IDF’s new Depth Corps looks at Lebanon


Lebanon War III scenario: Hezbollah wakes up to find elite IDF troops have taken over the Beirut airport & that IDF forces are in control of all major bridges & highways connecting Lebanon to Syria.

Hard to believe? An exclusive glimpse into  IDF’s new Depth Corps.

By Yoav Limor

It was August 2, 2006. Deep in the throes of the Second Lebanon War, Operation “Short and Sweet” was underway. A joint force consisting of the elite Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance Unit) and the IAF crack commando outfit Shaldag was ferried by helicopter into Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, where it raided a number of Hezbollah strongholds in the Baalbek region. After a night of deadly combat, the units had eliminated 19 Hezbollah operatives and taken five as prisoners. Then Defense Minister Amir Peretz declared the raid to be “the operation that would change the face of the war.”

IDF training exercises – Photo- IDF Spokesperson’s Unit

On the ground, however, the reality was quite different. The operation changed nothing. It had no impact on the final outcome of the war, nor did it give Israel any tactical advantage in the Beqaa. It was an operation borne out of the IDF’s frustration in its inability to score any significant achievements. It wanted to surprise Hezbollah on its own turf, an area where the Shiite terror group felt immune and protected. There were also intelligence tips indicating that abducted soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Elded Regev may have received medical care at the Dar al-Hikma Hospital in Baalbek.

In reality, however, the Hezbollah operatives who were killed during the operation were low-level foot soldiers. The captured POWs had little value, and were released within weeks. The intelligence that was gathered at the site proved worthless. Regev and Goldwasser were nowhere to be found, and no reliable information speaking to their whereabouts was ascertained.

The most senior commander of that raid, Nitzan Alon, who at the time held the rank of colonel and was quickly re-stationed from his routine job with the Bethlehem Brigade and who today occupies the post of GOC Central Command, acknowledged that it was an unnecessary raid that needlessly endangered the lives of soldiers. A higher-ranking officer said that this was simply a case of “flexing muscles while taking a neighborhood stroll.”

Nonetheless, something positive did emerge from this superfluous operation: the realization that depth was a problem that needed a solution.

The army came to understand that it was impossible to take a brigade commander and put him at the helm of two disparate units, send them on an on-the-fly mission, dump them on the outer edges of the Middle East and expect to “win the war.” This is an area to which thought and planning must be given. What isn’t practiced and rehearsed simply will not come to pass during the real thing.

Eliminating pockets of resistance

A great deal of effort and persuasion was needed to allow Israel Hayom to gain this unprecedented glimpse into the IDF’s secretive new Depth Corps command. There was a lot of opposition to the idea, stemming mainly from the need for secrecy and the desire to preserve the element of surprise. Others were opposed simply because the exposure did not suit them.

IDF field training – Photo courtesy IDF

The command, fields troops from some of the most elite, top secret units in the army, including Special Forces, the Intelligence Corps, and the Air Force. These are men who are much more comfortable when faced with al-Qaida operatives than with journalists. From their standpoint, anything written in the newspapers could expose them to danger. Ultimately, though, the powers that be agreed to allow Israel Hayom to gain access into this most sensitive of nerve centers.

The goal of this arrangement is twofold. From a domestic angle, it was meant to educate the IDF as to the necessity of this command, a necessity in an army which is still showing pockets of resistance to the idea of a separate Special Forces Command. There is also a need to deter outside enemies from trying their luck against this new outfit which is secretly, quietly, consolidating to become a force that will tilt the scales in the next war.

Regardless of how presumptuous this goal sounds, the logic behind it is quite simple.

Realizing that it will have a difficult time coping with the IDF when the two sides meet in the battlefield, the enemy (Hezbollah and others) transferred the bulk of its operations deep into its territory, hundreds of kilometers away from the Israeli border. New armaments, including rockets and precision-guided missiles, allow it to be more effective from a distance and threaten without being threatened.

During the last war, Hezbollah primarily fired rockets from southern Lebanon. During the next conflict, it will unload most of its heavy weaponry from the Lebanese hinterland. During the Yom Kippur War, Syrian forces did battle with Israel on the Golan Heights. In the next war, it will launch Scuds from both the north and the east.

The way to neutralize the threat is to be present in all the areas where the enemy is ensconced. The IDF must be present in large contingents of troops and sufficient armaments that would enable it to knock the enemy off balance, interrupt its battle plans, and significantly reduce the threat to the home front.

In other words, forget everything you knew about the old combat zones, this is no longer relevant. The original IDF was built to engage in eyeball-to-eyeball battles on the Golan Heights. It was constructed to traverse minefields and destroy divisions and battalions. The modern-day enemy, however, is different. He doesn’t wear a uniform, and he isn’t stationed at a base. He is primarily a civilian who spends his leisure hours engaged in military activities. It could be a farmer or a laborer who toils his fields by day, yet operates a Katyusha by night.

In this battlefield, taking an advantageous position for lookouts and reconnaissance is no longer enough. The biggest initial challenge is to identify the enemy — a civilian who blends together with a number of other civilians who look just like him. Then there is the challenge of identifying his hiding place and his weapons caches before finally getting to him without ramming through the entire village.

That is just the easy part. Usually the enemy sits in an area that the Golani and Paratrooper Brigades are accustomed to operating in and where tanks can be somewhat effective. The real threat on the strategic level sits at a distance, deep within enemy territory. That is where the enemy keeps its main assets and heavy arsenals. This is an area in which brigades would have little chance of effectively operating and where the air force and the navy would have a difficult time launching joint-force operations.

