Integrating Offence and Defence: Lessons from the Israeli Experience

Defences activated: the Israeli Iron Dome system fires from Sderot to intercept rockets launched from the Gaza Strip. Image: dpa picture alliance / Alamy

In a previous article, the authors discussed the challenges of balancing the requirements for decision and endurance on the modern battlefield. This article articulates pathways forward in a future operating environment dominated by stalemates and threats to national homelands.

A core challenge that is likely to be presented by the future operating environment is the combination of stalemates at the front with threats to national homebases. Not only will this strain militaries, but it will also generate organisational competition between those responsible for defensive tasks and those responsible for manoeuvre at the front.

One way of overcoming these contradictions is through a concept which adopts elements of strike, Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD), and manoeuvre. This is the goal envisioned under Israel’s Operational Victory Concept. Per this concept, which heavily emphasises multidomain integration, close coordination must be achieved between air and missile defences, strike and ground forces.

As described by one of the authors in a previous article, this approach would involve three things. The first is the integration of sensors used for offensive and defensive tasks, and the use of the same capabilities to enable both strikes and interceptions. This integration can enable responsive fires. Instead of depending almost solely on an attempt to deliver a knockout blow at the outset of a conflict, this approach would also seek to create a blanket of sensor coverage to ensure that any projectile fired creates a risk of unmasking the launcher. Defensive forward-based intercepts can be followed up with strikes on launchers. As demonstrated by the updating of defensive radar systems such as the AN/MPQ-64 to extrapolate a launcher’s location from a missile’s trajectory, this is technologically viable today. The second element of the approach is strike capabilities with the range and speed to engage targets before they move or even complete a multi-rocket firing sequence. Precisely what this range and speed requirement is depends on the target. Over longer distances, one might need recourse to tools such as longer-range missiles or loitering munitions. It is also possible to create dual-purpose interceptors which can serve both air defence and strike missions, as illustrated by the US Navy’s SM-6. Though this entails costs, an integrated system is arguably cheaper than two separate lines of effort to support strike and defence. If operated in proximity to the enemy, as in the context of offensive manoeuvres, short-range strike-intercepting munitions might even be cheaper than descent-phase interceptors. The final component of this model is ground forces that manoeuvre to support strike by infiltrating an opponent’s lines, unmasking targets and forcing them to move, as well as engaging targets of opportunity. Sufficiently small and distributed ground formations networked with a wider force could serve as force multipliers for strike.

The costs of deflecting Iran’s proxies in the early stages of a conflict with Tehran could leave Israel exhausted in the event of direct Iranian intervention later on

In effect, this approach still maintains a focus on manoeuvre, presenting an opponent with multiple dilemmas and preventing them from acting in a coherent manner. However, physical manoeuvre is in this context a supporting element in a system based on dislocation by fire. In effect, manoeuvre, fire and defence must be balanced in a system which integrates their effects.

Lessons from the Israeli Example

The Israeli experience is instructive here. Israel faces the prospect of a multi-front war with Iranian proxies and Iran itself, in which there is a considerable risk that its air defence capabilities will be exhausted by the sheer volume of fire that it faces. Moreover, the state faces a prioritisation issue – the costs of deflecting Iran’s proxies in the early stages of a conflict could leave it exhausted in the event of direct Iranian intervention later on. It would seem, then, that seeking efficiencies by integrating offence and defence is an essential task.

That being said, there exist considerable points of friction within the IDF. One criticism of the argument that fires and defences should be better integrated – advanced by the supporters of both manoeuvre and defence – is that a new investment in offensive ground capabilities in general, and in particular in an offensive forward-interception and launch-suppression layer, will draw from the resources the IDF requires in order to continue to strengthen and develop its existing multi-layer interception system. Dividing force design efforts would, in practice, be to Israel’s detriment. Given the relative effectiveness of Israeli defences thus far, there is an understandable conservatism regarding change. Phrases often heard in the corridors of the General Staff include: ‘don’t change horses midstream’ or ‘don’t change a winning team’.

However, if we examine the IDF’s last modernisation process in the 1990s, when the Syrian armour threat was regarded as a key strategic issue, Israel did not refrain from building a combat system that enjoyed five to six separate layers of response. Fighter plane interdiction capabilities were not considered an alternative to building a new cutting-edge fleet of remotely piloted aircraft. The plethora of aerial capabilities did not make redundant the long-range precision-guided munition squads deployed in the ground divisions, along with the Northern Command’s rocket and missile artillery division. All the while, the IDF continued to build and upgrade the Armoured Corps, supplying it with advanced tanks to help deal with forward enemy forces, and it would later control Syrian territory through improved capabilities. Thus, the decision to invest in another combat layer at the cost of a few billion NIS should not be seen as threatening other layers of defence. Put simply, the cost of layered and potentially redundant systems is outweighed by both the military and material costs of a single-vector solution. A failure to overwhelm a missile-centric adversary will surely prove to be more expensive in blood and treasure, as well as in strategic outcomes.

