Bad battle doctrine, or organizational dysfunction?

By Vic Rosenthal

Leslie Susser, in a JTA piece, presented what is coming to be the conventional wisdom about the IDF’s poor performance in the recent Lebanon war: it was caused by an attempt to implement an inappropriate battle doctrine, championed by former Chief of Staff Dan Halutz:

The doctrine, which some have dubbed “post-heroic” warfare and others call “digital war,” posits that with today’s precision weapons and information technology, wars can be won from a distance without committing troops to close combat.

…The IDF’s new approach has coincided with a heightened sensitivity in Israeli society to losing soldiers in war, and with what many contend was an exaggerated belief in high-tech air power promoted by Halutz, the first former Air Force commander to become Israeli chief of staff.

The new doctrine had major implications for the army as a whole: It meant that ground forces could be downsized and their training reduced. It also meant that Israel’s large reserve army could be cut drastically.

The result in the Lebanon war was a hesitancy about committing ground forces, complaints from reservists that they lacked adequate training and no timely ground operation to root out Hezbollah militiamen who continued firing rockets into Israel.

Recently I talked to an IDF officer with an entirely different point of view. He felt that blame was being incorrectly placed on Halutz instead of the real culprits, the civilian leadership. Although I can’t use my correspondent’s name (it will be obvious why), he is a career officer with an army — not air force, like Halutz — background. Here is what he said:

Dan Halutz, in every forum where I saw him was by far the brightest guy in the room and the most coherent thinker. In fact, at times it seemed that his statements went right over the heads of his colleagues.

Never was this clearer to me than at the ‘brigade commander forum’ about two months after the war. General after general spoke, enumerating symptoms but never diagnosing the disease.

At the end Halutz cut the Gordian knot, saying “organizational dysfunction leads directly to operational dysfunction”.

The blank stares on the officers faces told all we need know about why the IDF misses its mark on so many criteria by which one judges a fully functioning professional western military.

They could not understand simply because most of them had never served, worked or even lived in a society where rules, operational norms, work ethic, proper time management and above all efficiency, were standard practice.

However Dan Halutz had. He had served in the air force, for
nearly 40 years! The reason why there had never been such self-examination in the army before was because, simply, the army rarely learns from its mistakes. We have been successful in the past because of the incapability of our enemies, not by our own capabilities.

The attempt to bring our military into the 21st century (so called ‘precision warfare’) was not the reason for the downsizing or neglect of the ground forces. The funding cutbacks decided upon by our politicians did that.

As for the failure to mount a major ground offensive early: Halutz has admitted that he made a mistake by not conscripting the reservists in large numbers from the start. However there is no evidence that this would achieved the goal of stopping the short-range rockets from being fired; in fact it probably wouldn’t have succeeded to a great extent, and casualties would have been horrendous.

With objectives changing daily and no clear strategic goals
stated by our government, there is little one man, no matter how brilliant, could achieve.

Slusser suggests that the new Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, will need to restore ‘tried and trusted doctrine’. He will certainly have to restore funding to the neglected ground forces and reserves.

But more than that, he would be well advised to pay attention to the overall army culture. As my correspondent suggests, organizational dysfunction must be replaced with professionalism and discipline.

In the final analysis, the Chief of Staff is only a soldier, albeit a general. However, as Clemenceau said, “war is too important to be left to the generals”. Without a political leadership that understands the geopolitical environment and has clear goals and priorities, the best soldiers in the world cannot win.

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