October 1, 2006  

Lessons from Lebanon

The new model terrorist army

Much has been written about Israel’s strategic errors in this summer’s conflict with Hezbollah, from the embrace of the long-since discredited notion that a war can be won with air power alone to the fateful indecisiveness of political and military leaders whose plans had gone awry. Israel lost the media war and squandered combat opportunities because of a dread of friendly casualties. Wretched though it was to watch, all of that simply reprised the postmodern Western Way of War, which begins with absurd expectations and ends with a whimper, not a bang.

In short, nothing new. Im Osten nichts neues.

Far more interesting and instructive were the battlefield developments that went largely unremarked — not least because of the paucity of reporters with military experience on the scene. If the conflict in Lebanon and northern Israel merely replayed earlier American and European errors at the strategic level, the tactical fighting proved to be a laboratory of the future.

Hezbollah fielded an impressively innovative military force incisively tailored to meet a specific foe on particular terrain. While it could not match Israel’s overall technology, professionalism or number of troops, that didn’t matter. Hezbollah fought with alternative means for asymmetrical goals. On its own terms, it succeeded, adding a new model terrorist army to the already-daunting range of 21st-century asymmetrical threats: the army without a state.

At the mention of stateless military organizations, historians flash back to Renaissance-era companies of mercenaries or the armies for rent during the Thirty Years’ War, but Hezbollah’s ground forces were of a different order: They were not for sale and, while they did not serve a state, they served a multifaceted organization with a unifying vision. Hezbollah’s front-line fighters were the new version of the holy warriors of the Mahdi in the Sudan, the Scottish Covenanters or the Bohemian Hussites. Such forces have taken anywhere from decades to a century to defeat.


Force tailoring. Hezbollah is the antithesis of the U.S. armed forces, which must be ready for any form of military activities anywhere in the world. Hezbollah faced a known enemy on predetermined terrain. In consequence, the well-funded terror organization was able to organize, equip, train and deploy a force specifically tailored to stand against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Hezbollah wasn’t interested in building a versatile force — it put all of its energies and thought into fighting a single enemy in a specific manner.

With decades of experience in low-intensity conflict with the IDF, Hezbollah understood its enemy’s strengths and vulnerabilities. The IDF’s ground forces remain structured for swift, conventional thrusts toward Damascus or Cairo. So Hezbollah leaders didn’t attempt to build traditional brigades or battalions equipped with armored vehicles — the classic Arab error. Instead, they concentrated on stockpiling the most sophisticated defensive weapons they could acquire, such as the Kornet, a lethal late-generation Russian anti-tank missile, as well as a range of rockets, from long-range, Iranian-made weapons to man-portable point-and-shoot Katyushas. Thanks to the Katyushas, an Arab military force was able to create a substantial number of Israeli refugees for the first time since 1948.

Clear, realistic goals. Hezbollah had no intention of invading Israel and occupying territory — it recognized its limitations. Instead, it assigned its front-line forces the achievable mission of holding out in towns, villages and small cities that had been turned into virtual fortresses. Attuned to the Israeli fear of friendly casualties — as well as Israel’s reluctance to inflict high numbers of civilian casualties among its enemies — Hezbollah structured its defenses to make it forbiddingly expensive for the IDF to seize, sanitize and hold urbanized terrain.

To be perceived as the victor, Israel had to shatter Hezbollah and drive it from southern Lebanon. But to be declared the winner by regional populations, Hezbollah only had to frustrate the IDF and survive. In the event, Hezbollah turned out to be the first Arab army with a credible claim to having defeated Israel’s armed forces.

The ascendancy of the defense. Historically, the military advantage has shifted between attackers and defenders based upon various factors, from new technologies to innovative tactics or asymmetric organizational skills. At the outset of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Egyptian operational offensive relied on a tactical defense with Sagger anti-tank missiles to defeat Israeli armor. After suffering startling initial losses, Israeli ground forces commanders quickly devised tactics for overcoming the Sagger threat: The missiles were difficult to steer, crews were vulnerable to airburst artillery and, above all, the terrain in the Sinai made it impossible for Egyptian formations to hide from aerial observation and strikes after Israel took control of the skies.

