Leadership: Hesitation Is A Crime

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September 30, 2019: The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) removed four soldiers from duty temporarily for poor performance during recent encounters with an armed Hamas terrorist who had cut through the Gaza border fence. This was another effort to carry out attacks deeper in Israel. Normally these incidents end quickly with the intruder captured or killed in less than 30 minutes.

This time it was very different. The four IDF soldiers were found to have either hesitated or made serious mistakes in dealing with armed (assault rifle and grenades) intruder. While these fence crossers are usually confronted within less than twenty minutes and killed or captured, this search went on for two hours and involved many more troops than usual. Gazans coming through the security fence and getting arrested has become a lot more common since early 2018. Some Gazans are unarmed but most are at least carrying knives. The fence is part of a security zone that contains numerous sensors, vidcams and, in some cases, remotely controlled machine-gun towers. Thus determined Gazans can get through the fence but few, if any, get far from the border without being captured or killed. In rare cases where IDF troops do not perform as expected, there is an investigation. Punishments, if any, are not severe for the troops found at fault. But the incident is recorded and used to further refine IDF infantry training.

There have long been problems with IDF infantry combat training because these troops are largely short-term conscripts and reservists called to deal with the persistent terrorist threat along its borders. This is not a new problem and since 2006 there have been numerous changes. This began in earnest after the IDF got a major wakeup call when Hezbollah raids on the Lebanese border triggered a brief war in 2006. Up until then the last time the IDF carried out a large scale combat operation was in 1982, over two decades earlier. Since 1982, the IDF has been engaged largely in police type stuff, mainly against the Palestinians. At the same time, reservists did not like getting called up for active duty a lot. But reservists were needed for security duties in the Palestinian territories and on the Lebanese border. So combat training for reservists was cut back in many units. This saved money and meant less time in uniform for reservists. It was popular and critics, who knew this made reservists less ready for combat, could safely be ignored.

There were some pretty vocal critics of this emphasis on police work at the expense of combat training, over the last decade. They were brushed aside with the observation that Israel's likely enemies were in even worse shape. This was true but it did not change the fact that the Israeli reservists who were sent into Lebanon in 2006 did not perform as professionally as Israeli troops did in the 1980s and earlier. This was particularly true with tank, artillery, and engineer units. These units have often been used as police in the last decade, to assist in counter-terror operations. This meant that their primary skills, operating tanks, artillery, or engineer equipment were not kept current.

This situation was particularly acute in northern Israel, whose reservists were often sent to central Israel to help stem the Palestinian terrorist bombers (who were particularly active from 2000-2005). Otherwise, things were pretty quiet for the Northern Command, which watches the Lebanese and Syrian borders. But when 2006 came along the difference in how the army performed, compared to 1982 and earlier wars, was stark. Particularly alarming were the many examples of leadership that was timid and indecisive. This was not the IDF that had triumphed from 1948 to 1982.

There were still enough old-timers (including some still in uniform) from the "old IDF" to give personal testimony to the changes that would be needed to fix this mess. The older veterans were quick to agree that some serious mistakes had been made with training and the development of combat leaders over the past decade.

The response was quick. Cutbacks on reservist training were reversed, especially for the non-infantry units. The Israelis need fewer infantry for counter-terrorism work now because the security fence on the West Bank border has reduced the need for troops to patrol this frontier and keep the suicide bombers from sneaking in.

Until 2006, Israeli reservists only got a few days of training each year and when even that was sacrificed for a counter-terrorist emergency, skills eroded. The army not only increased reserve training but also made it more realistic and effective and changed leader selections and training as well.

New training facilities were built that resembled what troops would encounter if they went into southern Lebanon again. "Enemy" fighters were trained to operate as Hezbollah does and these tactics were updated as Israeli intelligence discovered changes Hezbollah had made. The weapons used in these training areas fired laser light, not bullets, but cameras and other sensors recorded everything troops and their leaders did. The most important part of the exercise was the post-operation critique, where instructors showed troops where they had screwed up and how they could avoid such deadly errors the next time.

While Hezbollah officially disparages the Israeli reforms, the older Hezbollah fighters know that defeat teaches you more than victory. Although Hezbollah suffered a defeat (in strictly military terms) in 2006, they declared victory and most Hezbollah members believed it. But the more experienced and perceptive Hezbollah leaders know that the Israelis will do a lot more damage the next time around.

In the last few years, the northern front has been relatively quiet compared to what was happening down south on the Gaza border. Now units from the north are sent south to get some combat experience. The troops involved in the recent Gaza incident were from the northern Golani Brigade.

 


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