Lebanon: the war after the war

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
11 October 2006

The argument that, after all, Hizbollah's war with Israel was a failure is the product of military-commerial spin.

The Lebanon war of 12 July-14 August 2006 was widely reported as defeat for Israel and a victory for the Hizbollah movement. Now, two months on, a new interpretation of the war's outcome has emerged which suggests that the war was less a defeat for Israel then may have been supposed. The revised assessment deserves careful and critical attention.

On the Israeli side, the air force has recently been insistent that the effects of its actions against some of Hizbollah's missile forces were far greater than had been supposed. It claims that on the first night of the war, strike aircraft destroyed around a dozen medium-range missile launchers that could have fired missiles deep into Israel (see Barbara Opall-Rome, "Sensor to Shooter in 1 Minute", Defense News, 2 October 2006 [subscription only]). Further missile-launchers were destroyed on numerous occasions throughout the war, with much of this due to the use of reconnaissance drones.

A wide range of strike and support aircraft operated intensively throughout the conflict, flying 14,000 operations, and strike aircraft were almost invariably ready to attack targets as they were identified. A key factor, according to Israeli sources, was the near-saturation coverage of southern Lebanon by the drones. They were used to detect the launches of medium-range missiles and the data could be processed and communicated to strike aircraft within a minute, making it possible to destroy the launchers and their crews before they could go back undercover.

The level of coverage was extraordinary, making possible twenty-four-hour surveillance possible deep into southern Lebanon. One reserve general comments: "Without a doubt the second Lebanon war was the turning-point in unmanned warfare. It's when Israel's pioneering use of this value-added capability reached critical mass." Other sources claim that by the end of the war, 90% of the launchers used for medium-range missiles were being destroyed.

A revised narrative

On the Hizbollah side, it has become clear that there was a major miscalculation over Israel's likely reaction to the cross-border raid on 12 July and the kidnapping of two Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers that precipitated the war.

The Hizbollah leadership did not anticipate the scale of the attack, nor did they expect the Israelis to strike at so many economic and logistical targets across Lebanon, many of them bearing little relationship to the capabilities or support networks of Hizbollah (see Anthony Shadid, "Inside Hezbollah, Big Miscalculations", Washington Post, 8 October 2006). This meant that many of the Hizbollah units were caught by surprise, which may explain the limited early responses, especially the relatively small number of missile launches. Only later in the war did the number escalate, to the point where it actually peaked on the day before the ceasefire.

At first sight, then, the Israeli air force performed better and Hizbollah misjudged. Perhaps the war was not such a clear-cut defeat for Israel as has been supposed? In fact, a closer examination tends to suggest otherwise.

For a start, the description of the Israeli actions against the medium-range missiles may be reasonably accurate, but these formed a small part of the 4,200 missiles and rockets that Hizbollah actually used, which in any case represented barely a third of the munitions available. The far more numerous short-range missiles could be brought from cover and fired from very simple launchers, with the launchers and their crews back under cover before there could be any retaliation. The Israelis had no realistic answer to this, which explains why they belatedly tried to move substantial ground forces into the main missile launch areas near the border.

In practice, the rash of stories now coming through to the defence media about Israeli technical advances probably has more to do with the air force seeking to guard its back at a time of deep introspection in Israel as to the conduct and the outcome of the war.

More generally, many in the United States military see unmanned drones as one of the most significant developments in modern warfare, and defence industries are particularly keen to push such a line, whose acceptance reinforces the prospect of many lucrative new contracts. It is therefore useful to this wider community if the Israeli air force can convince that it secured many successes in southern Lebanon as a result of this "value-added capability", even if the achievement was minimal in the context of the overall war.

It is in this context that, in an unexpected way, the Hizbollah misjudgments actually become significant. By any measure Israel had, on paper, a very much stronger array of armed forces than Hizbollah. It had much of the state-of-the art US equipment, and produced more in its own research laboratories. Indeed, it was so practiced in controlling the Palestinians that a remarkably close relationship had developed between the IDF and the US army as the latter sought to use Israel's experience in its increasingly bitter counter-insurgency operations in Iraq (see "After Saddam, no respite", 19 December 2003).

Thus the Israelis were facing a relatively small guerrilla force ("terrorists" from an Israeli perspective) that was entrenched very close to its northern border. It sought to dislodge and destroy that force in what was in reality an intensive and surprise assault from the air followed by actions from well-equipped ground forces. The end result, though, was that the Hizbollah forces were sufficiently robust and motivated to be able to respond in a manner that caused surprise verging on amazement among the more careful Israeli analysts.

The verdict of history

There is abundant evidence that Israeli is seeking to learn much from the war, especially how to counter the short-range missile threat (see Barbara Opall-Rome, "Israel Needs Offense, Defense to meet missile threat", Defense News, 2 October 2006 [subscription only]). There will be substantial new research and development programmes, many partly financed from the United States, and there will probably be an overall increase in the Israeli defence budget.

The problem is, though, that Israel failed in its core war aim of defeating Hizbollah, despite the element of surprise and the long period of preparation. While Israel may seek to learn from this, Hizbollah, too, is undergoing an intensive learning experience, having succeeded against the odds in the largest conflict with the IDF for two decades.

Furthermore, evidence is now emerging of Hizbollah intelligence capabilities during the war that were just as significant as the Israeli advances with drones and other equipment (see Alistair Crooke & Mark Perry, "How Hezbollah Defeated Israel", Asia Times, 12 October 2006). Hizbollah had also built a remarkable range of bunkers - nearly 600 in all, some dug to a depth of over forty metres - south of the Litani river. It was largely this level of preparedness that enabled Hizbollah to respond to the intensive Israeli air attacks, and to retain a substantial military capability through to the end of the war.

What this all means is that the early analysis of the war that appeared around the end of August was substantially correct, and that recent indications from Israel that suggest a less problematic outcome are inaccurate. Hizbollah did indeed emerge successfully from the war and one of the world's most advanced and heavily armed conventional armies was not able to succeed. That has implications not just for Israel's long-standing pursuit of security based on the deterrent power of its military forces, but also for United States operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond.

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