Defense officials have advanced a new approach to combating the evolving threat from nonstate actors like Hamas, but the proposed reforms face an array of challenges.
In 2020, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced the development of a new operational concept called Decisive Victory that aimed to change the way Israel fights wars and to redefine victory on the battlefield. The root cause of this change was the evolution in nonstate threats from armed groups in Gaza and Lebanon. The concept was to drive major reforms of the IDF in training, interoperability among the services, weapons procurement, and civil-military relations. However, the efforts encountered significant challenges in terms of politics, financial resources, and the implications for the IDF's force structure. This article examines these developments to shed light on the evolving way of war in the Middle East and the struggle within the IDF to redefine its posture.
On January 16, 2023, Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi ended his four-year term as the 22nd chief of the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and handed his responsibilities to Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi. In many ways, Kochavi's tenure reveals both the successes and failures of Israel's military strategy. It was marked by the stellar performance of Iron Dome interceptors against Gaza's rockets, demonstrating the successful evolution of Israel's missile defense. However, the endless cycle of conflicts with Palestinian factions like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) also shows the increasing inability of the IDF to claim victory on the battlefield.
Four years before, on the eve of assuming his mission in January 2019, the same Kochavi delivered a speech reminding his audience that the country's army “is all about victory.”1 After nearly 15 years of irregular wars fought in Lebanon (2006) and the Gaza Strip (2008, 2012, and 2014), “victory” might not have seemed like the most obvious characterization of the IDF missions. But under Kochavi, this was to become the new buzzword of Israeli military debates. Following his appointment, Kochavi announced the development of a new operational concept called Decisive Victory. It aimed to drive a vast reform of the IDF and had ramifications for training, interoperability among the services, weapons procurement, and civil-military relations. The root cause of this change was the evolution in nonstate threats facing Israel, in particular from armed groups such as Hamas, the PIJ, and Lebanese Hezbollah, all supported at various levels by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The multiple conflicts between the IDF and Hamas—four since 2008—have revealed the latter's steady improvement on the battlefield. During their last confrontation, in May 2021, Hamas showed an enhanced capacity to fire rockets at Israeli targets, whether at populated areas or military sites. Israel's Iron Dome proved capable of limiting the damage. But while military experts in Israel were positive in their assessments of the IDF's performance, they also pointed out a worrying trend: The proliferation of rockets and missiles in neighboring countries and advances in their precision guidance capabilities could soon compromise Iron Dome's effectiveness. Four years after Kochavi launched the effort to change the way Israel fights and to redefine the concept of victory, the outcome was uncertain as he ended his term. Given the time required for such reforms to be executed, the plan could hardly amount to a genuine military revolution. There were also significant challenges that called for caution, specifically regarding the politics behind the reform, the financial resources needed, and the implications for the IDF's force structure.
Understanding the evolution of the IDF's way of war during Kochavi's term matters for two primary reasons. First, it indicates the nature of the internal debates within the defense forces over the definition of a new strategy that takes stock of the growth in the military power of Palestinian and Lebanese armed organizations. This suggests the potential forms that a future conflict in the area might take, whether in Gaza or south Lebanon. Second, the Israeli reform process provides a case study that has implications beyond the region, with a potential to affect the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia, too. The threat of terrorist or insurgent organizations using rockets, missiles, and unmanned systems is not unique to the Middle East and may well be replicated in key areas around the world. Israel's evolving military doctrine can provide lessons for other states concerning the evolution of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency practices.
ADDRESSING THE NONSTATE CHALLENGE IN GAZA AND LEBANON
At first sight, the IDF's latest operational concept, Decisive Victory, can recall previous efforts over the past decade to adapt the military to counter evolving threats at the borders. Both of Kochavi's predecessors as chief of staff, Benny Gantz (2011–15) and Gadi Eisenkot (2015–19), tested new ideas and organizational reforms. For instance, Gantz recreated the IDF Depth Corps to launch special operations inside enemy territory, while Eisenkot played a central role in the dissemination of the “Dahya” military concept, which called for the use of overwhelming force in retaliation against Hezbollah's attacks.2
But Decisive Victory was meant as a major departure from past practices. The first difference is that Kochavi and his staff were more publicly assertive and confident about their policy than previous commanders. The second difference is that previous documents underscored that objectives of military campaigns were to be limited. As the 2015 IDF doctrine acknowledges, these operations cannot achieve the destruction of the enemy but only the weakening of its capacities—hence the idea of a “campaign between wars” or, as colloquially described by IDF officers, operations aimed at “mowing the grass.”3 This implied abandoning the historical proclivity of the IDF for offensive doctrine.4
By contrast, Decisive Victory reminds us of the IDF's historical aversion to long, protracted conflicts.5 At its core, the concept is a response to the military establishment's growing frustration with the previous strategy's questionable effectiveness against threats from Gaza and Lebanon, deemed “a dead-end strategic and doctrinal pattern.”6 The new literature published by the Dado Center—the IDF's internal body dedicated to the study of operational concepts—describes nonstate enemies, namely Hamas and Hezbollah, as “diffuse, rocket-based terror armies.”7 Kochavi and his team do not refer to these groups as “insurgents” or “guerillas” but as “organized, well-trained armies, well-equipped for their missions.”8
The May 2021 war against Hamas reflected this new reality. It is estimated that Hamas fired approximately 4,300 rockets at Israeli targets over 11 days.9 The more worrying trend was the increased accuracy of the group's attacks. Though its combatants still relied for the most part on unsophisticated systems with short ranges and poor precision, an estimated 50 percent of the rockets launched in May 2021 landed in populated areas, compared to 22 percent in 2012 and 18 percent in 2014.10 The range of the rockets also improved. In the past, most of the attacks focused on Israeli cities surrounding Gaza, such as Sderot, Ashkelon, and Beersheba. In this confrontation, however, they increasingly aimed at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Hamas's operational tempo also accelerated. On May 11, Israeli authorities reported that 137 rockets were launched at Tel Aviv in less than five minutes. Hamas claimed it was the “largest barrage of rockets ever launched.”11 In the future, Hamas is likely to upgrade its weapons with precision-guidance capabilities, following Hezbollah and the IRGC, which have been doing this for a number of years.12 As a result, overall performance can only improve.
