Special Operations: Israeli SOCOM Evolves


January 3, 2016: Since 2007, when Israel decided to establish a SOCOM (Special Operations Command), to coordinate the many different commando units it has in its armed forces, several other adjustments have been made to improve the effectiveness of Israeli special operations forces. The 2007 decision came about after observing the success of the United States with their SOCOM. The Israeli SOCOM took a few years of work to create and appeared in 2011 as “Depth Corps.” This name was recognition of the original idea for a “SOCOM” in the 1980s to concentrate on long range commando operations.

Israeli SOCOM operates in a similar fashion to the U.S. SOCOM. Many Israeli military commanders had, since 2000, urged the formation of a SOCOM. But the services could never agree on the details. It was the war with Hezbollah in 2006 that put Israeli SOCOM over the top. Among the many problems Israeli troops had in 2006 included some coordination hassles with special operations units. These are the kinds of problems that SOCOM deals with head on and effectively.

In mid-2015 Israel put four separate special operations battalions together into one brigade. The new brigade is part of the parachute division and will make the special skills of these four battalions available on a wider scale. Some members of these four units are complaining because the four battalions have different skills and tend to operate in different parts of the country. But the army leaders insist this will not be a problem. The four battalions are quite different. The Duvdevan battalion spends most of its time in the West Bank carrying out undercover counter-terrorist operations. This is similar to what the American Special Forces concentrates on. The Maglan battalion is a LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols) specialist that belongs to the combat engineers. The concept of LRRPs is ancient but the modern versions were developed during World War II, and used heavily in Vietnam and in many other places since then. The Egoz battalion specializes in reconnaissance and counter-terror operations, mainly along the Lebanese and Syrian borders. The Rimon battalion specializes in desert operations and operates mainly in the south (the Negev Desert and along the Gaza and Egyptian borders).

All of these units belonged to local brigades that needed their special skills on a regular basis. These brigades have been assured that they will still have access to their former battalions but as a specialized battalion that is now part of a brigade that will make these units easily available to the entire armed forces.

Each of these four battalions began as elite infantry units, most of them originally paratroopers that became specialized. The Israelis allow such things to develop because commanders are urged to adapt to local circumstances as much as they can. Meanwhile Israel still has a Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) containing commando type units from all the services. The U.S. and many other nations also have a version of JSOC.

All this began with a series of U.S. Department of Defense reforms in the late 1980s that included the establishment of the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). This was a major step up for the commandos. SOCOM was now a "major command," with a four star general in charge. The SOCOM commander had control over all commandos in the Department of Defense. This was a unique situation. Normally, troops from different services don't operate in the same major unit ("command") like this. But the commandos didn't mind. Some of the service chiefs did, as they saw their men as useful "assets" for their service. But there was another trend in the 1980s Department of Defense; "Thinking Purple." This meant all the services cooperating more closely and thinking about each other’s capabilities and problems. Combining all the colors of each services uniforms and you get purple, and everyone in the Department of Defense was encouraged to get with this program. Not everyone did, but the commandos were enthusiastic about the proposition. They had long noted that commandos had more in common with other commandos (from different services, or even different nations), than with other people in their own service.

About two thirds of SOCOMs troops came from the army, which had their Special Forces, Rangers, Delta Force, psywar and civil affairs and special aviation units. The next largest contribution (about 20 percent) comes from the air force, who have several different types of air power related commandos and special aircraft units. The navy provided its SEALs and the special boat units needed to land them in hostile environments. The marine Force Recon LRRPs were the only commando units in Department of Defense that did not join SOCOM at the beginning. The marines finally signed on in 2005.

Meanwhile Israel had always had special operations troops and has large force of commando troops for a country its size. There are two small battalions of Arabic speaking troops used for undercover operations and raids into the Occupied (Palestinian) territories). Sayeret Shimshon (Unit 367) is assigned to the Gaza Strip, while Sayeret Duvdevan (Unit 217) takes care of the West Bank. There are four companies of Ranger type troops (Palsar) that normally each support one of the four elite infantry brigades of the army, and two more to support armored brigades. There are also three LRRP companies (Special Command Teams), with one assigned to each of the army's corps headquarters. Lotar Eilat and Unit Yamam are two hostage rescue units (each under 100 troops.) These units are also used as commandos (as when there is a lot of violence with the Palestinians.) There are also several hundred highly trained LRRP troops assigned directly to intelligence units. The navy has a SEAL unit (Shayetet 13) of about 400 men. This unit is more selective than the other commando units, with about 80 percent of candidates failing the training course, compared to about 50 percent with other commando units. The navy also has a company size unit of divers (similar to U.S. UDT). The police force also has over a thousand specially trained men who are a cut above your usual SWAT teams.


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