IDF Should Invest in Its Non-Commissioned Officers

The IDF should consider prioritizing an investment in professionalizing its noncommissioned officers before purchasing a new piece of exquisite military hardware.

The Iron Dome and F-35s have certainly saved lives and enabled Israel to remain the premier military force in the Middle East. However, in the wake of a US drawdown in the region, Israel needs more than just the instruments of war, it needs more experienced fighters to increase its ability.

In the US military we are taught as young officers that the solution to any problem almost always requires expertise of the NCOs. This approach is well captured in the 2013 National Defense University report titled “The Noncommissioned Officer and Petty Officer – Backbone of the Armed Forces.” This report states that “NCOs/POs are the specially trusted leaders who provide an indispensable and irreplaceable linkage between command guidance and mission execution. They are the competent, credible, and capable servant-leaders who influence and impact every aspect of an organization’s operations, administration, and climate.”

The IDF needs a stronger NCO corps. That was made apparent to me during my tenure in the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s (JINSA) 2020 Military Leaders program, an educational program that brought me to Israel to learn about Israel’s unique security challenges.

It was during an exchange at the IDF’s National Defense College between my cohort and Israeli military leaders, that we engaged in case studies on recent IDF battles. Using footage from combat camera teams, the student exchange reviewed infantry operations as they conducted missions such as a night raid against a Hezbollah encampment in Lebanon and a daylight clearing operation against Hamas in Gaza. The footage showcased the battle’s progress as young infantry soldiers engaged the enemy and their senior commanders worked to lead their units to tactical success.

Our review highlighted what appeared to be a glaring weakness: the battalion commander had to wear two hats as both the operational leader and the tactical expert during every aspect of the mission. While the troops were well-trained, victory was often elusive and rarely decisive because the battalion commander’s attention was split, and his force appeared to lack junior leaders to take on critical but subordinate tasks. For example, the battalion commander was directing the triage and medical care of the wounded when his focus was needed on the assault toward the enemy’s position.

During the discussion at the military college, it emerged that the IDF basically has no corps of NCOs, or nagadim. In the IDF, I was informed, the average NCO leaves the service after six to seven years. Therefore, there are very few seasoned NCOs to take on the responsibilities of translating commander’s intent, leading assaults, mentoring young officers or advising senior leaders. Moreover, there is no command and control surge capability to reduce the burden on junior- and mid-level officers during the critical phases of combat.

Israel has good reason to be proud of its unique model of organizing, training and equipping its military through compulsory service and robust reserve components. It has served them well throughout their 72-year history. The fact that the officer corps is chosen almost exclusively from its enlisted ranks is to be admired, but this plunders the entire talent pool of expertise from its ever-diminishing NCO ranks.

This exodus of experience could place the IDF in a readiness deficit as increasingly sophisticated weapons systems will require lengthy training to effectively operate in combat. As Israel seeks to enlarge its role as a defender of stability and democracy in the region, it ought to consider expanding its military organizational structure to retain and professionalize its enlisted ranks.

It was often mentioned during our exchange that due to its small size and few friendly neighbors, Israel lacks external military “strategic depth.” The threat of Iranian missiles, an increasingly capable Hezbollah army and continued unrest in Gaza leaves Israel vulnerable on multiple fronts.

But Israel also lacks an internal “strategic depth” in its military’s human capital. A force comprised primarily of conscripts and reservists is not likely to possess the tacit, corporate knowledge or experience needed to lead and innovate through the ambiguous warfare of the future. Depth in human capital is critical to maintaining combat proficiency particularly in tasks related to the command and control of space, cyber and AI assets. These weapon systems will dominate future conflicts and require a seasoned NCO corps to operate them.

Though Israel has been successful in conflicts throughout its short history, the past is not prologue. It will be too late at the time of need to realize the advantages of a truly capable NCO corps. It would be worth the fraction of the cost of the Israeli F-35 program to build depth into the IDF NCO corps. The IDF should strongly consider elevating the role of the NCO and it should consider even more seriously the price it will pay if it doesn’t.

Col. Edmund X. Loughran, USAF is a special tactics officer in the Air Force’s Special Operation Command (AFSOC) and is currently serving as military fellow in Washington. He is a prior AFSOC squadron commander and was a participant on JINSA’s 2020 Military Leaders Program to Israel.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post