Israel’s urban warfare experience in Gaza can benefit allies

Major tech upgrades and heightened division cooperation are some things the IDF has improved in the current conflict.

By Yaakov Lappin, JNS

The Israel Defense Forces’ experience in fighting Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, an area described by observers as the most challenging urban warfare environment in history, likely holds important benefits for Israel’s allies.

One of the key lessons, according to Col. (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, is the IDF’s use of what he described as “three-dimensional warfare.”

This concept relates to creating an unprecedented capability to generate a 3D picture of the battlefield in real-time, one that shows available friendly firepower sources in the air and the ground, and the location of enemy targets.

This data is then pushed to ground forces and the Israeli Air Force, enabling new levels of cooperation.

“This means that when IDF soldiers enter an alleyway, they can see what’s behind the house because someone gives them the picture of what’s in front of them,” said Lerman.

“This is definitely the most significant and heaviest complex military campaign conducted to date under these conditions, to my understanding,” Lerman, a former deputy director for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, and an ex-IDF Military Intelligence officer, told JNS.

Lerman said that the IDF and the U.S. Armed Forces have been engaged in a process of mutual learning for years, adding that “the Americans had their share of urban battles. It’s not that we invented the wheel, but it seems to me that there is one central component that was implemented in combat in Gaza by the IDF with very great effectiveness, and it is three-dimensional warfare.”

The unparalleled degree of integration between advancing ground forces and the air force accompanying them from above, all working on the basis of a common battlefield picture featuring continuous updates on enemy and friendly force positions, meant that the IDF gained a major advantage against “an enemy that under normal conditions would be invisible,” said Lerman.

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IDF ground forces have visual assistance through tablet-like devices that inform their combat needs at any given moment, and work more closely than ever with fighter jets, combat helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as the navy.

The ground forces’ “control of the battlefield is exceptional,” said Lerman, “both at the tactical level and at the micro-tactical level. This compensates to a great extent for the advantage that Hamas had within its own territory, which Hamas is familiar with, and where it was hiding.”

A battle management system, made by Israeli defense company Elbit Systems and called Torch 750 (also known in the IDF as Digital Ground Army), played a central role in generating this ability.

“This battle picture also prevents many friendly fire incidents, though not entirely, to our sorrow,” said Lerman. “I think these are things that will be learned.”

Israeli combat history

A glance at the casualty ratio between the IDF and Hamas reveals that in many battles, the average was around 50 terrorist casualties to one IDF casualty.

Some operations, such as the IDF’s second raid on Shifa Hospital in Gaza City in March, saw some 200 terrorists killed versus three Israeli combat casualties.

This wouldn’t be the first time that battle lessons were shared between Israel and its allies.

While Israel is heavily dependent on American military supplies, it has also exported products developed in the wake of lessons from Israeli combat history.

In 2018, the U.S. Army purchased the Israeli-made Trophy active-protection system for four brigades of its Abrams tanks.

Trophy, which is made by Israeli defense company Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, has proven to be a revolutionary system for Israel’s own Merkava 4 tanks because it can instantly detect and intercept lethal armor-penetrating threats such as anti-tank guided missiles and rocket-propelled grenades.

It can also share the location of enemy threats with others.

The system was developed out of the lessons learned by Israel’s defense establishment from the 2006 Second Lebanon War, when Israeli tanks were vulnerable to Hezbollah cells armed with anti-tank missiles.

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In the realm of passive armor, Plasan Sasa, an Israeli company, has played an important role in boosting the survivability of the U.S. military’s Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles.

In 2008, Plasan was chosen to provide armor for 1,955 vehicles of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Allied and adversary military doctrine

Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former U.S. Army officer who taught at West Point, stated, “I think there’s much to learn for foreign militaries from the experience in Gaza. I’m confident that the United States and its allies are taking copious notes.”

Bowman, a former national security adviser to members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, added, “Unfortunately, many of our adversaries are also learning.”

These lessons will shape allied and adversary military doctrine, training, and operations, he assessed.

“The degree to which militaries learn from this experience will have direct consequences on future battlefields,” said Bowman.

“The U.S. military is the most powerful military in the world, arguably the most powerful military in human history, but we make mistakes and have shortcomings. We can learn much from our allies and partners, including our Israeli allies,” Bowman continued.

He described the ongoing war in Gaza as “one of the most significant urban warfare battles in recent history,” arguing that it would be a mistake to assume it is such an anomaly that few lessons are transferable.

“If there’s a ground warfare component, there’s very likely to be an urban warfare component. Why? Because a large portion of humanity lives in cities, and because the seats of government are in cities and many military objectives are in or near cities. And some military bases and headquarters themselves are essentially urban warfare environments,” Bowman said.

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He drew attention to the IDF’s impressive achievements in detecting and destroying tunnels in Gaza.

“I think part of the reason for that is because they had a running start. They’ve been working on terror tunnel detection and destruction for many years with U.S. cooperation and support, but primarily focused on tunnels designed to come underneath the borders of Israel, to infiltrate Israel, to kill men, women and children in the night.”

While such detection technology previously required the IDF to be above or near the ground where the tunnel was located, the IDF in this war was able to bring tunnel detection capabilities into enemy territory, he said.

The IDF’s ability to call up large numbers of reserve forces and send them on successful missions was also notable, Bowman added, saying that partners such as Taiwan could learn from Israel’s experience with reservists.

Hezbollah, for its part, will likely learn from the Gaza war that it needs to double down on its human-shield tactics.

An additional key lesson is the sheer magnitude of munitions required in such conflicts, Bowman said. That lesson remains relevant to Israel’s operations in Gaza, Bowman said, “but even more relevant to stockpiling the weapons Israel needs for the bigger fight that’s coming sooner or later with Hezbollah and Iran.

“And if I’m Israel, what do I do with that information? I prioritize, above all else, the stockpiling of weapons that Israel will need for a major war with Hezbollah and Iran. The weapons, the munitions—particularly the air-launched precision-guided munitions that could be cut off in the future by the U.S. Congress—as Hezbollah learns from Hamas’s use of human shields to increase civilian casualties and create concern in Washington to create political pressure to deprive Israel of the means of self-defense,” he said.

“Israel should get those weapons and munitions it needs now and stockpile them so that Israel has what it needs, when and if things get much worse,” Bowman warned.