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Learning Without Reference: the Israeli Defence Forces in its First Twenty Years

Commentary, 24 September 2009
Land Forces, Middle East and North Africa
Effectively starting from scratch with a force of varied backgrounds and global outlooks, the IDF underwent an unusual learning curve in its early stages, where previous experience and lessons of success were absent from the process until built up in years to come.

Ariel SharonIn the first years of its formation, the IDF lacked the military experience and tradition that most armies base their doctrines upon.  Effectively starting from scratch with a force of varied backgrounds and global outlooks, the IDF underwent an unusual learning curve, where previous experience and lessons of success were absent from the process until built up in years to come.

By Dr Gil-li Vardi for

Well-established armies that pride themselves in years of military experience, long-lasting traditions and long-tested doctrines enjoy rich arrays of institutional knowledge and practices when facing new challenges. Organisational worldviews, historical analogues and past experiences always offer instinctive, even if sometimes misleading, guidance in attempting to solve operational dead-ends. The actual role played by organisational culture and history can be as invaluable as it can be devastating, however, it is always inescapable. What happens, then, when there is no such history and no such culture, namely, when the military organisation has just been established?   

The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) can serve as an example to one such highly unusual learning experience. When established in May 1948, the IDF had no organisational memory, no precedents to affect its operational patterns, no historical references to shape its military worldview, and no burdening questions of organisational cause inhibited its practice. In short, the IDF enjoyed the most extraordinary freedom to develop heuristically, but suffered tremendous disadvantages in its learning process at the same time. This combination of freedom from the lessons of history and lack of historical guidance (and restraints) set the boundaries of the IDF's learning experience, and moulded its unique organisational advantages and drawbacks.

The IDF, or more accurately its founders, had, of course, a history. The new organisation brought together the Jewish Yishuv's militia; the Hagana (literally, 'Defence') and its elite fighting force, the Palmach ('Strike Force'); veterans of the British Army (members of the Jewish Brigade and others); and former members of such Jewish underground organisations as Lehi and Irgun. However this mixed historical experience did not provide a coherent operational worldview on which the new organisation could further develop its doctrine. The two main pools of trained enlistees, Palmach members and former British soldiers, were naturally nurtured in opposite military environments. Their very way of thinking of armed conflicts, of military missions, possibilities, limitations, tactics, operations, strategic planning, command and control, discipline and obedience - every possible aspect of military practice - consistently clashed. As a result, the IDF had, from its very inception, a Janus-faced self-understanding and founding concept. It was, at the same time, both an army and a militia.

'The "irregular army" frame of mind'

Not only the dual concepts of its first enlistees, namely the 'regular army' frame of mind of the veterans of the British Army, and the 'irregular army' frame of mind of the former Palmach members, set the IDF's unique mode of thought and action. The course of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War (War of Independence), and the character of the security challenges that followed it, first allowed for this duality to persist and eventually refined it into a unified, albeit flexible, hybrid perception. The IDF was established in the general confusion and the political void caused by the hastened end of the British Mandate, which saw an immediate outbreak of hostilities, summarily sending the newly born army to its baptism of fire. The IDF's acute shortness in arms, resources and manpower forced it to act as quickly, creatively and flexibly as possible. The 1948 War saw the IDF operating in mostly small, poorly-armed and poorly-trained formations (often no bigger than companies), in poorly-planned and poorly-co-ordinated local battles involving civilians and taking place in close proximity to or within cities, villages and Kibbutzim. The pattern of small-scale fighting units operating independently and often uncoordinatedly with only local, tactical goals in mind, and the limited manpower and resources that hampered the IDF's freedom of planning and action realistically dictated a 'small war' frame of thought, which the IDF retained long after the War of Independence.

That said, toward the end of the 1948 War the IDF made its first attempts to operate brigade-size formations, to fight regular Arab forces and to co-ordinate large-scale offensives. Immediately after the war, the IDF launched a massive reform and reorganisation effort, in effect building and arming itself anew as a modern, regular army. The mixed experience of the 1948 War - fighting small-scale, local Arab forces as well as co-ordinating battles and fronts fighting regular forces of neighbouring Arab countries - further imprinted the dual-natured lessons onto the IDF's military perception. In the years that followed, IDF leadership faced the need to prepare for an all-out war against Israel's hostile neighbours, alongside facing its 'everyday security' challenges - that is, fighting against irregulars and terror raids.

