Small Wars Journal

The Hezbollah Myth and Asymmetric Warfare

Tue, 08/17/2010 - 7:28pm
The Hezbollah Myth and Asymmetric Warfare

by Adam Elkus

Download the Full Article: The Hezbollah Myth and Asymmetric Warfare

Since the early 1990s, military theorists examined ways that a rogue state, substate, or nonstate actor could frustrate a conventional force. The 2006 Israeli clash with Hezbollah came to be seen as the harbinger of an era of cheap missiles, stronger defenses, and danger to conventional forces. Hezbollah's supposed success furthered a growing notion that a strong high-end asymmetric warfare defense could make a country a poison pill for foreign intervention.

But this narrative does not capture the conflict's ambivalent results, exaggerating Israeli difficulties while overplaying Hezbollah's performance. The Hezbollah myth also masks the ability of a sufficiently driven and equipped state to use conventional military power to annihilate a weaker state or substate group. While the operational challenges of high-end asymmetric threats do pose dangers for conventional forces that deserve sustained analysis, the strategic question of whether high-end asymmetric warfare can effectively deter a conventional force hinges instead on the political context of the conflict and the adversaries who fight it.

Download the Full Article: The Hezbollah Myth and Asymmetric Warfare

Adam Elkus is an analyst specializing on foreign policy and security. He has published on defense issues in Small Wars Journal, West Point Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel, Defense Concepts, and other publications. He is currently the Associate Editor of Red Team Journal.

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Anonymous (not verified)

Thu, 08/19/2010 - 9:57am

Starbuck - you are of course correct, but the extremely high percentage of the missile hits as well as a moderate ratio of tank armor penetration showed that the overwhelming majority of ATGMs that Hez used were old types.

Systems like Koronet-E would have showed a more impressive level effectiveness and hit capability. It is either that they were not used, or were a few samples Syria gave to Hez, captured by the IDF, which stirred them up. Either way, their number was quite insignificant.

Anecdotally, I visited a display of captured weapons on display by the IDF and no Koronets were on display, though there is a rumor Israel presented evidence to Russia of their introduction.

Bob's World

Thu, 08/19/2010 - 8:28am

Is "holding ground" even material to measuring the success or failure of this operation and the goals of the two oppornents?

This was probably a net strategic gain for LH, and a net strategic loss for Israel; and a net tactical win for Israel and a net tactical loss for LH. The ground holding issue is important if you think the tactical win is important. I would suggest that the strategic gain is more significant, and that ground holding ability plays little part in that assessment.

The fact that people even talk about this as a conflict between LH and Israel rather than a conflict between Lebanon and Israel shows how it elevated LH in the global perspective.

Rex Brynen

Thu, 08/19/2010 - 8:12am

Agreed, Starbuck--it is SACLOS with a tandem warhead, so the AT-14 is hardly first generation. Second-and-a-half, perhaps.

On Wilf's point that Hizbullah couldn't hold ground--by the time they were losing significant ground in the south, the IDF had a better than 2:1 advantage in personnel. A modern, well-equipped mechanized army with complete air dominance like the IDF had better be able to seize ground with those odds...


How "old" is an "old" system? I thought the Koronet AT-14 missile was relatively new (post-Cold War).

Oddly enough in a PLA large-unit operations manual (The Science of Military Campaigns--English translation), the battle of Yorktown is a very prominent case study in one chapter. Given the doctrinal history of the PLA it isn't really surprising they'd look at the US revolutionary army, but in an era when most history here before Facebook is forgotten it's pretty amusing.

Bob's World

Wed, 08/18/2010 - 1:08pm


I'll try to clarify. I think Washington accomplished an extremely difficult, many I'm sure believed impossible, task. He was a great general. Now, all men have there weakness, and if the Brits were not so disdainful of their foe, they probaby could have baited Washington into making a fatal error, but exploiting the same.

