Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Lessons from Lebanon: Hezbollah and Hybrid Wars

Lessons from Lebanon: Hezbollah and Hybrid Wars

The war in southern Lebanon revealed significant weaknesses in the posture of the Israeli defense force—and it has important implications for U.S. defense policy. The amorphous Hezbollah, led by Hassan Nasrallah represents a rising threat. Mixing an organized political movement with decentralized armed cells employing adaptive tactics in ungoverned zones, Hezbollah affirms an emerging trend. Highly disciplined, well trained, distributed cells can contest modern conventional forces with an admixture of guerrilla tactics and technology in densely packed urban centers. Hezbollah’s use of C802 anti-ship cruise missiles and volleys of rockets represents another advance into what some are calling “hybrid warfare.”

Hezbollah lost a tremendous amount of its offensive firepower and a substantial amount of its infrastructure and trained fighting force. However, Israel failed to rout the Iranian-backed force, and may have lost the strategic battle of perceptions. Certainly, the Israeli Defense Force won the tactical battles, and Hezbollah’s arsenal of rockets is badly diminished. Claims about a victory for Nasrallah are a bit dubious in strictly military terms. But one thing is certain, the Israeli Defense Force’s credibility has been weakened and Hezbollah will come out of the conflict stronger in ideological appeal.

The war also underscores shortfalls in the approach to future conflict advocated by the U.S secretary of defense and his advisors. This is not apparent on the surface, but can be discerned in the (very few) programs actually under way to deal with the Hezbollah threat. More important, the approach advocated in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review seriously underestimates the lethality of such irregular warfare. In theory, the Pentagon’s strategy is based upon the potential for an expanding range of future threats; including conventional, nontraditional, terrorists, and disruptive challengers. This expands the U.S. military’s mission set outside of its comfort zone and beyond its preference for fighting conventional forces, in similar uniforms and equipment, arrayed neatly in linear formations, preferably in open terrain. The Office of the Secretary of Defense’s policy experts realize that the U.S. military has myopically focused on battles against preferred enemies, vice campaigns versus thinking opponents, at the expense of U.S. security needs. Hezbollah clearly demonstrates the ability of nonstate actors to study and deconstruct the vulnerabilities of Western style militaries, and devise appropriate countermeasures.

The National Defense Strategy and the 2006 QDR quite properly recognized that future challengers will avoid our overwhelming military strengths and seek alternative paths. OSD’s senior civilian policy makers sought to shift the Department’s capability investments to meet these challengers. So far, the effort has produced more rhetoric than substance, with the exception of increased funding for Special Operations Forces (SOF). America’s “Shadow Warriors” have a valued place in today’s ongoing Long War, but there are limits to the rate at which we can grow SOF and limitations as to its operational utility in conflicts as seen in Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Iraq.

Just as significant, the report underestimates the looming scale and lethality of irregular warfare as a different form of warfare intended to erode America’s will and protract the costs of U.S operations. The QDR equates irregular warfare with simply counterterrorism and the defeat of terrorist networks. This over simplifies the problem as seen in Iraq and by Hezbollah’s defiant opposition. The problem is far bigger than just networks of terrorists; we face the emergence of Complex Irregular Warfare, which requires a more sophisticated response.[1]

The Pentagon’s leadership appears to still believe in “cheap hawk” techniques including those that failed in Afghanistan and the Tora Bora. Ground forces were not augmented in the QDR; in fact, their strength was cut. Instead, the QDR placed emphasis on indirect approaches and pursuing “lines of least resistance.” Of course, out-thinking the enemy and exploiting vulnerabilities is the essence of great generalship. But strategy must rigorously match ends with means, and the Pentagon has continually shorted the Armed Services here. Rhetoric is grand but the funding has been thin as is the hope that such an indirect approach precludes the need to employ U.S. ground forces in a world in which anti-Americanism, ethnic divides, and Islamic clashes have produced a roiling stew of hatred and sectarian strife.

The Pentagon has yet to catch up to the front pages of the newspaper. Its multi-challenger threat perspective shifts the Department’s portfolio from an over-emphasis on conventional foes, but may not present the most likely or most challenging threat. Our greatest challenge will not come from a state that selects a single approach, but from states or groups that select from the whole menu of regular and unconventional tactics and technologies. Many analysts have captured these trends, with Russian, Australian, and American authors talking about “multi-modal” and “multi-variants” forms of war. A pair of Chinese Colonels are notorious for their conception of Unrestricted Warfare—or war without limits. Other American and British analysts have noted the fusion of regular and irregular modes of combat.

John Robb, a security analyst who operates a fascinating blog called Global Guerrillas, espouses the rise of Open Source warfare, which aptly captures the entrepreneurial and exploitive element of today’s enemies and their ability to acquire a purpose-built competitive force from available commercial sources.

