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From Maneuver to Attrition: The Transformation of the Israel Defense Forces’ Approach to Warfare

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From Maneuver to Attrition: The Transformation of the Israel Defense Forces’ Approach to Warfare

David Rodman

Military analysts commonly assert that, of the two basic types of warfare, maneuver and attrition, the former is a superior form of fighting and, therefore, is the natural choice of skilled armies. This claim ignores an important point, however. Even the most skilled armies sometimes choose an attrition-oriented battle doctrine rather than a maneuver-oriented one, because their states’ strategic environments warrant such decisions. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF), a consummate practitioner of maneuver warfare in the post-Second World War era, has steadily shifted toward an attrition-oriented battle doctrine over the past few decades as a result of Israel’s changing strategic environment.

Maneuver and attrition constitute the two basic types of warfare. Maneuver warfare is based primarily on mobility. Armies that employ maneuver warfare are those that attempt to penetrate—through either frontal assaults or flanking movements—into their opponents’ hinterlands with the intent of bringing about their opponents’ rapid collapse by wreaking havoc in rear areas. Attrition warfare, to the contrary, is based primarily on firepower. Armies that employ attrition warfare are those that wage either very slow-moving or largely static slugging matches with their opponents with the intent of grinding down their opponents to the brink of annihilation.

Maneuver and attrition warfare are often portrayed as polar opposites that are mutually exclusive, but such a stark contrast is quite misleading. All armies across both time and space have been guided by battle doctrines that combine both mobility and firepower. Neither pure maneuver nor pure attrition warfare has ever existed in the annals of military history. Nevertheless, it is certainly possible to classify battle doctrines as either maneuver-oriented or attrition-oriented, depending upon which end of the mobility‒firepower spectrum they lean toward. Those battle doctrines that emphasize mobility over firepower are maneuver-oriented, while those that emphasize firepower over mobility are attrition-oriented.

A few examples suffice to illustrate this assertion. The Carthaginian army that invaded and ravaged Italy during the Second Punic War waged a campaign that relied first and foremost on mobility. That it also smashed a number of Roman armies in large-scale, set-piece battles during the campaign does not invalidate the fact that it favored maneuver over attrition warfare. Similarly, the Wehrmacht’s offensives in Poland, the Low Countries, France, Norway, and the Soviet Union in the early years of the Second World War saw mobile forces swiftly pierce or outflank their opponents’ defenses and penetrate far into their hinterlands, leading to chaos in their rear areas, followed by the inevitable collapse of their armies (albeit a temporary one in the case of the Soviet army). That the Wehrmacht fought many large-scale battles along the way, employing massive firepower and inflicting enormous destruction, does not change that fact that it also favored maneuver over attrition warfare.

Conversely, the Union army relied mainly on firepower to crush the Confederate army during the last years of the American Civil War. That the Union army also pushed deep into Confederate territory during these same years does not alter the fact that its campaign favored attrition over maneuver warfare. Likewise, the armies that fought on the Western Front during the First World War clearly depended much more on firepower than on mobility to achieve their objectives throughout much of the war. That territory sometimes changed hands during the fighting does not abrogate the fact that both the allied and central powers favored attrition over maneuver warfare for much of the war.

Military analysts often claim that maneuver is a “higher” form of warfare, while attrition is a “lower” form. The reasoning behind this line of thought is as follows. Skilled armies tend to adopt maneuver-oriented battle doctrines, because mobility acts as a sort of “force multiplier” against opponents. Less-skilled armies, on the other hand, tend to adopt attrition-oriented battle doctrines, because they lack the wherewithal to conduct mobile operations and, therefore, must fall back on firepower to face their opponents. Skilled armies, in short, use finesse to try to overcome their opponents, while less-skilled armies must rely on brute force to attempt to achieve the same objective.

This line of thought, however appealing, misses an important point: skilled armies sometimes choose to emphasize attrition over maneuver warfare, because circumstances warrant such decisions. Take the case of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), one of the most proficient practitioners of maneuver warfare in the post-Second World War era. Quietly, and perhaps more in a de facto than a de jure sense, the IDF has increasingly embraced attrition warfare at the expense of maneuver warfare over the past few decades. The transformation of Israel’s strategic environment over these same decades accounts for this shift in the IDF’s battle doctrine.

Leaving aside the chronic low-intensity conflicts in which it has been embroiled since its establishment, Israel has fought nine wars. This total includes six interstate wars against one or more Arab states: the 1947‒1949 War of Independence; the 1956 Sinai Campaign; the 1967 Six-Day War; the 1969‒1970 War of Attrition; the 1973 Yom Kippur War; and the 1982 Lebanon War. This count also includes three asymmetrical wars against Arab nonstate organizations: the 2006 Second Lebanon War against Hizbullah (and allied militias); the 2008‒2009 Gaza War (or Operation Cast Lead) against Hamas (and allied militias); and the 2014 Gaza War (or Operation Protective Edge) against Hamas (and allied militias).

