Preemption is better than defense

Egyptian aircraft destroyed on the ground in 1967. Is Israel changing its traditional military doctrine?

Egyptian aircraft destroyed on the ground in 1967. Is Israel changing its traditional military doctrine?

When Iron Dome was first deployed, I was concerned. Now that it has proven itself in battle, perhaps saving countless lives, I am even more concerned.

This is not to say that Israel should not add more Iron Dome and other defensive systems. Every life is valuable. But Iron Dome’s success also has a downside.

Israel’s traditional military doctrine is based on the need to defend a small nation with a small regular army and little strategic depth. For this reason, the IDF has tried to take the war to the enemy, to fight outside of Israel’s borders, and to win quickly and decisively. This doctrine also makes it possible for the IDF to fight less often, by maintaining a posture of deterrence.

A primarily defensive strategy, even if supported by effective technology, turns this doctrine upside down. And this is not reasonable, neither from a military and technological standpoint, nor from a political and psychological one.

Every advance in offensive ability, either technological or tactical, has a defensive response; which, in turn, is overtaken by new offensive capabilities. Iron Dome shoots down a remarkable percentage of short-range missiles, but at a severe economic disadvantage. It can be saturated by a massive bombardment, there can be technical failures, etc.

It is impossible to rely on defense alone, because Israel simply isn’t big enough to absorb the damage when the defensive systems are not 100% effective. More importantly, a strictly defensive posture has zero deterrent ability. Why not fire rockets at Israel if the worst that can happen is that they will get shot down?

Now of course the Israeli government and the IDF will tell you that they are not replacing the traditional aggressive doctrine with a more passive one. Did not the IDF go after rocket teams in Gaza aggressively during last week’s barrage?

Yes, it did. But the response was aimed at the smaller terrorist militias and a few of their personnel. The terrorist infrastructure in Gaza was left in place, just as Hizballah is allowed to have tens of thousands of rockets aimed at Israel and an elaborate structure of bunkers, communications systems, arms depots, etc. poised in southern Lebanon, ready to take the next war to Israeli territory. Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah has even threatened ground incursions into Israel.

Israel is not hunkering down into a totally defensive posture. But it’s impossible to doubt that a change in the balance is taking place.

To be fair to Israel’s leaders, there is enormous international pressure on Israel not to fight offensively. One of the main reasons that Operation Cast Lead was terminated without overthrowing Hamas was pressure from the incoming Obama administration. But at least the fighting was in Gaza and not in the streets of Sderot.

The Obama administration approves the idea of a primarily defensive posture for Israel, and will probably be happy to help fund additional anti-missile batteries. My guess is that if they could pass a law that would permit Jews to have only defensive, not offensive, weapons, they would do so.

Nevertheless, it is essential that Israel return to its traditional posture of preemption and aggressive defense, despite the effectiveness of its defensive technology and the pressure from outside. More important even than the military aspects are the psychological effects of the shift, both on Israelis and their enemies.

I have already mentioned the fact that a strong deterrent can obviate the need to fight at all (which is why Israel must never give up its nuclear weapons), but it is also important for the self-respect of the population. Someone who sees himself as a target, albeit a well-protected one, begins to think that he deserves to be a target — or that he should live and work somewhere else, where he would not be a target.

The much-derided concept of “the new Jew” of the early Zionists, although it had silly and misconceived aspects (like the anti-religious stream), was correct in demanding an end to the idea of the Jew as passive victim.

Israel’s enemies are strengthened when defense is overemphasized. Their contempt for Jewish victims and their belief that it’s acceptable to try to exterminate them are augmented. Jews and Israelis are different from anyone else. What happens when you shoot, for example, at Russians?

There is a media phenomenon that was prominent during the 2006 Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead, in which civilian casualties on the Arab side were exaggerated, often invented by elaborate scams. Of course part of this was simply in order to create hatred for Israel, but it was also intended to deter an active (as opposed to passive) self-defense. It may have succeeded by causing the US to ramp up pressure for a cease-fire.

IDF policy to combat this by reducing the percentage of civilian casualties is self-defeating. It can’t be 100% effective (and even if it is, the Arabs and their media supporters can invent atrocities). But insofar as it forces operations to be less aggressive in nature, it reinforces the primarily defensive posture.

This trend must be reversed. As the next war draws nearer, one hopes that Israel will strike preemptively, take the war to the enemy’s territory, and win quickly and decisively in keeping with its traditional doctrine, relegating defensive technology like Iron dome to its secondary function of protecting military bases and the home front — while the offensive capability of the IDF puts a permanent end to the threats facing the nation.

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5 Responses to “Preemption is better than defense”

  1. artcohn says:

    The IDF must find a way of pre-emtively stopping missile firing. In 2006 the IDF pre-emtively stopped the long range missile firing, which took some time to set-up. But, it couldn’t stop the shorter range missles with their short set-up times. Now, it appears that the set-up times for the longer range missile have been shortened. People will be living in underground shelters for months on end, unless the IDF can prevent the firing of those missiles

  2. Shalom Freedman says:

    Perhaps you are right. Perhaps it can be done. Perhaps we can pre-empt and win a 67′- like victory. But in the last Lebanese War our Air Force was operating full- strength in Lebanon and to the last day of the war Hizbollah had the capability to fire thousands of rockets at our territory. The missiles and rockets in the hands of our enemy suggest to many that even the best pre-emption will lead to tens of thousands injured on our side. I don’t know. I would like to believe we could deliver a knockout blow early, but I wonder what the price of our striking first would be.

  3. Vic Rosenthal says:

    The question is not the price of striking first — it’s about the price of striking second.

    Does Israel want war on her terms or war on her enemies’ terms? That’s the real choice. Peace is superior to both, but that’s not on offer.

  4. Shalom Freedman says:

    Who is now going to make the first- strike against Israel? There are many candidates and their first strike would be more effective if their attack could be coordinated. Here there is a question of what Intelligence we might have before any such attack, and whether we could preempt it?
    But there is also a question of ‘who’ now could make the attack? I suppose the answer is Iran, and at its command Hizbollah, Syria, Hamas? Or looking to later in the year perhaps the Egyptians under a Muslim Brotherhood regime will turn completely hostile. But there are good reasons why it does not make any sense for any of them, or all in combination to attack. Even with a first strike they could not survive determined Israeli retaliation.
    There is of course the possibility that the Assad regime on its way down would choose to ‘shift the field of battle’ and attack us. But that too is only if they are suicidal.
    I do not say the other side does not want to kill us. Of course they do. I do not say they could not do us damage. They can. But if they are in any way concerned about their own survival they would not make that move.
    Therefore I suppose the hope is that the actual war can be avoided while the situation of threat persists, and will persist.

  5. Vic Rosenthal says:

    The biggest danger today is Iran-Hizballah. Egypt has too many troubles of its own at this point, although as you say some future Egyptian regime might become a danger — but more likely, as Barry Rubin has said, that it will support Hamas and terrorism rather than mount a direct attack.

    I also doubt that Assad would make his troubles worse, although who knows about his successor regime.

    The combination of Hizballah’s rockets and the Iranian nuclear program are the immediate danger. I think that Iran does intend to destroy Israel; they have a definite program to do so, based on ideology and geopolitics.

    I also worry that the Russians are fomenting trouble. They have never been happy with a nuclear Israel. I wonder if they understand yet that Islam is a bigger threat to them than Israel!