An IDF ‘Correlation of Forces’ Strategy is in Order

October 16, 2016

9 min read

Louis Rene Beres

“Every culture and every period has its own way of regarding history. There is no such thing as history in itself.” (Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West)

History takes no sharp corners. Despite daily changes in the specific areas of immediate concern, certain core security issues and principles of war remain essentially unchanged. For Israel, this means, among other things, an obligation to maintain clear focus on still-underlying existential challenges.

While it is plain that there will be constant, unexpected, and distinctly palpable shifts in the prevailing hierarchy of particular threats to the Jewish State, these shifts must always be understood within the broader explanatory background of strategic theory. Without such a needed context, Israel’s strategic policies could never rise to required thresholds of coherence and comprehensiveness. Without this background, Israel’s strategic policies could become unacceptably disjointed or disconnected.

There is, therefore, no compelling argument for examining particular threats to Israel’s survival (e.g., Iran’s still-advancing nuclearization; ISIS in Syria and Iraq; Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood; Hezbollahoperations in Lebanon and the Syrian Golan Heights; Syrian air defense collaborations with Russia;Hamas operations in Gaza, etc.) as if each were somehow singular and unique. Rather, there are always foreseeable interactions between individual catastrophic harms, so-called synergies, that could render potentially existential risks more pressing.

These must be acknowledged.

Since the 17th century, our anarchic world can best be described as a system. What happens in any one part of this world, necessarily affects what happens in some, or all, of the other parts.  When a deterioration is marked, and begins to spread from one nation to another, the effects can undermine regional and/or international stability. When this deterioration is rapid and catastrophic, as it would be following the start of any unconventional war and/or unconventional terrorism, the corollary effects would be correspondingly immediate and overwhelming.

The specific triggering mechanism of our disassembling world’s descent into chaos could originate from a variety of mass-casualty attacks against Israel, and/or from similar attacks against other western democracies. Alternatively, it could draw nurturance from the belligerent use of nuclear weapons in other, seemingly distant and unrelated regions. For example, if the first military use of nuclear weapons after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were initiated by North Korea or Pakistan, even Israel’s nuclear survival strategy would plausibly have to be re-considered and modified.

The “spillover” impact on Israel of any nuclear weapons use by North Korea or Pakistan would depend, in part, upon the specific combatants involved, expected rationality or irrationality of these combatants, the yields and ranges of the nuclear weapons actually fired, and the prompt aggregate calculation of civilian and military harms suffered in the affected areas.

Recalling Carl von Clausewitz (On War), because of the “friction” generated by nuclear weapons use outside the Middle East, Israel might need to move beyond “deliberate nuclear ambiguity” sooner than was originally planned. Any such shift would also have substantial implications for Israel’s strategic nuclear deployments, its nuclear targeting doctrine, its cyber-defenses, and also its ballistic missile defenses. All of this suggests that Israel’s nuclear strategy must now be shaped not only by assorted expectations of a direct attack upon the Jewish State, but also by certain nuclear developments that lies outside its own immediate region.


In the identifiable hierarchy of significant threats to Israel, Iranian nuclearization – even after the 14 July 2015 Vienna Pact – still looms largest. But there are also other critical hazards on the strategic horizon, several with distinctly synergistic qualities. Oddly, perhaps because it is still unrecognized by so many well-meaning Israelis, the most serious such hazard is the parallel or coinciding creation of a Palestinian state.

There is more. Facing a broader and more synergistic variety of existential threats than ever before, threats from both state and sub-state adversaries, Israel must consciously undertake more complexcorrelation of forces assessments. IDF planners must, in this search, seek more than a traditionally “objective” yardstick for the “order of battle” measurement of opposing forces. Although defense strategists in Tel Aviv routinely compare all available data concerning both the numerical and qualitative characteristics of relevant units, including personnel, weaponry and equipment, IDF field commanders will now also need to cultivate some newly “subjective” kinds of understanding. This unorthodox recommendation may appear to fly in the face of the more usual military emphases onfacts, but – in war as well as in peace – these “facts” are often the result of substantially personal interpretations.

In exploiting a suitably improved concept of a correlation of forces, Israel’s senior planners will seemingly have to reject a basic axiom of “geometry.” Here, they will need to recognize that certain critical force measurements must not only remain imprecise, but that the unavoidable imprecision may itself include important forms of military understanding. For example, a particular enemy’s consuming dedication to certain presumed religious expectations, his utterly uncompromising strength of will, may sometime resist more traditional sorts of measurement, but may still be determinative.