The early 1950s saw both the development of retaliatory raid as a pattern of warfare and the idolisation of its practitioners. The Retaliation Policy of 1953-1956 was born under the strain of daily Fedayeen raids on Israeli residential areas and infrastructure. The IDF, unable to distinguish and punish perpetrators from their hosting villagers, decided to disconnect retaliation operations from the raids that provided their justifications. Its goal was to set a collective higher price for Israeli blood, a goal that materialised in the form of Israeli emphasis on Arab casualties. With no better definition of operational success, crude body count distinguished 'good operations' from disappointing ones. This led to an effort to increase the number of enemy casualties at all costs. In doing so, the IDF consistently undermined the government's authority over the army, often by gaining approval for actions ex post facto and freely 'reinterpreting' orders, including those originating from the general staff itself. Moreover, the IDF subordinated operational rationale to the attempt to maximise casualties at all costs, thus often unnecessarily endangering its own forces. Finally, the IDF ignored the severe political price that Israeli diplomacy paid for Israel's aggression. Retaliation raids brought no ease in terror raids on Israeli territories and civilians, and placed an ever-growing burden on the IDF itself. However, mid- and low-ranking officers saw them not only as necessary but also as successful, and as the kind of operations that express best the very essence of IDF's spirit.

The impact of retaliation raids

The effect of the retaliation raid policy was two-fold. First, it served to reduce all notions of operational success into tactical successes measured in one way only - enemy casualties. As a result, IDF officers were trained and inadvertently encouraged to completely detach other, 'irrelevant' considerations, including possible political implications of their planned raids, eventually abandoning altogether even operational considerations (such as soaring IDF casualties numbers), in favour of the ultimate axiom of maximising enemy losses. Second, the policy strengthened the 'small war' state of mind and ethos. Retaliatory raids were mostly modestly scaled operations of a secretive nature; they cultivated a state of mind of the small, specialised unit, and actively hampered the effort to train raiding forces in combined-armed warfare, since aerial and armoured support were usually irrelevant for everyday raiding missions. When Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan decided to halt the policy of retaliation raids, the legendary (yet constantly out of control) 202 Paratroopers Brigade, which had executed most successful and well-known raids, was disbanded and its members were deliberately redistributed to all IDF fighting units, so as to further spread the spirit and high operational standards they held. The brigade members were meant to 'school the army'; their notion of 'success' and their hierarchy of values thus went with them and spread throughout the IDF.

The Sinai Campaign of 1956 well demonstrates the kind of lessons the IDF derived from the operational experience it had hitherto gained. Planned as an enlarged raid, the campaign took the retaliation raid logic and projected it onto a 'regular war' canvas. It allowed the IDF to practice its combined armed doctrine in a large-scale campaign. But it also exposed the IDF's most persistent pattern of behaviour born out of the 'small war' state of mind: the tendency to disobey orders in order to satisfy perceived operational necessities, and the leniency with which such disobedience was accepted. Lieutenant Colonel Ariel Sharon moved his paratroopers westward into the Mitla pass, forcing them into a bloody battle that ran counter to both political and operational interests, while Maj. General Assaf Simhoni directly breached Dayan's orders by ordering the 7th Armoured Brigade to enter the Sinai and complete the capture of Quessimah. Dayan, however, expressed empathy with his commanders' insubordination, openly endorsing their taking matters into their own hands when his orders did not seem tactically updated, reasonable or informed. Dayan and the rest of the IDF's general staff had consistently cultivated initiative and drive for action amongst IDF officers, even at the price of recurring re-interpretation of orders.

Holding the 'operational stick' at both ends

Thus, in the 1950s, the IDF effectively held the operational stick from both ends. It was dedicated to its dual 'small' and' regular war' effort - on the one hand, the build up of its arms and accordingly adjusting its conceptual perceptions and frame of mind to that of a regular army's; and on the other hand, its actual operational experience of raids, border skirmishes and the operational 'hybridity' of the Sinai Campaign. Yet this inherent contradiction did not foster organisational cognitive dissonance. Rather, this duality further reinforced the IDF's operational flexibility. What IDF officers learned about war was that 'small war' and 'regular war' were not two contradicting concepts, but inextricably entangled perceptions that became ever more similar with time. According to the IDF's evolving military culture, both concepts shared an unyielding hierarchy that placed action - any action, the faster and bloodier the better - well above any other consideration. Both concepts called for the same end-state result (which could and should have been measured only in military terms), and thus both encouraged the disconnection of military action from its possible political results. Moreover, in both 'small' and 'regular' wars, IDF leadership consistently endorsed qualities such as resourcefulness, seizing the initiative and operational improvisation over obedience. When the time came for the IDF to face an actual all-out war, all these characteristics came into full force, inadvertently shaping the outcome of the Six Day War, and thus the political and international reality of the Middle East for years to come.

