Manoeuvre or Defence? Israeli Experiences of Responding to Missile Threats

Edgar Bullon / Alamy | There is debate in the Israel Defense Forces over how best to defend against evolving state threats.

This article examines the points of divergence between two major schools of thought within the Israel Defense Forces regarding how best to defend the state against evolving threats.

Though specific to Israel, the debate has ramifications for European militaries as they confront a fires-centric Russian army that will attempt to operate from behind layers of anti-access capabilities including missiles, drones and UAVs.

In a recent article, three officers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) outlined what they called Israel’s Golden Age of Security. According to them, the sunset of the Golden Age has to do with the breakdown of three privileges Israel has enjoyed in the past few decades: the privilege of low-intensity conflicts (replaced by large-scale scenarios involving Iran and increasingly capable proxies); the privilege of US support (which is weakening); and the privilege of internal unity in Israel (which is eroding). In the wake of the lessons from Russia’s war in Ukraine and the shadow of a likely US pivot to the Indo-Pacific should a war over Taiwan within the Davidson Window materialise, many of these challenges will be faced by European states as well.

The Israeli challenge is primarily a missile-based one that has seen an order of magnitude change in the sophistication of adversaries and the size of their arsenals. Take, for example, the case of Hezbollah, which has converted unguided missiles like the Zelzal-2 into precision strike weapons with GPS guidance kits. Compounding this challenge are two other issues. Firstly, there is the sheer weight of fire that an opponent like Hezbollah can deliver. Secondly, the organisation has demonstrated the ability to conduct a defence based on fortified outposts such as Marun ar Ras and urban conurbations such as Ghanduriyeh, setting the conditions for a number of rockets to be fired into Israel before Hezbollah ground positions could be overrun. And the challenge of confronting an opponent in defensible terrain even as fires strike the homeland is not exclusive to Lebanon – it extends to the Gaza Strip, albeit in a less sophisticated form.

Should European armed forces ever face an open conflict with Russia, they might well encounter a similar challenge from the direction of Kaliningrad, for example. As shown by Russia’s combination of an entrenched force manning the Surovikin lines with strikes across the depth of Ukraine to target civilians, a strategy based on a combination of stalemate at the front and deep strikes against a country’s rear is not exclusive to non-state actors. The size of the European theatre may necessitate longer-range missiles, but as Russia mass-produces and improves the Iranian Shahed, this will be possible at scale. Furthermore, in frontline areas or near bastions like Kaliningrad, rockets can be used as a strategic tool, much as they are in smaller theatres.

In the Israeli context, broadly speaking, two dominant schools of thought have emerged regarding prospective solutions. These are, the stand-off fire and defence approach, and the decisive manoeuvres approach. The stand-off fire and defence approach, as articulated by figures such as Colonel Nir Yanai, is a product of the last several decades and emphasises the importance of air attack and precision strikes against key targets at the outset of a war. The second component of this approach is a multi-layered air and missile defence system built to interdict a threat that has been thinned out by offensive capabilities. This approach aims to buy policymakers the time to respond to the threat in a deliberate way aimed at eroding adversary capability over time. By contrast, the decisive manoeuvres approach is an evolution of traditional Israeli concepts in which the aggressive movement and early employment of ground forces leads to the collapse of an adversary’s operational system. In effect, the best way to silence launchers, per this school, is overrunning the ground on which they are situated.

The Challenges of Stalemate and Attrition

Each approach described faces considerable challenges. The major challenge facing the manoeuvre approach is the fact that, since Operation Defensive Shield (2012), a variety of factors including political restraints have prevented Israel from conducting truly decisive ground manoeuvres. Operations such as Cast Lead (2002) and Protective Edge (2014), as well as the Second Lebanon War (2006), saw much more limited ground offensives.

Moreover, the challenges faced in the Second Lebanon War, while by no means insurmountable, were harbingers of a trend that challenges manoeuvre. The defence of fortified and urban terrain by Hezbollah and the group’s adept use of anti-tank guided missiles was emulated by the Houthis in encounters such as the Battle of Aden. Another point emerging from Yemen is that defeating an adversary’s ground forces does not necessarily guarantee the immediate elimination of a well-hidden missile threat in any given sector – a process which, as pointed out by IDF Major General Yaakov Amidror, may involve months of gruelling searches of prepared hiding spots. Trends such as the growing concentration of populations in increasingly large urban nodes will only exacerbate the challenge of manoeuvre, and will create new complex terrain within which missile threats can be hidden. Moreover, even in the open, field fortifications can represent a formidable obstacle, as shown in Ukraine.

In a European context, one might consider the additional challenges of needing to suppress sophisticated air defence and electronic warfare systems as well as nuclear risk when assaulting adversary forces, generating fires from urban nodes like Kaliningrad in which potentially nuclear-armed capabilities like the Iskander are based. Furthermore, some launch platforms that are relevant in a European context are held at a depth which means they cannot be overrun.

A major challenge with which any manoeuvrist vision of warfare must contend, then, is that it lacks an explanation of how the conditions for the collapse of an opponent can be set under the contemporary fires-centric context. It is just as likely that offensive ground actions must necessitate the sort of protracted fighting and possibly sustained occupation of hostile territory which most democratic states would wish to avoid. Moreover, as illustrated by the ongoing war in Ukraine, ground manoeuvre exacts a cost in life that many states will struggle to pay. Democracies are often relatively casualty-averse, which will be a consideration here – especially for states like Israel which rely on national service to force generate.

However, the fire and defend school faces its own challenges – specifically, the difficulty of sustaining a battle of attrition. Air defence interceptors are generally much more expensive than most of the capabilities that they must intercept, and the emergence of new forms of air threat such as comparatively cheap UAVs only compounds this. Bottlenecks in areas such as electronics will only exacerbate the issue if they persist. The interceptor shortfalls faced by Ukraine – a country that had Europe’s largest air defence arsenal at the war’s outset, augmented with Western systems – acutely illustrates this. Most opponents will not have as many cruise and ballistic missiles as Russia, but they can certainly generate a weight of fire with UAVs, multiple-launch rock systems and a limited number of cruise and ballistic missiles. Nor can it be assumed that this threat will be thinned out at the outset of a conflict – opponents have a range of palliative options, from underground shelters and hiding among the population to the employment of proliferating air defence systems and electronic warfare assets. A passive defence carries the risk of saturation by sheer weight of fire.

Countries will increasingly have to make a choice between developing forces to achieve decision, and forces that give them the endurance to last in what may well be indecisive wars. This will require adjudicating between requirements to defend the homeland and protect manoeuvre elements, which will be politically challenging. It will also require the careful balancing of imperatives between different elements of individual services, which will adhere to either manoeuvre or endurance as national ideals.

Ultimately, neither model provides a complete solution. It would be a mistake for any modern state to plan on decisive manoeuvre – history shows that wars between peers are often protracted affairs. However, a reactive approach based on endurance may be both financially difficult and politically intolerable. While it is often presumed that countries can simultaneously defend their homelands and achieve strategic effects at the front if they invest the right resources into doing so, in practice they will often face trade-offs between these important but competing imperatives. The core question they will face, then, is whether to aim for shortening the wars they fight or adapting their force structures to the reality of protracted missile warfare. Ultimately, an effective solution will need to involve a synthesis of the two schools – individually, each provides only imperfect answers under contemporary operating conditions.

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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