In addition, many of the improvements in areas such as ISR that could enable a strike-based concept could also improve IAMD. For example, new and comparatively cheap UAVs and nano-satellites could enhance both the tracking of certain targets and the interception of ascending missiles and active launchers. Integrated systems such as the US Navy’s Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air and the US Army’s Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System have already shown how non-dedicated ISR assets like the F/A-18 and F-35 can enhance missile defence, as well as how air defence radar can provide data to enable subsequent strikes.

Developing a significant forward fighting layer that can engage ballistic and UAV threats is a crucial component in fulfilling Israel’s goal of moving from responding to initiating

Moreover, the ability to engage targets with comparatively short-range capabilities including strike platforms and interceptors that rely on semi-active homing can free up more expensive assets for longer-range missions. Greater awareness about which missiles are likely to hit targets and new modes of intercept based on directed energy weapons (lasers) can also support this aim, though the latter will mature over the long term. As examples of the capabilities currently diverted from more strategically decisive missions, we might consider Israel’s ‘long arm’ strategic strike capabilities and its next-generation Iron Dome (together with Arrow and David Sling). Both the air assets needed for strategic strike and the defensive capabilities of Iron Dome would be necessary for a conflict with Iran. However, if they are currently pinned down defending against more proximate threats, they will not be available for this role.

General Principles for Defence in an Age of Protracted Conflict and Missile Threats

There are a number of lessons that can be derived about the relationship between strike and defence, both in an Israeli context and more broadly:

  • The principles of the challenge facing multiple countries are quite similar. Protracted indecision in long multi-front wars disadvantages democracies with capital-intensive militaries. The need to defend civilians and critical national infrastructure, moreover, creates real opportunity costs in other areas. Countries that must defend against large numbers of cheap capabilities – from multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) to UAVs and even some missiles – will have to strip formations at the front of much-needed ground-based air defence (GBAD), unless they can find solutions. A combination of strike and defence can achieve this.
  • It is possible and necessary to strive towards short wars and to remove the threat to the home front. Preserving routine in major cities, and especially the security of civilians, is of primary importance. The continuity of everyday life, education and the economy must be maintained.
  • Future wars have the potential to become multi-arena scenarios, and as such it will be critical to achieve a decisive victory vis-à-vis proximate threats in order to free up resources deal with more distant ones.
  • Strengthening intelligence, aerial strike and multi-layered defence components is crucial; however, it is not sufficient. Focusing on these components forces Israel into an attrition war and a strategy that serves its adversaries. Engaging MLRS, UAVs or missiles emanating from an area like Kaliningrad or southern Lebanon with aircraft or expensive GBAD and counter-rocket, artillery and mortar assets will both expend resources at unsustainable levels and draw assets from the offensive military actions needed to decide a war. For Israel, this would be long-range strike, while for NATO it might be supporting ground manoeuvre formations.
  • Developing a significant forward fighting layer that can engage ballistic and UAV threats is a crucial component in fulfilling Israel’s goal of moving from responding to initiating. The ability to strike a launcher as it is embarking munitions, or to destroy a missile with a short-range interceptor that does not rely on an expensive seeker, will be crucial to thinning out threats. As much as possible, these systems should be able to leverage each other’s sensors.
  • It is vital to prioritise research, planning, development and production of sophisticated responses to advanced weapons systems that will emerge in the coming years, such as hypersonic missiles, tactical nuclear weapons, cruise missiles and other capabilities.
  • Without this, many of the cutting-edge capabilities and combat methods developed by militaries such as the IDF, including those incorporated in Momentum and the next multi-year plan, will end up amounting to only tactical improvements – which, important as they are, will not flip the script.

In effect, then, responding to the twofold challenges of a positional battlefield and adversaries with superior mass will require a synthesis of capabilities. Single-vector solutions, be they based on manoeuvre, fires or active defence, will likely be found wanting. An integrated solution that seeks to leverage synergies between fires, manoeuvre and active defence is likely to be costly, organisationally difficult and applicable only in comparatively small theatres. However, the efficiencies that such a solution provides are a prerequisite for operating in the future combat environment.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Sidharth Kaushal

Senior Research Fellow, Sea Power

Military Sciences

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Brigadier General Eran Ortal

Commander of The Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies

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Brigadier General Ran Kochav

Former Commander IAMD, Israeli Air Force and Spokesperson for Israel Defense Forces

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