Three decades later in Lebanon, Hezbollah recognized that it had several important advantages that favored the defense. First, late-generation fire-and-forget missiles were faster, more accurate and easier to wield. Second, the broken, mountainous terrain of southern Lebanon, with its towns and villages crowded within supporting distance of one another, strongly favored a prepared defense. Third, Hezbollah’s tactical defense was also a strategic defense, and the terrorist army had years to prepare fixed bunkers and connecting passages. Designed by Iranian engineers, the most formidable of the bunkers proved impervious to Israeli precision weapons — and Hezbollah also took care to embed its defenses amid civilian populations, preventing the Israelis from applying devastating area fires. (I personally witnessed the IDF’s carefully controlled use of artillery as calls for fire were answered with a single round or a pair of rounds — in several days at different points along the front, I never heard a battery fire full, repeated volleys.)

Defense in depth. IDF spokespeople repeatedly claimed to have broken through Hezbollah’s defenses — only to have Israeli troops encounter additional ambushes, mines and bunkers. Hezbollah designed its defenses to kill tanks if the IDF tried armored thrusts along traditional movement corridors — but also prepared to take on infantry and engineers. Hezbollah made no attempt to construct a Maginot Line; instead, it built weblike defenses that could absorb penetrations and continue to fight, harass and hold. By the cease-fire, fighting continued at several points immediately adjacent to the border. The small city of Bint Jbeil, population 20,000, which IDF leaders prematurely and repeatedly claimed to have cleared, never fell completely to the Israelis.

Hezbollah also fielded more trained fighters and auxiliaries than Israeli intelligence predicted, allowing them to cover secondary and tertiary avenues of approach. Repeatedly, Israeli forces blundered into ambushes, as in the battle of Wadi Saluki, when eight Merkava tanks tried to negotiate a path through a steep gorge. In another wadi (ravine) fight, an officer unaccountably ordered a tank platoon into a narrow passage between steep banks — without infantry support to secure the high ground. When an ambush crippled the tanks, a para-recon platoon was inserted to rescue the crews. Overconfident and careless, the paratroopers bunched up. A short-range rocket landed in the middle of the platoon, killing nine IDF soldiers and gravely wounding four more. The mission then became a rescue of the para-recon platoon.

Modular units and mission-type orders. Hezbollah had a more developed, robust chain of command than the IDF expected. It also displayed impressive flexibility, relying on the ability of cellular units to combine rapidly for specific operations or, when cut off, to operate independently after falling in on pre-positioned stockpiles of weapons and ammunition. A Hezbollah anti-tank hunter-killer team had more autonomy than an IDF squad or platoon — and could operate for much longer periods without support from a higher echelon. Although Hezbollah used redundant communications, from cell phones through land lines to messengers, each front-line team of fighters was a machine that would go of itself. Hezbollah’s combat cells were a hybrid of guerrillas and regular troops — a form of opponent that U.S. forces are apt to encounter with increasing frequency.

Low-level commanders operated under mission-type orders — not the looser sort meant by the U.S. military but the more restrictive form employed by the Bundeswehr (and, earlier, by the Wehrmacht), in which a tactical leader could not alter his mission but called the in-sector plays to accomplish that mission. It’s impossible to gauge how much initiative local Hezbollah commanders exercised, but it appears that some were more creative and adventurous than others — typical of any military. Hezbollah’s front-line units proved resilient, however — and they had to be killed. Few surrendered.

Innovative use of weapons. When the IDF failed to take the bait and led with infantry and engineers rather than tank formations, Hezbollah used its arsenal of anti-tank missiles against dismounted infantrymen — to deadly effect. Accustomed to fighting the ill-equipped and anarchic Palestinian groups in the West Bank and Gaza, dismounted IDF troops assumed that the masonry buildings of southern Lebanon provided adequate cover. When infantrymen bunched inside, Hezbollah hit the houses with double-charge/double-penetrator AT missiles that punched through reinforced walls to kill everyone in the targeted room. The missiles were also used against IDF troops in the open — evidence both of the extent of Hezbollah’s stockpiles and a willingness to invent solutions on the spot.

