Changes in the IDF

The new chief of staff will have to contend with the threat from Iran, and lead the continued battle against terror. But, no less important, he will have to give the IDF a substantial overhaul.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on March 1, 2005.)

Many Israelis – men, women, and children – owe their lives to two men who are about to leave their positions: Moshe “Bogey” Ya’alon, the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff, and Avi Dichter, the head of the Shin Bet security services. Under their direction, Israel inflicted a resounding defeat on the Palestinian terrorists, bringing down dramatically the number of terrorist attacks and the number of Israeli victims in the past two years. We have not seen the end of Palestinian terrorism, but it is not likely to return to the horrendous level of past years. The tactics that were used, including targeting individual terrorists, will be studied in other countries facing the threat of terrorism, while the myth that terrorism cannot be defeated by military means has been put to rest.

Both men deserve praise and the country’s gratitude. It is unfortunate that the circumstances of Ya’alon’s departure from his post have somewhat marred the full recognition of his achievements during the fateful years of his tenure at the head of the IDF. This will no doubt be corrected in the historical record.

For many years now, the tradition had been established that the chief-of staff’s three-year tenure is “automatically” renewed for a fourth year. Actually, whenever good candidates for the post are waiting in line – which in Israel has generally been the case – there is no reason for the extension for another year. Changing the guard every three years tends to invigorate the IDF and keeps the age of the top echelon of the armed forces down.

Defense ministers in past years have opted for the extension out of consideration for a chief of staff with whom they had gotten used to working in previous years. In most cases, the IDF would have been better off if the extension had not been granted. Hopefully, the silver lining of the cloud that surrounds Ya’alon’s departure will be the establishment of a tradition that the chief of staff’s tenure from now on will be three years.

Bringing Dan Halutz, an Air Force general, into the top job is good news for the IDF. The IDF has in past years been slow, too slow, to adjust its organization to the changing battlefield. For 36 years the IDF did not have unified command for the individual ground force branches, which would report directly to the General Staff. The long overdue reform setting up the Field Branches Command was finally implemented in 1984. It took another 15 years to implement an addition to that reform that strengthened the command, now renamed Command of the Ground Arms. This command, at the present, still does not encompass all of the activities of the IDF’s ground forces.

It is generally recognized that in recent years a revolution has been occurring on the modern battlefield. The rapid introduction of the latest technology into all aspects of weapon systems, the threat of ballistic missiles and unconventional warheads, the military use of space, and acts of terror directed at the fabric of a nation’s society pose radically new challenges to the organization charged with the responsibility for the defense of the nation.

The Air Force plays an increasingly important role in the changing arena, as was shown by the U.S. offensive in Iraq and by the IDF’s war against Palestinian terror. Efficient integration of aerial and ground activity is now, more than ever, the necessary requirement for success on the battlefield. Introducing the required organizational changes in the IDF will, most probably, best be done by an Air Force general.

The first step has to be complete integration of all ground force units under one command. The possibility of including in this command the Operational Regional Commands – North, South and East – all reporting to the general appointed to head the ground forces needs to be examined. The chief of staff and his staff, now heading a military organization structured on the three basic building blocks – air force, army and navy – will be better able to deal with coordinating the training and organization of these basic branches of the IDF, and overseeing their combined operations.

The new chief of staff will have to contend with the threat from Iran, and lead the continued battle against terror. But, no less important, he will have to give the IDF a substantial overhaul.

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