Yaakov Selavan

With Gaza Escalating Towards War – Why are Ground Forces not trusted?

As the IDF is mobilizing 2 brigades down to the Gaza Border, with a possible large-scale military conflict ahead of us, the IDF’s Ground Forces war preparedness is on the table. Will the Ground Forces be used? Are they ready? And why is this even being questioned?

IDF Armored Unit on Gaza Border, July 2014 (Operation Protective Edge)

For the past 13 years, my life has revolved around the IDF. Founding a nationwide project at age 18 supporting wounded IDF soldiers in the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Drafting and advancing from tank driver to company leader of 11 tanks to brigade operations officer.  Serving under fire in several operations, including the 2014 Gaza Campaign (Operation Protective Edge). Serving today as an active IDF Armored Corps reservist and motivational speaker for soldiers and draftees – I love the IDF, I live the IDF – so both when I praise it (like I did last week) and when I criticize it harshly (like I’ll do now), it all comes from the heart.

The war-readiness of the IDF Ground Forces for war has been a topic of discussion in the past few months, mainly due to IDF Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yitzhak Brick’s critical report, the army’s response, and Knesset members weighing in. All insights are based on personal experience and recent conversations with active IDF commanders.

I can analyze the various developments and prove the relevancy of the ground forces in the battlefield of the 21st Century., yet I would like to shed a light through a different perspective. I try looking in critical eyes and ask why are the decision makers in the army and government avoiding using this force?

I recently heard a quote, by Major-General Benny Peled, Israel Air Force commander during the 1973 Yom Kippur War: “I view the IDF as a family. The defense minister is the grandfather, the chief of staff is the father, who has 3 daughters: the air force, the naval force and the ground forces. He married the naval force to the navy commander, and told him ‘here is your estate, grandpa will give you your budget, take care of the sea for me.’ To the commander of the air force, he said the same thing – ‘here is your wife, here is your estate, take care of the air affairs and do not bother me’. He took the Ground Forces as a wife for himself – and you wonder why a bunch of retards were born?!”

While the Air Force, Navy, Intelligence and Cyber are considered a masterpiece of organizational structure and culture, the ground Forces reputation is questionable.

 Improvement barriers

Two years ago, shortly after discharging, my phone rang. A high-ranking officer requested that I come to a panel of discharged officers meeting all of the newly-appointed colonels in the IDF. “Your job is to put in their face everything you feel is bad in the army, and we need someone with guts to do it.”

Fortunately (or unfortunately…), I was a guest speaker in a convention abroad, but I still remember what I wanted to say. First and before anything else, the IDF, and I emphasis the ground forces, has a big problem in accepting criticism.

The reactions to Maj.-Gen. Brick’s report reflect this, but I am referring to all levels – a young soldier who wants to criticize his commanders, a commander who wants to criticize a strategy or a way of operating, mainly in daily routine. That my promotion as a young lieutenant, for instance, depends on the captain and lieutenant colonel above me restrains my ability to criticize them or the policy to their face. I’ve seen very rare exceptions, but even if they deny it– we have a problem, we don’t like criticism, we view the criticizers as cry-babies and negative people, and they’ll find their way out of the system.

Thinking out of the box and improvisation are skills that every IDF soldier improves in his service. Yet in the commander world I believe we are not open enough for change (an outstanding case I discussed last week), and we praise the suggested changes when they come from our commanders (who are in charge of our promotion, remember?).

Unnecessary ‘innovation’

Yesterday (March 25), during reserve duty, I was sitting with a few young officers. One of them proudly presented to be a new method of training they came up with. I would have been impressed if not for the fact that I came up with that brilliant idea just 5 years ago.

The second issue I believe we lack on is organizational memory, especially in the headquarter world. In almost every job I entered, or I witnessed my colleagues enter, we very soon felt we are starting from zero. We made the mistakes our formers made, we came up with brilliant ideas which later we found out were just redoing what was done a year, two or three ago.

The IDF has invested incredible funds in improving the ground forces headquarter world especially in war, yet this issue is acute and requires a fundamental change in organizational culture.

The Israeli Air Force is considered by Ground Force commander’s a “foreign army”. Set aside the joke, we have a lot to learn from them. Their ability to study every event, success or failure, learn the lessons, implant them and improve – makes me jealous.