One fact immediately stands out when reviewing this history. During Israel’s early decades, interstate war constituted the main challenge to its national security. In the past few decades, to the contrary, asymmetrical war has constituted the main challenge to Israel’s national security. Herein lies the explanation as to why the IDF has increasingly moved away from a maneuver-oriented battle doctrine and toward an attrition-oriented one. Three variables—geography, numbers, and allies—are of paramount importance in this regard.

Israel emerged victorious from its War of Independence, but its survival remained far from assured in the aftermath of hostilities, with the Arab world still committed to its eventual destruction. Though Israel had actually added substantially to its territory during the war, its postwar borders were highly unfavorable from a military perspective. Extremely long in relation to the state’s total land area and essentially flat, they offered no topographical obstacles to an invasion in the north, center, or south. Moreover, all of Israel’s major cities, industrial assets, and military bases stood within easy reach of Arab armies. Indeed, the center of the state—which housed the bulk of the populace, most of the heavy industry, and many of the military facilities—did not exceed a mere 14 kilometers in some places. Not only did Israel possess indefensible borders after the War of Independence, but it also lacked strategic depth.

Second, numbers added another layer of uncertainty to Israel’s national security. With its limited manpower base—the state’s population at birth consisted of just 600‒650,000 souls—and a correspondingly small economic base, Israel realized that the IDF would not be able to compete for the foreseeable future in terms of the number of men or machines at its disposal in comparison to those in the hands of its Arab adversaries. Furthermore, most of the manpower that Israel could devote to the IDF would of necessity be made up of part-time reservists, so as not to undermine the state’s economic advancement. Consequently, the IDF decided that it must emphasize quality over quantity, reasoning that Israel’s “few” must be organized and trained in such a way as to be able to overcome the Arabs’ “many.”

Third, Israel’s lack of allies contributed still further to its national security dilemma. Both Western and Eastern bloc states sought the friendship of the Arab states, which controlled much of the world’s oil supply, because of the burgeoning Cold War. As part of their efforts to befriend the Arab states, predictably enough, Western and Eastern bloc states alike sought to distance themselves from Israel. This strategic reality ensured that Israel could not be a party to any bilateral or multilateral defense pact and, therefore, could not count on foreign assistance in an Arab‒Israeli confrontation. France and Great Britain would join Israel in attacking Egypt during the 1956 Sinai Campaign, but this development sprang from a unique set of circumstances that could not possibly have been anticipated when the IDF’s battle doctrine was formulated in the early 1950s.

Collectively, then, these three variables drove the IDF to adopt a maneuver-oriented battle doctrine built initially upon engaging in preventive and preemptive wars. An absence of defensible borders and strategic depth made it absolutely imperative for the IDF to take the fight to Arab territory, because permitting an Arab invasion of Israel could well spell the destruction of the state. Not only must wars be fought on Arab soil, but they must also be short so as to prevent the Arab world from bringing its greater numbers of men and machines to bear on the fighting, so as to prevent the implosion of the Israeli economy, and so as to prevent foreign powers from intervening in hostilities on the Arab world’s behalf. Offensive maneuver warfare, with its emphasis on rapid thrusts into an opponent’s hinterland to cause its army’s collapse, offered the IDF the best prospect of winning wars as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

The IDF’s experience in the final months of the War of Independence confirmed the efficacy of this paradigm. Not only did the IDF rout the Egyptian army during these months, pushing it completely out of Israeli territory, but Israeli units also temporarily seized a chunk of the Sinai, in operations that saw mobile columns of mechanized infantry drive through or around Egyptian forces in swift thrusts. Thus, in 1956, when Israel embarked on a preventive war against Egypt in order to forestall a rising threat to its national security from that quarter, the IDF waged a maneuver-oriented campaign. It opened the war with a vertical flanking action, the dropping of a parachute battalion deep in the Sinai, severing the main connection between Egyptian forces in the Sinai and those in Egypt proper. Next, several brigade-sized columns spearheaded by mechanized infantry advanced through or around Egyptian defenses in the Sinai in rapid thrusts, leading to the collapse of Egyptian forces there in just a few days. The IDF fought only a small number of large-scale, set-piece battles during the campaign, and its losses in men and machines were quite limited in comparison to those suffered by its Egyptian foe.

