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With Egypt in turmoil, Israel rethinks readiness for multi-front war

by Leslie Susser, JTA

February 15, 2011 | 1:36 pm

Although it’s still far from clear how the uprising in Egypt is going to play out, the volatility there is already raising questions in Israel about the Jewish state’s readiness for a war on several fronts.

The optimistic view in Israel is that a wave of democracy will sweep the Middle East from Cairo to Tehran, making war in any form less likely.

The pessimists—there are many here—see an ascendant Islamic radicalism taking hold in Egypt and elsewhere, thus compounding the military threats facing Israel.

In the Israel Defense Forces, generals are planning for worst-case scenarios.

In a series of farewell addresses this month, outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi offered a rare insight into how the Israeli military sees the emerging threats and what it is doing to meet them.

Ashkenazi spoke of “tectonic changes” in the region, leading to gains for the Iranian-led radical axis at the expense of the region’s moderates. He pointed to the growing dominance of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Islamist shift in Turkey and now the danger that Egypt, once the linchpin of the moderate camp, will fall into the orbit of radical Islam.

Things could get even worse, he said, when the Americans finally pull out of Iraq, leaving that Shiite-dominated country free to lurch toward the radicals.

In Ashkenazi’s view, all this means that the IDF needs to prepare for a significant broadening of the spectrum of threats against Israel. Not only does the IDF have to be ready to fight a simultaneous war on several fronts, it must be able to wage very different kinds of warfare—from “low intensity” irregular conflict with terrorists, to classical conventional warfare against regular armies, to missile warfare against states or powerful non-state actors like Hezbollah.

Even though the threat of terrorist or missile attack might seem more imminent, IDF doctrine under Ashkenazi has put the emphasis on war between regular armies.

“We must train for classic conventional warfare. It poses the biggest challenge, and from it we can make adaptations to other forms of warfare, but not vice versa,” Ashkenazi argued earlier this month at the 11th annual Herzliya Conference on national, regional and global strategic issues. “It would be a mistake to train for low-intensity conflict and to think that the army will be ready overnight to make the switch to full-scale warfare.”

During Ashkenazi’s watch, which began in 2007 in the wake of the army’s much-criticized performance in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the IDF focused on enhancing its already impressive accurate long-range firepower, rebuilding its neglected capacity for sweeping armored maneuvers, and honing coordination for joint ground, sea and air strikes. Training on all relevant parameters was increased by an estimated 200 percent.

According to Ashkenazi, Israel’s “smart” guided missile firepower is at the cutting edge, and in some aspects the IDF may even be a world leader—for example, in its ability to pinpoint targets in the heat of battle and bring lethal fire to bear within seconds.

Despite the focus on conventional warfare, the IDF also developed specific capabilities for terrorist and missile warfare. This includes a four-layered anti-missile defense system starting with the Arrow missile, which is capable of intercepting long-range missiles at altitudes of above 50 miles, to the Iron Dome system for shooting down low-flying, short-range rockets.

In any future missile war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, Ashkenazi says the IDF will apply conventional warfare skills, committing ground forces to attack the enemy in its embedded positions and considerably shortening the duration of the conflict.

Perhaps the most dramatic stride forward made by the IDF over the past few years is in field intelligence. If in 2006, its “bank” of targets in Lebanon numbered approximately 200, today the figure is in the thousands. Ashkenazi insists that firepower is meaningless unless there are targets of high military value.

“Show me your targets and I will tell you what your military achievement will be,” he declared at the Herzliya Conference.

All this adds up to a military doctrine that is likely to give the IDF the capacity to wage different kinds of warfare simultaneously on several fronts: the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs, or RMA. Israel sees an edge here over potential foes: While Israel has inculcated this sophisticated, real-time interoperation of accurate long-range firepower, high-grade intelligence, command and control, and joint forces operations, its potential adversaries have not.

For comparison, the largely American-equipped and -trained Egyptian army—with some 700,000 troops (450,000 in the standing army and about 250,000 reserves), 12 ground force divisions, and approximately 3,400 tanks and 500 fighter planes—is considered by far the strongest in the Arab world. Some of the equipment is state of the art: Egypt has about 1,000 Abrams M1 tanks and just over 200 F-16 fighters.

But the Egyptians have not even begun to incorporate RMA.

“RMA requires a great deal of training of a very special kind,” Yiftah Shapir, director of the Military Balance Project at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, told JTA. “In my view there are just two armies who have these capabilities at the highest level: the U.S. Army and the IDF. And simply buying the platforms does not give this kind of capability.”

Indeed, largely because of the RMA disparity, Shapir says that in the event of war between Israel and Egypt, he would expect a result similar to that achieved by the American army in Iraq in 2003.

“The American army in Iraq was not any bigger than Israel’s standing army. They had only three divisions, one of which came late,” Shapir said. “True, their air force was much bigger, but it was mainly because of the advantages of RMA that they defeated an army of 21 divisions in two weeks. I would expect the IDF to achieve a similar result, perhaps not quite so easily or with so few casualties.”

Not that anyone thinks the Egyptians will be quick to wage war on Israel or abrogate the peace treaty between the two countries. If Egypt did, at the very least it would forfeit the $1.3 billion it receives in annual American military aid.

Moreover, to launch a ground war against Israel, Egypt would have to order the American-led multinational peacekeeping force out of Sinai, the huge buffer zone between the two countries. That’s something a new regime would be unlikely to undertake lightly.

Nevertheless, Israeli generals already are insisting that in an increasingly unstable region, they will need more platforms and more troops. Otherwise the IDF, fighting on several fronts, could find itself overextended.

The change of events in Egypt portends a major argument in Israel over increasing the defense budget here.

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