Turn On the Light, Extinguish the Fire: Israel’s New Way of War
During Israel’s last operation in Gaza in May 2021, the Israel Defense Forces intercepted 90 percent of all Hamas rockets. However, Hamas declared victory. Its rockets claimed the lives of 11 civilians, including a five-year-old boy in his bomb shelter, and proved effective in dictating the strategic agenda. What explains this anomaly? What can the Israel Defense Forces do to improve their response?
For the past several years, the Israel Defense Forces have been engaged in a heated debate resulting from the 2019 publication of a new operational concept for war between Israel and the forces of Hizballah and Hamas. In order to contribute to the debate, this article will focus on the necessary response within the framework of this new Israeli military approach.
The Israel Defense Forces should establish a more modern and adaptable military capability in order to return a decisive military advantage to Israel. They should adopt a novel approach to modern warfare: a stand-in “Internet of Battlefield Things” reconnaissance strike complex. Future Israeli ground maneuvers in enemy territory will need to expose the enemy’s projectile-firing capabilities and destroy them. The Israeli military will need to “turn on the light” by employing a network of advanced sensors and “extinguish the fire” by linking those sensors to firepower in order to attack the missile launchers and intercept missiles ascending from enemy’s territory.
The Missile Challenge and the Principles of the Response
The 1973 Yom Kippur War was the first area-denial missile war in history. The Egyptian army waged a war entirely with missiles against platforms, unprecedented in its scope. “The missile bent the wing of the plane,” said former Israeli Air Force commander Ezer Weizman after the 1968–1970 War of Attrition, and his metaphor was even more apt three years later. The missile didn’t only take its toll on Israeli planes, but it also stopped Israel’s vaunted armor on the sands of the Sinai. However, in the Mediterranean Sea, Israeli missiles proved decisive against the Syrian and Egyptian navies.
In October 1973, Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat and Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Saad el-Shazly showed the world a new way to fight. After recognizing the relative inferiority of the Egyptian army, they developed a concept of limited surprise attack, followed by anti-tank infantry forces holding captured territory while protected by an umbrella of anti-aircraft missiles. The tactical missiles — Sagger missiles against tanks and surface-to-air missiles against airplanes — enabled the Egyptian army to stand against the elite Israeli tanks and pilots. On top of these tactical innovations, the Egyptian forces were equipped with Soviet Scud missiles for enhanced deterrence against Israeli strategic bombings in Egypt.
The war shook up military thought in Israel and across the Western world. In its wake, after the relevant technologies reached maturity in the 1990s, a revolution in precision munitions and targeting unfolded. The main result of the change was the development of an ability to attack armored fighting vehicles deep in enemy territory. According to Meir Finkel’s study of that period, the Israel Defense Forces
developed a concept called “offensive defense” […] it consisted of fire capabilities that enabled a simultaneous attack on the enemy at different depth echelons a high strike rate in order to disrupt and sever all levels of the enemy’s attack.
Still, in Israel, this transformation did not place the enemy area-denial missile challenge at center stage. And — at least on land — it did not offer a solution. Instead, Israel remained focused on a Syrian and Iraqi Arab armored invasion. As such, the threats posed by missiles remained on the fringes of Israeli military thought.
Israeli Air Force commanders have now recognized the emerging challenges in attaining air superiority. Yet, even as air superiority is challenged by a new generation of ground-to-air missiles, the air force’s dilemmas are still preferable to those of the ground forces. Today, airpower is fundamental to every Israeli offensive, while ground maneuvers are undesirable and to be avoided if at all possible. The Israeli Air Force is also the dominant service in the ongoing campaign between wars. Since the end of the First Lebanon War, ground forces have remained the last tool in Israel’s strategic toolbox. This well-known Israeli “maneuver malaise” has been apparent in every Israeli military operation since, with a long phase of deliberation and delay before a ground attack that does not always come — and even when it does, it is neither deep nor decisive.
In 1973, a modest complement of Scud missiles deterred Israel. Today, tens of thousands of missiles and rockets based in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon pose a major threat to the Israeli home front. These weapons give Israel’s foes the ability to strike everywhere in the country with increasing accuracy, even in the face of the vaunted Iron Dome missile-defense system.
The missile threat is the new heart of the enemy strategy. How does an approach that advocates decisive victory over missile-based terrorist armies seek to deal with and solve this challenge?