Moreover, Palestinian groups are increasingly relying on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones). During the May 2021 war, six were intercepted by Iron Dome, while another was brought down by an Israeli Air Force F-16.13 Despite their failure so far, the deployment of UAVs shows Hamas's ambitions: The drone shot down by the F-16 was apparently targeting Israeli gas infrastructure in the Mediterranean, which was also a target of rockets.14 With more sophisticated and cheaper drones proliferating in the region, it is a matter of time before nonstate groups in Lebanon and Gaza become more adept at UAV warfare. Actors like Hamas and Hezbollah may come to adopt a hybrid strategy: using drones in a first wave to target defensive assets, such as Iron Dome batteries, and enable a second wave of rockets to strike cities and infrastructure. There is a precedent for this in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Houthis are using “kamikaze drones” in their fight against Saudi Arabia. Their Qasef-1 aircraft (variants of the Iranian Ababil-T drones) have been used to attack Saudi Patriot missile defense batteries.15
There is also a huge imbalance in cost between offense and defense: A Katyusha rocket costs about $300, while each of the Iron Dome's Tamir interceptor rockets costs $40,000 to $50,000.16 This gives Hamas several advantages. First, it can try to overwhelm the defense system by firing massive barrages, calculating that even if most do not hit their targets, Israel will be forced to respond to more threats. With upgraded accuracy, the problem becomes worse. Since Iron Dome is currently designed to intercept only rockets destined for populated areas or military or civilian infrastructure, better targeting could easily put the system under great strain.
For now, Iron Dome has proven adept at fending off rocket and drone attacks from Gaza. The IDF claimed an interception rate of between 90 and 95 percent in the May 2021 conflict.17 A year later, during the three-day Operation Breaking Dawn targeting the PIJ, that interception rate reportedly reached 97 percent.18 The IDF claimed a similar success rate for Iron Dome in May 2023, during Operation Shield and Arrow, also against the PIJ (this time firing 1,469 rockets in five days).19 But this has not deterred Palestinian groups from launching rockets anyway. Moreover, given the Palestinians’ growing technological advances, some inside the IDF fear that over-reliance on Iron Dome could give rise to an “overly defensive mentality”—a modern-day Maginot Line.20
Fundamentally, the proponents of Decisive Victory believe the IDF's current options are flawed: As a defensive system, Iron Dome cannot win wars. But previous offensive operations in Gaza have not achieved their objectives, either, undermining Israel's deterrence credibility. As Brigadier General Eran Ortal of the Dado Center observes, “Operations not meant to be decisive only serve to ‘vaccinate’ the enemy against IDF power by gradually exposing him to limited doses of our capabilities, while indicating to the enemy that his military concept is effective and that he should continue to develop it.”21
PREPARING FOR A MULTI-FRONT SCENARIO
The reform of the IDF has also been shaped by growing concerns over the prospects of horizontal escalation—that is, the opening of multiple fronts at the same time. By this logic, a future conflict that begins in Gaza may ignite clashes in the West Bank, south Lebanon, or the Golan Heights. In April 2023, a short exchange of fire gave further credence to the scenario: A dozen rockets were fired at Israel from Lebanon, seemingly not by Hezbollah but by Hamas, leading the IDF to launch airstrikes against the Palestinian group in both Gaza and Lebanon.22
The risk of a regionalization of Israel's wars has been fueling the local strategic debate for more than a decade, particularly after Hezbollah and the IRGC started deploying assets in the Golan Heights in the midst of the Syrian civil war.23 The scenario assumes that the Iranian regime has not only provided materiel and technical support to the militias surrounding Israel but has also prepared them for coordinated attacks intended to overwhelm the IDF. This approach has been coined Iran's “rings of fire” by local pundits and is said to be the leading approach of IRGC's Quds Force. Yaakov Amidror, a retired major general and former national security adviser, has alluded to this in speeches and articles.24 Likewise, Uzi Rubin, a former program director for the Arrow missile defense system, has said that examining the “rings of fire” strategy is key to understanding Iran's approach toward Israel.25
Although the likelihood of a regional conflict remains low today, recent developments have suggested that it is no longer confined to the realm of intellectual discussion. In May 2021, in the middle of the conflict in Gaza, three salvos of rockets were fired at Israel from positions inside Lebanon (Kafr Kila, Kafr Shuba, and Seddiqine). Thirteen rockets were launched; all either were intercepted by Israel's missile defense systems or fell in open areas. Then on May 14, during Operation Guardian of the Walls, a drone attack was launched from Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of being behind it.26 The low-intensity attacks from Lebanon extended beyond May, with cases reported in July and August. Each time, the attribution was uncertain. Lebanese Hezbollah denied responsibility, and both Lebanese and Israeli sources pointed toward Palestinian militias operating on behalf of Hamas. The exact role of Hezbollah was unclear: It is hard to conceive that the group, which keeps a tight grip on south Lebanon, would not have prior knowledge of an attack's being launched from its stronghold. It either hid behind small Palestinian groups to play the card of plausible denial or tolerated low-intensity attacks on Israel as long as they did not escalate.
