While the capabilities Israel employs vary and evolve, strategic depth will continue to be a core concept in regards to any present and future conflicts. As such, it will be interesting to follow the development of Israeli strategic depth, minding perhaps a possible expansion into cyberspace.
The question of Israel’s strategic depth as a significant element of its decision making process has long been prominent among Middle-East strategists and researchers. Being of a land mass so small it can be easily overlooked in its entirety on a map, Israel’s leaders continuously envision themselves as surrounded by arrayed enemy forces on several fronts. Among Israel’s security-conscious crowd, it has become commonplace to hear that ‘Israel can never afford to lose any of its wars’. This is for the exact same reasoning, as even the most seemingly insignificant loss of territory might put enemy forces within a bullet’s distance of Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv or any other major population centre.
In order to deal with this unfortunate reality, Israeli strategists have – at times – attempted to expand its strategic depth to include an adversary’s territory. Truly, a linchpin of any military campaign is to “take the action to the enemy”, often meaning across the border. While arguably this can be applied to many modern militaries, it holds especially true for a country with a small stretch of land between its borders and its cities. This strategy was tested several times in the past, and can in part explain why the Israeli Defense Forces places such an emphasis on maintaining a superior and costly air force, or allegedly maintains a substantial array of ballistic missiles.
Additionally, this can also explain why Israel is one of the only nations to actively pursue open military operations on foreign soil outside the scope of full-fledged war. While espionage and subterfuge are often cited as a mainstay of any nation, most nations choose to exercise such actions with extreme caution rather than flare. Why is it then that we hear so often of acts of aggression attributed directly to Israel?
Several notable examples come to mind. The bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981 pushed the Israeli’s air force’s operational range to its extreme limit. A second such strike was reported in 2007 against the Dir-a-Zur nuclear reactor undergoing construction in Syria, again signalling that Israel’s strategic reach is much farther than its size. Multiple reported strikes against targets in Sudan further underlined Israel’s willingness to operate against its foes in different theatres. Even covert actions, such as the Mabhouh assassination in Dubai in 2010 allegedly performed by Israeli operatives once again expanded the field of engagement.
Israel’s opponents often portray it as the aggressor due to sheer malice or due to it having dark designs on the Middle-East. Conversely, these acts are potentially carried out to prevent its enemies from attempting to encroach on its physical strategic depth in a creative brand of active deterrence, thus avoiding bloody wars for survival that may or may not drag actual strategic military assets into play. While this is a highly contested statement debated in many circles, one can reason that a possible motivation behind risky actions that attempt to cement Israel’s strategic depth is to deter its foes from triggering actual war or substantially altering the unique regional balance.
Interestingly, perhaps we can now see this mode of operation as spilling into cyberspace. Substantial activities in this field have recently been attributed to Israel and the United States, notably the aggressive malware known as Duqu, Stuxnet and Flame. Although it is doubtful that the original intent behind these cyber-operations was to have them exposed as they eventually were, perhaps such future deliberate endeavours are worthwhile to consider. While deterrence in cyberspace is a concept still very much up for contemporary debate, many argue that at least some degree of conflict between aggressors can and will take place there.
So perhaps an interesting twist on an existing strategic formula would be to attempt and extend Israel’s strategic sphere of influence into cyberspace. Already we are seeing the first signs of escalation that will likely continue in the near future. With fresh cyber-attacks against Saudi and Qatari oil interests alongside American banks attributed to Iranian hackers – potentially with state sponsorship – it is becoming increasingly clear that Stuxnet served as a catalyst for future online engagements. It would be curious to see an Israeli joint cyber command (not unlike the United States’ relatively new CYBERCOM) issuing a declaration – as the air force has done before – claiming that it can strike wherever and whenever it is required. However, this will need to be occasionally corroborated with actual, relatively high-profile operations.
The essential drawback to such a strategy is that cyber weapons are sometimes portrayed as effective for precisely one deployment. There is some degree of logic in that; when a cyber weapon is employed, the vulnerability that had allowed it to operate will likely get immediately shut down in upon identification of the attack (e.g the Stuxnet 0-day vulnerabilities). However, as hackers today are still commonly attacking high-profile targets using relatively simple hacking tools, it is not inconceivable to draw a strategic line in the sand with relative ease.
To conclude, while the capabilities employed vary and evolve with time as do the threats, strategic depth will continue to be a core concept in regards to any present and future conflicts involving Israel. As such, it will be interesting to follow the development of Israeli strategic depth, minding perhaps a possible expansion into cyberspace.
Photo Credit: Flavio~