"Our upcoming laser system will change the Gaza front"

Eyal Harel  credit: Eyal Izhar

In a first interview, IDF head of planning Brigadier General Eyal Harel explains what Israel's future army will look like.

Brigadier General Eyal Harel is jealous. The head of the IDF General Staff Planning Division - the man responsible for executing the IDF’s long-term programs, in charge of military strategy for the country's most highly funded organization - admits there are things that the IDF, even with its best and brightest, will never be able to achieve on its own. "If in the past the military and defense sector took the lead in technology, today civilian technology companies are the leaders. How much is Apple worth today, a trillion dollars?", he asks.

Pretty soon three trillion,.

"The State of Israel isn’t even close. Development at the giant corporates is so strong - Microsoft, Google, Apple, Meta - the way Zuckerberg perceives the world, the resources available to them. and the quality manpower. These days, you don’t have to live in Silicon Valley to work at Apple. We can’t compete, you understand?

"They’re faster than the defense establishment in technological development and understanding, in their dialectic with the new world. Meaning, they are the new world. They are the trendsetters. Let's talk, for example, about the cloud. I don’t take on cloud development. You get it from Microsoft, or Google, or Amazon," he says. "Any one of these companies knows how to do it a thousand times faster and better than any defense company I could turn to. There are other areas where development must be in-house - I have army software developers - because some things shouldn’t be outsourced, because of secrecy."

Speaking of development, how will robotics affect the IDF?

"At the level of aerial autonomy to facilitate large-scale intelligence gathering - we see tremendous development in the coming years. It will be an integral part of our method of warfare and the way an armored brigade functions, and it's a major challenge for our defense companies."

Can you give an example?

"Imagine a drone squadron being able to capture a zone, a village, an assembly area and deal with it. Imagine them coming in different formations and altitudes, and performing different actions. For example, they’ll be able to use sensors to automatically detect an enemy inside a room, enter through a window, identify the enemy and detonate. It's amazing and it’s going to happen. It's just a question of when."

By the way, does the IDF have a response to this sort of attack from the enemy?

"The enemy we deal with isn’t there yet, and will get there long after us. But when you develop this sort of capability, of course you also have to develop the defensive capability."

"Never dreamt the IDF would be dealing with global warming"

A squadron of combat drones may sound like science fiction but that's exactly the mandate of the Planning Division headed by Harel, which belongs to the IDF's Planning Directorate, set up in the 1970s to deal with force building and planning, along with strategy and cooperation with foreign militaries.

As part of the IDF Tnufa Multi-Year Plan, it was decided to split Strategy and Planning into two separate divisions, so that today the Planning Division's role is to serve as a central headquarters for planning: developing innovative fighting methods along with technology utilization. The unit headed by Harel operates within the Planning Division, and is responsible for executing the Tnufa Multi-Year Plan, the IDF's five-year work plan, launched two years ago, shortly after Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi was appointed. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has delayed Tnufa’s implementation. "I think it's an amazing plan. It’s breakthrough, especially the digital aspects." Harel is also responsible for budgetary matters, policy formulation and force building. Among the issues on his desk are IDF preparations for military campaigns, integrating special needs populations into compulsory military service, the mass relocation of IDF units to the Negev, infrastructure at military bases, and environmental protection.

"The biggest challenge is the long-term outlook, and the military’s ability to adjust. We have an entire division that deals with forward-thinking, after which we need to check and see how it corresponds with current realities. We in the IDF are experts in out-of-the-box thinking. We’re already looking at 2050, we’re also dealing with the issue of climate change. We have an entire section dealing with global warming, something I never dreamed of."

What interesting insights have you had so far?

"The worst-case scenario is that the global temperatures will rise by almost two degrees on average by 2040, and we are examining the implications for the military, such as training exercises in higher temperatures. This process is in full swing."

Will there still be armored divisions in 2040?

"A tank, or a Namer or Eitan armored personnel carrier - is a vehicle that’s going to be around for 30 or 40 years. It’s just that now we’re adding completely different technological capabilities. Who would have dreamed of putting tactical SIGINT (signals intelligence) into a tank? If you’d told me that ten years ago, I would’ve said you were delusional, but it exists and helps discover unseen enemies."

The technological innovations and developments excite Harel, but the biggest good news, according to him, is the development of a powerful laser system that can even protect Israel against Iran. The Ministry of Defense, the Israeli Air Force, and Elbit Systems recently completed a series of trials with a laser installation capable of destroying rockets, unmanned aerial vehicles, and other threats. The system is expected to be operational in a little over three years, and its big advantage is its very cheap cost compared with Iron Dome; just a few dollars per interception, compared with some $50,000.

Harel says that the system is already at a very advanced stage. "Final testing should take place early this year. We succeeded in getting somewhere no-one else in the world has managed to reach. As soon as the final trial succeeds, we’ll enter into serial production of the laser systems, which within two years will put us in a different operating point, certainly relative to the Gaza Strip. The next stage will be miniaturization, reducing production costs for the ground systems, and also making it airborne. That’s where the big defense companies are involved. Laser is the next thing; it really is Star Wars."

"Career army personnel are ashamed to wear their uniforms"

Although Brigadier General Harel, 47, appointed head of the Planning Division last year, is keen to talk about future technologies, he also has to deal with the not-so-simple and far more mundane daily reality: the IDF's personnel problem, another front the army is currently battling, this time against the glitzy tech industry. For example, although the IDF announced it would transfer intelligence bases to the Negev a decade ago, the move has still not taken place, due to fears within the army that many career staffers would prefer to leave the military rather than leave their comfort zone in the center of the country.

"For many, this is just a symptom of the deep divide within the military between the career service personnel in intelligence units, and the other career personnel, many of whom live in Israel’s outlying areas. "I myself am from the periphery, from Kibbutz Gesher Haziv," says Harel in response, "I was born in Ramat Gan but grew up in the Golan, and you can’t get more periphery than that. I want you know that it bothers me. It bothers me as an army officer, it bothers me as a father. We have to make all army units accessible. When a kid from Dimona in the south has to take cyber unit qualification exams, they shouldn’t have to get up at 4:30 in the morning, just to get to Tel Aviv at 8:00, completely exhausted, and fail the test, just because they’re tired. We will bring the tests to them.

"We’re investing hundreds of millions of shekels in this - the Chief of Staff instructed me, as Head of Division, to allocate a budget for this. The Manpower Division has a mega plan that will be approved soon - we call it the Mandatory Service Multi-year Plan and it’s intended to improve conditions for conscripted personnel, from pays, through to the selection/assignment process, to things like gym facilities, to questions like if they serve in the south, are they entitled to one or four flights to the central region each month. We understand that these issues must be addressed. This generation is different; they have an attention span - I see it in my daughters - of seven seconds."

Harel, married and father of three daughters, grew up in the Israel Navy, where he held a number of officer positions, including Commander of the Shayetet 3 Missile Boat Flotilla during Operation Protective Edge, a position equivalent to a ground forces brigade commander. His current position isn’t his first foray into the Planning Division. In 2015, he was appointed head of the Planning Division, and was entrusted with preparing the previous Gideon Multi-year Plan. He then returned to the Navy and held senior positions as Head of Naval Intelligence Command, and later as Head of the Sea Command - until last May, when he was appointed Head of the Planning Division.

Despite his history in combat, it seems that Harel has slid easily into his current staff position that deals quite a bit with IDF personnel planning issues. Looking a decade ahead, Harel says, the IDF may need to cut down on personnel. "It's simple math. We see how many children were born 18 years ago, and how many in the end are expected to enlist. And we’re on a crazy upward trend. The cohorts are going to grow significantly."

So, would you agree to a further shortening of compulsory service?

"I don’t rule out cuts. It needs to be examined in depth. The technological world is evolving very quickly, and if you look at what's going to happen in the infantry in another five years, with high-tech, apps, UAVs and SIGINT, etc., you suddenly realize you have to change the composition of each unit. What can you do - not everyone is capable of absorbing all this." On the other hand, he says, "We have already shortened compulsory service to two years and eight months. I think cutting it beyond that will create a serious problem in training time relative to effective service."

The demographic reality will eventually force a decision about the personnel issue. Meanwhile, the IDF is troubled by the trend of quality officers leaving the military. "Unfortunately, the civilian market is ahead of us in its ability to pay well. We're a heavy, slow system, it takes us time to understand these changes - that’s our disadvantage. We’re our own worst enemy. Our current model for career personnel is challenging for us There are big temptations out there, and the people we need are very much in demand. There are very tempting offers not only for cyber, but for young commanders, too. The civilian market wants them."

While IDF commanders and senior members of the defense establishment have repeatedly warned of high-tech industry temptations, the war being waged in recent months concerns the pension rates paid to retiring officers at the end of their service. At the heart of the struggle - legalization of the pension supplement that the army has been paying automatically for years to all retiring career personnel at a total cost of over NIS 1 billion a year to the state budget. A petition submitted to the High Court revealed that this supplement had no legal basis. Since then, Minister of Defense Benny Gantz has been promoting legislation that will "legitimize" the supplement. The bill formulated by the Ministry of Defense has been agreed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Minister of Finance Avigdor Liberman, but the professional echelons at the Ministry of Finance oppose it, because the cost is expected to reach NIS 400 million annually, beyond the current cost.

Harel terms the public criticism of the outsized conditions for career personnel, "heartbreaking." "I tell you, on the most personal level, with almost 30 years of service, that these comments, statements, and mean things that people say about career personnel, and the gap between the career and conscripted soldiers, and ‘what will be with the army,’ etc. - for me, every time I read something like that, it's an arrow straight to the heart. It's an arrow in the heart. It overwhelms me, I tell you, it just overwhelms me."

Does it also poison the discourse within the military?

"I don’t sense bitterness within the military, but people feel the prestige of military service is being harmed. People are ashamed to wear their uniforms outside the base."

"We didn’t get everything we asked for"

As mentioned, the Multi-Year Plan that Harel is promoting as Head of the Planning Division was launched about two years ago, shortly after Chief of Staff Kochavi took office. But the pandemic delayed its implementation. Meanwhile, the Iranian issue is constantly on the agenda, with contacts regarding the nuclear agreement conducted between the Western countries and Iran.

The defense budget passed last July stands at a net NIS 58 billion. Did you get the funding you wanted for Iran?

"It's complicated. Most things related to the third circle [Iran - DZ & AB] have entered development and planning, even if they haven’t gone into full procurement. Measures have been taken to shorten future execution times when the money comes in, and also to develop capabilities. The new KC-46 refueling aircraft [tankers Israel purchased from the US - DZ & AB] necessary for the third circle was purchased. And yet, I agree that in the past there was a decision to take a lower profile, which happened because of the 2015 nuclear deal which was for ten years. And now, naturally, we’re starting situational assessments. We stop and think about what’s happening in the strategic reality we’re in, what’s happening in the discourse between the powers, and where it’s going.

"But we didn’t get budgets for everything that we asked for. As Head of Planning, the hardest part of my job is that the blanket is always short. Even if we were flooded with funding, we’d still have some unfulfilled needs."

Even now? The Ministerial Committee last month approved five billion shekels for defense procurement.

"That wasn’t related directly to this issue, but was, for example, to purchase new Yasur helicopters [a deal estimated at about $2 billion in US funding - DZ & AB]. We have major gaps in preparedness because of big defense budget cuts at the beginning of the previous decade, following the social protests.

"In the end, this isn’t a new threat, but a question of how high the volume is. There were years when we thought we could take our time, because of this or that level of enrichment, this or that type of nuclear facility. After all, we’re not the only ones in the world in dealing with this challenge."

What you’re saying is a little scary. According to reports, it’s not at all clear how much of a timeframe Iran needs to achieve the bomb. There’s talk of a point of no return that could happen in weeks or months. What is our timeframe? Can we attack?

"The answer is yes, we know how to respond. And clearly, as time goes on, the capabilities we’ve acquired and will acquire will come into play, and we’ll know how to give an even better response. That’s within the limits of what I’m able to tell you."

And the day after? We’re conceivably facing attacks on several fronts.

"I don't underestimate the Iranians, I respect them. They have a very developed military industry even if not all of it is particularly sophisticated. Mass mobilization has significance. Their entire country is working on this one thing. It's all factories and industries. The people there have nothing to eat, and they keep throwing crazy amounts of money at it."

So, how do we prepare for this mass attack?

"Iron Dome is our defense workhorse, it’s proven capabilities are phenomenal, it’s an amazing development that is constantly evolving, including in the amount of batteries and interceptors we're equipping ourselves with. Technologically we know how to double and triple output using fewer missile batteries, whether during an emergency or in routine times. Iron Dome can provide a response now, and will be capable of dealing with further threats.

"Air defense is a layered model. In this model, we have the David’s Sling (formerly called Magic Wand) intercept system that provides a medium range solution, and other systems for all other ranges. And there’s also the laser system I mentioned. Even the new threats of the future, like UAVs and drones - we're on it, as they say."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on January 13, 2022.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2022.

Eyal Harel  credit: Eyal Izhar
Eyal Harel credit: Eyal Izhar
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