Washington is famous for his dignity and honor, and rightfully so. This was perhaps his greatest strength, and therefore also a point of weakness that nearly did him in. Of the four causal percptions that lead to insurgency, the one I believe that most motivated Washington was that of "Respect." For colonists to be treated as second class citizens in general had to be gauling for him; for him personally to be discriminated against and deemed unworthy to hold a regular commission in his own King's army is likely what made him an insurgent.

I see in his campaigns and his focus and his reverence for Frederick a showing of this Achillies heel. His deep personal desire to demonstrate that he, like Frederick, could build, train and lead a great professional army. To then employ that army to defeat the British on their own terms. Now, he was wise enough to avoid that decisive battle and not overestimate his ability to wage it, but he always ultimately sought it as well.

As the great philosopher Clint Eastwood once said "A man needs to know his limitations." I think George appreciated the limitations of his force, but did not fully appreciate the limitation of his desire to defend his honor in a great, symmetric, decisive battle.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Wed, 08/18/2010 - 11:10am

Building on Robert Jones's point about asymmetric warfare my dear, close friend Professor Citino makes this clear and simple in his classic "The German Way of War" where he states "all warfare is asymmetrical." And he made that point when he was writing about war in the age of Frederick the Great.

Although Robert I part company with you on your critique of GW. I think he knew quite very well the importance of militia, its strengths and weaknesses. But he also knew the importance of a standing army and what it represented for the Revolution. It is also clear that although GW made some mistakes, especially early on at Long Island, he learned. His prudent choice of lashing Greene and Morgan together in the South, and then an eye for what that superb combination produced in strategic terms with a weakened British Army closing on Yorktown I think shows the man's brilliance as a strategic general.


Again, a similarity to 1973 in interpretation. Citino makes the point that force employment (e.g. too armor-heavy) was an issue in Yom Kippur. The extrapolation from this was that people thought that the tank was dead. Flash forward to 2006, and something quite similar happens.


Wed, 08/18/2010 - 10:02am

Allow me to expand on William F. Owen's comment about ATGM's: he is correct, Hez employed only 1st generation ATGM's against the IDF, and primarily at maximum distance.

Of note was the depth to which Hez employed them, which should have still given them better results. However, the fact is, it didnt, and may indicate a lack of proper training on these systems by Hez.

Hez was most effective in areas that the IDF used armor without infantry support. Additionally, it was primarily Israel's reserves that were found to not be adequately trained - this won't happen again.

Hezbollah is the enemy of my blood and shouldn't be underrated - they also shouldn't be overrated.

Wilf's last point about their failure to hold ground is important, and it is something that most missed in the English-language literature except for Steven Simon's analysis. As Rex pointed out in the first comment, I think a repeat performance will be much different. And even in the imperfect manner in which the IDF fought it, Hezbollah was hit in a manner that does not support the popular interpretation.

Robert C. Jones makes a point I did in the beginning. Language is difficult and can obscure our understanding. I chose to use the terms of art as a means of better explicating the mythology. I also agree with his interpretation of Washington, who never really grasped the benefits of the Fabian strategy that some of his more talented subordinates did.

Bob's World

Wed, 08/18/2010 - 8:19am

Ike opted to use "cheap missiles" to asymmetrically counter the expensive conventional army of the Soviets.

Asymmetric warfare is as old as warfare itself. Find a single strategist or military theorist who has not hammered on the importance of matching ones strength against their opponents weakness; and not to try to go head to head with similar capabilities when you know yours are inferior?

This was actually probably Washington's greatest failing as a general. He wanted desperately to field a real army and meet the British in a real battle and defeat them on their terms. We almost lost the war because of his desire to do this over and over again. He wanted to be a modern Frederick; and he also wanted to earn the respect of his enemy (the British had denyed Washington's request for a commission as a Regular, and told him that as a Colonial he was only worthy to serve in the Militia)

A couple of lessons there. Be careful who you disrespect, it may come back to haunt you; and asymmetric is not new, its just smart.

