For the past fifty years, the military has sized, trained and equipped its ground forces to battle a conventional, mechanized, tank heavy opponent, organized in companies, battalions and brigades, with supporting artillery and aircraft. Training scenarios envisioned a repeat of World War II tank battles, Army units were run through simulated armored clashes in the open deserts at its premier training ground, the NTC at Ft. Irwin, Ca. Now, at its training centers, the Army, and Marines also train for urban counterinsurgency.
That the Army’s big-battle mindset hasn’t gone far, despite eight years spent fighting two counterinsurgency wars, can be seen in this article on the Small Wars Journal web site by an Army captain who recently completed the captain’s career course and had this to say: “With rare exception, the exercises which hone officers’ skills in these areas are focused on the conventional Fulda gap-style battle… Despite all that has been written about third-generation warfare (Blitzkrieg) and fourth-generation warfare (state vs. non-state), we operated largely in the second generation of warfare.”
A small group of strategic thinkers are flexing their intellectual muscle, and a new opponent model is taking shape against which America’s ground forces will be configured to fight (with the Marines way ahead of the Army). Called “hybrid” enemies, they come equipped with high-end, precision guided weapons, yet fight in distributed networks of small units and cells more akin to guerrillas. One of the leading scholars in this group, Frank Hoffman, who advises the Marines and is a researcher at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, says hybrid wars, “blend the lethality of state conflict with the fanatical and protracted fervor of irregular warfare.” Theory moved to reality when Hezbollah, equipped with loads of advanced missiles and skillfully using urban terrain, fought the Israeli army to a stand still in 2006. Hezbollah, Hoffman says, “is representative of the rising hybrid threat.”
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has given his imprimatur to the hybrid opponent as the new OpFor, first in his recent Foreign Affairs piece, and then again in his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. In his Senate hearing, speaking about the Army’s FCS program, Gates said that unless new weapons and vehicles can be shown to be effective in complex hybrid wars, they shouldn’t be funded. I’ve also heard that some services, I’m thinking of the Marines here, were loathe to buy into the irregular warfare mission as they couldn’t justify their more expensive new systems to fight counterinsurgencies, but they have a better chance at getting what they want if they play up the hybrid threat.
I thought I’d flesh out a bit exactly what the military has in mind when they discuss hybrid wars. A good place to start is this article by Hoffman in Joint Forces Quarterly or this longer discussion here for those of you with more time.
While Hezbollah may be the hybrid archetype, Hoffman says they’re not limited to non-state actors. “States can shift their conventional units to irregular formations and adopt new tactics as Iraq’s fedayeen did in 2003.” He said evidence shows that a number of Middle East militaries are modifying their forces to fight in a hybrid style, Iran being one such country. One of the challenges faced by the U.S. military, is it fights in largely predictable fashion, only with the Iraq war have efforts been made to adapt to different styles of fighting such as irregular warfare. What Hezbollah demonstrated, Hoffman says, is “the ability of non-state actors to study and deconstruct the vulnerabilities of Western-style militaries and devise appropriate countermeasures.”
Hezbollah’s “highly disciplined, well-trained distributed cells contested ground against a modern conventional force using an admixture of guerrilla tactics and technology in densely packed urban centers… the antitank guided missile systems employed by Hezbollah against IDF armor and defensive positions, coupled with decentralized tactics, were a surprise,” Hoffman writes. They also used lots of IEDs, so they attacked Israeli armor from multiple dimensions. A very detailed account of the IDF’s ground battles against Hezbollah can be found in this piece by Combat Studies Historian Matt Mathews. The point he makes is not just that Hezbollah had precision guided anti-armor weapons, but they had them in spades, allowing prolific use against both armor and as man-portable artillery used against infantry in the open and inside buildings.
Go read Tom Ricks’ terrific reporting of the Taliban attack last year on the Wanat Outpost in Afghanistan to get a sense for the lethality of this man-portable artillery in the hands of guerrilla fighters. The RPG is a very short range (under 500 meters) weapon, but it has a very large warhead that while designed to penetrate thick armor, the HEAT warhead generates a large explosion and a sizeable fireball lethal to anybody standing nearby. The larger missiles on systems such as TOW are even more devastating to infantry, even if in a sandbagged bunker. If the Taliban had AT-13 Metis or AT-14 Kornet anti-armor missiles, the U.S. casualty toll in that battle would likely have been much higher.
In addition to having a powerful warhead in a compact package, anti-armor missiles are becoming fire-and-forget weapons. With the older style, such as the ubiquitous Sagger, the operator had to guide the missile into the target with a joystick and the directions traveled to the missile via thin wire unspooled as it sped downrange. Newer models, such as the AT-14 Kornet, are laser beam riders, allowing relatively untrained troops to use them effectively. On various internet discussion boards in recent months there was talk of the new Russian built RPG-30, designed specifically to penetrate armored vehicles outfitted with active-protection systems, by first firing a decoy round, which is followed by the actual warhead a millisecond later. This sounds like an upgrade to the existing RPG-29.
Reading accounts of American troops being outgunned in close range firefights, I’ve always wondered why the U.S. has never developed an RPG equivalent, a short range, heavy firepower weapon. The old LAW rocket certainly didn’t fit the bill. The AT-4 is not bad, but it’s big, bulky and one shot and I rarely if ever see soldiers carrying it around. It could have something to do with the American way of war, the preference for fighting from stand-off ranges. Perhaps the Russian love of RPGs can be explained by their traditional “close combat” preference. Then again, it was the Germans who developed the first RPG (the Panzerfaust), although that was probably more out of necessity, to kill swarms of Soviet tanks, than a preference for close combat.
But not all strategists are ready to embrace Hezbollah as the future enemy archetype. A recent write-up of the implications of the 2006 Lebanon war by Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations says the complex blending of different styles of war will certainly make the job of force planners more difficult, but its a mistake that a “Hezbollah threat should replace the Red Army in the Fulda Gap as the focus for U.S. defense planning.” Lebanon does show, Biddle argues, that focusing solely on irregular warfare, what the military defines as “a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations,” would also be a mistake. There is no escaping real world trade-offs in defense planning, he says.
The military leadership is thinking how to best organize and equip forces to battle hybrid enemies. Short term answers such as adding more armor to existing tanks and APCs, such as the Israelis are doing, will likely spur hybrid enemies to discover ways to counter heavier armor or perhaps even active protection. I’d be interested to hear what our readers think.