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Chief of Staff Ashkenazi: 'IDF Will Conduct Intensive Training To Cope With Lessons Of Second Lebanon War'

Senior Defense Source: 'Gross Negligence In Co-Ordination Between IDF Northern Command & Israel Air Force Responsible For Failure To Stem Katyushas'

Question: 'Will Such Leaks Get Prime Minister Olmert Off The Hook With Winograd Enquiry?'

'Back to basics', that's the message from new IDF Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi. The IDF's top soldier plans on shaking up the Israeli military to meet the various threats facing the Jewish state today.

The Chief of General Staff,
Lieutenant General
Gabi Ashkenazi
(Photo: IDF Spokesperson)

After the official ceremonies, General Ashkenazi got down to brass tacks. On the second day in command, he quoted from Yitzhak Rabin, 'There is no room for depending on 'everything will be OK'. As Chief of Staff Rabin was known for his meticulous planning and leaving nothing to chance. General Ashkenazi told graduates of the IDF Staff College to remember it as they return to their various units. And he added that they should not expect a 'period of quiet' in the near future. There would now be an intensive implementation of the lessons learned from last summer's war with Hezbollah in Lebanon that exposed IDF weaknesses. The IDF would have to provide answers to the range of threats facing Israel today while conducting the ongoing war against Palestinian terrorism.

Ashkenazi, a former commander of the Golani infantry brigade, can be expected to revive intensive training for all IDF ground forces. In recent years, annual military exercises had been cancelled due to two factors. First, combat troops were preoccupied in suppressing the Palestinian intifada. This involved limited counter-guerrilla operations to cope with the low intensity fighting and not all out war. The U.S. and its allies had destroyed the Iraqi army to the east eliminating the threat of a dangerous eastern front. Syria supposedly with its worn out Russian weapons was not considered a match for Israel and peace reigned with Egypt and Jordan. Over the horizon, the Iranian nuclear threat was in the hands of the Israel Air Force which spares no effort in keeping its pilots laser sharp. Both the military and political leadership turned a blind eye toward Hezbollah, a Syrian and Iran proxy in south Lebanon - it turned into a black hole for the IDF.Paradoxically, the IDF and the Shabak Security Service performed brilliantly in suppressing the Palestinian wave of suicide bombers which murdered and maimed scores of Israeli civilians back in 2002. Yet, it has yet to find the answer to the primitive Qassam rockets that Palestinians still launch from the Gaza Strip into Sderot to this very day. Over one thousand have been fired from Gaza since Israel's total withdrawal six months ago terrorizing the town of Sderot.

Former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz

During the IDF's Defensive Shield Operation in the West Bank nearly six years ago, the then Air Force Commander Dan Halutz was asked what would happen if Hezbollah joined in launching its 10,000 rockets at northern Israel. General Halutz replied: 'We have a contingency plan to deal with that threat'. In fact, the greatest IDF failing was not stemming the short-range Katyushas that still hit northern Israel at a rate of 200 daily at the end of the conflict. The F-15s and F-16s that knocked out Hezbollah's intermediate rockets farther to the rear could not deal with the Katyushas short range Katyushas that could be launched within a couple of minutes from inside villages and hidden bunkers. Haaretz newspaper now reports the IDF failure to halt the Hezbollah rocketing was due to a breakdown in coordination between the Air Force and the IDF's Northern Command.It quotes a senior defense official as saying:' It's a story of ongoing and serious dereliction'.It appears that not only did the IDF not train adequately for all out war, it also suffered from a serious lack of coordination between various commands. These are crucial issues that are obviously high on the agenda of General Ashkenazi.

IDF tank

This lack of coordination between infantry and tank units also surfaced in the second Lebanon war. One of the lessons of the Yom-Kippur war in 1973 was that infantrymen were needed to take out enemy troops launching anti- tank missiles at IDF tanks. Following that war, training exercises were conducted coordinating tank and troops operations - but again these were cancelled in recent years. The IDF paid the price in Lebanon when Hezbollah knocked out Israeli tanks with sophisticated Russian missiles. Hezbollah also inflicted heavy casualties on IDF ground troops by firing them in large numbers. General Ashkenazi, the infantryman, will also have to oversee new tactics to cope with these threats while trying to ensure that IDF intelligence is not taken by surprise again. Overall, his mission will be to maintain the high level of the IDF's air power while upgrading the ground forces to cope with high intensity warfare and not just an intifada.

The new Chief of Staff is also expected to deal with the high level of sophistication in the IDF's command and control structure which often proved counter- productive. At times, convoluted orders were not fully understood by officers and troops in the field. Moreover, some senior commanders gave orders while tracing the battle on plasma screens to the rear rather than leading their men at the front.

These are some of the failings that forced the resignation of Dan Halutz and the appointment of Gaby Ashkenazi. The new Chief of Staff has his work cut out in trying to restore the confidence of both the troops, regular and reserves as well as the public at large. This will also radiate on Israel's deterrent image in the eyes of the enemy.

Political Implications: With the resignation of former Chief of Staff Halutz, one leg of the Israeli defense triangle has been replaced. This has to do with the professional level of the IDF and its conduct of the war which was generally perceived as being botched. The Winograd Enquiry is due to publish its initial findings next month. The question is whether it will limit itself to the military conduct of the war or will it also criticize the decision making of Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert? Peretz is obviously more at risk because his full time job is to oversee the IDF. It is hard to visualize that he will be exonerated. It raises the question as to whether Israel can afford to have a defense minister without any high level strategic or military expertise. The sole reason Peretz got the position was because he was Labor party leader and it was part of the deal for bringing the Labor party into the coalition. But Olmert refused to give up the the finance portfolio offering defense instead. Peretz is on record saying if the Winograd Enquiry calls for his resignation he will resign. Has the resignation of General Halutz raised the possibility that Peretz may follow suit and save face by agreeing to accept a new cabinet portfolio in a cabinet reshuffle?

But how will the enquiry relate to Prime Minister Olmert who agreed to appointing an inexperienced defense minister? The latest report about the lack of coordination between the ground forces of northern Command and the Israel Air Force also raises the issue of whether the prime minister is responsible for knowing about such things before deciding to go to war after the Hezbollah provocation. Olmert told the enquiry that he can only rely on what he hears from his defense minister and the chief-of-staff. General Ashkenazi will put off new appointments to the General Staff until after the Winograd Enquiry publishes its findings but with Cabinet Minister Benyamin Ben Eliezer warning that Hezbollah could go on the warpath again this summer-time is at a premium. Irate Hezbollah leader Sheik Nasrallah has just admitted that the Lebanese army dared intercept a truck load of weapons being smuggled into Lebanon from Syria. In any case, the changing of the guard in the IDF may give Israelis the sense that at least Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi is the right man in the right place.

David Essing

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