In certain military assessments, as in judgments of human psychology, there are ascertainable variables that are refractory to measurement, but may still be of considerable importance.

Looking ahead, Israeli planners must take careful account of enemy leaders’ intentions as well ascapabilities. Such an accounting is always more subjective than any more traditional assessments of personnel, weapons, and logistic data. But such an accounting will also need to be thoughtful and nuanced, despite relying less on tangible scientific modeling, than upon behaviorally informed profiles.

Any suitably refined correlation of forces concept will have to take very close account of enemy leaders’ rationality. Any adversary that does not conform to the presumed rules of rational behavior in world politics (an increasingly probable scenario) might not be deterred by any Israeli threats, military or otherwise. This is the case even where Israel would actually possess both the capacity and resolveto make good on its pertinent deterrent threats.

IDF planning assessments will continually need to consider the organization of changing enemy state units; their training standards; their morale; their reconnaissance capabilities; their battle experience; and their expected suitability and adaptability to the prospective battlefield. Traditionally, these sorts of assessment are quite ordinary, and not exceedingly difficult to make or innovate on an individual or piecemeal basis. But now, creative IDF planners will be those who are able to conceptualize such ordinarily diverse factors together, in their entirety.

IDF assessments must consider the cumulative capabilities and intentions of Israel’s nonstateenemies; that is, the entire configuration of anti‑Israel terrorist groups. In the future, such assessments must begin to offer more than a simple group-by-group consideration. The groups in question should also be considered collectively, that is, as they may interrelate with one another vis-à-vis Israel.

There is certainly nothing new about the concept of “asymmetric warfare,” but today, especially in the Middle East, the really crucial asymmetry lies not in particular force structures or ratios, but rather indetermination and strength of will. In a similar vein, Clausewitz, in his Principles of War (1812), spoke of a genuine need for “audacity.” This quality represents yet another crucial variable for IDF planners; it must inevitably elude any kind of precise or tangible measurement.

Regarding synergies, the IDF will also need to consider and seek new “force multipliers.” This will now include well-integrated components of cyber-warfare, and also a reciprocal capacity to prevent or blunt incoming cyber-attacks.

The overriding objective of IDF correlation of forces war planning must be to inform leadership decisions about two complementary matters: (1) perceived vulnerabilities of Israel; and (2) perceived vulnerabilities of enemy states and non-states. For the IDF Intelligence Branch in particular, this means gathering and assessing crucial information; for example, information concerning the expected persuasiveness of the country’s still-undisclosed nuclear deterrence posture. To endure well into the uncertain future, such information, and not a series of unfounded hopes, must be at the core of its structured orientation to a regional correlation of forces.

Conceptually, IDF correlation of forces planning should include (1) recognizing enemy force multipliers; (2) challenging and undermining enemy force multipliers; and (3) developing and refining its own force multipliers. Regarding number (3), this means a particularly heavy IDF emphasis on air superiority; communications; intelligence; and surprise.

An immediate task for Israel must be to so strengthen its nuclear deterrent such that any enemy state will always calculate that a first-strike would be irrational. This means taking all proper steps to convince these enemy states that the costs of such a strike will always exceed the benefits. To accomplish this objective, Israel must convince prospective attackers that it maintains both thewillingness and the capacity to retaliate with its pertinent nuclear weapons.

Should an enemy state considering an attack upon Israel be unconvinced about either one or both of these essential components of nuclear deterrence, it might choose to strike first, depending upon the particular value or “utility” that it places on the expected consequences of such an attack.

Going forward, a major focus of IDF strategic planning will have to be the nuclear posture ofdeliberate ambiguity, or the so-called “bomb in the basement.” Prime Minister Netanyahu surely understands that adequate nuclear deterrence of increasingly formidable enemies could soon require less nuclear secrecy. What will soon need to be determined by IDF planners concerned with an improved correlation of forces will be the precise extent and subtlety with which Israel should begin to communicate tangible elements of its nuclear positions, intentions, and capabilities to these enemies.