At the same time, neither Hezbollah nor Hamas intervened in July 2022 and May 2023, when the IDF conducted operations in Gaza targeting the infrastructure and military leadership of the PIJ. Leaders may have publicly condemned Israel's offensive, but in practice, they stood by—a restraint that calls for caution regarding the likelihood of a multi-front scenario. The short duration of both operations (three days in 2022; five days in 2023) may have played a role in their calculus. A longer campaign leading to greater casualties on the Palestinian side could have forced at least Hamas to step in.
In any case, the implications of horizontal escalation are deemed worrisome for Israeli military planners. According to journalist Amos Harel from Haaretz, the scenario has been driving discussions at IDF headquarters for years. The military is already preparing for “a campaign on three fronts,” he said in an interview with the author. “It would be on the offensive in two of them, namely Gaza and Lebanon, whereas in Syria it would be on the defensive.” Harel also emphasized that the “center of gravity would be Lebanon, without a doubt. Hezbollah, not Hamas, would be the absolute priority of the IDF.”27 Given the size of Hezbollah's inventory, estimated at 130,000 rockets, the danger that Israel's missile defense systems could be overwhelmed quickly is high, hence the need to concentrate the offensive on the Lebanese front.28
This discussion reflects the new reality of IDF planning. The idea of a conventional war against Arab states mobilizing tanks and planes across the territories of the Middle East is now considered a relic. Irregular warfare is the primary threat driving the development of the Decisive Victory concept. Even scenarios involving an Iran-Israel confrontation would likely involve the use of proxies and standoff fire.
DECISIVE VICTORY AND THE PITFALLS OF MILITARY REFORM
Against that backdrop, Decisive Victory was introduced in January 2020. While official documentation is not publicly available, subsequent speeches by Kochavi and his advisers, as well as debates among Israeli military specialists, offer hints about what it entails. Eran Ortal, head of the Dado Center, published several articles on specialized military websites to explain how the strategy involves the ability “to attack deep into enemy territory to conquer main nerve centers and inflict a decisive defeat, while suppressing enemy rockets and missiles launched nearby toward Israeli forces and toward the home front.”29 Likewise, Gabi Siboni and Yuval Bazak, two retired senior officers with close ties to the policy sphere, have unpacked the two primary characteristics of Decisive Victory: the shortening of the war's duration and the “overwhelming destruction of enemy capabilities using intelligence assets, precise fire capabilities, and offensive autonomous systems.”30
Consequently, the Decisive Victory concept involves swift offensive operations relying on the use of smaller units supported by massive firepower. In his speeches, Kochavi explained that “at the heart of the multi-year concept is increasing lethality in quantity and precision.” The IDF would rely on “greatly enhanced ability to expose the enemy, greatly enhanced ability to destroy the enemy, and multi-branch operations.”31 In other words, it aims to escalate very early and quickly. To do so, it relies on a military philosophy that is not new and finds its roots in the revolution that took place in US military affairs in the 1990s.32 It emphasizes maneuver, standoff fire, joint operations, and heavy reliance on new technology to accelerate the decision-making process.
