What if the battles of the future are neither conventional nor irregular, but a combination of both?
The October 1973 Arab-Israeli War featured some of the largest set-piece battles fought since the end of World War II. For American defense planners, the conflict provided a bounty of information on the performance of the latest military hardware from Western and Soviet arsenals that had been sold to the Israeli and Arab armies, respectively. After the war, U.S. defense officials went to Israel and picked over the battlefields, searching out lessons from the fighting.
The United States was busy extricating itself from the disaster of Vietnam, and many in the U.S. military, particularly in the Army, saw the big battles fought on the Golan Heights and in the Sinai as an opportunity to refocus their intellectual efforts away from fighting shadowy guerrillas in jungles and back to the conventional, big battles they preferred. The 1973 war displayed the lethality of new precision weaponry. It was the first war to feature large numbers of guided missiles, launched from both the air and the ground. Egyptian and Syrian troops, for example, used vast numbers of Soviet-built Sagger portable anti-tank missiles to savage attacking Israeli tanks.
Now, in a touch of déjà vu, American defense planners are examining another Arab-Israeli clash-this one from 2006, when Israel's army faced off against fundamentalist Muslim organization Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. In a war that lasted 34 days, Hezbollah fought the vaunted Israeli Defense Forces, considered one of the most technologically advanced militaries, to a standstill. The outcome sent shock waves through the world's military establishments, particularly the Pentagon. Ever since, Defense Department planners have been trying to discover how Hezbollah guerrillas could have defeated a conventional army outfitted with U.S. equipment.
High-Tech Guerrilla Tactics
The Lebanon fighting, said Army Chief Gen. George W. Casey in a January speech in Washington, featured "3,000 or so Hezbollah [fighters] embedding themselves in the population, in the urban areas north of Israel . . . attacked by some 30,000 Israeli troops. That's the type of operation that we all need to be thinking about in the future and be preparing for." The fighting, he added, exemplified a new type of war that would become increasingly common in the future: "a hybrid of irregular warfare and conventional warfare."
Hybrid wars, according to retired Marine officer Frank Hoffman, who has written extensively on the subject, blend the lethality of conventional warfare with the tactics and fanaticism of irregular warfare. In the 2006 case, Hezbollah, a quasi-state within a state, fought like a guerrilla force. But it was armed with high-tech weaponry, such as precision guided missiles, that nation-states typically use. Hezbollah forces shot down Israeli helicopters, severely damaged a patrol boat with a cruise missile and destroyed heavily armored tanks by firing guided missiles from hidden bunkers. The organization also used aerial drones to gather intelligence, communicated with encrypted cell phones and watched Israeli troop movements with thermal imaging night-vision equipment.
Hezbollah's members fought in small, dispersed cells from concealed bunkers hidden in mountainous and urban terrain. Their decentralized command-and-control system frustrated repeated Israeli attempts to decapitate the organization. Israel followed a war plan suited for a conventional campaign against organizations with hierarchies and nodal structure, says Hoffman. "Hezbollah is hierarchical at the strategic level, it s political and social structure are very hierarchical, but at the tactical level they fight like guerrillas, in small cells."
Hezbollah, Hoffman says, exemplifies an emerging trend. Future opponents of the United States, particularly nonstate opponents, will wage a hybrid style of warfare because they've learned they can't take on the U.S. military, with its high-tech targeting sensors and overwhelming firepower, in a stand-up fight.
"Lebanon is going to become the Grozny of this decade in terms of case studies," Hoffman says, referring to the Chechen city where Russian forces took a beating in 1994 at the hands of guerrilla fighters. Chechen rebels fought in a traditional tribal style of small dispersed cells, using widely available, yet fairly advanced, weaponry to take a heavy toll on Russian armored columns that became ensnared in the city's urban canyons. Tomorrow's hybrid wars, Hoffman says, will be fought with a rapidly changing blend of tactics and advanced weapons in the "dense urban jungle" of developing world cities.
