A Hyper-Mobile Defense: Iran’s Novel Strategy to Sustain Proxy Conflicts in the Middle East
In 2004, King Abdullah of Jordan first warned that a "Shia crescent" stretching from Damascus to Tehran, threatened Middle Eastern stability via a Persian sponsored sectarian power play.[i] His words would hold true as the Iranian influence over Shia militants has projected Tehran’s power will well beyond its borders. The expansive nature of this greater-Iranian strategy has culminated in a political completion of the land bridge from Tehran to Beirut. In 2016, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman reiterated the continued threat "by a Shia full moon” as the result of Iranian-backed Shia militias in both Yemen and the Levant.[ii] These forces present a difficult problem not only to the infiltrated host nations but also to that of neighboring and international states, seeking to pacify the region. With Persian and American tensions at a breaking point it is imperative to understand not only Iran’s national capabilities but also that of its cultivated proxy organizations in the Middle East whose potential for global disruption cannot be discounted.
The most developed of these Iranian surrogates is Hezbollah, which has consistently destabilized peace along the Israeli-Lebanese and Jordanian borders since 1982.[iii] Currently, this organization holds de facto control over strategic zones along the Judean border and in the capital of Beirut. Due to its cult like effect on the Shia population, Hezbollah has become a major part of the Lebanese government since 1992.[iv] In 2006, Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, sparking a conflict with Israel. The insurgents would employ a hyper-mobile style of defense in urban areas and other complex terrain which would successfully grind the conflict to a stalemate. This result prompted semi-legitimate claims that they were the first Arab group to defeat Israel since the Jewish state’s inception.[v] As conflicts in the Middle East continue to arise, it is imperative to understand the underlying strategy that contributed to Hezbollah’s military successes in 2006 in order to minimize the role that they or their fellow Iranian proxies can play in future confrontations.
The impetus of the 34-day Lebanese-Israeli War in 2006 was primarily to curtail Hezbollah’s relentless harassment of border settlements via rocket attacks and cross border raids. Israel’s subsequent campaign would use inapplicable lessons from their past conflicts in Palestine, which relied primarily on tanks or light armored vehicles supported by infantry at brigade strength to achieve their objectives. These counterinsurgency tactics, which had worked against low grade small weaponry, failed miserably against a new type of urban warfare supported by advanced man-portable defense systems. These systems, copiously supplied by Iran, gave Hezbollah a definitive tactical advantage when employing these technologies in a creative fashion.[vi] Just like an effective counter-puncher in boxing, Hezbollah was able to use a novel hyper-mobile defense strategy to withstand the mighty Israeli offensive.
Hyper-Mobile Defense Theory
Traditionally, a mobile defense is an operation that concentrates on the destruction or defeat of the enemy through a decisive counter-attack on a striking force.[vii] This was first implemented in modern times, during World War II, by the German rear guard in an effort to slow the overwhelming Russian onslaught. It focused on destroying the attacking force by permitting the enemy to advance into a position that exposes him to counterattack and envelopment. With a hyper-mobile defense the objective is not to counter-attack and envelope but to stalemate the entire operation through a series of repeated shocks to the offensive. This strategy fulfills the insurgent’s critical need to protect a safe haven while their political goals are consolidated.[viii] In the initial phase, the insurgent force would hold off the offensive forces at well prepared defensive positions. In the case of Lebanon, these included key districts which held missile installations. Hezbollah utilized reinforced buildings, underground tunnel networks and pre-fixed supply depots to sustain a defensive posturing beyond what was previously conceived possible for this insurgency. The second phase involves a multitude of small mobile strike teams (3-4 men) which engage in a guerrilla style attacks to stymie the assault.[ix] This requirement for mobility and adaptability by these teams in order to carry out the guerilla strikes is where the origins of the prefix “hyper” comes from. The teams are often dressed in civilian clothing while utilizing man-portable defensive systems (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles and Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems). A hyper-mobile defense’s goal is to shock, not destroy, the enemy through rapid, repeated, multi-directional engagements. The fixed objectives serve to lure in vulnerable tanks, helicopters and armored personnel carriers along pre-planned routes, making them easy targets for the small strike teams. While this shock technique did not entirely destroy the Israeli force, it did disrupt the attacker’s central strategy of a swift, air-covered, armored penetration. The desire of achieving a quick, comprehensive strike for effect has long been the linchpin of effective urban conquest. The strategic use of a hyper-mobile defense utilizing Anti-Tank Guided Missiles and Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems has drastically changed this line of thinking. This novel strategy has effectively leveled the playing field for insurgents defending against a superior force in an urban environment.