The most important decision to date has been the adoption of a four-year plan called “Momentum” (Tnufa in Hebrew), initially launched for the period 2020–24. Typically, four-year programs drive the IDF's force buildup, training, resource allocation, and overall efficiency. According to IDF public statements, the new plan was built upon the scenario of a multifront war and aimed to prepare soldiers for “swift and massive use of force against enemy systems.” Tnufa reportedly also made numerous references to the idea of being “multi-dimensional” and “multi-force”—that is, more tightly integrating naval, land, air, cyber, and intelligence resources.33
In terms of organizational reform, Tnufa involved a change within the structure of the General Staff. The Planning Directorate (known in Hebrew as Agat), which was responsible for all matters related to defense policies, was split into two: a “multi-armed forces planning” directorate and a “strategy and Iran” directorate (later renamed the “third-circle” directorate).34 The former was tasked with the reorganization of the IDF, while the latter focused on regional threats and the required responses. Arguably, this new division of labor was meant to prevent staff involved in long-term planning from having to deal with daily contingencies on the battleground. Among the changes was the creation of a new infantry division (in addition to the four already manned) for rapid maneuver, while cutting back on tank units.35
This 2020–24 plan had implications at the procurement level. Kochavi's vision called for better maneuverability and greater firepower. This assumed that the heavy and less mobile platforms used by the armed forces were to be removed. For instance, there has been speculation that the IDF's aging tanks, such as the Merkava Mark III (about 400 in store as of 2022), will not be replaced or upgraded.36 Instead, the plan puts greater emphasis on unmanned systems and precision-guided munitions. Artificial intelligence (AI) will also play a major role in supporting the coordination among units. Platforms and weapons systems employed by the IDF increasingly incorporate AI, and a department has been created by the General Staff to centralize this digital transformation.
One ambitious experiment at the operational level in the Tnufa plan called for setting up a new outfit called the “Ghost Unit.” This elite force combines military capabilities—including infantry, armor, artillery, combat engineers, the air force, UAVs, and cyber operatives—into a single unit “with the human capabilities of a battalion, but with the firepower of a division”—in other words, a leaner, more agile, and meaner force.37 Ortal describes the operational value of such experiments by underlining the principle of maneuver among cyber, air, and ground forces. In his own words, it is about “taking full advantage of the presence of our troops in enemy territory in order to oust him out of his bunkers and tunnels, to find him and to destroy him, while maneuvering his forces into vulnerable and isolated positions.”38
If successful, the Ghost Unit experiment could have a major impact on the way the IDF organizes its forces to execute operations. It could give smaller units much more leeway and autonomy in the fight against combatants from either Gaza or Lebanon and may imply major changes in the training of ground troops and airmen so they work together more closely. At the technological level, it involves deploying much more effective command-and-control resources, allowing for quick and decisive operations. The Ghost Unit, sometimes called the “multi-dimensional unit,” has not yet been deployed on the battlefield, but its participation in several exercises has demonstrated its capabilities to military delegations of foreign partners.39 In October 2020, an exercise code named “Lethal Arrow” simulated conflict on multiple fronts, involved all arms of the military carrying out coordinated strikes, and featured close air support. Given its experimental nature, there is no clarity yet on how the Ghost Unit could be replicated across the IDF's structure. For now, it is planned to integrate with the 98th Paratroopers Division, the IDF's main commando force.
POLITICAL OBSTACLES TO REFORM
The concept of Decisive Victory has been met with very different reactions. Those close to Kochavi believe that it planted the seeds of a genuine military revolution. They see the ongoing revisions as a necessary endeavor, given the evolving threats facing Israel. But at first, Kochavi's term was marked by political troubles. His nomination was announced in 2018 by then-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who asserted that the new chief of staff would have “decisiveness and victory” at heart. With this appointment, Lieberman publicly defied Netanyahu, who had expressed his desire to nominate then-Southern Commander Eyal Zamir. After a lull of several hours, the prime minister's office accepted the decision and congratulated Kochavi, but this did not bode well for the new chief of staff to rally the government behind his plans.40
Still, Decisive Victory was eventually embraced by the successive governments of Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett, and Yair Lapid, as the claim of “victory” fit conveniently into their political rhetoric. When Kochavi and his staff unveiled their new operational concept, they repeatedly said that it aligned with the National Security Concept 2030, a document prepared by Netanyahu a year before. Kochavi was thus able to gather political support by employing rhetoric that resounds with the powers that be. A few months after revealing his plan, he claimed that the Israeli armed forces were “all about victory,” while Netanyahu similarly declared that the IDF was “ready for a single goal—victory in war.”41
This rhetoric is the very reason other experts have been suspicious of Decisive Victory. Gabi Siboni, a colonel from the IDF reserve service and an influential voice in military circles, has dismissed the reform as a “PR stunt, no more.” In a conversation with the author, he argued, “It takes years, if not decades, to implement the kind of reforms that Kochavi and his advisers want to impose.”42 Eado Hecht, an instructor at Israel's Command and Staff College, saw it as more “marketing hype than a true concept of operations.”43 Likewise, Harel, the Haaretz defense correspondent, called Decisive Victory a “political speech that has no direct relevance for the battleground.”44
Political support, or a lack of it, should not be an obstacle to the implementation of military reform, but its politicization could be. Changes at the top, either within the Israeli government or the General Staff, may end the reform process suddenly. In the case of Kochavi's plan, government instability—with five legislative elections taking place between April 2019 and November 2022—enabled the IDF to promote its agenda. At its outset, in January 2020, then-Defense Minister Bennett personally approved the Tnufa plan, but the rest of the Cabinet was more cautious.