Notoriously, Hezbollah also achieved strategic effects with tactical weapons — the Katyusha rockets it rained down on northern Israel. Armed with excellent strategic targeting data, the Israeli Air Force succeeded in hitting nearly all of Hezbollah’s long-range (and more easily detected) rockets on the first night of the war: 18 out of 20 Iranian-built Zilzal 2 and 3 launchers, as well as virtually all Fajr 4 and 5 weapons, were destroyed, ensuring the safety of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

But the terrorist army had stockpiled at least 14,000 short- and mid-range rockets in calibers ranging from less than 100mm through 122mm and 220mm, up to 302mm. Designed seven decades ago as area-suppression and psychological weapons to support tactical assaults against entrenched defenders, the rockets gained a new lease on life as terror weapons with strategic resonance in this summer’s conflict. The higher-caliber rockets were used to strike deep into Israel, repeatedly hitting and closing down the vital port city of Haifa and landing halfway down the coast to Tel Aviv (as well as straying into the West Bank). Notoriously inaccurate, the rockets nonetheless achieved multiple strategic goals when employed by a force that had no qualms about inflicting civilian casualties — indeed, killing civilians and terrorizing Israel was a key Hezbollah objective. By mid-war, driving through the cities and settlements of northern Israel was eerily reminiscent of science fiction films from the 1950s in which nuclear war or alien invasions turned cities into ghost towns. Arabs and other Muslims found it grimly satisfying that this time Israelis, too, were refugees or driven to huddle underground as the bombs fell.

Israel had no adequate answer to the problem. Its air force achieved an impressive target-identification-to-kill time of less than five minutes — a task eased by the small size of the operational sand box — but the technique only worked against larger-caliber weapons delivered by formal launchers. The man-pack Katyushas that rained down on Israel day after day proved too elusive for technical collection means. Nor were most of the rockets very powerful, as I can attest from watching them strike. But delivered in sufficient numbers, they did the job. Israel’s total casualties remained low (117 soldiers killed and 41 civilians dead), but a new sense of vulnerability stunned the population.

As an Israeli general commented during the last week of the conflict, “Hezbollah prepared for exactly the war we’re fighting.”

And when the fighting stopped, IDF forces on the scene were bewildered by the numbers of Hezbollah fighters who emerged alive from forward bunkers. For the first time, an Arab army had stood up to the IDF and held much of its ground — the attacking Israelis took the sea but feared the islands, punching into the countryside and approaching the Litani River but unwilling to do more than conduct in-and-out raids on the bunker network in the area’s urbanizing terrain; viewed from high ground along the border, the villages and towns in southern Lebanon reach out to one another with tentacles of new construction.

Fear casualties, lose wars. Perhaps Hezbollah’s greatest tactical advantage, however, was simply the commitment of its troops. Hezbollah didn’t seek to waste its cadres, but it didn’t fear losses. Although only the most fanatical sought death, the average Hezbollah soldier was less afraid of dying than his Israeli counterpart. And more Hezbollah fighters did die — although the number was probably closer to 500 than to the 800 some Israelis claimed. Military loss ratios were thus about five Hezbollah fighters to one IDF soldier. It was a ratio Hezbollah was perfectly willing to accept — and hardly a surprising result, given the IDF’s overwhelming strength in technology and troops. At some points of decision, the IDF’s advantage was as much as 10 to one, yet the Israelis remained hesitant to close with the enemy in urban combat.

Effective intelligence. This was the truly unexpected asymmetry. With a long-standing reputation for effective work, Israel’s intelligence services failed terribly this time (with echoes of 1973). Although capable of identifying key fixed or substantial mobile targets — such as large-signature rocket launchers — Israeli intelligence proved poor at finding operational command sites; underestimated the amount of weaponry available to Hezbollah; missed some late-generation weapons entirely; had no idea how deep, complex and well-constructed Hezbollah’s front-line bunker system had become; and failed to predict Hezbollah’s tactical tenacity. Despite decades of contact, Israel did not know its enemy — nor did it accurately read the psychology of the Lebanese people.

Hezbollah, on the other hand, understood Israel’s strengths and weaknesses acutely. Although the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, admitted that he did not expect so extensive a military response to the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, his organization had sized up the IDF’s military capabilities, tactics, personalities and decision cycle with impressive skill. On paper, the IDF was clearly superior. In practice, its intelligence preparation of the battlefield made Hezbollah surprisingly effective. The terrorist organization also appeared to grasp the political dynamics within Israel far better than Israel read the political complexities of Lebanon.