William F. Owen (not verified)

Wed, 08/18/2010 - 7:51am

Couple of correctives:

a.) The terrain in Lebanon is IDENTICAL to the terrain in Northern Israel, on which the IDF trains.

b.) If you train to fight hybrid threats, you just failed to understand the problem. It's a moronic term.

c.) Hezbollah were not armed with " Armed with sophisticate ATGMs". They had AT-3,4, 14, and Milan. Old Systems. Once the IDF operations and orders system went back to basics, Hezbollah was unable to hold ground or to prevent IDF manoeuvre.

Helps if you talk to the men that fought the war and not rely on web sites for analysis.

I would say that Hezbollah enjoyed a few advantages. As we reorganize our combat training centers for "hybrid" threats, I fear that we're not actually incorporating these lessons:

The first advantage was that they spent six years digging defenses, stockpiling weapons, and constructing some very well-prepared fighting positions and weapons caches, many of which were invisible to the IDF's sensors. One Hezbollah position was constructed within 100 meters of an IDF observation post.

The terrain in Lebanon is also very conducive to an infantry-centric defense against tanks. The terrain tends to channelize movement along a handful of mobility corridors, and the actual IDF route of advance became very obvious to Hezbollah as soon as the IDF began movement. Armed with sophisticate ATGMs (not a new development), Hezbollah disabled a number of Merkavas from battle positions in villages.

There's also the failure of Israel to match policy with rhetoric. There was absolutely no way the IDF could have "destroyed Hezbollah as a fighting force" given the resources matched against it.

A.E. (not verified)

Tue, 08/17/2010 - 9:25pm

I agree about the politics--it is difficult to really score, especially given that the situation is ongoing. Which is why I didn't make an attempt to say who "won"--although that may become clearer in a marginal sense with the passage of time--simply to elucidate some of the complexities of the conflict and why it did not necessarily justify the interpretation that often extrapolates the organization as an "ideal type."

The organization did better militarily than others, but it was certainly not the superman that is sometimes made out to be. It also certainly was hit a good deal harder than was popularly believed as well--which is what I meant by my comment.

Overall, a repeat performance, employing a full range of force akin to what has been done in the past, would have been different.

Rex Brynen

Tue, 08/17/2010 - 9:10pm

The piece is a very useful antidote, Adam, to the "2006 changes everything" misinterpretations of the Hizbullah-Israel war.

I do think, however, that we need to distinguish between the military conduct of the war and its political-strategic consequences. Too many analyses conflate the two, although it is entirely possible to lose a war in a narrowest military sense yet secure your political objectives (the FLN vs France, or Egypt vs Israel 1973 come to mind).

On the military front, Hizbullah performed well above average for irregular insurgent forces. Part of this was lavish supply from Iran, particularly of MRL and ATGM. However it also related to Hizbullah's organizational dynamics and the quality of its field personnel. Certainly the organization acquitted itself much better than had the equally well equipped PLO in 1982 (where Fateh's internal weaknesses severely degraded its combat effectiveness). I would certainly disagree that "Hezbollahs strategic position by the end was more desperate than many believe"--all the evidence I've seen suggests the organization felt it had matters well in hand on the battlefield, and had no particular fear of Israeli breakthroughs or escalation.

That being said, Israel's operations in 2006 never really tested Hizbullah. There was no repeat of the sorts of things that the IDF had done in 1982 against the PLO (division-strength attacks up the Biqa, coupled with a willingness to engage Syria; multiple air and naval insertions along the coast from Tyre to Damur). Had Hizbullah faced that sort of war, it would have suffered far more seriously than it did in 2006.

On the political-strategic front, it is hard to score. Israel has deterred Hizbullah to the point of four years of quiet on the border--score one for the IDF. The war strengthened Hizbullah's political position in Lebanon, spurred recruitment and rearming to beyond-2006 levels, and was widely perceived in the Arab world as showing the IDF to be less competent than imagined--score one for Hizbullah. Overall, perhaps, it is a tie--or, given a differing hierarchies of interests, a marginal win on <i>both</i> sides.