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Boots Plus Planes, Beat Hybrid Foes

In the QDR strategic review underway, “hybrid war” is one of the conceptual drivers. In future wars, hybrid opponents will come equipped with precision guided weaponry, advanced cyberwar capabilities and will fight in distributed networks of small units and cells akin to guerrillas so as not to present targets for overwhelming U.S. firepower.

The hybrid war archetype, Hezbollah, equipped with loads of precision missiles and skillfully using urban and complex terrain, fought the Israeli Defense Force to a standstill in 2006. After that miserable experience, the IDF set about correcting its deficiencies and the subsequent 2008 war in Gaza against Hamas was, according to analysts, a showcase of lessons learned and adjustments made.

I spoke recently with RAND analyst and historian David Johnson, who has spent the past two years leading research teams to Israel to examine IDF training and operational adaptation in the wake of the 2006 war, to get his take on that war and changes in the way the Gaza campaign was fought.

Johnson said the IDF went into the 2006 Lebanon war with a clouded view of future warfare due to three reasons: first, the 1999 Kosovo war spurred the mistaken belief that wars could be fought and decided at stand-off range with precision air power; second, the Palestinian intifada compelled the IDF to focus on stopping terrorist attacks inside Israel, which they largely did, very effectively; and third, the end of Hussein’s regime in Iraq and a lessening of threats from Syria led to a belief that a major ground campaign was not in Israel’s future and that ground forces should shift to a low intensity conflict focus.

Significant cuts were made in funding for IDF ground forces that negatively impacted training and logistical readiness, particularly in the heavy armored units; there was little training in combined arms fire and maneuver. Air Force forward air controllers were removed from ground brigades. Counterterror operations in the West Bank and Gaza were highly centralized affairs, with the active involvement of Israeli leaders at the highest levels, which over the years had a stifling effect on small unit initiative. Israel also lacks a professional NCO corps that can maintain and pass along institutional knowledge and learning.

In Lebanon, the IDF faced an opponent with a combat mindset very different from Palestinian terrorists. Hezbollah fought as small, tactically competent units, augmented with lots of firepower, fighting sometimes from fortified positions, but also skillfully using the terrain to maneuver and close with Israeli ground forces. Conversely, the IDF had lost the fire and maneuver skills that are so vital in a high intensity like conflict: there was little close air support and even IDF artillery mostly fired on pre-planned targets.

After Lebanon, and a thorough self assessment, the IDF underwent a transformation. Big money was spent on training and equipping the ground forces. Training shifted from preparing for low intensity conflict to combined arms training for high intensity conflict in a “back to basics” approach. Forward air controllers were returned to the ground units. While Israeli armor suffered from Hezbollah’s vast inventory of anti-tank guided missiles, the IDF concluded that heavy armor was still the best protection against increasingly well armed opponents.

The 2008 Gaza operation was intended largely to restore the credibility of the IDF as a deterrent, he says, so there was enormous pressure to perform at a high level. Not surprisingly, the Israelis used their best units, including the heavy Golani brigade and elite parachute units, backed by lots of artillery, attack helicopters and bombers.

Gaza showed the IDF believes heavy forces have a big role to play in urbanized hybrid wars. The IDF sent four brigades into Gaza, one was parachute infantry, the rest were heavy armor. Heavy armor provides an “intimidation factor,” as well as the ability to conduct protected fire and maneuver on a battlefield populated by enemy snipers, IEDs and RPG armed hunter-killer teams. Combat engineers paved the way for ground incursions with attack helicopters, aerial drones and jet bombers providing direct support. Importantly, tactical decision making was pushed down to commanders on the ground.

The most significant realization among IDF leaders in the wake of Lebanon, Johnson said, was that hybrid wars cannot be decided with stand-off precision firepower. Putting troops on the ground, backed by close air support, is absolutely necessary. Interestingly, he said there isn’t a huge desire on the part of IDF officers to re-do Lebanon as they don’t want to taint the Gaza success.

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