May 1, 2007  

The fourth dimension

The Israel-Hezbollah clash and the shape of wars to come

The casus belli of the Second Lebanon War, as it is popularly referred to in Israel, was the ambush and kidnapping of two soldiers. The Israeli response to the attack by Hezbollah (Arabic for “Party of God”) was quicker than Hezbollah (or Iran or Syria) expected. The resulting conflict provides unmistakable support for the emergence of a new generation of warfare — the fourth generation.

As opposed to previous Middle East conflicts between Israel and various Arab nations, there was no decisive battle, no decisive winner and no clear vanquished from the military standpoint. The aforementioned are the defining characteristics of fourth-generation war, which can be defined as any war in which one of the major participants is not a state (Hezbollah), and may be conducting operations within an internationally recognized state (Lebanon) against a technologically advanced opponent state (Israel).

Fourth-generation war is not a new phenomenon; its birth, missed by Western professional militaries, was practiced by Mao Zedong during the “People’s War” in China. The purpose here is to demonstrate that the Second Lebanon War provides military professionals an opportunity to study an evolving phenomenon in 21st-century warfare. Further, and perhaps more important, this preview has significant implications for the Army as it struggles with implementing doctrine, manning and equipping a force to deal with the emerging current operating environment.

Fourth-generation war, as described by the seminal work of William Lind, one of the originators of fourth-generation warfare theory, and like-minded colleagues, will involve in various degrees the following components:

• An ideologically centered, non-national base.

• Involvement of current, high-end technology.

• Dispersed logistical support.

• Attacks directed at the adversary’s culture.

• Employing a comprehensive psychological warfare dimension, particularly through the media.

As described by those authors, the other generations are distinguished by technological advances and/or implementation of revolutionary tactics. First-generation warfare was characterized by tactical formations of line and column together with the development of the smoothbore musket. The distinguishing feature of second-generation war is linear fire and maneuver with emphasis on indirect fire. The tactics of operational maneuver to bypass and destroy the enemy’s combat forces and defense in depth are the attributes of third-generation warfare.

It’s important to note that fourth-generation war can occur in conjunction with second- and third-generation conflicts, as was the case in the Second Lebanon War. More specifically, in fourth-generation wars there is little distinction between war and politics, soldier and noncombatant, peace and conflict, front lines and the home front. Fourth-generation war should not be confused with terrorism and asymmetric warfare, although terrorism can be used as a tactic (e.g., Hamas suicide attacks in the West Bank).

There are two elements that warrant further discussion. The first is that many times, these nonstate, ideologically motivated military forces are operating within a sovereign nation. Additionally, these organizations take advantage of the weakened national government to establish a base of support, recruitment and operations. The second relevant element is the overarching importance and convergence of diplomacy, information and economics in waging war. This is not to suggest that these instruments of national power were not part of the equation in past generations of war, but rather that in fourth-generation war there is evidence of the skillful assimilation by its practitioners of these diverse means. This becomes especially effective when facing a technologically advanced and seemingly militarily superior opponent. It is these two elements, an ideologically driven transnational group within a nation and the integration of diplomacy, information, military and economics in a cohesive manner that creates a challenge for modern armies. These points were clearly revealed in the Second Lebanon War.

It is instructive to examine the Second Lebanon War using the rubric of fourth-generation war as described by Lind and colleagues. There are several striking analogies that support the contention that this may be a model for future conflicts. A cardinal feature of fourth-generation war is the involvement of an ideologically driven, nonstate actor entrenched in a nation state. Hezbollah, in Lebanon, is clearly cast for that role. Hezbollah comprises an Islamic religious indoctrination in which the ideology is rooted in the Koran and Shiite traditions, as interpreted by the ruling Iranian ayatollahs. The significance of this ideology is that in Hezbollah’s view, its adherents are not merely Lebanese, but more important, Shiite Muslims and jihad fighters.

Hezbollah is more than a military organization. The movement has very skillfully crafted a degree of political legitimacy in Lebanon —its political party won nine affiliated and three nonaffiliated seats in the 2000 parliamentary elections. Through generous support (bankrolled by Iran) of social and charitable causes, Hezbollah has won support from Druze, Christians and Sunni Muslims in southern Lebanon. Lebanon, with a population of 3½ million, is not a homogenous country; it comprises at least 18 diverse religious sects. Additionally, it has a weak government and its military provides fertile ground for the establishment of a robust nonstate, such as Hezbollah.


