Letter from Jerusalem: Hybrid Warfare
Last summer’s war against Hezbollah has taught Israel one significant lesson: Its current storeroom of laser-guided missiles and bombs are not adequate to defeat the enemy.
In 1968, Israelis flocked to the cinema to see a documentary featuring bombsight photos of how the Israel Air Force decimated its Egyptian and Syrian counterparts in the previous year’s Six-Day War. In the summer of 2006, similar photography at daily military briefings, often broadcasted live on television, demonstrated how a much more sophisticated IAF used laser-guided missiles and bombs on enemy targets.
But unlike the stunning successes of 1967, technological superiority did not bring a sweeping victory in the latest Israeli conflict.
In the second Lebanon war, the maxim about generals always preparing for the last war proved inaccurate. Against the holy warriors of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s Hezbollah, Israel was engaged in a hybrid war partly of the future and partly rooted in the past. And to its chagrin, it was Israel’s modern technology—from laser-guided “smart” bombs and missiles able to be directed into a second-floor window to communications equipment that brought images and sounds from the battlefield to top military leaders in real time—that was frustrated by the Hezbollah defenses fashioned by Iran.
Those defenses were a formidable obstacle that had to be encountered headfirst. “It’s the first war Israel has fought in which fighting did not involve large forces in open areas like the Golan Heights, Sinai and some parts of the West Bank,” says military historian Michael Oren of the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based think tank, and author of the best seller, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Presidio Press). “And because of this, Israel’s heavy reliance on air power and armor was mitigated by the terrain.” In the 1982 Lebanon war, adds Oren, “we fought mainly on the roads and bypassed the mountain villages. We almost drove straight to Beirut.”
The difference wasn’t just terrain, insists Arye Mizrachi, who in 1982 commanded Israeli artillery forces in Lebanon. He describes what Hezbollah built in south Lebanon as a four-layered defense system: a line of heavily fortified positions and underground bunkers along the border equipped with the best in computer, imaging and communications equipment; a relatively small number of long-range rockets designed to strike deeper into Israel than the 120-mm Katyushas Hezbollah had fired in the past; thousands of Katyushas stashed not in the organized arsenals of a conventional army but in mosques, schools and private homes; and a force of highly motivated, well-equipped fighters trained for the sole task of protecting the launchers and their crews. Israeli tactics, he says, proved effective against the first two layers, but much less so against the second pair.
“The world’s major mistake is calling Hezbollah a guerrilla [army],” says Mizrachi. “What we fought in south Lebanon was an Iranian army division, following Iranian military doctrine with modern equipment, much of it from Iran.”
Hezbollah may be the most effective foe Israel has ever faced. “It is not a ragtag army, like the Egyptians in 1967,” says Oren. “They have a structure, ranks and a high level of discipline. To a large extent, in 1982, the PLO in Lebanon ran. These guys stayed and fought.”
On the other hand, Hezbollah relied heavily on Katyushas, which it fired by the thousands at northern Israel. Retired General Yaakov Amidror, a former deputy chief of military intelligence, calls the Katyusha “a classic guerrilla weapon that can be fired from anywhere and hidden away quickly.”
In all, oren says, israel fought an enemy that was neither a classic army nor a classic guerilla force, but something that in some aspects resembles the Vietcong during the Vietnam War.
If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s that Israel must maximize its technical advantages where it can and find new ways of responding in situations where technology does not provide an answer. And, as many commentators have already stressed, it’s time that Israel understands that air power has its limitations. “The Air Force was very effective against long-range missiles,” says Amidror, now vice president of the Lander Institute, a private college in Jerusalem. “It made most of their launchers turn into one-time disposable systems that were destroyed almost immediately. I don’t know of any other army in the world that has that capability. But we had much less success from the air in dealing with the 120-mm Katyushas.”
“Over the last five years, the Army has reshaped itself to fight a low-intensity, urban conflict with the Palestinians,” observes Oren. “We downgraded our reserves, cut training time for reserve units, mothballed many of our tanks. Because of this, the Army has become more suited to police work.”
Some adjustments were made on the spot, during the war. For example, Israel began moving its tanks at night, to make their sighting by Hezbollah rocket gunners more difficult, and reverted to traditional infantry tactics.
“At first we sent the armor in, but Hezbollah had missiles,” a colonel told reporters after a battle at the fortified town of Bint Jbail. “So we decided to use the old method, on two legs.”
Israel is the only Western country to come under sustained rocket attack. The Israeli-made Arrow missile system, built partly in response to the Scuds Iraq fired on the country during the 1991 gulf war, provides an adequate, if not yet battle-tested, defense against long-range missiles fired from, say, Iran.
But an answer to the Katyusha, developed by the Russians during World War II, isn’t in place. “Israel is going to have to find a 21st-century technology with which to respond to a mid-20th-century threat,” says Oren. “We certainly can’t stop 1940’s rockets in the arsenal of the Arabs with what we have.”
A defense against katyushas has been developed by Israel Aircraft Industries, in cooperation with Northrop Grumman of the United States. But early this year, the Nautilus, which uses a high-energy laser beam to explode rockets in mid-flight, was dropped by the United States on grounds that the system was too cumbersome. In a decision policy planners may now be regretting, Israel decided that the country could not afford the hundreds of millions of dollars it would cost to pick up the project on its own. Chances for reviving the program, in light of this summer’s experience, have improved.
The Trophy Active Defense System, which defends tanks against modern double-headed antiarmor missiles, is also ready to be deployed, and none too soon: 50 of the 118 Israeli casualties this past summer were caused by Russian antitank missiles. According to industry sources, the Army is due to consider purchasing the Trophy—the only near-operational system that shoots down incoming anti-tank missiles in flight—in 2007.
But even if these solutions are applied, there will be new challenges to meet. As Mizrachi notes, planners on both sides have already gone back to the drawing board to absorb the lessons of last summer’s war.
But there’s no guarantee those lessons will be applicable. “No two wars are alike,” says Amidror, who adds that the Israel Defense Forces is still more than a match for traditional forces like the Syrian Army, which it would destroy, he says, “faster than you can say Jack Robinson.
“In each [war] there are special circumstances,” he says, “and if we have to fight again, the next one will depend on who we are fighting against.” In the case of Israel, unfortunately, that could involve any one of a number of potential enemies.