On a strategic level, Hezbollah understood that Israel, like most western nations, has a domestic and international aversion to causing civilian casualties or losses in its own military forces and is biased to quick offensives as opposed to prolonged engagements. Knowing that Israeli politicians and the international community would not tolerate heavy fighting in populated areas, mass civilian casualties, or significant losses in its military, Hezbollah placed critical defensive resources in civilian zones, making every attack politically damaging.[x] While the damage to Hezbollah’s capabilities at this time cannot be substantiated, what can be confirmed was the destruction of large parts of the Lebanese civilian infrastructure both in Beirut and southern Lebanon which consisted of vital roads, bridges, and water treatment facilities. In addition, civilian deaths also play positively into the insurgent’s narrative of an unjust enemy.[xi] Thus, when Israel alienated the Lebanese citizenry with these attacks, Hezbollah was actually strengthened politically. The Israeli air campaign would quickly prove to draw the ire of the international community as well, culminating with the airstrike on a civilian building in Qana which killed twenty civilians. In the aftermath of the incident, the United States began pressuring Israel to reach a ceasefire, which resulted in United Nations Resolution 1701 several days later.[xii] In the end, the inability of the Israeli Defense Force to hold true on its promise to end these missile attacks quickly, coupled with international pressure to avoid further civilian casualties, would break the political will of the Israeli government to continue the engagement.
At the operational level, Hezbollah’s use of a hyper-mobile defense was critical to the Iranian backed proxy insurgency to ensuring its operational continuity during the major offensive launched by Israel in the final days of the conflict.[xiii] For the majority of the campaign, Israel conducted raid style offensives with shallow penetration into Hezbollah territory which resulted in nominal tactical victories. These did little to disrupt the Hezbollah’s rocket attacks, which continued throughout the campaign.[xiv] After weeks of fighting, Israel was determined to end the stalemate. They initiated Operation Changing Direction 11. This encompassed a large coordinated combined arms offensive involving four combat divisions. One of the best examples of a hyper-mobile defense’s capability was when it successfully thwarted the Israeli 162nd Division’s attempt to cross the Wadi (valley in Arabic) Saluki, which required Israeli armor to climb a hill to achieve its objective.[xv] Knowing the hill was strategically important to the Israeli advance, Hezbollah pre-positioned critical defensive units to include mobile strike teams armed with laser guided Anti-Tank Guided Missiles. They collapsed buildings to alter the Israeli route towards terrain more favorable to their defensive. After the ambush commenced, and with the isolation of the lead tanks, the Israeli column called for artillery and air support. The Israeli Northern Command denied these requests because of concerns about the possibility of hitting nearby Israeli infantry forces. The battalion halted and failed to open the route across the Saluki. In total, the failed operation resulted in 11 of the 24 Merkava Mark IV tanks in Wadi Saluki being hit by anti-tank missiles. Eight tank crewman and four infantrymen were killed although the exact number of casualties for this operation were never listed.[xvi] Similar hyper-mobile defensive maneuvers, stalled all four of the Israeli combat divisions and they failed to achieve their defined mission objectives. In total, due to the insurgent’s innovative use of these defensive tactics, 52 Merkava main battle tanks were damaged with missiles penetrating 22 tanks during the 34 day conflict. Israeli aircraft were also not immune to this onslaught due to the strategic use of Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems. These could have contributed to the downing of at least three AH-64 Apache Longbow gunships and were directly responsible for the downing of one CH-53 Sea Stallion transport.[xvii] Hezbollah’s hyper-mobile strike teams would catch Israeli penetrations off balance causing the offensive to stall at critical points. The success of this defense would ultimately cause a reevaluation of attainable mission goals from the Israeli Central Command and prompt Olmert’s government to accept the United Nations ceasefire.
The implications of Hezbollah’s ability to parry a major Israeli offensive has had a dramatic impact on the way similar rebel groups, such as the Houthis, have vied for survival. The best ongoing example of a hyper-mobile defense is the current conflict in Yemen. Once again, access to man-portable standoff weapons has proven to be the deciding factor in sustaining safe havens for insurgent activity. Currently, the Iranian backed Houthi rebels have access to these state-of-the-art weapons from Russia, China and Iran.[xviii] This technology has, thus far, shredded American-made, Saudi Coalition operated main battle tanks, transports, drones, and attack helicopters. In total, this conflict has caused over a thousand Saudi casualties, including 28 tanks and 11 helicopters lost to insurgent fire.[xix] Man Portable Systems have enabled these groups to hold critical territory without amassing terminal losses. Thus, the Houthi rebels present the Saudis with a similar dilemma to what Israel faced in 2006.