Two elements make it difficult to fight a missile-based force. First, the missile allows its operator to remain hidden, at least most of the time. The second challenge is lethality: Hamas and Hizballah missiles are increasingly accurate and lethal. A missile-based adversary deprives Israeli forces of effective targets, while at the same time turning them into one. The solution lies in two simple principles: “Turn on the light” — expose the enemy as the result of his need to reveal himself, helped by more sophisticated detection capabilities. Then “extinguish the fire” — attack the missile launchers (and intercept missiles already launched) in the short periods during which they are exposed.
Turn On the Light: A Complex of Sensors
The first obstacle in dealing with enemy missile salvos, both against Israeli forces and against the home front, is the difficulty in locating them. The Israeli Defence Forces call this challenge the “disappearing enemy,” and its essence is simple. Missile teams don’t have to move around the battlefield in conspicuous armored vehicles. They are hidden in rural and urban areas, remaining effective both in sniper missions against Israeli forces using anti-tank missiles and indirect fire, and in attacks against the civilian home front. Moreover, intelligence gathered before a conflict, as important as it is, is not sufficient against an enemy that has designed its posture around avoiding Israeli airpower.
All advanced militaries are developing means of saturating the battlefield with ground and air sensors, most of which are based on unmanned platforms. Operating within an advanced all-to-all communication networks, these sensors are designed to detect the enemy, enable the formation of an accurate operational picture, and allow for the destruction of enemy forces. The new Israeli military operational concept centers on this very idea.
The employment of such a sensor network should be the responsibility of the land forces. Only in close proximity to troops is the enemy forced to intensify his activity and increase his signature. The importance of exposing the enemy near the front line was identified in the U.S. multi-domain battle concept and in the Israeli ground forces’ “land ahead” concept. Basing sensor networks on swarm elements and automated information processing — which some describe as an “Internet of battlefield things — will prevent the ground force being weighed down and avoid the overly deliberate pace of operations that results when a commander must personally review data collected by a glider or an unmanned aerial vehicle.
The enemy’s weakness is, in fact, that its whole purpose on the battlefield is to launch and fire. During most of the battle, enemy forces will be in hiding, in order to conserve the force so that it can, when the time comes, fire missiles or launch rockets — activities that are difficult to hide. While Israeli forces have invested tremendous effort locating hideouts and attempting to hunt down enemies moving covertly between positions, they have not effectively taken advantage of the fact that an individual becomes visible at the moment of firing or launching. This missed opportunity is exacerbated when one considers that radar location and optical launch detection are simple and cheap solutions that cover large areas. Tactical radar networks spread around the battlefield at appropriate locations, alongside land-based and aerial launch detectors, could discover the source of rocket, mortar, surface-to-air missile, and anti-tank fire accurately and in real time.
Several elements could allow Israeli forces to use the moment of launch as the operational and intelligence-gathering anchor. The first is the launch timeframe, which is longer than one might assume. Hizballah and Hamas tend to launch a mass of rockets to overwhelm the other side’s defenses and hit as much as possible. Emptying a multiple-barrel launcher takes at least half a minute from the moment of first launch. Operators of mortars, anti-tank missiles, and other similar means will have been held in place for at least a few minutes while they fire, especially if they intend to fire again. The second is combining sensor types to detect launches. Within a sophisticated sensor network, a “staring” sensor that locates a launch can immediately point an “investigator” sensor to a specific location. Doing so within seconds would identify the enemy during the launch or during his retreat, which would in turn allow forces either to attack or to track the enemy to his hiding position. The third is the integration of attack capabilities with such a sophisticated sensing network. The legal and operational complexities that are required to couple data collection and automatic assault in other contexts are not required to immediately attack sources of fire for the purpose of force or homeland protection.
A missile aimed at its target by external sensors would enjoy several notable advantages. It would have accuracy and immunity from interference. A missile that homes in on its target using sensors focused on that target will be more accurate. As it would not depend on data-transfer processes between different systems, it would not be vulnerable to GPS blocking and would not need heavy mapping infrastructure (with inherent accuracy limitations). The missile simply flies to the point at which the sensors are aimed.
Such a missile could give up a complex seeker component, which would significantly reduce its cost. Eliminating or simplifying the seeker component, along with operating in close proximity to enemy targets, frees the missile from engineering constraints, leading to faster performance and more aggressive maneuverability as well as lower cost. This means, of course, that Israel would have the ability to equip its forces with ample missile-based attack systems. In a longer-term view, such missiles, together with future laser weapons, could be Israel’s way out of the “expensive defense against cheap offense” paradox.