A second feature of fourth-generation war is the use of advanced technology. The Second Lebanon War provides several examples of both sides using high-end technology. It should come as no surprise that the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has enjoyed a huge advantage in military technology, especially as compared to its historical adversaries. In fact, it is this advantage that may well tip the scales in the IDF’s favor when facing overwhelming numbers, as was clearly demonstrated in the Yom Kippur War and the 1982 Lebanon War. Although the IDF’s effective use of advanced technology was expected, Hezbollah’s was not.

It is widely accepted that rockets are not considered on the high end of the spectrum in terms of sophistication. In truth, most of the rockets employed by Hezbollah are essentially derivatives of the World War II vintage Russian Katyusha rocket. Katyusha rockets (BM-21) are designed to be used against massed, area targets such as urban population centers. With relatively low accuracy, they have more of a psychological effect than any significant military advantages. What did require some technological savvy was obtaining and successfully using wireless remote firing devices. It should also be noted that some of the targeting data was no doubt obtained from commercially available satellite sources, again requiring some level of technological literacy.

Another example of Hezbollah’s adaptation of technology was its effective maintenance of communications security throughout the conflict. The IDF is well known for its ability to intercept and eavesdrop on enemy communications. As compared to previous operations, Hezbollah was successful in encrypting and maintaining secure communications with all its field elements throughout the war. This allowed Hezbollah to exercise its command-and-control functions until the hostilities ended. How this was accomplished cannot be ascertained from open sources, but no doubt may have involved the use of scrambling devices and/or encryption equipment.

Many IDF armored vehicles were disabled by late-generation anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) provided by Syria and Iran. Among the advanced ATGMs effectively used by Hezbollah was the Raad, an Iranian version of the Sagger; the Raad-T, an Iranian version of the Sagger with a tandem warhead; and the Toophan, an Iranian version of the TOW. These ATGMs were tactically employed day and night with a high degree of skill and discipline. Hezbollah also capitalized on one of the latest rocket-propelled grenade launchers (RPGs), the Iranian-manufactured Nader RPG, a derivative of the RPG-7. Together these advanced anti-tank weapons took an exacting toll on what is generally regarded as some of the most advanced armor in the world.

Hezbollah’s use of technology also extended to the sea with the successful engagement of an Israeli missile boat. On the night of July 14, an Iranian C-802 radar-guided missile struck the Israeli Naval Service’s (INS) Hanit, patrolling off the coast of Beirut, damaging the ship and killing four crew members.

Another battlefield dimension in which Hezbollah demonstrated some technological proxy was air space. There were several instances of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) use by Hezbollah in this latest conflict, perhaps the first time in a major conflict that UAVs were used by both sides. The Ababil UAVs were developed and manufactured by the Iranian aeronautical industry. Clearly, Hezbollah used several modes of advanced technology to confront the IDF.

A third line of evidence is the use of a dispersed logistical support infrastructure. During the interwar years (2000-2006), Hezbollah developed a comprehensive logistical system dispersed within hundreds of civilian homes and public institutions — including mosques — in villages throughout southern Lebanon. This network consisted of extensive and redundant underground vertical bunker systems, widely dispersed supplies, weapons and munitions caches. The infrastructure was designed to survive the full fury of the IDF for an extended campaign. This hardened infrastructure allowed Hezbollah to accomplish one of its major strategic objectives, to continuously attack the civilian population of Israel with rockets.

Psychological impact

The attack of an adversary’s culture is yet another tenet of fourth-generation war exemplified in the Second Lebanon War. Not unexpectedly, much of the media coverage centered on the seemingly endless barrage of rockets raining down on Israeli cities and towns. In fact, most casualties on both sides of the border were civilians, not desirable from Israel’s point of view, but acceptable and perhaps even desirable from Hezbollah’s. With the knowledge that Western societies in general, and Israel in particular, abhor civilian casualties, Hezbollah sought to force a quick resolution to the conflict by attacking the civilian population of Israel. The psychological effect of rocket attacks in Haifa and towns further south was powerful, forcing a shorter timeline for the end of combat than the IDF required to meet operational objectives.

The final confirmation of the Second Lebanon War as a model of fourth-generation war is the adept use of the media as an instrument of power. The control of world opinion will be achieved and shaped by the side that best exploits the global mass media. Fully aware that the “world was watching” and with the knowledge that perception shapes opinions, Hezbollah, or more precisely, Iran, conducted a two-front information campaign. On the home front, Hezbollah used Arab media such as Al Jazeera to garner support for its cause. To reinforce regional support for its cause, Hezbollah media showed pictures of destroyed IDF equipment, wounded IDF soldiers and disabled IDF tanks. For the consumption of western nations, graphic images of wounded and killed Lebanese civilians were put on the wires. This demonstrates the sophistication of target analysis on the part of Hezbollah’s information operation planners.