When it comes to the Lebanese front, IDF General Staff planners have focused their work on possible scenarios that are likely to unfold deep into our neighbor to the north. That means Beirut, where Hezbollah keeps its headquarters and command posts; the Beqaa, the area that Hezbollah uses for its logistical base; and, in the not-too-distant future, northern Lebanon, particularly the Tripoli region.

The reason for this is not just because the long range of rocket fire allows for a withdrawal to areas that Hezbollah considers “immune,” but also because the Alawite minority that may just find itself ousted from its position of power in Damascus could bring with it strategic arms and regroup in the topographically friendly regions of the mountains and the coast.

Try to envision the Third Lebanon War. Let us assume that on the fifth day of the conflict, Hezbollah wakes up to discover that a contingent of IDF troops had taken over the airport in Beirut, or that IDF forces had taken control of all the major routes connecting Lebanon with Syria. Does this sound far-fetched? According to foreign media reports, the IDF planned to undertake similar measures in Iraq in 1991 immediately after Scud missiles hit Tel Aviv.

Some units have already been trained for such scenarios. One of them is Shaldag. That is the extent of the information that we have been permitted to see. The man who commanded Shaldag during Saddam’s salvos was then-Col. Benny Gantz, who was known to clown around with his troops by breaking out into polka dancing. It is reasonable to assume that Gantz derived a number of insights as to what the IDF could (and, in particular, could not) accomplish against a menacing, distant enemy. He could combine those insights with the lessons learned from the mistakes of the 2006 conflict so as to better understand that the IDF currently does not possess the suitable means to cope with an entrenched enemy far from the border.

Gantz’s baby

In the meantime, Israel continues to wage shadow wars in that gray area where things happen secretly and by surprise with no fingerprints left behind. This is what is known in IDF parlance as CBC, the campaign between the campaigns. According to foreign news sources, this includes attacks on weapons caches in Sudan and the attack on a convoy carrying surface-to-air missiles in Syria, in addition to a number of intelligence-gathering operations, acts of sabotage, and assassinations. The frequency of these actions is indirectly proportional to the level of media exposure they receive.

It wasn’t so long ago that these missions were conceived from the bottom up by intelligence officers who turned information into an operation, like when information on the whereabouts of a terror target is gathered at a mass funeral. The advantage that can be gained here is the pinpoint, professional, and intimate knowledge amassed by those in the field. The disadvantage here is the lack of an overall, broader outlook. Every intelligence officer dealt solely with his area of responsibility while all of the operational units were cut off from one another. The distance was so great that Shayetet 13, Sayeret Matkal, and the air force commando units would use radios of different frequencies.

This is the gap that the Depth Corps initiative aims to bridge. Alongside considerations of a grand, “larger” war, it wishes to examine the daily struggle and secret campaigns without viewing them through the filter of a specific unit or army division. During Operation Pillar of Defense last November, the man who commanded the operation was GOC Southern Command Tal Russo. Russo and his subordinates, however, viewed the fighting solely as it unfolded in their area of responsibility, Gaza. Not only did nobody devote much thought to what was taking place outside the area (in Sudan, Libya, Syria and Lebanon), but, despite what we witnessed during the Second Lebanon War, the IDF found itself with almost no special operations to carry out in Gaza.

The Depth Corps headquarters are in a building adjacent to the General Staff building. It includes a number of floors of drab, gray office space that are hardly an indication of the achievements it produces in the field. Upon its founding, the IDF insisted that it be a heterogeneous, multidisciplinary body staffed largely by officers from various army units. Five of them, all of whom carry the rank of colonel and who have headed branches, met with us last week to try to explain why their command is important.

There was I., the former Shaldag member who is responsible for operational planning; G., a pilot of the Yasur helicopter who is responsible for the aerial aspects of operations; A., who emerged from the naval commando unit to take over the teaching and instructional duties; Y., who served in Military Intelligence and who is in charge of the unit’s intelligence contacts; and O., who is in charge of technology and communications.

The interview did not go smoothly. Not only were they visibly uncomfortable speaking to a reporter, but they were also anxious about safeguarding the secrecy in which this outfit operates. Nonetheless, at the prodding of Col. K., a former Operations Branch officer who is now their commander, they managed to give us a taste of what they were doing while tiptoeing their way through confidentiality concerns.

“On a routine, day-to-day basis, things work quite well in the army,” said I. “The units know what to do, and they do a pretty good job. During emergencies, things don’t work as well, and our job here is to plan as comprehensively as possible to make sure that the next war doesn’t surprise us.”

“From here, we see the entire army, and this enables us to have a wider, better picture,” said A. “The bottom line is that the results we deliver will be better.”

“Until now, we’ve focused mainly on missions,” said Y. “Now we are looking at the whole picture. Our challenge is to give our leaders a wide array of possibilities so that they could make the best choice.”

“The ‘special units’ will have to make a very significant change,” said G. “They need to make planning changes as well as changes in their capabilities. In 2006, we didn’t have any tricks up our sleeve. Depth Corps is a kind of wild card that could end up making the difference.”

“In 2006, the cooperation between the units wasn’t good,” said A. “In the Navy, we provided aid to land forces for the first time during the ‘real thing,’ during the war. We are now making this connection here so that it will look different the next time.”

“Our job is to bring the right troops at the right time to the right place,” said Y. “It sounds easy, but it is uncertain as to whether the Air Force or the Navy or Military Intelligence has the capability or the time to do this in addition to the current workload they have.”

“Here we have something that could shock the enemy,” said O. “It could create a surprise effect that would have fundamental ramifications.”

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