Amid ongoing regional conflict, Israel’s largest military exercise in almost 20 years sheds light on its evolving perception of non-state threats on its northern borders.

Israeli Defence Forces. ©SIPA USA/PA Images

By Monty d’Inverno, Research Analyst for Defence and Military Analysis, and Yvonni-Stefania Efstathiou, Coordinator, Defence and Military Analysis Programme

Israel’s 2017 military exercise Light of the Grain (‘Or HaDagan’), the largest in almost two decades, is illustrative of Israel’s response to the changing regional security environment.

The Israeli Defence Forces’ (IDF’s) 2015 Military Strategy (the first to be made public) suggested that the conventional threat from neighbouring states was diminishing. Instead, ‘well-armed sub-state actors’ were identified as the main challenge. The IDF Northern Corps’ Light of the Grain exercise, which reportedly was 18 months in the making, tested the readiness of the IDF to combat such non-state actors, some of which have benefited from involvement in the ongoing conflict in Syria.

The war in Syria initially appeared to reduce the conventional state-based threat to Israel, as Assad-regime forces were embroiled in the civil war there. Six years on and the regime is again perceived by Israel as a danger. However, it is clear that the war has also served to heighten non-state threats.

Hizbullah is in a stronger position than when Israel last fought it, in the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Although the group’s involvement in high-intensity combat in Syria has been costly in terms of casualties, Hizbullah has benefited from access to sophisticated Iranian weaponry, funding and combat training. Through its support for Hizbullah and other Shia militias, Tehran is believed by Israel to have established a land corridor running through Iraq and Syria, from which it poses a direct threat to Israel’s northern border.

Against this backdrop, and based on the understanding that any future war with Hizbullah will likely involve the group crossing Israel’s northern border, the IDF responded in a number of ways. In 2014, the 36th Armoured Division was withdrawn from the Golan Heights, where it had been positioned to counter a conventional armoured attack by Syria. The 210th Division – a lighter force, better suited to countering incursions by non-state actors – replaced it. The 36th Division has been moved south and can be used to reinforce the Lebanese or Syrian borders. Israel has also bolstered its defences on the Lebanese border by constructing additional walls and fences.

Light of the Grain 2017 addresses Israel’s changing security concerns by exercising the IDF ‘readiness for a broad campaign in the north’, in the context of Hizbullah’s increased military capability. The exercise simulated initial attacks into Israel, followed by a response that included a defensive phase, targeted strikes and a ground offensive. A significant number of reservists were used; this is crucial in developing the capability of a force so heavily reliant on conscripts and reservists. Indeed, the IDF includes some 465,000 reserve military personnel, compared to 176,500 active personnel.

Selected Israeli military exercises in 2017. ©IISS

The scale of the exercise, unprecedented in recent years, also allowed for the incorporation and testing of a large number of subordinate headquarters and a wide range of the kinds of capabilities needed to deal with the full spectrum of threats. There was coordination across the land, sea and air domains, and the integration of new capabilities; for example, the use of unmanned systems, not only by the air force, exercising the new Hermes 900 unmanned aerial vehicle for the first time, but also by the ground forces. Notably, the IDF’s cyber units also simulated operations in a major exercise for the first time. The IDF’s Home Defence Command, in coordination with the civilian emergency services, practiced the evacuation of civilians from the border area in the event of a cross-border attack.

The IDF’s last exercise on this scale was conducted in 1998 and simulated a conventional war with Syria. The fact that Light of the Grain 2017 focuses on a broad-spectrum campaign against a non-state threat highlights Israel’s efforts to adapt to the changing regional security environment.

This analysis originally featured on the Military Balance+, the new IISS online database that enables users in government, the armed forces and the private sector, as well as academia and the media, to make faster and better-informed decisions. The Military Balance+ allows users to customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

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