Rather than the separate and distinct threats as found in the new National Defense Strategy, future scenarios will more likely present unique combinational or hybrid threats that are specifically designed to target U.S. vulnerabilities. Conventional, irregular, and catastrophic terrorist challenges will not be distinct styles, they will all be present in some form. This could include states blending high-tech capabilities like anti-satellite weapons, with terrorism and cyber-warfare directed against financial targets. Conflicts will include hybrid organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, employing hybrid capabilities. States will shift their conventional to irregular formations and adopt new tactics, as Iran appears to be doing. Violence will not be a monopoly of states. We will face major states capable of supporting covert and indirect means of attack, as well as Thomas Friedman’s “super-empowered” fanatics capable of highly lethal attacks undercutting the sinews of global order.

Future opponents will be engage in what Marine Lieutenant General James Mattis has called “hybrid wars.” The term “hybrid” captures both their organization and their means. In such conflicts, future adversaries (states, state-sponsored groups, or self-funded actors) will exploit access to encrypted command systems, man-portable air to surface missiles, and other modern lethal systems, as well as promote protracted insurgencies that employ ambushes, IEDs, and coercive assassinations. Cunning savagery, continuous improvisation and rampant organizational adaptation will mark this form of warfare.

A force prepared for this environment would have to possess a unique set of expeditionary characteristics. In particular, this force would have to be prepared for protean opponents or known adversaries employing unpredicted tactics or asymmetric technologies. Such a force would be equally prepared to thwart very adaptive enemies by posing irregular, catastrophic or disruptive operations of its own. A force prepared to address hybrid threats would have to be built upon a solid professional military foundation, but it would also place a premium on the critical cognitive skills to recognize or quickly adapt to the unknown. As such, success in future conflicts places a greater priority on rapid—if not continuous—organizational learning and adaptation.

The U.S. military is struggling to identify effective counter-measures against irregular and hybrid threats. Too much emphasis has been placed on laminating old case studies from Colonial era wars and rural Maoist insurgencies against today’s more lethal threats. There is much to learn from history but it rarely repeats itself. In the Army’s call for full spectrum “pentathletes,” and in its cutting edge counter-insurgency doctrine and education efforts led by Lt. Gen. David Petraeus at Fort Leavenworth, one sees great progress. So too with the Marine Corps efforts to incorporate cultural intelligence and language training, as well as its experimentation with Distributed Operations. Persistent contact with local populations to establish security and actionable intelligence, and persistent pressure against an elusive cellular adversary can only be achieved with highly trained forces prepared to “find and fix and finish” nimble guerrillas. John Boyd, an Air Force theorist and brilliant strategist, stressed that in irregular wars the predator must be more creative than the prey—and relentlessly penetrate his sanctuary to disrupt his cohesion. The IDF attempted this in Lebanon but was far from successful, which should provide a warning to the Pentagon.

Irregular wars in general, and hybrid wars in particular, reflect a style of war in which “finding and fixing” the opponent in a congested urban complex or in complex terrain is usually much more difficult than actually “finishing” him. Part of this is the nature of the terrain and the proximity of the guerrillas to non-combatants. The irregular’s focused efforts to purposely adapt to his environment like a chameleon is another complication. We can see this trend playing out in Afghanistan and in Lebanon as well. Success in hybrid wars requires small unit leaders with decision-making skills and tactical cunning to respond to the unknown—and the equipment sets to react or adapt faster than tomorrow’s foe.

Success also requires soldiers and Marines who understand the non-kinetic aspects of irregular warfare too. In Hybrid Wars, any act—violent or non-kinetic—and the ideological exploitation of its results are must be as tightly coordinated as a close air strike. The discriminate use of force is critical to ensure that its application does not impair the political and psychological dimensions of the conflict. Here the Department of Defense and the Services can and should do more.

DoD has supposedly unshackled itself from its infatuation with space based missile defenses, networks of sensors and information systems, and stand-off warfare. However, one glance at the DoD procurement budget suggests otherwise. We are still over investing in major platforms for shock and awe, and under-investing in U.S. ground forces. Building up the indigenous forces in situations like Iraq is correct. Enhancing the capabilities of under-governed states is smart and proactive. However, we cannot always count on proxies, surrogates and partners to achieve American interests. Success in today’s urban contested zones and ungoverned spaces mandates that DoD refocus its efforts and resources on the hard-edged and most relevant of American tools—its land forces—for hybrid wars.


[1] See Frank G. Hoffman, “Complex Irregular Warfare: The Next Revolution in Military Affairs,” Orbis, Summer 2006.