Military minds gather in Israel as war in Ukraine resets strategies

As it closely follows the changing battlefield in Ukraine, Israel will soon need to take a definitive stance on the Russian invasion.

As the war and its scenes of devastation drag on in Ukraine, ​Israel has become a magnet for foreign security officials from dozens of countries.

“This has become a real pilgrimage,” a top Israeli military source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “They are showing up in droves from countries in the West that had already written off the prospects of war as well as from countries with which Israel does not maintain diplomatic relations.” There is a pervasive sense of urgency to upgrade military capabilities as fast as possible, particularly in self-defense.

“Take Germany, for example,” the source said. “After the world wars and the trauma, it had reached a stage of near pacifism. Now they are waking up. Many countries in the West neglected their military power and relegated it to a marginal role in their set of priorities,” said the source. “Suddenly, they realize that the era of peace was an illusion. A world power invades its neighbor, deploys tremendous force, bombs cities and mows down civilians in numbers not seen in Europe since the world wars, and the sun keeps shining. It changes the perception and strategy in every sane place on the planet.”

But even as Israel calculates its expected defense exports bonanza (which has already broken records this year), like other states it is weighing the strategic implications of the war in Europe. For instance, does Russia’s resounding failure to translate its might into battlefield victories signal an end to ground maneuver warfare? Does aerial superiority depend less on a fleet of sophisticated bombers and fighters and more on basic tools such as UAVs? And what about the future of tank warfare on the 21st century battlefield?

“The end of the era of peace is a warning call for Israel,” read the headline of a recent article in Ha-Umma (The Nation), a conservative quarterly, by longtime former military commander Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen. Hacohen and co-author Yotam Cohen analyzed the current role of ground maneuvers in determining the outcome of wars. Whereas the West has been perceived as more reluctant to engage in ground maneuvers due to the potentially devastating collateral damage, the war in Ukraine has shown that even aside from the loss of human life, ground maneuvers have become very difficult. The writers attribute this shift to growing urbanization and population density, saying that “populated cities eat armies for breakfast” and that state-of-the-art aerial attack capabilities “are a threat to the maneuvering forces and the logistic support they require.”

As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan to score a speedy Crimea-style military victory has proven a failure, the Israeli military is closely monitoring the war. Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi has ordered the formation of a team to study its lessons.

One of the crucial questions facing this team is whether the era of tank warfare is over, given the availability of effective and relatively inexpensive aerial tools. Should the IDF abandon its reliance on deep penetration ground maneuvers? And what about the air force? Should it maintain its focus on third-strike capabilities with advanced aircraft at the expense of the tactical battlefield rife with exploding drones and other weapons already available to Hezbollah in Lebanon and soon to Hamas in Gaza?

The Israeli air force seems to feel it has struck the right balance. Col. (res.) Ofer Haruvi of the Israeli air force told Al-Monitor recently on the weekly “On Israel” podcast, “Israel’s air force and the whole Israeli defense system were leaders in integrating UAVs in the battlefield. Now, in order to maintain leadership, we need to continue investing and doing what we do best.” Israel has also upgraded defensive capabilities, protecting its armored corps with the “windbreaker” active protection system and even more sophisticated means, with a laser-based interception system in development that will be operational within a few years.

At one recent get-together, senior Israeli and US intelligence officials discussed the Russian military’s outcomes in Ukraine. An Israeli participant told Al-Monitor later on condition of anonymity that he’d asked his American colleagues if they were surprised at its performance, to which one of the Americans responded off the cuff, “We were surprised? I think Putin was the one most surprised.”

Israel, for its part, was clearly surprised by President Joe Biden’s conduct regarding the Russian invasion. “He could have perhaps prevented it,” a senior Israeli diplomatic source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “He could have sent a personal envoy to Putin to clarify that he would not include Ukraine in NATO and not deploy strategic weapons on its soil. That would have ended this event,” the source said. “But that did not happen and once the war broke out, and the Americans realized there would not be a speedy Crimea-like Russian military victory, Biden is not pushing for an end. The Russian stagnation is convenient. Putin’s situation is convenient. Biden has no problem with Putin becoming a lame duck and freeing up his agenda to engage the real US enemy, which is China.”

As for Israel’s agenda, the source said, “We are nearing a red line at which Israel will have to adopt a clearer and more determined stand alongside Ukraine and the West, even at the expense of the military coordination with the Russians on our northern front. There are some things that Israel, a state established by a people almost wiped out in war, cannot afford, and one of them is to ignore the scenes from Ukraine.”

Check Also

Iraq Needs a New Kind of Partnership With the United States

The Path to Sustainable Cooperation Two decades ago, the United States assisted the Iraqi people …