The events in Kfar Kana serve as an instructive example of how Hezbollah manipulated the media in support of a robust information campaign. On the morning of the bombing, major news networks throughout the world were connected to a live feed Al Jazeera was providing from Kfar Kana showing rescue workers removing the bodies of children from under the rubble of a collapsed building. There were approximately 28 civilians killed, including women and children. It was belatedly revealed by IDF media sources that the explosion was caused by unexploded IDF ammunition after the buildings were reoccupied by the civilians. Kfar Kana was targeted because it was a launching pad for Katyusha rockets and, as was its policy throughout the war, the IDF distributed flyers warning noncombatants (and unfortunately combatants) prior to airstrikes. This tidbit of information was not as widely disseminated as the original story and ignored by most of western media; accordingly, the damage was done. This is a telling example of how Hezbollah successfully executed the information dimension of fourth-generation war.

The Second Lebanon War also demonstrated other principles of fourth-generation war. For example, as was the case in Lebanon, there was little distinction between combatant and noncombatant; front lines and home front; politics (diplomacy) and combat; and unambiguous victor and vanquished. If the fourth-generation war construct is valid, this recent conflict involving an Islamic-based guerrilla force warrants careful study. It appears that Shiite jihad guerrillas are now better prepared to wage postmodern (fourth-generation) war than Sunni organizations such as al-Qaida in Iraq.

Hezbollah demonstrated that a small, dedicated, organized force well entrenched in a weakened nation-state can inflict a cost that can produce strategic results. The Israeli leadership fell into the trap set by Hezbollah by late and piecemeal use of land forces in favor of stand-off, precision-fire operations. The resulting operational delay allowed Hezbollah to withstand initial IDF assaults and to employ one of its strategic means — firing rockets into Israel. These means, in turn, produced strategic ends. That Hezbollah, an ideologically based nonstate deeply rooted in a weakened state, could take on a technologically superior nation-state is the hallmark of fourth-generation war.


This war had several of the features of fourth-generation war that may serve as a preview of future conflicts. One of the most striking is how Hezbollah, using relatively low-technology weapons (i.e., Katyusha rockets) was able to sustain rocket barrages against Israel’s technologically advanced precision fire. The IDF’s advantage in technology was mitigated by dispersal of launching sites (orchards, urban areas) and using remote firing devices. This permitted Hezbollah to directly attack Israeli cities and towns, another characteristic of fourth-generation war. That the IDF could not totally destroy Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal exemplifies yet another feature of this emerging type of warfare — dispersed logistical infrastructure. Despite the IDF’s total command of the air space, Hezbollah rockets continued to be fired until the cease-fire. Also of relevance is how the information instrument of power was effectively used by Hezbollah to enable and support its objectives. Their manipulation of the media is a noteworthy example of how perceptions can change or minimize the outcomes on the field of battle. The information aspect of warfare is where the boundaries between politics and war can become blurred. Finally, these traits bear some conspicuous resemblance to events in Iraq — use of improvised explosive devices to mitigate superior military technology, adept use of media, dispersal of logistics, and transformational states (Shiite, Sunni and Kurd) within a weakened state. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that this may be the dominant type of warfare in the foreseeable future.

The implication of this latest conflict goes beyond the Israeli-Lebanon border. This event may be but a precursor and a symptom of a more ominous struggle — that between moderate Arab Sunni (e.g., Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) and Iranian Shiite. This is clearly manifested in the Sunni-Shiite factional conflict activity in Iraq, where Iran may be supporting and abetting the Shiite insurgency. Iran’s strategy in Lebanon is to establish a de facto front against Israel and indoctrinate the Shiite population with its brand of Islam. This, in turn, allows Iran, through its proxy Hezbollah, to destabilize the region in support of its regional interests.

Given its deep involvement and support of Hezbollah together with its nuclear ambitions, the radical Islamic regime in Iran will continue to be a clear threat to American and Western interests in the region.

This war involved a panoply of complex diplomatic, informational, military and economic factors. It once again demonstrated that in this generation, technology alone will not suffice against a sophisticated adversary. It also suggests a trend that future conflicts could be decided at the small-unit tactical level, especially those which take place in complex terrain, against a technologically advanced foe. Finally, for the U.S. military, the imperative is to examine how this evolution in war will impact transformation, training, doctrine and equipping the force for the challenges of the 21st century. AFJ