The Israeli military has established a “depth corps” force to coordinate and execute multi-disciplinary missions far from the country's borders. The primary task of the corps, says Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, chief of the general staff, will be to extend joint operations into strategic theaters.
Modeled after the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, creation of the depth corps force indicates Israel's military envisions that long-range, largely clandestine and multi-service missions will have a much higher priority than the conventional operations that have been the main focus of its activity for decades. It also suggests that Israel expects future wars to be long, difficult and not winnable only by fighting along its own borders.
The decision to establish the command stems from an assessment of the strategic shifts resulting from popular revolutions in the Arab world and Middle East, where moderate or predictable countries could become dominated by Islamic and even jihadist elements, as well as from the threat posed by a nuclear Iran.
Defense minister Ehud Barak and Gantz created the corps after recommendations from a team headed by Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot. Eizenkot was tapped for the task last summer, after he completed his assignment as commander of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Northern Command, which is responsible for the border with Lebanon and the Golan Heights.
The new corps will be commanded by Maj. Gen. Shai Avital, 59, a former chief of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando force, veteran covert operations expert and close associate of Barak. Avital was recalled to active duty to head the corps, which is unusual. Gantz and Barak thought that the leader of such a command based on various special forces, each with their own capabilities and fighting traditions, would have to be a commander with the unique authority and experience to gain the confidence of subordinates during missions.
Predictably, some are calling the corps “the Iran Command.” Israel has a command for Iran affairs—namely, the Mossad intelligence agency—which has been doing the heavy lifting in the campaign against the Iranian nuclear threat. If there is any unit within the IDF that deals with Iran specifically, it is the(IAF), the service that will be called upon in the event of an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Gantz instructed Eizenkot to assess recent developments and strategic shifts in the region to determine whether the IDF needed to make changes in its planning. In reviewing past assessments, Eizenkot's team, which comprised high-ranking officers and one senior Mossad official, discovered that the need for a deep-strike force had been identified as far back as 1982, when a decision was made to create a depth corps at the general staff level. Implementation was delayed until 1986 as a result of the First Lebanon War, which took place in 1982. Maj. Gen. (ret.) Doron Rubin was named head of the unit, but fallout from the raid it orchestrated against a base in Lebanon of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command in December 1988, code-named Operation Blue and Brown, shut down the command. During the operation, which took place in Nueimeh, four Golani Regiment soldiers were left behind and had to be rescued under fire by IAF Cobra helicopters. The soldiers, clutching the skids of the Cobras, were flown out to sea for pickup by Israeli navy boats. Rubin stepped down afterward and the special operations unit was absorbed into the Northern Command.
The mission concept will be split into two categories. The corps will work primarily with special forces and at times oversee their covert operations, or operate directly, but covertly, against targets—for example, Iran and its nuclear facilities—on the ground, should an air attack take place. The corps will have the authority to deploy special operations units when necessary, but under normal circumstances each unit's chain of command will remain unchanged.
The rationale behind the unit is that long-range operations require extensive cooperation between different parts of the defense establishment. To effectively combat Iran's nuclear ambitions, arms smuggling to Hamas, Hezbollah and worldwide terror organizations, certain units must work together, such as military intelligence, the Mossad and others. Military branches need to join forces (especially the air force and navy), and commanders and their subordinates need to coordinate activities. The corps will oversee training and operations by special forces in an effort to enable each unit to retain its unique capabilities, while operating with better coordination and less competition with each other.
Units tapped for missions will be placed under the corps' control according to mission function, and perform pre-planned or ad-hoc operations during war and inter-war periods. The corps itself is subordinate to the IDF chief of staff.
If a mission requires taking control of a sector in an enemy's rear zone, the command could be assigned responsibility, for example, to secure an area where strategic weapons are being smuggled.
For the IDF, the depth corps is a new concept for special forces. “Until now, few operations were carried out by more than one special forces unit,” says Brig. Gen. (res.) Ilan Paz, former air force special forces commander. “The establishment of the new command will be justified only if it succeeds in achieving the synergy between the various units and becomes a force multiplier capable of implementing their special capabilities.”
Experts warn that this synergy will be difficult to achieve. Each IDF special operations unit has its own fighting tradition gained over decades of clandestine actions and has been almost entirely self-sufficient during missions. Sayeret Matkal, for one, arguably the most storied special forces ground unit, has conducted extremely complex and spectacular missions over the years, most of which are still classified.
“At the end of the day,” says Brig. Gen. (ret.) Dov Sedaka, former commander of Sayeret Matkal, the command's success or failure will depend on the authority it displays over subordinate units, each with unique training and capabilities. “If it coordinates them wisely, taking account of their characteristics, it could become a tremendous force multiplier.”
While Israel's special forces have had spectacular successes, there has been a sense within the general staff since the Second Lebanon War in 2006 that the units could do more if they worked together more closely and there was better coordination between their respective branches. The corps could assist in mobilizing special forces for missions. More important, it will have the job of planning and leading operations in areas far beyond Israel's borders, operations that are connected to the covert war against terror organizations and thus indirectly against Iran. These operations would be similar to those that have been ascribed to Israel, such as alleged IAF strikes and special forces missions in Sudan against terror networks.
“What is happening today is that actions in the strategic depth area are largely the result of some momentary flash,” a senior officer who helped draft the recommendations told the newspaper Haaretz. “An officer goes to military intelligence with an idea, and they start working on an operation. The corps, headed by a major general, would consider the threats methodically and continuously, and we hope it will lead to solutions and results,” he said.