Decisive Victory also faced financial challenges. The Tnufa plan emerged just weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic hit Israel. The country's military budget had already declined significantly in the years before, from $19.04 billion in 2016 to $16.6 billion in 2020. Although the government managed to agree to an increase to $17.95 billion the following year, whether it can secure further increases due to higher domestic spending, pandemic-associated costs, and inflationary pressure remains to be seen and could impact the reform process.
The fragile political environment was another threat. In 2021, Bennett's government brought together opposing political forces whose common goal was to oust Netanyahu. This cohesion lasted barely one year. From the outset, its internal stability was questionable, and any clash between ministers was likely to compromise the chances to invest new public resources. Though Israel managed in 2021 to pass its first budget in three years, the outcome remained in doubt until the vote on November 5 of that year. Even then, the result was a cliffhanger, with a 59-56 tally in favor of passage. In 2022, with elections looming in November, the budget requests were again at the mercy of the balance of forces in the Knesset. Overall, it is estimated that the successful implementation of Tnufa would require an increase in the defense budget by $1.25 billion per year, but this is unlikely to materialize in the current political and financial environment—or it would require the use of US military aid to Israel for this specific purpose.45 In fact, Israel's defense spending decreased 5.6 percent between 2021 and 2022.46 It is important to note that over the last two decades, only two of the IDF's four-year plans have been successfully implemented.47
OPERATIONAL CHALLENGES FOR THE IDF
Political challenges are not the only ones that the IDF faced as it pursued Decisive Victory; there were operational ones as well. In the regional-escalation scenario, one question was whether the IDF can deploy its forces on several fronts. In June 2022, the IDF reportedly ran the Chariots of Fire exercise, which simulated a regional conflict with Iran and involved more than 100 aircraft, including dozens of fighter jets.48 The intensity of such a multifront campaign has not been seen since the Yom Kippur War. Another similarity with that 1973 conflict would be that the element of surprise lies with the enemy: Since fighters and rocket launchers from Hamas and Hezbollah are already pre-positioned at the borders, there would be almost no warning, giving Israel little time to react.
In this context, the execution of Decisive Victory would be challenging. The Israeli concept echoes other offensive military doctrines that call for high-intensity operations of limited duration, such as India's Cold Start or the US AirSea Battle.49 These doctrines generally center around the idea that an enemy can be defeated if its capabilities are destroyed with massive firepower in the first hours of the conflict. For Kochavi and his team, new artificial-intelligence technology has already enabled the IDF to increase its coverage of potential enemy targets.50 The 2022 conflict between the IDF and the PIJ seems to support this claim. In the first 24 hours of Operation Breaking Dawn, the Israelis were able to kill two of the most important military commanders of the PIJ: Tayseer Jabari and Khaled Mansour.51 Those targeted assassinations decapitated the group's leadership in Gaza and revealed strong coordination between the Israel Security Agency and the IDF.
However, the claim assumes that a comprehensive intelligence assessment of the enemy's capabilities exists. Without this, a swift and decisive victory is impossible. In the case of the 2022 campaign, one could argue that the PIJ is much weaker than Hamas and Hezbollah. In both cases, Israel still struggles to collect comprehensive data on those groups’ military power, such as the position of rocket launchers or the location of Gaza tunnels, so the ability to wreak the kind of havoc envisioned by Decisive Victory remains questionable.
Another concern is that while the reform envisioned by the Ghost Unit experiment could be truly significant for small-unit effectiveness, it demands a degree of interoperability between ground, air, and cyber forces that is hard to achieve. As evidenced by the challenges of “jointness” experienced by the US armed forces over the past decade, this process may take years, if not a generation, to reach a level of maturity deemed effective.52 The Ghost Unit's effectiveness requires a decentralized command-and-control structure to allow tactical units to make strategic decisions. This has ramifications at both military and political levels, and will require major changes in the way IDF troops are trained to fight and take the initiative. While it makes sense militarily to give small units the ability to deploy massive amounts of firepower to rapidly destroy the enemy, this might spark unintended political consequences. For example, a ground commander might choose to destroy a building to disrupt Hamas without regard for the outcry politicians would face if civilian casualties were reported.
The riskiest dimension of Decisive Victory is that, at its heart, it assumes Israel's ability to control, or dominate, the logic of military escalation: The IDF would determine when an operation starts and when it ends. This approach confers no agency on the part of the enemy. In each of the past four wars with Hamas, the military found itself starting an operation in response to a Hamas attack, then ending it without clear results on the battlefield. Ironing out such issues takes time. While the Tnufa plan serves as the guiding framework for 2020–24, most of the changes, especially when it comes to procurement and training, will not be completed in that period. In some cases, they had not even begun by the time Kochavi left office in January 2023. This puts the fate of Decisive Victory in the hands of his successor. As a former deputy chief of staff, Herzi Halevi was directly involved in the implementation of the reform and has not expressed a desire to challenge its purpose.53 But given the tendency of past chiefs to come up with their own ideas and plans, one can reasonably doubt that the transition will be seamless.
