“The conflict… that intrigues me most, and I think speaks more toward what we can expect in the decades ahead,” US Army Chief of Staff General George W. Casey said, “is the one that happened in Lebanon in the summer of 2006.”
In the four years since Hezbollah launched the cross-border attack that triggered the July War, the 34-day conflict has garnered “fevered attention” in American military circles, as the Washington Post reported last year.
For an army that has spent the better part of the decade battling insurgent forces, the conflict in which “a few thousand men resisted, for a few weeks, the strongest army in the Middle East, which enjoyed full air superiority and size and technology advantages,” in the words of Israel’s official postwar inquiry, offers any number of troubling lessons.
Though widely portrayed in the media as the triumph of a guerilla force against a highly-advanced Western army, much of Hezbollah’s successes on the battlefield stemmed from the fact that it did not employ purely guerilla tactics.
As W. Patrick Lang, a retired US Army colonel and author of the popular blog Sic Semper Tyrannis puts it,
“A ‘guerrilla army’ employs guerrilla tactics, that is, it fights a war of the ‘ants against the elephant.’ It seeks to inflict long-term physical and spiritual attrition on a conventional enemy through ambush, raiding and similar operations. It nearly always seeks to avoid becoming decisively engaged.”
The militant force that fought Israel in 2006, however, was “an army in the process of metamorphosis.”
The Israeli army of 2006, on the other hand, had spent the years leading up to the July War focused almost exclusively on counterinsurgency operations against Palestinians.
“The IDF fell in love with what it was doing with the Palestinians,” the founder of the IDF’s own Operational Theory Research Institute would later comment. “It became addictive. You know when you fight a war against a rival who’s by all means inferior to you, you may lose a guy here or there, but you’re in total control. It’s nice, you can pretend that you fight the war and yet it’s not really a dangerous war.”
During the same period the Israeli army was undergoing “a dramatic revolution,” adopting doctrines that had the effect of “diminishing need for concentrating and maneuvering ground forces,” and focusing instead on breaking the enemy’s will by attacking “his cognitive domain and systems, rather than annihilating his forces,” as one Israeli Air Force officer and theorist described it.
Advances in long-range precision weapons made it conceivable for military planners – such as Dan Halutz, the former Air Force commander who led the IDF during the July War – that the enemy’s will to fight could be destroyed from the skies.
But during the July War, Israel could not even force Al-Manar, Hezbollah’s TV station, off the air, and on the ground they discovered what Lang told NOW Lebanon was one of the major military lessons of the war: “Well-entrenched infantry troops fighting on carefully-organized ground can fight a force with more sophisticated equipment to a standstill.”
And yet the failure of airpower to break or even diminish Hezbollah’s willingness to fight or capacity to fire rockets into Israel may have led the Israeli military to conclude that “there is no alternative to maneuvering and conquering territory in order to win wars.”
But “maneuvering and conquering territory” is what led Israel to undertake a two-decade occupation of southern Lebanon. That occupation ended six years before the July War, with Hezbollah triumphant, having inflicted a heavier price than the Israeli public was willing to pay.
Inflicting a heavier price than the Lebanese were willing to pay is exactly what Israel aimed to do in July 2006. That will likely be the goal in any future war against Lebanon, according to Lang, as “the type of victory Israel seeks can only be achieved by ‘surrender’ of the Lebanese will to resist.”
According to Lang, “the transformation of Hezbollah forces has continued…[Hezbollah] possesses more rockets and missiles now. And if they are wise they will use these against military and industrial targets, ports, etc.”
Asked if, militarily speaking, the scales had tipped one way or the other in the intervening four years, Lang – noting that “the balance of combat power is a complex thing that reflects method as well as equipment” – said that only war can answer that question.