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Israeli Lessons For U.S. Army

We've highlighted here the work of RAND analyst David Johnson on military adaptation to hybrid threats. Johnson has spent a lot of time observing IDF training and discussing lessons from recent conflicts with senior Israeli military officials. He has a short paper out, “Military Capabilities for Hybrid War: Insights from the IDF in Lebanon and Gaza,” that expands on topics we touched upon in earlier conversations; a longer monograph on the subject will be out soon.

Before summer 2006, the IDF believed its future was fighting Palestinian terrorists, so, big cuts were made in funding for combined arms training, particularly in the heavy armored units. 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.

In Lebanon, the IDF faced an opponent with a combat mindset very different from Palestinian terrorists. Hezbollah fought as small, tactically competent units, with lots of firepower, using fortified positions, but also skillfully using the terrain to maneuver and close with Israeli ground forces.

After Lebanon, the IDF set about correcting its many deficiencies. Big money was spent on training and equipping the ground forces with a “back to basics” approach to combined arms. While Israeli armor suffered mightily 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, Johnson says, so there was enormous pressure to perform at a high level. Not surprisingly, they used their best units, backed by lots of artillery, attack helicopters and bombers. The most significant realization among the IDF 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.

Johnson says the following insights from the IDF experience are relevant to the U.S. Army:

1. The basics of combined arms fire and maneuver are necessary for successful operations against opponents with capabilities like Hezbollah and Hamas. These hybrid opponents create a qualitative challenge that demands combined arms fire and maneuver at lower levels, despite their generally small-unit structures. The Israelis had lost these skills after years of preparing for and confronting (understandably) terrorist attacks during the second intifada. The U.S. Army, focused as it necessarily is on preparing soldiers and units for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, might be approaching a condition similar to that of the Israelis before the 2006 Second Lebanon War: expert at COIN, but less prepared for sophisticated hybrid opponents. Furthermore, the introduction of sophisticated weapons (e.g., ATGMs, MANPADS) could radically escalate the challenges faced by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, as it did for the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

2. Precision, standoff fires are critical, but not sufficient, to cope with hybrid warfare opponents, particularly if they are operating “among the people.”

3. Responsive and adequate air, artillery, and UAV support are critical components of the combined arms fight against hybrid opponents. The well-practiced capacity to integrate these capabilities is a precondition for success.

4. Heavy forces—based on tanks and infantry fighting vehicles—are key elements of any force that will fight hybrid enemies that have a modicum of training, organization, and advanced weapons (e.g., ATGMs and MANPADS). Light and medium forces can complement heavy forces, particularly in urban and other complex terrain, but they do not provide the survivability, lethality, or mobility inherent in heavy forces. Quite simply, heavy forces reduce operational risks and minimize friendly casualties.

I had a recent conversation with a Pentagon official who told me of work he had been doing with the IDF on future south Lebanon scenarios. He urged IDF commanders to make greater use of helicopters and air-mobility for deep insertion to maneuver Hezbollah out of their entrenched positions along the border. The Israelis don't want a large helicopter fleet, he said, they consider them too maintenance intensive. They want tanks and they want to do a frontal assault on Hezbollah. For the IDF, the tank is king. Which, in part, explains their eagerness to deploy the Trophy active-protection system on their Merkava main battle tanks.

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