Put Out the Fire: Eliminate the Enemy’s Fire Capabilities
Proximity allows for accuracy and speed. The idea is for the Israeli military to take advantage of the proximity of its maneuvering forces to the enemy to do three things: exploit improved sensing capabilities (especially for detecting the location of launches), place networked missiles in a tactical rear but physically close position, and quickly attack the sources of enemy fire. Resistance to Israeli forces by means such as anti-tank weapons, mortars, rockets, and even surface-to-air missiles would go from relatively safe to very dangerous. The immediate attack of sources of enemy fire would likely force the enemy into new dilemmas over force design and employment.
Forward interception, also known as ascent-phase interception, is also possible thanks to the relative proximity to enemy launch sites. This type of interception would reduce the threat to the home front, eliminate a considerable portion of the alarm among civilians caused by frequent air-raid sirens, greatly reduce the load on and thus increase the effectiveness of home-front defense systems, and create a sense of futility in the enemy about continuing the fight. Additionally, since the scope of short-range fire can be significantly reduced by attacking large clusters of rocket launchers, forward interception can focus only on the most threatening missiles. The combination of attacking the sources of fire and intercepting the most threatening missiles would effectively paralyze the enemy’s ability to wage war using only a few thousand missiles, even during a full-scale war.
Intercepting missiles only during their descent toward the home front, as Israel does today, is in fact an insistence on fighting at an inherent disadvantage. It follows, therefore, that the ability to immediately attack sources of fire, and intercept projectiles in the ascent phase, would greatly benefit Israel’s combat system. Integrating these abilities with the tactical and home-front defense systems that are already in service would create a huge adaptive challenge for the enemy.
New Maneuver, Decisive Attack
Because rocket fire on the home front has become the main threat facing Israel, the concept I describe here involves a persistent dilemma between concentrating force and diffusing it. Concentrating force is necessary for creating momentum and knocking the enemy off balance. However, a concentrated attack leaves active launch sites on the force’s flanks and does not remove the threat to the home front. Although numerous rounds of conflict have taken place in both Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military has thus far not launched a full-scale ground attack designed to protect the home front from rockets and missiles.
A “turn on the light and extinguish the fire” maneuver would be able to attack deep into enemy territory to conquer main nerve centers and inflict a decisive defeat, while suppressing enemy rockets and missiles launched nearby toward Israeli forces and toward the home front. The force would protect itself and the home front from missiles and rockets. It would also avoid more traditional, complex, and risky seek-and-destroy missions by striking only selected targets, thereby shortening the battle. If necessary, fire suppression assets could also be deployed outside the main force’s path of advance, supported by dedicated assault and security forces.
Although detection and fire suppression systems are not cheap, they would yield savings elsewhere. For example, attacking multi-barreled launchers would save money on expensive interceptors and reduce wasteful artillery fire for disruption purposes. Battlefield sensor systems would provide area protection for Israeli combat platforms, thereby reducing the technological demands on each armored vehicle. There are already development projects that envision the combat platform as a maneuvering carrier of sensor and information-processing capabilities. This marks a trend toward more combat units based on fewer platforms and with increased effectiveness.
A Better Way to Secure Israel
The 30 years during which the Israel Defense Forces have been pursuing a strategic holding pattern — also known as “deterrence operations” — have shown how dangerous that approach is. Despite Israel’s hopes that the situation in the region will change while it waits, Iranian-sponsored terrorist armies have flourished on Israel’s borders, additional enemy launch bases are being developed in the region, and the Iranian regime, Israel’s regional adversary, has not changed its agenda.
If Israel focuses only on “turning on the light” and “extinguishing the fire,” it will be able to defeat the enemy again quickly and at reasonable cost. The secret is in the focus: All of the enemy’s power rests on the difficulty in locating him and his stand-off fires.
The concept presented here leverages the enemy’s addiction to rockets and missiles in order to defeat him. Along the way, it also provides necessary answers to the issues of force protection and home-front defense. Above all, such an approach would deprive the enemy not only of his capabilities, but also of his desire to continue fighting.
The technology is available. It is time to turn it into an operational capability. In the medium and long term, its contribution would not only be on the battlefield, but also in saving Israeli lives and valuable resources.
Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen. Eran Ortal commands the Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies. The author would like to thank Lazar Berman and Itay Haiminis for useful comments, translation, and editing assistance. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of the Israeli Defense Forces, nor do they represent official Israeli policy.