The IDF Seeks a Way Out of the Cycle of War with Gaza

May 24, 2023 | Lazar Berman
About the author: Lazar Berman, news editor at the Times of Israel and a reserve infantry officer in the IDF, has written for the Journal of Strategic Studies, Commentary, and other publications.

In January 2013, two senior Israeli officers published an article analyzing a then-recent seven-day military operation in Gaza, arguing that such short, limited wars—conducted primarily from the air—could never achieve decisive results, and only delayed the next conflict. The IDF has conducted numerous such campaigns in the years since—including one earlier this month—with some variation in tactics and outcome, but not much has changed. Lazar Berman examines the problem, and its possible solutions:

A number of vectors have converged to create the confounding reality Israel finds itself in today, not least of which is the military conception of ground maneuver as a liability rather than the key to victory. During Israel’s early decades, the IDF’s operational concept rested on aggressive maneuver by its ground forces into enemy territory, quickly moving the fight away from population centers to deliver decisive defeats to adversary forces.

Ground maneuver refers to the use of large ground forces to slice through slower enemy formations where opportunities arise, breaking the enemy’s cohesion, complicating its war plans, and shattering morale. The air force played a number of vital supporting roles in those battles, especially in destroying enemy airpower to open the way for IDF tanks to shatter Arab armor.

Yet since the 1980s, the IDF has shifted to greater use of air power and artillery, preferring to conduct only limited ground offensives or avoiding them altogether. At the same time, the Iron Dome has kept civilians safe while the fighting goes on. This approach, Berman notes, has its drawbacks, as seen from the repeated war in Gaza. And Israeli generals are seeking new ideas.

Paradoxically, as Israel’s tactical capabilities from the air continue to improve, the strategic effectiveness of its air campaigns steadily declines. While IDF spokespeople send out videos of missiles homing in on a specific window in an office building, and boast of the Iron Dome’s interception rates, the battles are coming more frequently and enemy capabilities are growing.

There is hope for a way out; . . . recognition that the IDF’s approach must change has spread among the senior military leadership. . . . The new concept recognizes the need for decisive victory through ground maneuver. But it proposes a new type of maneuver, one that emerges from the understanding that territory is no longer the asset Israel’s enemies are trying to protect. Instead, it is their ability to maintain their rocket fire on Israel’s home front that must be suppressed.

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