Force planners in particular are building up their capabilities.

New missions, too, are fast emerging, not least for the Israeli Navy which must now protect gas field installations off-shore which promise to make the country self-reliant in energy terms for a considerable period.

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