Review Essay: Fighting and Learning Against Hybrid Threats

David E. Johnson, Hard Fighting: Israel in Lebanon and Gaza, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011, maps, charts, 272 pages, $27.50.  By clicking on the title above, you can go to the RAND website and download the PDF version free.

Ovid, the Roman poet, once told an audience that “Fas est et ab hoste doceri.”  Roughly translated, “it’s okay to learn, even from your enemies.”  Military history from the legions of his day to the present support this ancient proverb.  In their remarkable study on debacles, Military Misfortunes, Professors Eliot Cohen and John Gooch note that military organizations in three tenses; by anticipating changes in the character of conflict, by adapting in the present tense to an ongoing war, or learning from one’s own past experiences or the lessons of others.  Of the three, the failure to learn from real world combat with live opponents may be the most inexplicable since the results are quite evident.  Anticipatory innovation is risky and speculative, but learning from the cruel and costly lessons of combat is less so.     

Most military literature has focused on interwar innovation, and thus there are few books on post-conflict learning that draw upon detailed case studies.  One sure-fire exception is this latest book-length study by Dr. Dave Johnson.  In Hard Fighting, we are presented with a lucid and comprehensive analysis of two conflicts.  The author is a retired Army officer with impressive academic credentials and a sterling reputation for dispassionate and in-depth assessment.  His notable contribution to the literature, Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers, was a biting evaluation of the Army’s and Army Air Corps’ interwar efforts to stay up with the fast-changing developments in military affairs.  Reviewing that work in Foreign Affairs, Eliot Cohen called it a “powerful and convincing historical analysis” with a profound implication about how “the quality of military thought and the openness of military organizations to change will determine its ability to innovate.”

Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers reflects one of the author’s unique aptitudes; a holistic grasp of military operations and the ability to assess and write about the interaction between ground and air domains of warfare.   This skill comes to the fore in Fighting Hard as the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) comes to blows with its two most persistent threats, Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon and the Gaza-based Hamas. 

Transitioning to a Hybrid Threat

The Israeli campaign to punish Hezbollah in 2006 has admittedly been covered by numerous reports.  Matt Matthews wrote an impressive early account in a monograph for the U.S. Army’s Combined Arms Center in 2008.  Dr. Steve Biddle and Benjamin Friedman penned another insightful project for the Council on Foreign Relations.  Several Israeli scholars have also critiqued their armed forces, none more comprehensively than Professor Avi Kober at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv in an essay sub-titled “Why the Poor Performance?” in the Journal of Strategic Studies.  Adding more depth to our understanding of this case is research on the airpower dimension by former RAND aerospace analyst Benjamin Lambeth.   

All of these have merit and specific strengths, but do not match the comprehensive breadth of Dr. Johnson’s study.  Exploiting the inputs of both U.S. and Israeli experts, as well as his own field research, Johnson details both Hezbollah’s approach and Israel’s indecisive operations of the summer of 2006.  While others have captured Israel’s policy shortfalls, and the lack of coordination between its ground and air forces, Johnson refreshingly gives equal weight to Hezbollah’s involvement in the war. 

As Patrick Porter at the University of Reading noted in his excellent Military Orientalism, the IDF over generalized its enemies as Arab terrorists or Palestinians incapable of serious fighting.  This was not just complacency borne out of years of occupation duty, or a cultural blindness, it is a cognitive gap.  Porter noted that the IDF’s shock was not from a lack of intelligence necessarily but the lack of “a capacity to discriminate and differentiate between enemies.”  The IDF’s lack of success in 2006 had many fathers (bad policy, doctrinal failure, limited combined arms training, occupation duties, etc.) but few authors have properly captured the cognitive failure to recognize Hezbollah’s morphing into a hybrid threat and ever fewer accord the opponent any role in imposing conditions to offset expected IDF moves or credit Hezbollah for evolving its own security capabilities against its most likely competitor.      

Some academic strategic theorists have bemoaned efforts to categorize threats.  This contradicts Clausewitz who explicitly stressed that one of the purposes of theory is to categorize as well as describe (but never prescribe by rules), and would only lead to future gaps in combating evolving threats.  There is nothing strategic nor necessarily novel about a hybrid challenger but to overlook or ignore the problem is foolhardy given Israel’s costly case.  We can leave these arguments in the Ivory Tower.

