September 19, 2017 | Policy Brief

Israel Completes Largest Exercise in 20 Years, Setting Sights on Hezbollah

September 19, 2017 | Policy Brief

Israel Completes Largest Exercise in 20 Years, Setting Sights on Hezbollah

Last Thursday, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) concluded its largest military exercise in nearly two decades. Operation Light of the Grain (“Or Hadagan”) simulated a Hezbollah offensive against Israel’s northern border. Tens of thousands of IDF soldiers, including reserves, participated in the 10-day drill led by the IDF’s Northern Command. The Israeli navy, air force, and cyber units also participated. In addition to its unusual size, Light of the Grain was also uncharacteristically lengthy for an Israeli drill, allowing Israeli forces to practice multiple contingencies, including the possible need to defeat – not merely deter – Hezbollah.

Light of the Grain was intended as a corrective to Israel’s poor performance against Hezbollah a decade prior. In 2006, Israel faced a dispersed rocket threat, for which it was unprepared operationally and tactically. Hezbollah indiscriminately unleashed an estimated 4,000 rockets, mostly Katyushas, against military and civilian targets. The rockets allowed Hezbollah to inflict coercive pain on the Israeli population while circumventing Israel’s robust border controls. Hezbollah dispersed and concealed its rocket positions, rendering Israeli precision strikes ineffectual. The Israeli response was deficient because it emphasized the targeting of command and control and logistics nodes, as opposed to degrading its adversary’s fighting force.

Furthermore, the IDF’s proficiency in conventional tactics had atrophied due to an over-prioritization of counterinsurgency in the Palestinian territories during the Second Intifada. Judging a conventional war unlikely, budget cuts targeted ground forces, and maneuver capacity – particularly among tank crews – declined. Air power was envisioned as a strategic asset, not a complement to ground operations, prompting the Israeli Air Force (IAF) to discontinue fixed-wing close air support a few months before the war broke out. Although the IAF resumed fixed-wing support a week and a half into the 2006 conflict, the lack of practiced interoperability and compatible systems generated confusion and poor performance.

In the intervening decade, Israel has improved its conventional capabilities and assets, reinvesting in maneuver warfare. For example, the Israelis debuted new stealth tank technology during their recent exercise. The Israeli Army’s technology division, known as Mafat, is now developing even more advanced stealth tank technology, borrowing concepts from the F-35, the cutting-edge American stealth fighter. The new technology is intended to render tanks invisible on radar and provide protection to nearby vehicles.

Light of the Grain also provides an indication of Israel’s threat perception. The last exercise on this scale, held in 1998, simulated war with Syria. Damascus, once a formidable foe, now has a hollow force and is almost entirely dependent on foreign proxies to protect the regime in the ongoing civil war. Yet Hezbollah, the Assad regime’s indispensable partner force, has become an increasingly battle-hardened adversary.

In fighting the Syrian war, Hezbollah has acquired new skill sets it will no doubt employ in any future confrontation with Israel. It is also learning campaign design from the Russian armed forces, one of the world’s most capable militaries. Hezbollah has a front row seat to Russian operational concepts, intelligence, and weaponry.

Meanwhile, the rocket threat Israel faced in 2006 has grown exponentially; Hezbollah’s arsenal has increased tenfold in the past decade to somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000.

Israel has been uncharacteristically candid with the media about this drill, apparently in order to magnify the deterrent effect the Israelis want to have on their adversaries. The Israeli military insists the exercise was preplanned and not a reaction to Iran and Hezbollah’s growth near its borders. But its message is clear: a battle is looming and Israel is readying.

Alexandra N. Gutowski is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she focuses on military affairs and manages FDD’s Military Edge website. Follow her on Twitter @angutowski.