All of these conflicts have reinforced the utility of a hyper-mobile defense as a viable strategy for any insurgency in an overmatch scenario with a western power. As seen in the Yemen and Lebanese conflicts, insurgents that have access to man-portable standoff weapons which can penetrate armor and defeat close air cover have an enhanced ability to establish an urban safe haven. Aside from unrestricted bombing, locally impenetrable armor and arms interdiction, there is currently no clear answer in dealing with a hyper-mobile defense. With current technology, man-portable weapon platforms will certainly continue to be at the heart of Iranian sponsored hostilities throughout the Shia Crescent. The current instability in Iraq and Syria has allowed for a land bridge enabling Tehran to supply its proxies with men, money, and munitions at a previously unparalleled level.[xx] Due to the relatively low cost of production and training with man-portable systems, Iran’s endearment with them has proven to be the most cost effective way to project power against its pro-western neighbors.[xxi] While a direct engagement with the United States would likely result in an Iranian defeat and regime change, proxy conflicts in strategic areas along the Strait of Hormuz, Arabian Peninsula, or near Israel remain a viable way to achieve objectives related to Tehran’s national interest. These state sponsored insurgencies will continue to enhance Iran’s prowess, giving it more bargaining power on the international stage. In addition, this strategy can be implemented without prompting direct western intervention on its own soil.[xxii] Therefore, future conflicts with Iranian sponsored insurgents are likely and the West must always have a contingency plan for confronting a well-supplied, hyper-mobile defense.
[i] “King Abdullah II of Jordan.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 9 Dec. 2004, www.nbcnews.com/id/6679774/ns/msnbc-hardball_with_chris_matthews/t/king-abdullah-ii-jordan/#.XVXnwS3Mw1I.
[ii] “Young Prince in a Hurry.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 9 Jan. 2016, www.economist.com/briefing/2016/01/09/young-prince-in-a-hurry.
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[v] “Lebanon: The Israel-Hamas-Hezbollah Conflict.” CRS Report for Congress, 15 Sept. 2006, fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33566.pdf.
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[viii] Mao, Zedong, and Samuel B. Griffith. On Guerrilla Warfare. Martino Fine Books, 1961. 24
[ix] Johnson, David E., Hard Fighting: Israel in Lebanon and Gaza. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011. https://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG1085.html. Also available in print form.
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[xii] Johnson, David E., Hard Fighting: Israel in Lebanon and Gaza. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011. https://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG1085.html. Also available in print form.
[xiii]“Lebanon: The Israel-Hamas-Hezbollah Conflict.” CRS Report for Congress, 15 Sept. 2006, fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33566.pdf.
[xv] Johnson, David E., Hard Fighting: Israel in Lebanon and Gaza. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2011. https://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG1085.html. Also available in print form.
[xvi] Farquhar, Scott. “A Study of the Second Lebanon War and Operation CAST LEAD.” US Army Combined Arms Center, 2009, institutobrasilisrael.org/cms/assets/uploads/_BIBLIOTECA/_PDF/novos-conflitos-atualidades/948e1709b7c6e4fca1bb83fd4b45ca70.pdf.
[xvii] Cordesman, Anthony H., et al. Lessons of the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War. Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2007.122p
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[xviii] Pappalardo, Joe. “How Did Chinese Missiles Get into Yemen?” Popular Mechanics, Popular Mechanics, 14 Nov. 2017, www.popularmechanics.com/military/weapons/a8777/how-did-chinese-missiles-get-into-yemen-15182294/.
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[xix] WEISGERBER, MARCUS. “Saudi Losses in Yemen War Exposed by US Tank Deal.” Defense One, 9 Aug. 2016, https://www.defenseone.com/business/2016/08/us-tank-deal-exposes-saudi-losses-yemen-war/130623/
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[xx] Arango, Tim. “Iran Dominates in Iraq After U.S. 'Handed the Country Over'.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 July 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/07/15/world/middleeast/iran-iraq-iranian-power.html.
[xxi] “Armed Groups and Guided Light Weapons: 2014 Update with MENA Focus.” Small Arms Survey - Home, 28 May 2019, www.smallarmssurvey.org/about-us/highlights/highlights-2015/highlight-rn47.html.
[xxii] “Countering Iran's Global Terrorism - United States Department of State.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, www.state.gov/countering-irans-global-terrorism/.