Hammering Hamas

The highlight of this book is it assiduous attention to IDF efforts to learn and incorporate lessons between conflicts.  Israeli strategic and military culture is not deterministic, but in the IDF formal doctrine and learning is not prized as much as creative improvisation.   Its military tradition of “organized mess” or balagan neurgan did not always serve it well against Hezbollah.  Johnson adds considerably to our understanding of how significant the Israeli learning effort was after Lebanon.  With numerous interviews and his own scholarship, Dr. Johnson details how the IDF changed its planning, mobilization, logistics, training based on its prior experience.  The IDF, stung by public criticism from 2006, took pains to deliberately prepare for and conduct itself in Cast Lead.  In that effort, as Eliot Cohen suggested, the quality of thinking in the IDF and its openness abetted its ability to innovate fairly rapidly.

Israel learned from its experience and proved to be what many call a “learning organization.”  Johnson scrupulously captures both the lessons from Lebanon and their application in Operation Cast Lead.  Of interest,  Dr. Johnson notes that while Mission Command was something the IDF embraced in theory, in actual practice commanders had become quite centralized in planning and oversight due to the political ramifications of mistakes by tactical leaders.   Cast Lead began with a well-conceived deception plan and a series of air strikes, with 88 IAF planes hitting over 100 targets in the first 4 minutes of the campaign.  Hamas had no time to disperse and its ability to control its forces degraded at the onset.  All told in the campaign some 1,700 fixed-wing and over 1,100 helicopter-borne sorties were conducted, against some nearly 3,500 targets.   Over 80 percent of the targets were struck with precision munitions, doubling the percentage in Lebanon. 

Ground forces were part of the initial campaign design this time, and again exploited the shock of the airpower strikes, deception and night attacks to gain an immediate positional advantage which forced Hamas from its prepared defenses.  Combining superb intelligence and intensive combined arms training, the IDF faced little real opposition from Hamas.

As Johnson notes “…the operation demonstrated that the IDF had corrected many of the deficiencies identified after the Second Lebanon War.  Israel once again appeared to have a competent military …central to meeting the Operation Cast Lead objective of restoring Israel’s military deterrent…”

Israeli claims and Johnson’s suggestion that the IDF regained its preeminent reputation and restored its deterrent position in the region is a bit overdrawn.  But the IDF clearly restored its pride and demonstrated it could plan and execute complex operations in contested urban zones without breaking stride.  

On top of Dr. Johnson’s observations, greater attention should be afforded to Israeli learning in strategic communications.  The IDF gave considerable thought to what we now term Military Information Support Operations, as Hezbollah proved rather adept at propaganda and manipulative use of imagery including its TV station Al-Maner (The Beacon).  Israel had to counterpunch against Nasrallah’s crass propaganda in 2006, but stayed ahead in “the battle of the narratives” in 2008 (at least until the flawed Goldstone report).  This reflected a new capability to “maneuver” successfully in the information domain of the extended battlespace—another example of learning from one’s adversary. 

Lessons for the Joint Force

The most important component of this book is the concluding chapter on implications for the Joint force.  Here again, Dr. Johnson adds both deep insights and practical recommendations.  His assessment on the need for robust maneuver forces capable of highly-capable combined arms warfare is undoubtedly correct.  Hybrid threats are not going to be defeated by the precepts of FM 3-24, which discounts the arguments of those who contend that Hezbollah is simply an irregular force and thus amenable to misguided Western counterinsurgency techniques.  More formidable concepts will be needed to counter the area denial and low signature tactics of hybrid threats, and more potent maneuver forces needed to generate the freedom of action they seek to deny us.   General Robert Scales examined this book and blurbed it with the comment that “Those inside the Beltway who have spent the past five years debating the terms hybrid would be well served by this book to understand how such an enemy fights.” 

In particular, Johnson’s recommendation that U.S. force planners not overlook the middle of the conflict spectrum while we focus on Counter-Terrorism and Building Partnership Capacity at the lower end, and gear up for higher end missions against China’s presumably conventional military might.   Israel made a similar strategic step after 2000.  “The Israelis learned the hard way in Lebanon,” the author concludes. “that there was a gap in their ability to carry out operations ‘in the middle.’  As the US. joint force prepares to confront the full spectrum of potential future challenge, Israel’s experiences are well worth learning from.”

This reminder to avoid focusing on our preferences and consider the enemy’s range of options and “mind the middle” is a trenchant warning for the future. 

