Security Studies Program Seminar

The Demands from a Modern Military:  Lessons from the Israel-Hezbollah War

Shai Feldman
Professor of Politics, Brandeis University

13 February 2008

This project is an independent addendum to the Weinograd Commission Report.  It considers the lessons of the Israel-Lebanon War with regard to 1) the use of force, and 2) civil-military relations. 

Some Background

One cannot understand the 34 days of military operations in Lebanon without understanding the history of Lebanese-Israeli-Palestinian relations.  The PLO arrived in Lebanon in 1970 and, using it as a base of operations, began launching rocket attacks against Israel.  In turn, Israel undertook the Litani Operation of 1979 to clean out PLO forces south of the Litani River and stop the rocket attacks.  In the course of the operation, Israeli armor and infantry forces were rapidly sent to the Litani River to cut off lines of retreat before PLO forces were driven from their bases from the rear.  The subsequent 1982 Lebanon War saw Israel send two armored columns towards the Litani River and the area occupied by IDF forces. 

The Israeli presence in Southern Lebanon lasted until May 2000.  At that time, Israel unilaterally withdrew from South Lebanon and formulated a “New Deterrence Concept” in which it emphasizes it would hold Syria accountable for any attacks by terrorist groups.  In parallel, the Lebanese Army refused to deploy its forces to the Lebanese-Israeli border; this enabled Hezbollah to take control over the region. 

The 2005 Syrian pullout from Lebanon undercut Israel’s “New Deterrence.” Hezbollah attacks on IDF border posts increased throughout 2005-2006, culminating in the 25 June 2006 kidnapping of Gilad Shalit and the 12 July Hezbollah seizure of two additional soldiers.

Evolution of the Confrontation

There are several phases to the conflict.

On 12 July, the soldiers are kidnapped and a Merkava tank in pursuit is entirely destroyed by an improvised explosive device.

During Week 1, Israel relies exclusively on firepower from air and sea forces.  There are no preparations for ground operations and, in fact, the Chief of Staff refuses serious planning or mobilization of reserves. Hezbollah retaliates in kind with massive Katyusha barrages and sustains 130+ rocket launches each day for the entire history of the conflict.

By Week 2, the IAF runs out of targets in the South.  The IDF is then authorized to begin “shaving operations” to eliminate Hezbollah strongholds in the south in sequence. Starting closest to the border, IDF forces engage Hezbollah defensive positions.

From Weeks 2-5, the Israeli population is in shelters throughout the north as the Katyusha barrage continues.  Shaving operations continue and the IDF sustains heavy casualties while the IAF fails at Katyusha suppression.

On the weekend of Week 5, a repeat of the 1982 Litani Operation is authorized.  The ceasefire comes through before the operation is launched in full, however.

Israeli Objectives and Results

Israel had five goals in the conflict: 1) return of the hostages, 2) a complete ceasefire, 3) deploymant of the Lebanese Army to the south, 4) the expulsion of Hezbollah from Lebanon, and 5) reestablishment of the “deterrence equation.”

Strategically, Israeli succeeded in using its power in a form of coercive diplomacy.  The Lebanese Army deployed to the south and a “New Deterrence Equation” was established vis-à-vis Hezbollah after Hezbollah head Nasrallah emphasized he would not have engaged in the kidnapping if he had known Israel would respond as it did.  In short, Lebanon supplants Hezbollah as Israel’s northern neighbor.

Tactically, however, the operation was less successful.  Excepting the loss of fighters and rockets – all of which can be replaced – Hezbollah emerges from the conflict with its infrastructure and command and control regime intact.  Moreover, deficiencies in IDF preparations and tactics were revealed such that Hezbollah may now be able to better oppose the IDF in a future conflict.

Thus, Israel was only partially successful in meeting its objectives.  A ceasefire was secured, deterrence re-established, and the Lebanese Army deployed to the south.  Yet 1) the kidnapped soldiers were not retuned, and 2) Hezbollah remains intact as an organization with perhaps greater prestige than before the conflict.

What Went Wrong?

How do we explain Israeli deficiencies in the conflict?  How was the strongest economic and military power in the Middle East stymied and forced to incur serious losses for moderate gains for over a month?

First, there was almost a mystical belief in airpower and the IDF high command – all drawn from the Israeli Air Force – failed to consider alternate approaches.  This dovetails with the second failure, namely, the IDF’s failure to activate contingency plans for ground operations.  Third, the shaving operations themselves are strategically indefensible: the border villages had no strategic utility, their conquest could not eliminate either Hezbollah or the rocket launches, and the broad repeat of Operation Litani – which would have been strategically useful – was adopted far too late to effect the outcome of the conflict.
How do we explain these systematic failures?  Simply put, there was no operational concept.  The IDF high command and civilian leadership were torn between 1) the logic of military victory a la Operation Litani, versus 2) the psychological traumas of the Lebanon Occupation that followed the 1982 War and the resultant fear of becoming re-involved in the Lebanese quagmire.  The strategy employed was a compromise position that utterly failed.

At the operational level, meanwhile, the focus was on “effects-based warfare” and RMA-inspired doctrine that had no effect on an insurgent military.  Commanders were not on the spot trying to understand and fix problems, but rather in the rear staring at plasma screens and trying to command units. 

The Deeper Roots of Failure

The above failures reflect two underlying problems.  First, there is a fundamental difficulty in making rapid transitions between forms of warfare.  The IDF was tailored to fight the Second Intifada, in the twilight zone between counter-terrorism (CT) and counter-insurgency (COIN) operations.  It was not designed for conventional warfare as it encountered in Lebanon.  There are fundamental differences in the 1) tempo, 2) training, 3) deployment and 4) focus of operations, among CT, COIN, and conventional warfare.

Second are pathological problems in Israeli civil-military relations.  There was a symbiotic relationship between the top civilian and military leaders in Israel at this time – the IDF’s over-focus on airpower fell on welcoming civilian ears, ones that did not want to deal with a ground campaign in Lebanon.  Moreover, there was a creeping change in the composition of IDF forces in Lebanon that may or may not have had civilian approval.  Nor was there a clear-cut consensus in the civil-military leadership from Day 1 that a war – as opposed to a retaliatory operation or minimally coercive campaign – was to begin.

The Finale

Ultimately, the Lebanon War highlights the need to 1) operate under a unified concept, 2) re-examine fixed-base warfare, 3) re-examine civil-military relations, and 4) limit your belief in the efficacy of airpower. 

Rapporteur: Joshua Shifrinson

back to Wednesday seminar series, Spring 2008