Israel fought as a limping stepchild of Clausewitz. Hezbollah fought as Sun Tzu’s fanatical son.


Perhaps the oddest thing about the cellular anti-tank defense Hezbollah employed is that it had been proposed three decades earlier — for NATO, by off-the-reservation European generals. The prophetic books for Hezbollah-style warfare were impractical, military-utopian tomes written at a time of decreasing European defense budgets and the ascendancy of quantitative analysis — and, ironically, in the shadow of the anti-tank missile’s success in the Yom Kippur War.

Senior officers such as Emil Spannochi of Austria (“Verteidigung ohne Selbstzerstoerung” — “Defense Without Self-Destruction”), Franz Uhle-Wettler of Germany (“Gefechtsfeld Mitteleuropa” — “Battlefield Central Europe”) and Guy Brossolet of France (“Essai sur la non-bataille” — loosely, “The Non-Battle War”) suggested that an effective and economical method of defeating massed Warsaw Pact armor would be to field large numbers of small cells equipped with anti-tank weapons to wage a territorial defense in depth.

The prophets called the European battlefield’s dynamics utterly wrong. Relying on faulty math that assumed X number of kills for each team, they failed to take into account the psychological effects of masses of armor on small, isolated groups of European reservists — or even active-duty troops. Although the techniques they recommended varied somewhat in their details, all assumed that soldiers would wait patiently for Soviet tanks to come into range, coolly and accurately discharge their weapons in the required number of volleys, then safely escape to fight again. The theories also assumed that the right number of anti-tank teams could be concentrated at precisely the right points along exactly the right avenues of approach to pick off passive Warsaw Pact armored vehicles that would present themselves as cardboard ducks in a shooting gallery. It was utter nonsense in the European context.

But it was exactly right for Hezbollah, an organization that had the two crucial ingredients that were missing in Central Europe and NATO: a relatively small piece of restrictive terrain to defend — and fighters willing to die on the spot to kill their enemies. And the IDF, for all its strength, had nothing approaching the number of Warsaw Pact tanks. Furthermore, the Israelis had a distinctly non-Soviet attitude toward friendly casualties.

It’s a bizarre quirk of history that European military thinkers in quest of defense on the cheap unwittingly predicted the tactics of a 21st-century terrorist army. And the predictions don’t end with the examples above: In a collection of articles edited by Carl Friedrich von Weizsaecker in 1984 (“Die Praxis der defensiven Verteidigung” — “The Practice of Defensive Defense”), the entry by Alexander Acker is titled “Einsatz von Raketenartillerie im Verteigigungsnetz,” or “The Employment of Rocket-Artillery in a Defensive Network,” although the author didn’t quite foresee the use of tactical rockets as strategic terror weapons. Another pertinent essay from the same book dealt with the social and political consequences of alternative concepts of defense — an issue Hezbollah managed to turn into a weapon in and of itself as it lured the IDF to strike civilian targets.

While it wouldn’t do to assume that Hezbollah’s doctrine designers had read the European texts, it’s not beyond the realm of plausibility, given the terrorist organization’s extensive ties to northern Europe. But that’s a question for historians with time on their hands. What matters is that, however it managed to conceive its battlefield doctrine, Hezbollah developed effective forms of defense and elastic organizational structures superbly suited to its strategic goals. If we can overcome our vanity and set aside, for one moment, our disgust with terrorist organizations, we might recognize that no formal military establishment in our time has done a better job than Hezbollah of preparing for the war it would fight — against a superior enemy. If David didn’t kill Goliath this time, he certainly gave the big guy a headache.

Future developments will determine whether Hezbollah won an enduring strategic victory or achieved only the brief illusion of one. Today’s champions can turn out to be tomorrow’s losers — and the political complexity in Lebanon and the greater Middle East is such that no one can predict with confidence whether Hezbollah will become ever stronger and more influential, or if its moment of triumph was just that — a moment, soon to be eclipsed by greater forces. We do not know what the future holds for Hezbollah, but for now, we would do well to study the prototype it created of an effective 21st-century terrorist army.