The author’s emphasis on air-ground integration and the importance of precision strike capabilities to offset hybrid adversaries is well founded but trends suggest this come with a warning label.  But this enthusiasm for air-delivered strikes should be tempered with an understanding that past hybrid threats were not capable of contesting their own airspace.  The exception being the Afghans against the Russians, and there is a clear warning in that case study.  We should expect Hezbollah and other are extending their reach enough with MANPADS to offset the benefits of airpower superiority.  Already Hezbollah has demonstrated an interest in and limited capacity with armed UAVs.    

In his conclusions, Johnson makes a logical assessment drawn from history.  He argues that to transition from irregular forces to hybrid status, a group must have state support.  He also briefly discusses the case of Chechnya, where forces trained in the Soviet military used weapons left in Chechnya by the Red Army. A similar hybrid threat could result from failed state scenarios in Pakistan, Egypt, Syria or North Korea in which the state and its military dissolve into competing groups.  There is evidence for this conclusion, but it’s not entirely clear that hybrid forces cannot be sustained by illicit networks, diffusion/proliferation of modern weapons on the black market, or combinations of transnational criminal organizations and terrorists.  Arguably, the easiest way for a non-state actor to gain high-tech stand-off weapons is to have a state sponsor.  But in the future, will this hold true or will future FARC-like entities or Mexican cartels continue to evolve?  

If you want an in-depth and authoritative study on these recent conflicts, this book provides it with clear prose and lucid conclusions.  It offers thoughtful insights for those military forces that have to contend with threats across the full spectrum of conflict.  As Hard Fighting shows with considerable detail, the IDF clearly knows how to be self-critical and adapt its planning assumptions, its campaign designs and its training system to adapt to ongoing changes in the character of contemporary conflict.  Its learning was commendable, and Ovid was correct, we can learn from our enemies.  Dave Johnson’s balanced effort shows the cost of complacency and offers a set of pragmatic insights that bear serious reflection by U.S. joint force developers.  There are few books that are more worthy of attention at this time.  Because of its thorough assessment and studious portrayal, Hard Fighting is highly recommended for all Western military audiences and Israeli students of war and conflict. 

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Comments

After reading Dr. Johnson and company’s RAND study (h/t AOL Defense), I’m left more than a bit puzzled. There is a lot to agree and disagree with:

1) They do not appear cognizant that many countermeasures to MANPADS already exist and more are planned. They imply that Army and Marine helicopters, UAS, and A-10s cannot survive against middle-ground hybrid threats with MANPADS. Wrong.

2) Even without countermeasures, TTP such as flying Army helicopters very low, or UAS and MV-22’s fairly high are already options. The difference is that flying low and employing terrain masking also defeats radars whereas an MV-22 cannot fly as low due to large diameter vertically-oriented rotors. Nevertheless, despite its $67 million cost (buys two new CH-47), I’ve come to appreciate the MV- and CV-22 because of their potential capabilities over larger Pacific distances. However, the Army can do Pacific island-hopping, too, using conventional aviation extended range fuel tanks and aerial refueling of SOF helicopters.

3) Everyone loves the A-10 but do not recognize that it, and a Harvest Hawk or AC-130 would not last long against radar air defenses. Sure, you employ JSEAD, but did you get them all? There are reasons why the USAF, Navy, and Marines will move to higher-flying F-35 CAS capabilities with added stealth/jamming and small diameter bombs I and II.

4) They mention atrophied air-ground integration, which is hardly the case given the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan.

5) They perhaps strike home saying the USAF should more often provide habitual support to ground BCTs. Unfortunately that is anathema to the philosophy of centralized control from a distant JAOC…which BTW is extremely vulnerable to A2/AD missiles. More habitual support would circumvent the slow and often irrelevant Air Tasking Order process and enable more rapid Strike Coordination and Reconnaissance.

6) In their conclusions, they make the curious statement “The US joint force needs to develop and institutionalize processes to integrate and control cross-service platforms and capabilities at the level of the BCT.” The implication is that Navy, Marine, and Army aircraft should be under JAOC ATO control with their reps in the TACP controlling all air assets to include UAS and Army and Marine helicopters. Not good. Curiously, they mention that the IAF has control of all UAS and helicopters and implies that is a better way to fight. Who is more likely to buy off on habitual DS of BCT and air-ground task forces, the Joint Force Air Component Commander (JFACC) or the Army and Marine commanders?

