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Israeli Lessons on Hybrid War

One of the reasons I listen closely to Gen. James Mattis is that he is an avid student of history, and uses lessons from past wars to guide the work he and other folks down at Joint Forces Command are doing to re-craft operational concepts.

Mattis says future wars will be of the hybrid variety, characterized by a mixture of conventional and unconventional operations blending both high-tech attacks, such as cyber, and low tech, such as IEDs, all on the same battlefield.

Because of a hybrid enemy’s adaptability and fluid nature there is no single “template” for the threat, such as there was in Cold War days when one could template a Soviet Motorized Rifle Battalion down to the individual vehicle. But there is a “textbook” example of a hybrid war, Mattis says: Israel’s fight in south Lebanon against Hezbollah in 2006. Frank Hoffman, who writes extensively on hybrid threats, said the Lebanon war is the “Grozny” for the 21st century; a contemporary war that will be picked apart and analyzed for potential lessons.

In our continuing exploration of hybrid threats and their implications for doctrine and organization, we drill down a bit deeper into some of the lessons Israel took from that conflict. Long revered as one of the most formidable militaries in the world, military professionals took notice when the IDF was roughly handled by Hezbollah. The Israeli military itself launched some 50 internal probes to determine what went wrong.

IDF Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, former leader of the IDF’s Intelligence's Research Division, was tasked with re-writing IDF doctrine and operational methods to avoid a repeat of the military’s dismal performance. I was passed along a briefing given last year by Brun summarizing lessons learned. He called the war a “wake-up call,” and his analysis of the Hezbollah hybrid archetype is interesting.

Brun defined Hezbollah as a terrorist organization with the structure and capabilities of a state-like regular army and with a guerrilla mode of operation. Hezbollah’s strategic concept was “victory” through “non-defeat;” which meant Israel’s tactical victories were of little to no importance. Hezbollah began the war with some 10,000 fighters equipped with vast quantities of anti-tank guided missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, a large arsenal of rockets, some 1,000 long range (up to 250 km) and 13,000 shorter range, an air unit equipped with aerial drones and a naval unit with anti-ship missiles. Hezbollah’s “operational concept” was the continuous launching of rockets into Israel’s cities even in the face of a significant IDF ground maneuver.

Hezbollah pursued what Brun called a “strategy of disappearance”: command posts and arms stored in civilian buildings; launching rockets from civilian surroundings and sensitive sites such as mosques and schools; use of “low signature” weapons including rockets, mortars and anti-tank missiles; and Hezbollah employed extensive camouflage and field fortifications such as tunnels and bunkers. As military analyst and former general Bob Scales told me, Hezbollah’s ability to fire rockets, move fighters and resupply when the Israeli Air Force had complete “air dominance,” was one of the big surprises of the war.

As for major lessons, Brun said years of low-intensity conflict operations against Palestinian terrorist organizations, the occupation, damaged the military’s ability to shift gears and cope with a different fight of the high-intensity kind. The Israeli army had adopted a “low-intensity conflict mindset” that influenced corresponding tactical procedures including command and control, logistics support and casualty evacuation. What works in a low-intensity environment does not, typically, in a high-intensity one, and the IDF was slow to change out of the LIC “mode.”

The army didn’t follow high-intensity combat procedures, such as only advancing at night and was late to prepare for ground operations, "which was essential for decisive outcome in this type of conflict." The concept of using the heavily armored Merkava main battle tank as a “shield” for ground incursions was effective, but the tanks were employed poorly and so suffered heavy losses from anti-tank missiles. The army operated on too narrow a front, allowing Hezbollah to concentrate, and failed to root out its vast underground infrastructure.

In the years leading up to the war, the Israeli army had trained less in combined arms operations and subsequently lost vital combat skills, mainly at the division and brigade level. It also gave too low a priority to updating major war plans. While pre-war intelligence on the enemy was good, “relevant tactical intelligence was not delivered to the fighters,” Brun said. The IDF’s “operating concept” used unclear terms and was impossible to implement against a non state enemy. The operating concept he references is “Effects Based Operations,” which emphasized airpower’s ability to achieve decisive effects. Speaking at CSIS this week, Mattis said the U.S. military bears some responsibility for passing along “untested concepts” such as EBO to its allies.

Brun's major recommendations were: for the IDF to significantly increase its training, particularly combined arms; restore an emphasis on high intensity conflict in its operational planning; focus intelligence needs on the military’s operational role; update the IDF’s operating concept; institutionalize the commander’s education process; and emphasize jointness in weapons acquisition and training.

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