Israel's plan to defeat Hezbollah relied too heavily on air power, says retired Army major general Robert H. Scales, who advises the service on new weapons and forces to battle hybrid enemies. Precision air strikes can take out an enemy like a nation-state with a fixed structure built around interconnected nodes. But "what if the enemy builds a method of war that is non-nodal?" Scales asks.
This poses a particular challenge to a U.S. war machine that has focused on targeting and destroying an enemy's key command centers and supply lines, usually through bombing campaigns. In Lebanon, even though the IDF fighters controlled the skies, Hezbollah was able to move men and equipment around the battlefield. "To have relatively free rein on the ground under air dominance, literally with fighter aircraft hanging over you, that to me is the essence of hybrid warfare," Scales says.
A hybrid enemy is extremely adaptable. But the U.S. military's weapons buying process is highly bureaucratic. The military lays out requirements that are approved by various oversight bodies. Then manufacturers provide specialized weapons. Hybrid enemies use what's available, most often on the open market, and adapt the weapons to their enemy and the terrain. Suicide bombings confound Western minds, but they are acceptable among hybrid enemies who adhere to what are considered primitive tribal notions of revenge or the heroic warrior. "A diabolical enemy will take you on in an irregular war in order to leverage the best pieces of your technology, but use it the best way he can," Scales says.
An unpublished Defense Science Board report completed last year notes that hybrid enemies are better armed today because lethal conventional weapons can be bought at bargain prices. Staying at a transaction level below that of major weapons' sales, armed groups can rapidly share weaponry and easily exchange knowledge. The availability of commercial technologies means that weapons development costs are virtually nonexistent. Cell phones and digital networks provide advanced command and control. Hybrid adversaries require few of the costly reconnaissance and surveillance systems that travel with U.S. forces to foreign battlefields, such as aerial drones and radar aircraft, because they're fighting in their own territory-often in their own neighborhoods. The report also notes that these potential adversaries use "human guidance"-that is, suicide car bombers-rather than more expensive technical guidance.
One lesson from Lebanon that worries some U.S. military thinkers is that in the many years Israeli Defense Forces spent policing the occupied territories, they lost important skills for conducting major combat operations. IDF units did not train for combat above the small unit level, and key elements such as armor and artillery lost much of their major combat capacity. Army Lt. Col. Gian Gentile has warned that the same thing could be happening to the U.S. military, particularly the Army. At the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., the focus is on counterinsurgency, and large unit maneuver operations are a thing of the past.
Gentile notes that neighborhood policing is different from large-scale maneuver warfare with mechanized units supported by artillery and air power. He says the demands of operations in Iraq mean Army units don't have time to do anything but prepare for counterinsurgency. "If we can ever get through Iraq, then the Army could try to restore some kind of balance and go back to at least partly focusing on conventional war," he says. The lesson of the Iraq war has been not that the U.S. military is weak, rather that it is optimized for a specific task: fighting large conventional armies. And during the past five years it has acquired a new competency-counterinsurgency. The idea of hybrid warfare is to fight in the seam between the two.
The Cult of Technology
Analysts say an important lesson from Lebanon for a U.S. military that is focused on buying expensive weapons systems for shock-and-awe style warfare, was the IDF's over-reliance on technology. In an extensive critique of the IDF's performance, Avi Kober of the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel writes, "The cult of technology has had a weakening effect on traditional military capabilities such as close combat or combat intelligence." The war, he argues, shows that it is difficult if not impossible to destroy a sophisticated guerrilla force by fighting on plasma screens.
Prior to the Iraq war, the archaic notion of lumbering ground forces exchanging blows in close battle was out, replaced with a vision of agile, networked forces fighting on transparent battlefields displayed on computer screens. Enemies would be dispatched with precision weaponry fired from aerial drones or bombers far above the battlefield.
The idea of a revolution in military affairs held powerful sway over U.S. military thinkers because it was based on the notion of American exceptionalism in warfighting. No other nation in the world could afford the enormous costs to develop, build and maintain the battle-network hardware: orbiting constellations of communications, imaging and navigation satellites; a huge fleet of airborne drones; ground scanning radar-equipped aircraft; and command centers crammed with supercomputing power. The conservative writer Max Boot even called it a uniquely American way of war. It has led to a costly cult of technology that dominates the Pentagon's buying decisions. The United States spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined.
America's enthusiasm for high-tech warfare kicked into high gear after the performance of smart bombs in 1991's Operation Desert Storm. The concept "evoked a sense of control" over the uncertainty of war, Army Col. H.R. McMaster noted in a 2003 paper written while he was a fellow at Stanford University. It "swept the imagination off the battlefield and into the computer room and command center." In the past, the thinking went, the fog of battle led to confusion, casualties and uncertain outcomes. In the future, near-perfect intelligence and precision weapons operating from great distances would produce predictability in U.S. military operations.
The initial U.S. campaign in Afghanistan in late 2001, and the oft-repeated story of special operations troops on horseback calling in satellite guided bombs on Taliban positions, confirmed to defense planners that a technology-driven revolution in military affairs had indeed occurred. Taliban fighters who had spent years fighting an enemy with no air force and little artillery stood out in the open and presented easy targets for U.S. air power. The destructive power of 2,000 pound bombs dropped from jet aircraft came as a rude surprise to fighters used to exchanging fire with aged Russian tanks.
But within a few months of fighting, the Taliban changed its tactics. In a study of the March 2002 battle known as Operation Anaconda, military historian and analyst Stephen Biddle notes that every available U.S. surveillance system was focused on a tiny 100-square-kilometer battlefield, trying to find the enemy's fighting positions. But less than half those positions were identified. Assault helicopters dropped U.S. infantry on top of a warren of hidden Taliban bunkers and trenches where they were pinned down by heavy fire and had to be extracted at night. The Taliban positions were then pounded by air attacks for more than a week, but enough fighters remained that U.S. troops had to clear them out in close-quarters fighting.
Hoffman says the United States needs "hybrid warriors," highly adaptable troops able to rapidly shift between competing demands on a chaotic battlefield. They must be prepared for bloody, close-quarters firefights, yet also be ready to protect civilian populations caught up in the fighting. That demands more investment in cultural intelligence and language training to root out an elusive enemy hiding among the people. He says future enemies will avoid the American way of war, refusing to play into our advantages gained through the use of remote sensors and precision firepower.
There are two major components of what the military calls situational awareness: where you are and where the enemy is. Networking has helped troops know better where they are, and where other friendly troops are. But it doesn't solve the problem of finding what some call the "low signature" enemy.
"There's not enough bandwidth and electronic eyes in the universe that are able to stare down a large expanse of ground and detect individuals moving about, particularly in urban clutter and in the midst of people," Scales says. The complexity of warfare stems from the action-reaction dynamic: An enemy being targeted for killing likely will do everything possible to avoid being killed, including hiding from view.
Some say the United States must move away from the current trend of troops fighting via video screens. They can limit situational awareness, analysts say. "Human eyesight is much better than any existing flat-panel display, where you have a very narrow field of vision," says author and historian Steven Zaloga. U.S. Army officers on foot patrol in Iraq often talk about the atmospherics-using all the human senses to evaluate the people and the environment.
According to a 2002 RAND Corp. study funded by the Army Science Board, "An enemy who relies on cover, concealment, deception, intermingling and dispersion will be difficult if not impossible to monitor from overhead assets." Even with projected technological advances, the study noted, "remote assets will not ensure 'understanding' on the future battlefield." By predicating their strategy on remote sensors and long-range precision strikes, analysts wrote, "U.S. military planners could be building a modern-day Maginot line."