First to Think, Last to Do

The importance of a state-security strategy



By Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilead and  Dr. Moshe Albo​​ | July, 2022


Israeli Defense Force
Photos: Israel Defense Forces | CC BY-SA 3.0


The assessment shared by most military experts on the eve of the war in Ukraine was that Russia would be quick to achieve decisive victory in view of the power relations tipping so substantially in its favor. The campaign in Georgia (2008), the annexation of Crimea (2014), and effective military involvement in Syria (2015) had established the basic assumption that the Russian military force reigned supreme, and that a conflict between the two countries would yield predictable and inevitable outcomes.


Yet, after more than 100 days of blood-filled fighting, during which the Russian Army has not been able to attain its strategic goals, the fundamental understanding on the phenomenon of war was underscored once more, namely that in the absence of an overall strategy from which a customized, precise operative plan is derived based on the fighting forces’ sufficient operational competence, no decisive action can be carried out on the battlefield. The clash between the Russian Army’s image and the reality of the bloody Ukrainian battlefields has been detrimental to Russian deterrence, destabilizing the very security architecture it had sought to promote.


The campaign in Ukraine demonstrates the huge gap that the Russian leadership was in on the verge of the war with regard to the state of its enemy (competence and motivation), its own forces’ competence, the response of the international surroundings, and the hefty prices its economy, status, and stability would be expected to pay. The emerging chasm between the misconstrued reality and the battlefield (true reality) may find expression on the tactical level in limited accomplishments; however, on the strategic level, it may manifest itself in state and system failure with lasting repercussions that could be detrimental to the core interests of Russian national security.


The war in Ukraine is going strong, and it is hard to predict what the next twists would be in this drama unraveling before our eyes, with their vast and direct implications on international as well as Middle Eastern order and security. Yet the IDF is already required to learn systemwide lessons from it in view of the possibility that it would be forced to embark on a campaign in the Gaza Strip or Lebanon against an asymmetrical rival that has blended into an urban-civilian setting, and is in possession of advanced, powerful, and precise firing capabilities.


One key lesson is that the political leadership and military command must not rest on their laurels, but instead critically examine any assumption, and form a strategy that would align with the IDF’s capabilities and competence. A gap between the way reality is perceived (blues vs. reds) by the political echelon and the IDF could lead to heavy tolls, and requires a process of constant synchronization and coordination to ensure that all parts of the state-security system share the same perceptions and understandings on the goals of the system, the operationalization perception, and the view on the “morning after” the conflict to improve the overall strategic balance.


In addition, the campaign in Ukraine demonstrates the importance of matching the military operationalization perception to advanced weapons and technology in order to maintain supremacy in effect on the battlefield. Thus, the adoption of an innovation culture is not a luxury, but a necessity, and the senior military command should invest in learning and changing processes on a regular basis in order to maintain its military edge.


The IDF’s Operational Concept for Victory was designed to address the military supremacy challenge. The concept, formed in 2019 under the leadership of Chief of General Staff Aviv Kochavi, was based on the assumption that the IDF’s military might requires many adaptations in view of the enemy’s systemic change, as well as the development of “terror armies” that possess military might and precise firing capabilities. The Operational Concept for Victory did not center on “what would serve as decisive action” but more profoundly in “how to achieve decisive action”, meaning a critical discussion of the military capabilities and actual fighting methods that would bolster the IDF’s qualitative edge, and enhance its military effectiveness.


A glimpse into the internal discussion of the change the IDF is undergoing can be found in the new book by Brig. Gen. Eran Ortal, commander of the Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies (a unit under the IDF Operations Division), entitled The Battle Before the War: The Inside Story of the IDF's Transformation. The book provides details on the discussions, deliberations, and authentic difficulties associated with the IDF’s internal process of change. The main message pertains to the assessment that the IDF is at a crossroads where it must embrace a value innovation approach (a paradigm shift) and overall transformation to reinvent itself in the evolving strategic competition with its adversaries. This process involves fundamental change in three dimensions – concept, technology, and organization – to tap into exiting potentials and enable the IDF to make a true military leap forward.


The Operational Concept for Victory requires the military system to be fully synchronized while displaying high combat competence to express qualitative edge in the future battlefield. However, the concept will only be effective if it will reflect a genuine leap forward in military capability and fighting methods, as well as the integration of all units into a single system. Large systems in general, and the military one in particular, find it inherently difficult to change. Often, organizational/technological adjustments or the assimilation of new weapons are wrongly perceived as innovative. The campaign in Ukraine has shown that it is best to know your competence and capability gaps before the war breaks out, instead of while the battle is ongoing.


The war in Europe has further demonstrated the IDF’s need to establish military supremacy vis-à-vis its regional enemies and adversaries, and keep its freedom of action in the war between wars and actual fighting intact. In this context, it is of significant strategic importance to embrace a level-headed policy that corresponds with the great powers’ national security interests on both counts. That way, military supremacy would rely on intelligently managed force buildup processes, backed up by purchase and scaleup of advanced U.S. weapons, while preserving the qualitative military edge (QME) defined by American law. Moreover, Israel’s strategic partnership with the United States is a key component in its national security and deterrence concept, and an asset that must not be allowed to crack or become unstable.


At the same time, the IDF’s actions in the northern arena require a mechanism that would avoid friction with the Russian army, and an investment in ongoing political and security steps to maintain operational freedom. In this context, the ongoing dialogue with Moscow has significant operative value in the campaign aiming to curb Iran’s entrenchment, and prevent the transfer of advanced weapons. However, it could chip away at the strategic relations with Washington due to the exacerbating war in Ukraine. This complexity requires strategic wisdom in the ongoing dialogue with Russia, as well as caution lest the close relationship with the United States get in harm’s way.


Another matter that is emerging as a key issue from the war in Ukraine is that of legitimization and perception (the hearts and minds), which projects onto national resilience, and the prices incurred by the assailant, which the international community imposes (economic sanctions, demonization and exclusion from international organizations and conventions, as well as international isolation). The international community’s patience for a campaign in which innocent civilians are getting killed, and during which disproportionate damage (in its opinion) is caused to civil infrastructure and systems, has substantially reduced due to the atrocities of the war in Ukraine. Israel must realize that legitimization and perception (the hearts and minds) are battlefields for all intents and purposes, where state forces, international organizations and civil ones operate in routine and emergency times in an effort to demonize Israel and lead to its delegitimization, limit its military freedom of action, and cause it extensive, lasting political damage. Israel is required to invest in legitimization as a national effort combining intelligence-based, diplomatic and political capabilities that, together, would mitigate the surge against it in global public opinion that could have repercussions on its military freedom of action, and international standing.


“First to think, last to do” – in the IPS symposium, Commander of the IDF Ground Forces Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai ascertained that the IDF’s main mission is to win a short war while displaying military supremacy, moving the fighting to the other side, neutralizing the threat of fire, as well as reducing the damage to IDF forces and the home front, alongside an enhancement of deterrence based on genuine capabilities and top professional competence. However, in the absence of an overall strategy that seeks to improve Israel’s strategic balance, strengthen its power of deterrence, and determine its preferred “endgame” based on full alignment of expectations between the political and military echelons, the ability to win the next campaign could be uncertain, and the prices to be paid on both strategic-operative and tactical levels exceedingly high.




Authored by Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilead, head of the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) and Dr. Moshe Albo, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.


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