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Military Lessons of the Israel-Hezbollah War in Lebanon

P. K. Gautam was a Consultant at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • August 19, 2006

    Since the middle of the 20th century, the Arab-Israeli wars have thrown up a number of military lessons. The most spectacular was a textbook pre-emptive counter air strike in 1967 by the Israeli Air Force (IAF), which destroyed or made non-operational the entire Egyptian Air Force. This demonstrated the need for gaining mastery of the air as a prelude to spectacular ground operations. At sea, a Styx missile fired by an Egyptian missile boat on the Israeli destroyer Eliat validated the idea of anti-ship missiles.

    The 1973 Arab-Israeli War again demonstrated a few new lessons. The first was that a determined attacker can breach an obstacle. The Egyptian Army surprised the token Israeli defenders on the Bar Lev line, proving that no defensive work can stop a committed attacker. Later, in attempts to link up with troops on the canal, Israelis learnt yet another lesson. They charged with only tanks without accompanying mechanised infantry, neglecting to neutralise the anti-tank screen by artillery firepower, and consequently paid a heavy price in tank losses. This war also proved that artillery firepower and combined arms teams must operate together. Thus was sown the seeds of the Merkava tank with the capacity to carry infantry inside the hull. The Egyptians also ushered in the age of surface-to-air missile (SAM) warfare, and learning from the IAF's pre-emptive use of air power in 1967 were successful in downing about 40 Israeli jets in the first two days of the Yom Kippur War.

    The next lesson was the demonstration of how to win a war in the fourth dimension, that is, the electromagnetic spectrum. In the 1982 operations in the Bekka Valley the Israelis were successful in destroying Syrian radars and aircraft through innovative tactics of suppression of air defence (SEAD) by using surface-to-air missiles, ground based fire power, electronic warfare, the use of remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) and drones, and command and control of air space by airborne early warning and control aircraft (AWACS). The Israelis came to be recognised as masters in the technology, art and science of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). All subsequent military operations like the US-led invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq as well as targeted killings have been facilitated by creative use of UAVs.

    But the character of warfare has since changed. In force-on-force operations or when two militaries engaged in combat, the break up of the organic cohesion was the aim and this has been sought to be achieved through firepower and manoeuvre. Destruction of the enemy and faster information decision and action cycle determined who the victors were. Now, in asymmetric warfare situations, as witnessed in Lebanon, units and subunits do not exist in the classical sense. No military targets in the conventional mode presented themselves. Foolproof countermeasures to prevent individual suicide bombers or the threats posed by non-state actors do not exist.

    So far, in high intensity force-on-force conventional wars, the Israeli Armed Forces showed superior performance compared to the militaries of its Arab adversaries. But as events in Afghanistan and Iraq show, insurgents and terrorists can resort to asymmetric warfare. This new generation of warfare has witnessed more casualties being inflicted on organised militaries such as those of the US-led forces in Iraq or troops in Afghanistan by the use of car bombs, improvised explosive devices, infantry and artillery mortars. Urban combat and the imaginative use of built up areas by insurgents have challenged the casualty aversion concept of the military forces of advanced countries. Wars may no longer be short swift and decisive, but protracted and characterised by attrition.

    The War in Lebanon

    In this test bed of modern military laboratory, the over a month long operations conducted by Israel in southern Lebanon against the Hezbollah have indicated certain trends in the character of war.

    The first is that the break up of the cohesion of a diffuse opponent such as the Hezbollah cannot be achieved by conventional or traditional means like firepower. So far, insurgents or non-state actors were using infantry anti-tank or anti-aircraft weapons and light or heavy mortars. This war has shown how non-state actors can improvise the use of rocket and missile artillery. Artillerymen know the difficulties involved in the laborious and technology intensive means of delivering unobserved predicted fire with accuracy. While the accuracy of the Hezbollah's rocket artillery may be suspect, its aim - retaliatory harassing fire over population centres - appears to have been achieved. As regards counter bombardment by the Israelis, shoot and scoot by Hezbollah artillery may have made their retaliatory fire ineffective in some cases. The land thrust by Israelis in southern Lebanon could also be termed as a massive counter bombardment strategy, aimed at destroying the gun positions by physical assault and denying terrain for deployment.

    An important lesson that emerges is the much bandied rhetoric of jointmanship. At certain times and places, core competence is more important. The war showed that air power alone cannot assure victory. The Israeli Military Chief Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz is an air force man and it could be said that being an airman he must have appreciated that air power would suffice. But that did not happen. There has been criticism of the over reliance on air power. Having failed to destroy the Hezbollah by air power, a ground offensive was launched. Here, another lesson emerged, which is fundamental to land warfare: more important and rudimentary than jointmanship is the need to understand the employment of armour and infantry. Tanks are not suited for urban combat. The nature of fighting in this conflict was manpower intensive - the real stuff infantry is capable of dealing with. This realisation of the need for boots on the ground came very late. It was no surprise when Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, the northern army commander from an armoured background, was replaced by Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky of the infantry on 8 August.

    The penultimate lesson is the fighting and martial spirits of the belligerents. Anecdotal accounts of the 1960s and 1970s record how Israeli tourists on holiday in the Himalayas had voluntarily rushed back to their country when war had broken out. Today, however, not all Israeli youth looking for spiritual solace in Dharamshala, for instance, would like to return to fight a war they may not consider as vital as the previous ones. On the other hand, the stereotypical image of Arab soldiers consistently being defeated have changed in public perception. After more than fifty years of war in the region, a breed of guerrillas has emerged with mastery over unconventional stratagems and who are difficult to pin down and defeat.

    Finally, according to Edward Luttwak's thesis, it is better for a war to finish to the end with clear cut victors and vanquished. Premature cessation of hostilities would not serve the end purpose. This has not happened in Lebanon and a ceasefire is in place since 14 August 2006. The performance of the Hezbollah did not permit this concept to be tested. War may continue by other means in future.

    Militaries need to draw relevant lessons from these operations. One lesson is that urbanisation and a high density of population restrict manoeuvre by mechanised forces. Boots on the ground or infantry operations are essential for victory. And these are also manpower intensive.

    The second is that workable technology for urban guerrilla combat cannot be denied to insurgents. Missiles and rockets are now their new arsenal. Even greater sophistication in their arsenals should no longer spring a surprise.

    Robert Pape, in his research on suicide terrorism, mentions that religion is rarely the root cause of suicide attacks. The main motivation according to him is resistance to foreign occupation. Countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon under foreign occupation would continue to breed insurgents and terrorists. This is the third important lesson.