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Beating The Low Signature Enemy

When the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) battled Hezbollah to basically a draw in southern Lebanon in summer 2006, one thing that really stymied the IDF was what Israeli Brig. Gen. Itai Brun called Hezbollah’s “strategy of disappearance”: Hezbollah fighters set up command posts and arms stores in civilian buildings; launched rockets from near mosques and schools; used “low signature” weapons, such as mortars, anti-tank missiles and shoulder launched surface-to-air missiles; and spent years building extensive below ground fortifications including a maze of tunnels and bunkers.

The IDF, which had prepped for high-intensity battle against Syrian tank armies, was unprepared for an asymmetric, low-signature enemy that refused to stand in the open and smile for the electronic eyes on overhead drones and aircraft and thermal sights on Merkava main battle tanks. The IDF took fairly heavy casualties trying to root out dug-in Hezbollah combat cells and never did stop the rain of rockets fired from southern Lebanon into Israeli towns.

The challenge is how to compel the low-signature enemy to emit a detectable signal, to raise his signature level. According to a draft paper passed along to DOD Buzz, the Israelis, and certain parts of the U.S. military, are exploring a concept called “distributed maneuver,” a potentially promising approach that could force the “hybrid” enemy to breach the detection threshold so that he can be targeted and dispatched. The paper, a joint Israeli-U.S. effort, was authored by strategist Frank Hoffman, who now works in the Office of the Naval Secretary.

The paper defines the hybrid threat as enemies that pull from the “whole menu of tactics and technologies and blend them in innovative ways,” constantly shifting between conventional and irregular forms of fighting to wrong-foot opponents. The hybrid threat will choose as a battlefield what the Israelis term a “saturated environment”: “a combination of complex or urbanized terrain, large numbers of noncombatants and an intense information environment.” An added layer is an enemy that skillfully uses anti-tank rockets and missiles and mines and IEDs to win the mobility/counter-mobility battle.

Again, the feature that makes this enemy so difficult to encounter is its low signature. The insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan are good examples of an enemy that uses the local population to hide its signature; the only signature typically being the IED detonation. Hezbollah fighters utilized terrain and civilian populations to reduce their signature level.

According to the draft paper, distributed maneuver is the “fluid maneuver of operational or tactical units separated beyond the limits of direct and mutual support,” yet acting in unison to attack the enemy across a very large battlefield and penetrate deep into the enemy’s territory. Using a combination of rapidly moving ground and air forces, and direct and indirect fires, deep maneuver “serves to isolate the adversary from forms of support, negates his ability to shift resources or react in a decisive manner.” By striking deep into the opponent’s center of gravity, wherever or whatever that might be, distributed maneuver forces the hybrid threat to react, in essence, to move or fire, and thus raise his signature level, thus negating the “disappearing tactics.”

The ideal end state is to produce a series of actions that “creates for the enemy a rapidly deteriorating, cascading effect, shattering his cohesion”; an operational concept familiar to those who followed the “maneuver warfare” school that was popular in the 1980s.

The distributed maneuver concept requires:

• Operational or tactical combined arms teams • Parallel operations across the depth and breadth of the battlefield • C2 agility – enable lower echelons to respond rapidly • Fast paced, interdependent combined arms maneuver capable of penetrating deep into enemy territory • Compressed sensor-shooter links and precision fires • Ability to supply ground forces without exposing oneself to an enemy’s IED kill zones.

The paper uses as an operational vignette an Israeli thrust into southern Lebanon: an IDF-Hezbollah round two if you will. Hezbollah is entrenched in both urban and mountainous terrain and in densely populated areas and all roads in are seeded with IEDs and EFPs. The IDF strikes deep with heliborne troops to the Litani River, while distributed armored shock groups simultaneously move rapidly into southern Lebanon, avoiding roads and fixed defenses, aiming for Hezbollah’s command nodes, rocket forces and supply lines.

In essence, the IDF conducts an operational level “swarming” of Hezbollah defenses, instead of the plodding attack along predictable lines of advance by massed armored formations as happened in the 2006 war, and forces Hezbollah fighters to react and expose themselves to strikes.

One of the biggest challenges to effectively carrying out distributed maneuver, the paper says, is generating “general-purpose forces capable of operating independently at increasingly lower echelons.” A primacy is also placed on the ability of units to learn and pass information to accelerate learning and adaptation. It’s certainly an interesting concept and merits further exploration and we’ll continue to look into it as more information becomes available.

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