To protect itself against certain enemy strikes, particularly those attacks that could carry intolerable costs, IDF defense planners will need to prepare to exploit every relevant aspect and function of Israel’s own nuclear arsenal. The success of Israel’s effort here will depend not only upon its particular choice of targeting doctrine (“counterforce” or “counter value”), but also upon the extent to which this choice is made known in advance to certain enemy states, and to their sub-state surrogates. Before such enemies can be suitably deterred from launching first strikes against Israel, and before they can be deterred from launching retaliatory attacks following any Israeli preemptions, it may not be enough for them to know only that Israel has the bomb. These enemies may also need to recognize that Israeli nuclear weapons are sufficiently invulnerable to such attacks, and that they are pointed directly at high-value population targets.

IDF planners working on an improved strategic paradigm will need to understand the following: Removing the bomb from Israel’s “basement” could enhance Israel’s nuclear deterrent to the extent that it would enlarge enemy perceptions of secure and capable Israeli nuclear forces. Such a calculated end to deliberate ambiguity could also underscore Israel’s willingness to use these nuclear forces in reprisal for certain enemy first-strike and retaliatory attacks. From the standpoint of successful Israeli nuclear deterrence, IDF planners must proceed on the assumption that perceived willingness is always just as important as perceived capability. This, again, may bring to mind the counter intuitively presumed advantages for Israel of sometimes appearing less than fully rational.

There are certain circumstances in which a correlation of forces paradigm will necessarily lead IDF planners to consider certain preemption options. This is because there will surely be circumstances in which the existential risks to Israel of continuing to rely upon some combination of nuclear deterrence and active defenses will simply be too great. In these circumstances, Israeli decision-makers will need to determine whether such essential defensive strikes, known jurisprudentially as expressions of “anticipatory self-defense would be cost-effective. Here, their judgments would depend upon a number of very critical factors, including: (a) expected probability of enemy first-strikes; (b) expected cost (disutility) of enemy first-strikes; (c) expected schedule of enemy unconventional weapons deployments; (d) expected efficiency of enemy active defenses over time; (e) expected efficiency of Israeli active defenses over time; (f) expected efficiency of Israeli hard-target counterforce operations over time; (g) expected reactions of unaffected regional enemies; and (h) expected United States and world community reactions to Israeli preemptions.

IDF planners will no doubt note that Israel’s rational inclinations to strike preemptively in certain circumstances will be affected by the particular steps taken by prospective target states (e.g., Iran) to guard against any Israeli preemption. Should Israel refrain too long (for any reason) from striking first defensively, certain enemy states could begin to implement protective measures that would pose substantial additional obstacles and hazards for Israel. These measures could include the attachment of certain automated launch mechanisms to certain nuclear weapons, and/or the adoption of “launch-on-warning” policies.

IDF planners must presume that such policies might call for the retaliatory launch of bombers and/or missiles upon receipt of warning that an Israeli attack is underway. By requiring launch before the attacking Israeli warheads actually reached their intended targets, any enemy reliance of launch-on-warning could carry very grave risks of error.

The single most important factor in IDF correlation of forces planning judgments on the preemption option will be the expected rationality of certain enemy decision-makers. If, after all, these leaders could be expected to strike at Israel with unconventional forces irrespective of anticipated Israeli counterstrikes, deterrence would cease to work. This means that certain enemy strikes could be expected even if the enemy leaders fully understood that Israel had “successfully” deployed its own nuclear weapons in completely survivable modes; that Israel’s nuclear weapons were believed to be entirely capable of penetrating the enemy’s active defenses; and that Israel’s leaders were altogetherwilling to retaliate.

Now, facing new forms of regional chaotic disintegration, it is time for Israel to go beyond even its already-expanded paradigm of numerical military assessments to certain additional and “softer” considerations. Within this wider and more self-consciously qualitative strategic paradigm, IDF planners should focus, among other areas, upon the cumulative and interpenetrating importance of unconventional weapons, and low-intensity warfare in the region.

In certain circumstances, critical strategies and tactics will be both indispensable and infeasible. For the Jewish State, this will have the apparent makings of an unbearable and irremediable dilemma. Yet, truth can sometimes emerge through paradox, and a suitably improved “correlation of forces” focus could soon uncover unforeseen, but purposeful, strategic options.

The Middle East is characterized by very specific and consequential changes in power and threat-dynamics, but the underlying forces of anarchy and chaos still retain a discernible and potentially instructive form. It follows that Israel’s strategic thinkers and planners should stay focused on identifying critical recurrent core patterns within this ascertainable “geometry.”

Then, in their own informed way of “regarding history,” they will best be able to deduce appropriately precise and promising policy recommendations from geometry’s unchanging axioms.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Israel Defense

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