More important, Halevi's arrival coincided with a civil-military crisis surrounding the new government.54 To build his coalition, Netanyahu created a unique position for the far-right politician Bezalel Smotrich: special minister within the Defense Ministry in charge of the West Bank settlements. Smotrich is able to appoint the flag officers leading the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, a department within the ministry. This raises numerous questions for the IDF. The first relates to confusion over the chain of command between Smotrich's function and those of the IDF chief, Halevi, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. It also runs the risk of politicizing the nomination of generals. This led Kochavi to publicly express concerns over the integrity of the armed forces and the de facto partition of the military into two different entities (one responding to the traditional chain of command, the other serving Smotrich's West Bank agenda).55 In addition, Netanyahu's proposal to overhaul the judiciary met with fierce resistance from civil society. In light of massive protests against the government in March 2023, Gallant called for the postponement of the reform. In response, the prime minister ordered Gallant to resign—before declaring, two weeks later, that he was no longer firing the defense minister.
The political climate is also sensitive because of the assertiveness the new government has displayed toward the Palestinian territories. After the 2022 elections, Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) party, was awarded the Ministry of National Security, which oversees the police. A settler living in the West Bank, Ben-Gvir in his first days in office went to the Temple Mount (also known as the Al Aqsa Mosque Compound). Although seen as a provocation, the January 3 visit did not trigger a violent reaction (one rocket was fired from Gaza but failed to cross the border) but signaled a potential desire to challenge the status quo regarding the territories. Then, on February 13, Israel's security cabinet decided to “legalize” nine illegal outposts inside the West Bank, which will be considered new settlements.56 The US administration publicly opposed the move but without threatening sanctions. The settlement expansion could intensify the ongoing battle with the Palestinians. If settlers proceed with new construction in the West Bank, this will also incite factions like Hamas and PIJ to respond violently. In that tense political environment, the adoption of a new ambitious military strategy may become secondary.
Understanding Israel's efforts to reform its military strategy in response to the threat from nonstate actors like Hamas and Hezbollah helps us to shed light on the evolution of strategic competition in the Middle East. The proliferation of rockets, missiles, and drones, on one side, and the preparation of the IDF for short, high-intensity campaigns involving ground and air troops, on the other, provides a glimpse of what a future confrontation could look like. Although it would be presumptuous to predict the exact form the next war will take, we can identify key unknowns that could have grave consequences: the advent of precision-guided rockets in the hands of Palestinian groups, and the ability of the IDF to terminate the conflict on its own terms and, especially, to prevent regional escalation.
The debate over Israel's future military strategy also illustrates the broader trends in the evolving struggle against nonstate actors. Although the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has revived interest in conventional, high-intensity conflicts, one should not dismiss the ongoing developments in asymmetric warfare. The Middle East is a proving ground for the deployment of advanced military technologies that were the monopoly of states not so long ago. The salvos of rockets launched by Hamas on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem mirror tactics employed by the Yemen-based Houthis against Saudi Arabia and the UAE.57
Over the last decade, the Middle East has been the crucible in which such actors increased the sophistication of their weapons systems. Now, the growing reliance on “kamikaze” drones and the introduction of precision-guided munitions are likely to further complicate Israel's ability to guarantee its territorial safety against nonstate actors. It is likely that other insurgent networks and terrorist groups are closely monitoring these developments in order to emulate the tactics employed by Hamas and Hezbollah. As violent armed groups from Africa to Southeast Asia engage in the proliferation of military technologies, they also share military know-how and “lessons learned.” Today, rocket and drone warfare provides them with the most effective way to bypass their inferiority in traditional military power.
The Israeli effort to revise its military posture may herald changes forced upon other militaries and offer lessons and examples to learn or avoid. For a while now, the IDF has emphasized preparation for limited wars of short duration that involve a combination of massive firepower and maneuver. This posture was understood in Israel to be the best option in the context of irregular warfare. For defense planners in Tel Aviv and elsewhere, such orientation has significant implications. It puts into question the reliance on traditional platforms like heavy tanks to gain mobility. It also requires a broader assessment of the adequate force structure—for instance, the possible need to decrease the share of armored units among battalions. Of course, the current Israeli trajectory should not be understood as the future of every small state's military, but it puts into perspective fundamental questions about training and procurement that may soon be faced in other regions.
1 Daniel Pipes, “What Does ‘Victory’ Really Mean to the Israel Defense Forces,” Jerusalem Post, November 26, 2020, https://www.jpost.com/opinion/idf-sees-victory-as-rapid-destruction-of-….