Two weeks ago the IDF Chief of Staff sacked 5 officers and censures a colonel over soldier’s drowning in exercise. Too many soldiers were killed in accidents over the year, and what is frustrating is seeing what led to these unnecessary losses. In many cases, it is the lack of organizational memory, and repeating previous mistakes.

With that said,  the IDF slogan for security restrictions is “These instructions were written in blood”. This leads to an organizational culture that takes minimum risks in order to avoid accidents. Don’t get me wrong, we must do everything possible to avoid casualties, and in a dangerous-oriented organization, you cannot risk lives when unnecessary. However, many times we are over-cautious in a manner that directly affects our prepares for war.

 A few months ago, an armored artillery vehicle flipped over during a night maneuver near my home in the Golan Heights. Two soldiers were killed. The ultimate reaction was to ban all night maneuvers in the Artillery Corps. Now, a vehicle flipped over because of a low level of professionality by the crew – the reaction needs to be doubling the amount of night training! Apparently, we are not good in it, we must do it even more to avoid casualties, now and in war.

I will stress again that my point is not to underestimate soldier’s life, rather I believe if we would have the organizational culture that allows true learning, and implants the lessons – we would save lives, while training properly.

“After Me!” – Commander’s motivation

The challenges of Generation Z, or the Millennials, coming into a strict, demanding organization, is worth an article of itself, so I will focus on commander’s motivation.  Gen. Brick discussed the crisis of the best commanders leaving and the IDF compromising on whoever is willing to continue.

Recently I spoke with two friends, active majors whose resume allows me to declare that they have a bright future ahead of them. Both are now considering leaving. “Forget war – even now, in deployment in Gaza, the important work is given to the air force and drones. We are held back, restrained facing violence, and the feeling is that we are not trusted or needed. The security situation is tense, I stay on base for 35 days without seeing my wife and children, and for what? I’m not even being used! Why should I stay in this system which doesn’t allow me to operate and use my skills and abilities”?

One of the IDF’s best and brilliant brigadiers was recently filmed accusing the IDF General Staff that they do not trust or use the Ground Forces. If you hesitate to use it routinely, including letting it slip and improve, it’s a wonder that in war no one trusts the ground forces? If you don’t use this muscle, it will eventually degenerate and won’t be there for you in the day it is needed.

When you train for extreme states, and then you feel irrelevant even on routine deployment missions, you understand it might all be a show and you are not needed. This affects the motivation, we see in drafting rate numbers and I feel it from the field speaking with young commanders who are considering their future.

So are the IDF Ground Forces ready for war?

I believe a major factor in the hesitation of the decision makers to use the ground Forces is the outcome of the problems I described. Problematic organizational culture leads to a lack of trust both of its own people who want to leave, and to those above who will decide if you go into combat.

I would say yes but. If we don’t use the ground forces, the process of degenerating, hesitating in action, and of course – good commanders leaving, will continue and then the answer is no.

If the organizational culture that doesn’t accept real criticism and is able to learn and improve, and the organization memory continues to slack – the feeling that allows this matter to be questioned in the public discussion, will continue. People need to feel confident in you – an organizational culture is something that affects the level of confidence.

Recently the IDF’s general staff had a seminar dealing with how to define victory, in the 21st century battlefield that includes militias and terror groups more than state armies. A letter that leaked sent by an armored corps brigadier to his soldiers after a clash on the Syrian Border with pro-Iranian forces, made it simple and clear: no room for hesitation, show initiative, and kill the enemy”. That simple. You cannot eliminate the threats only by air force and cyber, the ground forces will be there to do the job. Trust them, use them, enhance an organizational culture that seeks for constant learning and improving, and they’ll do the job.

And a personal prayer – I hope our enemies won’t bring us to test this question.

IDF Armored Battalion in the Gaza Strip, Operation Protective Edge 2014 (Photo courtesy of author)

About the Author
Major (Res.) Yaakov Selavan is a strategic affairs expert and IDF motivational speaker for soldiers and draftees. He is a social activist invloved in several NGOs. A Golan resident and an IDF Tactical Command College alumnus, Major (Res.) Selavan is a popular speaker in Israel and abroad and a leading Golan international spokesperson. Through Slingshot Israel, he draws upon military experiences to instill values and encourage social action.
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