Much the same pattern would be repeated in 1967, when Israel engaged in a preemptive war against an imminent pan-Arab threat to its national security. At the same time as the Israel Air Force (IAF) destroyed the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian air forces on the ground at the outset of hostilities in a surprise attack, three IDF armored divisions either speedily crashed through Egyptian defenses in the Sinai in frontal assaults or else outflanked them by crossing over allegedly impassable terrain. A combination of airpower and armor then wreaked havoc in the Egyptian rear, leading to the complete collapse of the Egyptian army in the Sinai in three days as it tried to retreat toward the Suez Canal. While the Egyptian army suffered very heavy casualties in men and machines, the number of large-scale, set-piece battles on this front was again rather small. Similar scenarios played themselves out on the Judean and Samarian (Jordanian) and Golan (Syrian) fronts, though the results on these fronts were not as lopsided in terms of losses as on the Sinai front.

In contrast to the Sinai Campaign, in whose aftermath American and Soviet threats against Israel eventually compelled the return of the Sinai to Egypt, the IDF remained firmly ensconced in the territory it had captured during the Six-Day War. Control over the Sinai, Judea and Samaria, and the Golan provided Israel with defensible borders and a measure of strategic depth for the first time in its history, especially in the center and south of the state. While its improved geographical position tempered Israel’s penchant for waging preventive and preemptive wars after 1967, the IDF nevertheless continued to place its faith in a maneuver-oriented battle doctrine moving forward. Based on its past experience, the IDF judged that maneuver warfare still offered the best prospect for a speedy victory at tolerable cost, regardless of which side started future rounds of hostilities.

When Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel signaling the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, therefore, the IDF responded with a mobile defense on both the Golan and Sinai fronts. On the Golan, the IDF first halted the Syrian army’s offensive, then launched a mobile counterattack with three armored divisions to clear the area of Syrian forces, and finally engaged in a mobile counteroffensive into Syria proper, bringing the outskirts of the Syrian capital within artillery range in a few days. In the Sinai, the IDF launched a mobile counterattack on the third day of the war with two armored divisions only to be rebuffed by a stout Egyptian defense. Less than a week later, however, the IDF smashed an Egyptian offensive toward the Sinai’s mountain passes in the largest tank engagement since the Battle of Kursk during the Second World War. The IDF immediately followed up this triumph with a mobile counteroffensive that saw it slice through two Egyptian army corps, cross over to the Egyptian side of the Suez Canal, capture a substantial chunk of Egyptian territory, and eventually surround one of the two Egyptian army corps involved in the fighting. In the Yom Kippur War, as in the Sinai Campaign and the Six-Day War, the practice of maneuver warfare brought the IDF victory over its opponents.

Even in the two interstate wars in which the IDF was compelled by circumstances to wage attrition warfare on a large scale—the War of Attrition and the Lebanon War—it also engaged in maneuver warfare in attempts to end these wars on Israel’s terms. During the War of Attrition, the IAF engaged in “deep-penetration” air raids near the Egyptian capital—a vertical flanking action—in an effort to coerce Egypt into stopping the war without registering any gains. That this effort did not succeed—and that the war finally ended in a stalemate after a costly attrition campaign—does not change the fact that the IDF relied on maneuver warfare in an effort to bring it victory. During the Lebanon War, the IDF employed maneuver warfare to sweep the Syrian army and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) units from southern Lebanon, as several armored divisions drove quickly northward. Unfortunately for Israel, retreating PLO units embedded themselves in Beirut, making it necessary for the IDF to engage in a protracted and destructive siege of the city in order to pry the PLO out of Lebanon.

The first faint signs that the IDF’s battle doctrine had begun to move away from a heavy emphasis on maneuver warfare and toward a greater appreciation of the merits of attrition warfare actually appeared in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. The early setbacks that it suffered during the hostilities convinced the IDF that “quantity has a quality of its own.” Hence, the IDF not only greatly expanded its order of battle, but it also increased its reliance on firepower to accomplish its objectives. During the siege of Beirut, for example, the IDF depended almost entirely on the application of massive firepower to reach its goal of ejecting the PLO from Lebanon.

Still, the transition from maneuver to attrition warfare really began to pick up momentum in the following decade, and it has accelerated further during the first two decades of the twenty-first century. By the 1990s, Israel had reached comprehensive peace agreements with both Egypt and Jordan, so they no longer represented threats to the state. Crushed by the allied coalition in the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq has been mired in chaos ever since and, therefore, has not represented a significant threat to Israel for the last three decades. And Syria, which did not succeed in reaching its self-declared goal of achieving “strategic parity” with Israel even before the turn of the century, has disintegrated as a state in all but name since 2011, so it no longer represents a substantial threat to Israel, either.