2 Jean-Loup Samaan, “The ‘Dahya Concept’ and Israeli Military Posture vis-à-vis Hezbollah since 2006,” Comparative Strategy 32, no. 2 (2013): 146–159.
3 “Israeli Defense Forces' Defense Doctrine—English Translation,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, August 12, 2016, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/israeli-defense-forces-defense…; Efraim Inbar and Eitan Shamir, “Mowing the Grass: Israel's Strategy for Protracted Intractable Conflict,” Journal of Strategic Studies 37, no. 1 (2014): 65–90, DOI: 10.1080/01402390.2013.830972.
4 Ariel Levite, Offense and Defense in Israeli Military Doctrine (New York: Routledge, 1989); Ehud Eilam, “The Rise and Decline of the Israeli Offensive,” Comparative Strategy 40, no. 3 (2021): 245–253, DOI: 10.1080/01495933.2021.1912500.
5 Avi Kober, Israel's Wars of Attrition: Attrition Challenges to Democratic States (London: Routledge, 2009).
6 Eran Ortal, “Going on the Attack: The Theoretical Foundation of the IDF Momentum Plan,” Dado Center Journal 28 (2020).
9 This continues a trend seen over the previous three conflicts: In 2008, 660 rockets were launched during 23 days of fighting; in 2012, 1,506 were fired over eight days; the number in 2014 was 3,350 over 42 days. In sum, 390.9 rockets were launched at Israel per day in May 2021, compared to 28.69 in 2008, 188.25 in 2012, and 79.76 in 2014. It is worth mentioning that during the July 2006 war in Lebanon, Hezbollah fired 3,970 rockets at Israel over 33 days (120 per day), a figure that was considered tremendously high then.
10 Michael J. Armstrong, “Gaza's Enhanced Rocket Technology Challenges Israel's Defences,” The Conversation, May 17, 2021.
11 Joseph Trevithick, “Largest Rocket Barrage from Gaza Ever Hits Central Israel Amid Fears of an Imminent War,” The Drive, May 11, 2021, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/40561/largest-rocket-barrage-from….
12 Armstrong, “Gaza's Enhanced Rocket Technology.”
13 Seth Frantzman, “Iron Dome Intercepts Drone during Combat for First Time, Says Israeli Military,” Defense News, May 18, 2021.
14 Reuters, “Israeli Energy Pipeline Hit in Gaza Rocket Attack, Sources Say,” May 12, 2021.
15 Conflict Armament Research, Evolution of UAVs Employed by Houthi Forces in Yemen, February 2020, https://www.conflictarm.com/dispatches/evolution-of-uavs-employed-by-ho….
16 Yiftah Shapir, “Lessons from the Iron Dome,” Military and Strategic Affairs 5, no. 1 (May 2013): 81–94.
17 Deployed for the first time in 2012, Iron Dome was designed by Rafael to intercept short-range rockets (up to 70 km) fired at populated areas or military sites. The system operates in two stages: Its radar unit first detects incoming rockets and calculates their trajectory; if a rocket is headed for a population center or strategic asset, Iron Dome's command-and-control unit will order the launch of a Tamir interceptor.
18 Reuters, “Israel Says Iron Dome Shoots Down 97% of Gaza Rockets,” August 7, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/israel-says-iron-dome-shoots-….
19 Israel Defense Forces, “Official Summary of Operation Shield and Arrow,” May 14, 2023, https://www.idf.il/en/mini-sites/operation-shield-and-arrow/summary-of-….
20 Email correspondence with Eado Hecht, September 14–17, 2021.
21 Ortal, “Going on the Attack.”
22 Henriette Chacar and Nidal Al Mughrabi, “Israeli Strikes Target Hamas in Lebanon and Gaza after Rocket Attack,” Reuters, April 7, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/israeli-intercepts-rocket-fir….
23 Orna Mizrahi, Udi Dekel, and Yuval Bazak, “The Next War in the North: Scenarios, Strategic Alternatives, and Recommendations for Israel,” Institute for National Security Studies, March 2021; Daniel Byman, “Israel's Four Fronts,” Survival 61, no. 2 (2019): 167–188.
24 Bob Feferman, “Iran's ‘Ring of Fire’: A Growing Threat to Israel,” Times of Israel, July 8, 2020.
25 Uzi Rubin, “Iran's Missiles and Its Evolving ‘Rings of Fire,’” Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Mideast Security and Policy Studies, no. 169, January 2020.
26 Judah Ari Gross, “IDF Downs Drone of Unclear Origin Approaching Northern Israel,” Times of Israel, May 18, 2021.
27 Zoom interview with Amos Harel, September 23, 2021.
28 Center for Strategic and International Studies, Missile Defense Project, “Missiles and Rockets of Hezbollah,” August 10, 2021, https://missilethreat.csis.org/country/hezbollahs-rocket-arsenal/.
29 Eran Ortal, “Turn on the Light, Extinguish the Fire: Israel's New Way of War,” War on the Rocks, January 19, 2022, https://warontherocks.com/2022/01/turn-on-the-light-extinguish-the-fire….
30 Gabi Siboni and Yuval Bazak, “The IDF 'Victory Doctrine': The Need for an Updated Doctrine,” Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, June 14, 2021.
31 Amiram Barkat, “Chief of Staff Launches Plan for ‘More Lethal’ IDF,” Globes, February 13, 2020.
32 Eliot Cohen, Michael Eisenstadt, and Andrew Bacevich, Knives, Tanks, and Missiles: Israel's Security Revolution, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1998; Dima Adamsky, The Culture of Military Innovation: The Impact of Cultural Factors on the Revolution in Military Affairs in Russia, the US, and Israel (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010).
33 Seth Frantzman, “Israel Rolls Out New Wartime Plan to Reform Armed Forces,” Defense News, February 19, 2020, https://www.defensenews.com/global/mideast-africa/2020/02/18/israel-rol….
34 Lilach Schoval, “IDF Continues Restructuring of General Staff to Contend with Iran Threat,” Israel Hayom, June 15, 2020, https://www.israelhayom.com/2020/06/15/idf-continues-restructuring-of-g….
35 Frantzman, “Israel Rolls Out New Wartime Plan.”
36 According to the estimate from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2022 (London: Routledge, 2022), 348.
37 Udi Shaham, “Drones and Navigation Systems: ‘Ghost’ Is Moving the IDF to the Next Level,” Jerusalem Post, March 18, 2021.
38 Eran Ortal, “Going on the Attack.”
39 Yaakov Lappin, “The IDF Is Building a Networked War Machine,” Jewish News Syndicate, September 20, 2022; Amos Harel, “Israel's ‘Ghost Unit’ for the Next War with Hezbollah,” Haaretz, October 30, 2020.
40 Anna Ahronheim, “Aviv Kochavi: The Military Chief Israel Needs?” Jerusalem Post, January 16, 2020.
41 Daniel Pipes, “What Does ‘Victory’ Really Mean to the Israel Defense Forces,” Jerusalem Post, November 26, 2020, https://www.jpost.com/opinion/idf-sees-victory-as-rapid-destruction-of-….
42 Zoom interview with Gabi Siboni, September 14, 2021.
43 Email correspondence with Eado Hecht, September 14–17, 2021.
44 Zoom interview with Amos Harel, September 23, 2021.
45 Barkat, “Chief of Staff Launches Plan.”
46 International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2023, 2023, 308.
47 The Tefen Plan (2008–2012) and the Gideon Plan (2016–2020).
48 Emanuel Fabian, “Israeli Air Force Simulates Widescale Strike on Iran Nuclear Facilities,” Times of Israel, June 1, 2022, https://www.timesofisrael.com/israeli-air-force-simulates-widescale-str….
49 Walter Laddwig III, “Cold Start for Hot Wars? The Indian Army's New Limited War Doctrine,” International Security 32, no. 3 (Winter 2007/08): 158–190; Stephen Biddle and Ivan Oelrich, “Future Warfare in the Western Pacific: Chinese Antiaccess/Area Denial, U.S. AirSea Battle, and Command of the Commons in East Asia,” International Security 41, no. 1 (Summer 2016): 7–48.
50 Yaakov Lappin, “IDF Identifies ‘As Many Targets in a Month as It Did in a Year,’” Jewish News Syndicate, December 4, 2022.
51 Leonie Kijewski, “Second Islamic Jihad Commander Killed as Israel-Gaza Fighting Continues,” Politico, August 7, 2022, https://www.politico.eu/article/top-islamic-jihad-commander-khaled-mans….
52 Hew Strachan, “One War, Joint Warfare,” RUSI Journal 154, no. 4 (2009): 20–24. https://doi.org/10.1080/03071840903216437.
53 Herzi Halevi, “Multi-Domain Defense,” Dado Center Journal, October 2020.
54 Amos Harel, “Gantz Inclined to Name Herzi Halevi as Next Israeli Army Chief,” Haaretz, May 6, 2022, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2022-05-06/ty-article/.premium/gant….
55 “Netanyahu, IDF Chief Talk amid Worries about Growing Political Control over Military,” Times of Israel, December 26, 2022, https://www.timesofisrael.com/liveblog-december-26-2022.
56 Barak Ravid, “Israel Legalizes 9 West Bank Outposts despite U.S. Objection,” Axios, February 13, 2023, https://www.axios.com/2023/02/12/israel-legalizes-west-bank-outposts-se….
57 Jean-Loup Samaan, “Missiles, Drones, and the Houthis in Yemen,” Parameters 50, no. 1 (Spring 2020): 51–64.
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Samaan, JL. ‘Decisive Victory’ and Israel's Quest For a New Military Strategy. Middle East Policy XXX. no. 3 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1111/mepo.12701
©2023, The Author. Middle East Policy published by Wiley Periodicals LLC on behalf of Middle East Policy Council.
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