IDF Challenge: Balancing Military Preparedness with Health Emergency Roles

The novel coronavirus pandemic has tragically claimed tens of thousands of lives worldwide, among them an increasing number of Israeli fatalities. It has roiled markets and stoked public anxiety, all while posing a unique national security challenge for a democracy embedded in a notoriously dangerous neighborhood. As the Israeli military rises to confront this microscopic enemy, it must continue to evaluate its own responsibilities and priorities in a time of unprecedented uncertainty.

Since late January, the Israeli government has implemented increasingly aggressive measures in a bid to contain the coronavirus’ rapid spread. Strict restrictions on international travel, which Israel was among the first to implement, quickly escalated to strict restrictions on any public movement — Israelis are currently required to stay within 100 meters of their homes, with limited exceptions. Amid it all, the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb nationwide, totaling more than 4,800 on Tuesday.

This rapidly evolving situation presents a national security risk to Israel, which regularly faces threats from Iranian proxies on its borders with Syria and Lebanon, Hamas and other Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, Islamic State jihadists in the Sinai Peninsula, and the regime in Tehran. While these actors may not currently be inspired to strike, their calculus may change if Israel’s civil and military apparatuses are overwhelmed. This may be an especially appealing prospect for Iranian leaders, who in recent months have faced widespread protests and may seek to divert domestic attention from their botched response to the public health crisis.

The Israel Defense Forces have acted decisively to address such contingencies, with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi reportedly issuing a situational assessment in late February that set out the military’s priorities in preparing for the coronavirus pandemic. First and foremost was maintaining the IDF’s operational preparedness amid the outbreak, followed by reducing its spread among the ranks. Aiding the civil sector was named as a third priority.

The IDF accordingly elevated its readiness to one level above normal last week, and is requiring soldiers to follow social distancing and quarantine regulations, limiting gatherings, disinfecting facilities and barring most civilians from entering bases. It has ordered certain soldiers – including those serving in combat units – to stay on base for extended periods, and instituted a “capsule” system for critical units. This strategy assigns groups of soldiers to work in different shifts without physical overlap, ensuring that if a soldier in one shift falls ill, a separate, uncompromised shift can take over.

Exercises have been canceled for most reserve units, with precautions taken for essential personnel – for instance, air force reservists who typically train one day a week have been instructed to stay on base for two weeks before leaving and to return less frequently. Recruitment continues as usual, though measures are in place to limit contact among recruits. And while international exercises are banned, with two drills between US and Israeli troops canceled in early March over coronavirus concerns, a US-Israel exercise involving F-35 fighter jets was greenlighted as it required no physical contact between soldiers on the ground.

The IDF is also assisting the civilian sector in the fight against the pandemic, with Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai, the head of Home Front Command, spearheading efforts. These include launching a public communication campaign, staying in connection with local municipalities, and helping the Magen David Adom (MDA) emergency service field calls and test civilians for the coronavirus. Troops have been tasked with assisting at-risk and elderly populations purchase food and other necessities, while soldiers from the education corps are overseeing the children of medical professionals who must continue to work.

The IDF has converted a resort in Ashkelon for use by soldiers with mild coronavirus infections, and likewise opened hotels in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for civilians with mild cases, in order to alleviate pressure from civilian hospitals. It is also ready to escalate its response if the situation worsens, including by supporting vital national supply lines in the event they face disruption.

Many other steps have been taken, some of which are publicly known. As the IDF calibrates its response to the evolving crisis, it must consider the delicate balance between transparency, which is vital in a democracy with compulsory enlistment, and the operational need for secrecy. While weighing these competing commitments, it may choose to withhold sensitive information that is currently disclosed — for instance, daily tallies of IDF personnel who are ill or in isolation, which stood at 75 and 2,612 respectively as of Monday.

The IDF should also consider how to continue successfully balancing its various responsibilities as the caseload soars in the coming weeks, and develop solutions to the contingencies that may arise. IDF leadership, including Operations Directorate head Aharon Haliva, must identify the tipping point that would lead to prioritizing aid to the civil sector over operational preparedness, and what that would mean for Israel’s national security. The challenge coronavirus poses to the military in preserving its readiness while continuing to assist the civil sector is intensifying and solutions must be found with urgency.

IDF MG (ret.) Yaacov Ayish is Senior Vice President for Israeli Affairs at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) and a Distinguished Fellow at JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post