The steep decline of interstate war as a threat to Israel has been accompanied by an equally impressive rise in asymmetrical war as a threat. Two large-scale uprisings in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza since the mid-1980s, coupled with its contested occupation of territory in southern Lebanon from the mid-1980s until the turn of the century, ultimately convinced Israel that holding onto territory inhabited by hostile populations had become a problematic endeavor. In an attempt to rid itself of the costs of waging low-intensity conflicts, Israel unilaterally withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005. Unfortunately, these moves served only to heighten the prospect of asymmetrical war rather than to promote peace, because Hizbullah and Hamas, respectively, filled the vacuums left by the Israeli withdrawals. Once in control of territory, these organizations proved able to improve dramatically their military capabilities.

The same three variables that pushed the IDF toward a maneuver-oriented battle doctrine in its early decades now drove it in the direction of an attrition-oriented one. Swift and deep thrusts into an opponent’s hinterland by mobile columns had become passé. What worked to defeat conventional armies would not necessarily produce victory over unconventional ones. Moreover, as a result of its previous experiences, Israel no longer had any interest in taking and dominating territory inhabited by hostile populations. The application of massive firepower—especially precision, standoff firepower from the air—appeared to provide a much more efficient way to smash nonstate organizations like Hizbullah and Hamas. Numbers of men and machines, now heavily in the IDF’s favor, also augured well for an attrition-oriented battle doctrine, as did the fact the no foreign powers, including the Arabs states, would—or even could—come to the immediate assistance of Hizbullah or Hamas. That these organizations were entirely on their own against Israel indicated that the IDF would generally have more time to accomplish its objectives than it had during interstate wars. The IDF could now use its superior numbers and take its time to whittle down its opponents.

When Israel embarked on the 2006 Second Lebanon War, after a particularly severe Hizbullah provocation along its northern frontier, therefore, the IDF relied largely on precision, standoff firepower from the air to achieve its principal objective of destroying that organization’s rocket array and other military assets. IDF ground forces throughout most of the war did little more than conduct sporadic, short, and shallow incursions into Lebanese territory, essentially in the form of raids, to smash specific Hizbullah strongholds near the Israeli border. A somewhat more robust incursion during the last days of the war was also short-lived and shallow, not to mention executed in a very clumsy manner. At no time in the war did the IDF resort to the sort of maneuver-oriented battle doctrine that had served it so well in the Sinai Campaign, the Six-Day War, and the Yom Kippur War.

The war concluded on an unsatisfactory note from Israel’s perspective. While the IDF clearly won the contest against Hizbullah on points, to employ a boxing metaphor, it just as clearly did not succeed in delivering a knockout blow. This uninspiring outcome convinced the IDF to tweak its operational model in its next two asymmetrical wars by adding a dedicated “ground maneuver” (in Israeli parlance) to the mix. In both the First and Second Gaza Wars, the IDF executed large-scale ground incursions in Gaza after about a week or so of heavy bombardment, mostly from the air, to degrade the capabilities of Hamas (and allied) units. In the first war, the primary intent behind the ground incursion was to push Hamas rockets beyond the range of major Israeli population centers. In the second war, the primary intent was to destroy Hamas attack tunnels, many of which penetrated into Israel proper. In both wars, the ground incursion was slow and shallow. In neither instance did it resemble in any important respect past IDF land operations that flowed from the maneuver-oriented battle doctrine of earlier interstate Arab‒Israeli wars. The IDF easily defeated Hamas (and its allies) in each contest, but it did so by employing an attrition-oriented battle doctrine, not a maneuver-oriented one.

The IDF, unquestionably, still espouses maneuver warfare and still retains powerful mobile units for this type of fighting. Nevertheless, unless (or until) the threat of interstate war becomes a genuine threat to Israel once more, the IDF’s battle doctrine is likely to remain attrition-oriented. Perhaps no recent development better illustrates that the IDF has nowadays embraced attrition warfare than Israel’s enormous investment in a comprehensive rocket and missile shield. The Arrow interceptor system is intended to protect the state against ballistic missiles, including those potentially armed with nuclear warheads, while the Magic Wand (also known as David’s Sling) and Iron Dome interceptor systems are intended to protect it from medium- and short-range rockets and missiles, as well as cruise missiles. Collectively, these systems are meant to minimize damage to Israel’s home front while the IDF patiently and systematically destroys its opponent’s military assets. If the IDF expected to be able to bring about the quick collapse of an opponent on today’s battlefield, then Israel would surely not need such elaborate defensive capabilities.

About the Author(s)

David Rodman is the author of three books about Israeli diplomatic and military history. He has also published numerous articles in professional journals, such as The Journal of Strategic Studies, Intelligence and National Security, Middle Eastern Studies, Israel Affairs, Defence Studies, and Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs.