The 2006 Lebanon Campaign and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy
Authored by Dr. Stephen D. Biddle, Mr. Jeffrey A. Friedman.
Many now see future warfare as a matter of nonstate actors employing irregular methods against Western states. This expectation has given rise to a range of sweeping proposals for transforming the U.S. military to meet such threats. In this context, Hezbollah’s 2006 campaign in southern Lebanon has been receiving increasing attention as a prominent recent example of a nonstate actor fighting a Westernized state. In particular, critics of irregular-warfare transformation often cite the 2006 case as evidence that non-state actors can nevertheless wage conventional warfare in state-like ways. This monograph assesses this claim via a detailed analysis of Hezbollah’s military behavior, coupled with deductive inference from observable Hezbollah behavior in the field to findings for their larger strategic intent for the campaign.
The future of nonstate military actors is a central issue for U.S. strategy and defense planning. It is widely believed that such combatants will be increasingly common opponents for the U.S. military, and many now advocate sweeping change in U.S. military posture to prepare for this—the debate over the associated agenda for “low-tech” or irregular warfare transformation is quickly becoming one of the central issues for U.S. defense policy and strategy. As a prominent recent example of a nonstate actor fighting a Westernized state, Hezbollah’s 2006 campaign thus offers a window into a kind of warfare that is increasingly central to the defense debate in the United States. And the case’s implications for U.S. policy have already become highly controversial.
Some see Hezbollah as an essentially terrorist organization using an information age version of the asymmetric military methods seen as typical of nonstate actors historically. This view of Hezbollah as an information age guerrilla force strengthens the case for a major redesign of the U.S. military to reposition it for irregular warfare. Its advocates differ in the particulars, but most would expand the Army and Marine Corps; reequip this larger ground force with lighter weapons and vehicles; restructure it to deemphasize traditional armor and artillery in favor of light infantry, civil affairs, military police, military advisor, and special forces capability; and reengineer training, doctrine, Service culture, recruitment, and promotion systems to stress low-intensity irregular warfare skills and methods rather than conventional combat. And major changes in the interagency process would be needed to replace a balkanized, slow-moving decisionmaking system with one agile and integrated enough to compete effectively with politically nimble, media savvy opponents in portraying the results of such warfare persuasively to public audiences overseas. If so, the needed changes in the defense program would be extremely expensive. Many would pay for this by scaling back or abandoning hi-tech air and naval modernization programs; reducing the size of the Air Force and oceangoing Navy; and cutting back the ground forces’ training and preparation for conventional war fighting. The result would be a very different American military and defense establishment—from its size to its structure, equipment, people, and doctrine.
Others, however, see Hezbollah’s 2006 campaign as a major departure from the asymmetric methods of traditional terrorists or guerrillas and as a shift toward the conventional military methods normally associated with state actors. What is new in this account is how much the 2006 campaign differed from terrorist or guerrilla warfare—information age or not—and how conventional and state-like the fighting was. This view of Hezbollah as a conventional army weakens the case for irregular warfare transformation. Instead it implies that a conventionally structured military is actually better suited for a future of nonstate opponents than low-tech transformation advocates claim. Where capabilities for low intensity combat can be improved without undermining conventional performance this would always be wise, but many in this camp see sharp tradeoffs between the forces and training needed for irregular as opposed to conventional combat; if so, then radical transformation would be ill-advised and traditional force structures, doctrines, and training are a better course for the future.
The authors argue in this monograph that neither of these schools’ interpretations is completely consistent with Hezbollah’s actual conduct of the 2006 campaign, but that the latter is closer than the former. Hezbollah in 2006 used methods very different from those commonly associated with “guerrilla,” “terrorist,” or “irregular” warfare in important respects: it put too much emphasis on holding ground; it sought concealment chiefly via terrain rather than through civilian intermingling; its forces were too concentrated; and it appears to have articulated a differentiated theater of war for the purpose of defending rocket launch sites to be used in a strategic bombing campaign against Israeli population centers.
But neither did Hezbollah approximate a pure conventional extreme: its defense of ground was too yielding; it relied too extensively on harassing fires and unattended minefields; it put too much emphasis on coercion; and it may have disposed its forces too much in accordance with the population’s political orientation, all of which are traits commonly associated with “irregular,” or “guerrilla” forces.
Hezbollah’s methods were thus somewhere between the popular conceptions of guerrilla and conventional warfare—but so are most military actors’, whether state or nonstate. Few real militaries have ever conformed perfectly to either the “conventional” or the “guerrilla” extreme. The commonplace tendency to see guerrilla and conventional methods as a stark dichotomy and to associate the former with nonstate actors and the latter with states is a mistake and has been so for at least a century. In fact, there are profound elements of “guerrilla” methods in the military behavior of almost all state militaries in conventional warfare, from tactics all the way through strategy. And most nonstate guerrilla organizations have long used tactics and strategies that most observers tend to associate with state military behavior. In reality, there is a continuum of methods between the polar extremes of the Maginot Line and the Viet Cong, and most real-world cases have always fallen somewhere in between. The 2006 Lebanon campaign, too, fell somewhere in between. Its placement on this continuum, however, is much further from the Viet Cong end of the scale than many low-tech transformation advocates would expect for a nonstate actor—and, in fact, the biggest divergence between Hezbollah’s methods and those of modern Western militaries may well be Hezbollah’s imperfect proficiency of execution rather than the doctrine they were trying to execute.
Hezbollah did some things well, such as its use of cover and concealment, its preparation of fighting positions, its fire discipline and mortar marksmanship, and its coordination of direct fire support. But it also fell far short of contemporary Western standards in controlling large-scale maneuver, integrating movement and indirect fire support, combining multiple combat arms, reacting flexibly to changing conditions, and small-arms marksmanship. Hezbollah appears to have attempted a remarkably conventional system of tactics and theater operational art, but there is a difference between trying and achieving, and in 2006 at least, Hezbollah’s reach in some ways exceeded its grasp.
Yet Hezbollah is hardly alone in this. Many state actors have fallen far short of Western standards of military proficiency, both in today’s world and historically. Saddam’s “elite” Iraqi state Republican Guard, for example, proved systematically incapable of integrating movement and indirect fire support, combining multiple combat arms, reacting flexibly to changing conditions, or consistently hitting targets with either small or large caliber weapons; in two wars with the United States, the Iraqi state military’s use of cover and concealment, combat position preparation, and fire discipline were consistently far less proficient than Hezbollah’s. The Italian state military in 1941 proved much less proficient in conventional warfare than did Hezbollah in 2006; French defenses on the critical Sedan front in 1940 were more exposed, and no more able to react to changing conditions than Hezbollah’s. The Egyptian state military proved systematically less adept than Hezbollah in cover and concealment, and little better than Hezbollah in coordinating large scale maneuver with combined arms or flexibly responding to changing conditions in 1956 or 1967; the Syrian state military did no better in 1967, 1973, or 1982. In fact, Hezbollah inflicted more Israeli casualties per Arab fighter in 2006 than did any of Israel’s state opponents in the 1956, 1967, 1973, or 1982 Arab-Israeli interstate wars. Hezbollah’s skills in conventional warfighting were clearly imperfect in 2006—but they were also well within the observed bounds of other state military actors in the Middle East and elsewhere, and significantly superior to many such states.
In all, then, Hezbollah’s behavior in 2006 conformed to neither an ideal model of “guerrilla” warfare nor one of “conventional” warfighting, but its approach and proficiency nonetheless place it well within a band that has characterized many past state militaries in interstate conflicts.
This, however, poses serious challenges for U.S. policymakers in light of the tension between the implications of the 2006 Lebanon campaign and the demands of Iraq and Afghanistan. Ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan demand maximum capability for defeating current enemies who practice a close approximation of classical guerrilla warfare; Lebanon suggests a possibility for future enemies who could wage war more conventionally than this. The different demands of these different styles of fighting thus leave defense planners with a dilemma: the United States cannot simultaneously maximize its potential for both, but neither prospect can safely be ignored, requiring a painful choice in which something important must be sacrificed whichever choice one makes.
By contrast, many in today’s future warfare debate see a simpler, less conflicted picture. It is widely argued that the future is one of nonstate opponents who will use asymmetric, irregular methods much like those of today’s Iraqi or Afghan insurgents. If so, then there is little or no real, meaningful risk in transforming the U.S. military around the needs of the guerrilla end of the behavioral spectrum. On the contrary, this would unambiguously improve U.S. national security by reshaping the military to meet the real needs of the future, finally shedding the inherited baggage of a Cold War force whose bureaucratic inertia had thwarted needed change until now. If the future really is one of nonstate actors waging an information age version of classical guerrilla warfare, then the defense planning challenge of today and tomorrow is a politically demanding but intellectually straightforward matter of pushing hard enough to get a resistant bureaucracy to do the right thing and accept as much irregular warfare transformation as it can be made to swallow.
The Lebanon experience, however, suggests a future of less clarity and more diversity. Lebanon in 2006 shows us a concrete example of a nonstate actor whose military behavior was far from the classical guerrilla model seen in today’s Iraq and Afghanistan. And Hezbollah in 2006 is unlikely to be the last of these—although a careful study of the range of nonstate military behavior is beyond the scope of this monograph, there is reason to believe that similar experience has been observed in recent decades in conflicts such as Chechnya, Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia, Rwanda, and in actions such as Bai Beche or the Shah-i-Kot valley in Afghanistan in 2001-02. It cannot yet be known how broad this trend may be, what its root causes are, or how far it will go—to answer these questions is a critical research requirement for the defense intellectual community. But Hezbollah does demonstrate, unambiguously, that even today’s nonstate actors are not limited to the irregular, guerrilla model military methods so often assumed in the future warfare debate.
And this means that the defense planning challenge is more complex than the current debate often implies. There are real risks both in changing too little and in changing too much. And to avert failure in Iraq or Afghanistan may require a real sacrifice in meeting future challenges elsewhere that cannot be avoided by ignoring conventional threats or by insisting on balance. The tradeoffs are real, they are not artificial, and the dilemmas they create cannot be ducked.
This certainly does not mean that the United States should return to a preclusive focus on major warfare as it did before 2003—or that a Hezbollah threat should replace the Red Army in the Fulda Gap as the focus for U.S. defense planning. The pre-2003 U.S. military was seriously underinvested in capabilities for countering guerrilla methods of the kind we faced increasingly beginning in 2004. And it would be dangerous and unwise to return to the pre-2003 focus and accept the degree of unpreparedness for guerrilla methods this produced.
Nor does this analysis imply that we should accept failure in Iraq or Afghanistan in order to rebalance the military toward more conventional enemies than we face there. Failure in either Iraq or Afghanistan could have grave consequences for U.S. national interests. Until these theaters are stabilized—or unless stability becomes infeasible—it will be essential to maximize U.S. performance in these ongoing wars even if this reduces future potential for some as-yet unseen war elsewhere. The analysis of Lebanon above thus does not presuppose appropriate U.S. policy for Iraq or Afghanistan.
What an analysis of Lebanon can do, however, is to show the limits of some prominent analyses of future warfare and to highlight the true dilemmas associated with defense policy decisionmaking. The future is not simply one of guerrilla-like warfare by nonstate actors. And this means that a thoroughgoing transformation to suit the demands of such warfare has real risks and real dangers as well as benefits. It may still be the right policy to shift the U.S. military’s focus toward guerrilla warfare, especially relative to the pre- 2003 military’s radical avoidance of this problem. It may even be the right policy to make a radical shift toward counterguerrilla proficiency if this is the only way to avoid defeat in such wars. Or it may not: an analysis of Lebanon per se cannot establish how much counterguerrilla capability is enough. But to make this decision requires a sound understanding of the costs— as well as the benefits—of all the options. And a true reoptimization of the military for classical guerrilla warfare would entail real costs in a world where Hezbollah-like enemies may become more common over time. There is no escaping this tradeoff via a simple projection of a monolithic future threat, and one need not necessarily be a bureaucratic obstructionist to worry about nonguerrilla enemies. What Hezbollah in 2006 shows is that in defense planning, as in economics, there is no such thing as a free lunch or an unambiguous, risk-free policy. The real world is one of tradeoffs, and all options have downsides—even the options that look most forward-thinking.
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