7) The study notes (but downplays) an Air Force Association article that mentions that Hezbollah had 6 years to prepare an elaborate network of tunnels, bunkers, and hidden rocket firing positions. How does that contrast with the PLA newly-arriving on Taiwan, DPRK SOF trying to infiltrate to the South, or Russian troops invading Ukraine? In most cases, US forces would be arriving on allied territory adjacent to the threat invasion and could begin addressing targets in nearly the same time that the invading force is attempting to go to ground. No 6-year threat underground preps feasible in most likely US-involved contingencies.

8) Most startling, is not a single example cites that heavier US forces must actually deploy to the conflict and sustain over long supply lines. It was theoretically easy for the IDF to move and support heavy elements from its own territory over very short distances relative to anything the US has experienced and will in the future. Ironically, it does mention IAF efforts to cut off Hezbollah supplies by bombing bridges and suspected supply depots. Too many were buried deep because Hezbollah had 6 years to prepare. He also mentions Rommel’s concerns that the allies were pouring supplies and forces onto shore but his own heavy elements could not be resupplied.

9) Several times, they mention that the hybrid threat needs a wealthy benefactor to give it weapons like Kornet-E, RPG-29, and MANPADS and provide required training. This recognizes that more sophisticated systems cost substantially more than older ATGM, RPG-7, and small arms. They imply Afghanistan would be different if MANPADS and ATGM were introduced. Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent Pakistan are wealthy yet do not seem to have supplied the Taliban with such weapons. An implication is made that an Israeli helicopter was downed by a MANPAD but the footnote makes it clear that not all agree. Neither are countermeasures mentioned nor that CH-53s have much larger heat signatures relative to other medium rotorcraft let alone most UAS.

The correct implication is that heavy armored forces and combined arms training remain a necessity and that EBO, RMA, Systemic Operational Design, and Standoff fires alone are insufficient. But as mentioned in the Gaza conflict, the IDF used multiple air attacks, and rolling artillery barrages over suspected Hamas and IED locations. They also employed line charges like the US did in Now Zad, and one battle described in the Combat Studies Institute "Vanguards of Valor" (a great document BTW) to create new routes.

A force tailored division leading with a BCT with thee armored maneuver battalions and a reconnaissance battalion with Aviation manned and unmanned aircraft would duplicate old ACR capabilities. This would allow Strykers, and JLTV-equipped light forces to follow behind to keep supply lines secure and clear bypassed urban areas (with some task-organized tanks/GCV). Obviously, such a division would be more easily deployed with some Stryker and light elements being air-deployed and defending several allied port/airheads, while most (but not all) armored BCT elements sea-deploy.

All elements would use smoke like the Gaza IDF to defeat ATGM and distant ambushes. Dismounted infantry and active protection systems would mean an RPG strike on a near-empty Stryker or JLTV would be less debilitating. This mix of capabilities in divisions would reduce fuel supplies enormously. A tank and GCV may each require around 500 gallons at least twice a day. A Stryker requires just 60 gallons each, and a JLTV even less, particularly if hybrid-electric drive.

As for AirSea Battle, most relevant to me was how many munitions were employed by the IAF in both Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. In 2006 against Hezbollah, the IAF dropped 19,000 bombs and 2,000 missiles on 7,000 targets. It fired 150,000 rounds of 155mm artillery and 2,500 Naval gunfire rounds. Against Hamas in Gaza, the IAF employed 5500 air munitions, 81% of which were precision-guided.

Contrast these air-munition levels with the far lesser 1600 or so missiles that China might employ against targets dispersed over a much larger area and greater distances that reduce accuracy. Make the same comparison with Iranian missiles fired against Israel and how Israel could/would respond in kind with missiles from Israel and on subs. adding aircraft using far more munitions. Did anyone note Galrahn's heads-up that Saudi Arabia nearly doubled large vessel oil shipments to the U.S. this month?

The notion that Chinese or Iranian missile attacks far less numerous than what Israel employed from the air in 2006 and 2008, let alone what the US could employ is some kind of prohibitive A2/AD game-changer is ludicrous. If you read Bill Gertz’s recent revelations of wargames showing that China could defeat the US in the Pacific, keep in mind the agenda and slanted assumptions of the gamers. The last wargame I saw described publicly had F-22s crashing into the Pacific out of fuel rather than landing in the Philippines. They also did not consider the air superiority capabilities of Navy F/A-18s let alone a carrier-flown F-35s of the not too distant future.