In the months preceding the Six Day War, both Israel and Syria persistently maintained their policies of recurring border skirmishes. The Israeli general staff was eager to have 'another round' with Syria and to teach it a painful lesson. Ordinary reprisal raids failed to solve the problem, and the general staff opted for the promising operational formula of 'small war/massive reprisal' along the lines of the Sinai campaign, preferably by hitting the Syrian air force - an air battle that materialised in April 1967 claimed six Syrian MiG fighter jets. Israel's military leadership proved again its strategic short-sightedness and political carelessness: the mere possibility of Syria (or Jordan, or indeed Egypt, Syria's ally) escalating this magic solution into an all-out war was never seriously considered. This, however, was precisely the result of the growing flames in the north. Egypt's leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, moved his forces into the Sinai and launched a campaign of verbal attacks on Israel, surprising its government and panicking its public.

Early years of the IDF: a rare learning experience

The IDF general staff now demanded that its government launch a pre-emptive strike in the face of a looming Egyptian-Syrian attack. Its generals refused to await American approval or agreement to such an Israeli attack, held in contempt Prime Minister Levi Eshkol for his attempts to secure such an approval, and once again demonstrated their rigid hierarchy of values, placing military action well above its potential far-reaching political implications. During the war, once engaged in delivering the awaited pre-emptive strike, IDF commanders continued to demonstrate a pattern of self-initiated action and exploitation of every operational opportunity they could identify. A vicious cycle thus ensued, in which local initial successes created more and more opportunities that in turn called for further action. On the Jordanian front, events did not unintentionally 'occur' and accidently 'lead' to the occupation of Jerusalem, but were rather designed and sought by Central Command officers and its head, Major General Uzi Narkis. After the war ended, he openly explained that he knew that at a certain point, the general staff would allow his forces to try and take the Old City of Jerusalem; he therefore actively created favourable operational conditions that in turn made taking the Old City the reasonable operational choice. Planned or unintended, ruthless and self-initiated exploitation of local successes was the dynamic that brought about the IDF's stunning success in the Six Day War, some of which, such as the occupation of territories heavily populated by Palestinian inhabitants, were considered by Israel's government to be highly undesirable. The Six Day War was not just a brilliant military success, but also the culmination of operational practices that amalgamated during the IDF's early years; the war turned them into unshakable truths and the 'natural' IDF reaction to its still-challenging reality.

The IDF had in its early years a rare learning experience: for a modern army, it was unusually unburdened with organisational history; learning evolved without reference. It had to learn quickly and under appalling conditions, while constantly required to stand against a bewildering variety of security challenges. As a result, the IDF formed its operational habits rapidly, and, facing ever-present challenges, quickly took these habits to the extreme: exaggerated drive for action, which led to habitual justification of action regardless of strategic, and eventually even operational, considerations; the disconnection of military actions from their political implications; and the consistent encouragement of commander's tactical initiatives which eventually culminated in unplanned, and all too often unintended results in the battlefield. These became the IDF's hallmark. IDF leadership was naturally aware of the army's strengths and weaknesses; some shortfalls, however, it simply could not see as potential deficiencies, especially since even the most reckless patterns were considered indispensable in bringing about the victories of the Sinai Campaign and the Six Day War.

Organisational learning processes have both evident and hidden dimensions, and it is often the hidden, unspoken 'lessons' that have greater bearing on organisational behaviour. While military organisations are genuinely dedicated to learning, changing, avoiding past errors and studying the causes of past successes, they are also prone to see 'errors' and 'successes' (and their causes) through the lenses of their own military and organisational culture. These lenses exert tremendous power over organisational worldview, and over its members' very understanding of reality and the nature of the challenges it poses. Thus, the hidden dimension of learning processes can often hamper, if not in actuality nullify attempts to learn and apply lessons that stand against organisational truths. The IDF had to learn this lesson the hard way: after assimilating the lessons of the Sinai Campaign and the Six Day War, it had to face the inherent obstacles of organisational learning when attacked in October 1973, and once again after initiating its calamitous war of choice in Lebanon, June 1982.

Dr Gil-li Vardi is a Senior Research Associate in The Programme on the Changing Character of War at the Faculty of History, University of Oxford.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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