Stylized “urban warfare” image by Terranozoid.
By COL (Ret.) William Betson
In July, 2006, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) invaded Lebanon in response to provocations from Hezbollah forces near the Lebanese-Israeli border. The IDF mission was to stop the firing of missiles into Israel, to obtain the release of several captured Israeli soldiers, and to force the disarming of Hezbollah militia in that region. Over-confident Israeli forces, which had been focused on counter-insurgent operations for several years, were shocked as fierce resistance brought their elite attacking formations to an abrupt halt at places like Maroun al-Ras, Bint Jbiel, and Wadi Saluki. Although there has been much argument as to whether the IDF were “defeated,” by Hezbollah “militia,” there is no doubt that the IDF failed to achieve its nation’s political objectives during the campaign. The Hezbollah militias faced by the IDF in 2006 (and later in 2008) were a formidable foe, and with their successful performance against the IDF, they represent a model for others to emulate. Indeed, a Hezbollah-like enemy comprises the most dangerous form of the “hybrid” enemy force that current US doctrine sees as its most likely future adversary.
From 2006-2010 the Mounted Maneuver Battle Lab at Ft. Knox conducted a series of experimental war games against such an enemy. The games involved scenarios in both wide area security and combined arms maneuver contexts. The Hybrid “Opposing Forces” represented in these exercises were comprised of a mixture regular and irregular forces. The regular component of this enemy would disperse among the population and fight more like guerrillas, often removing their uniforms. The irregular soldiers might normally be farmers or laborers, but they would be disciplined and well trained. Generally fighting in their own villages and towns, they would execute rehearsed battle plans on terrain they knew well. Both groups were equipped with a wide array of high-end weapons available on the open market. The regulars were organized into normal companies and battalions, but were heavily task organized. The irregulars had no standard organizations at all – employing their weapons and personnel in accordance with the situation. TRADOC specially trained the Opposing Force players in tactics employed by the Hezbollah, Chechens, and other similar forces. The US players in the exercises were combat veterans with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. The lessons learned during these war games are worth recalling, and this short essay will discuss those lessons and analyze what they might mean for our land forces.
Lessons Learned from Wargaming
The first lesson garnered from these war games is that this enemy could be very lethal. Sophisticated weaponry available on the open market include excellent man-portable air defense systems, long range anti-tank systems, remotely piloted aerial vehicles, heavy mortars, and rockets. The hybrid mix of enemy forces meant that tanks and artillery might sometimes be available as well. As the Hezbollah demonstrated, this enemy could be very well trained in the use of these often high-end systems. In fact, Hezbollah “militia” anti-tank guided missile gunners had more live fire training with their weapons than the US provides its soldiers. Thus, when facing a hybrid enemy in the future US forces could face a well trained enemy whose equipment might be roughly equal to that employed by the US.
Secondly, as US forces have experienced on the last decade, mines and improvised explosive devices could be a major portion of such an enemy’s arsenal. Thousands of these devices could be quickly laid. They might be employed in traditional “fields,” designed to deny or shape the advance of US forces; or they might simply be placed in random fashion on likely avenues of approach, designed to harass and kill. The high level of sophistication and difficulty in detection of these weapons made them consistently the greatest killer in the wargames. Any offensive operation against a hybrid enemy might find US forces facing multiple opportunities to breach defended, complex obstacles.
A hybrid enemy might develop and employ tactics designed to avoid the US advantage in stand-off firepower – something that they were often able to accomplish in the Battle Lab war games. They did this by hiding in complex terrain – urban terrain being the most effective. A hybrid enemy might hide among the people, placing their larger weapons in buildings – some specially reinforced to resist US artillery direct hits. It could often be difficult or impossible for US forces to spot the enemy until they fired upon the US units. When engaged at a distance by long range systems, US units often had no idea where the fire came from. Thus, effective shaping of the enemy outside of direct fire contact might be very difficult. Further, depending on the situation such an enemy might simply let US maneuver forces pass by and then ambush US artillery or combat support systems. Fuel trucks, air and ground ambulances, and counter-fire radar were high payoff targets for this enemy.
These tactics were designed to precipitate heavy fighting in populated areas, inevitably causing heavy civilian casualties which could be blamed on US forces. As the Israelis have repeatedly experienced, information campaigns that portray a western power as “callously” killing civilians – even though that power was forced to do it by its enemy’s tactics – can be effective in causing that power to alter its tactics, or even its policy and war aims.
At the lower tactical level this enemy could rely on supplies cached before hostilities. During combat operations they might infiltrate munitions and equipment using civilian vehicles (doing this whether resupplying local guerillas or regular army formations). To communicate this enemy would avoid radios or cell phones, and employ wire or the civilian telephone system. Simple signals or flares might be used to control direct and call for indirect fires. In short, enemy communications might be highly resistant to jamming or interception, and enemy logistics could be resistant to interdiction.
Finally, faced with US air superiority and precision strike capability, this enemy might be required to avoid openly moving large formations. He could, however, maneuver at the company and below level – usually in response to pre-arranged and rehearsed plans. He could move his heavy weapons and vehicles, but usually from one concealed location to another nearby. If moving larger formations was necessary, he might employing civilian vehicles and hide within normal civilian vehicular traffic. Even heavy weapons could be moved in this manner.
Implications for US Forces
A well-equipped, determined enemy employing such tactics could be a formidable foe. Nevertheless, the wargaming at the Mounted Maneuver Lab concluded that US forces could operate successfully against them. To do so US military leaders must keep certain things in mind:
First, tactical success against this enemy may require highly skilled execution of low level combined arms tactics and close synchronization of all warfighting functions. Close integration of direct and indirect fires could be critical. Immediately responsive precision firepower and protected mobility may be decisive in this lethal close action. There may not be much opportunity for effective deep operations or interdiction. Thus, fires may be best employed by focusing support to the maneuver companies and platoons. This fight would be won by captains and lieutenants, not colonels and generals, and the junior leaders must be empowered to win it.
Tactical mobility may be a challenge as mines and fires will threaten both mounted and dismounted maneuver. The proliferation of effective air defense systems may make helicopter movement dangerous as well. US units may need the training and specialized equipment to breach complex obstacles defended by a determined enemy. The Israelis have reacted to this threat by building heavier and better protected infantry fighting vehicles. The US should consider that example.
A hybrid enemy may pose a significant threat to support and sustainment operations. There may be no secure areas in the BCT AOR. Logistical movements and LOGPACS could need to be treated as combat operations. Ammunition consumption may be high and resupply using unprotected cargo trucks a risky endeavor. US forces should re-examine the organization and equipment of logistical elements inside the BCT. They are combat formations against this enemy.
US Leaders at all levels may constantly be confronted with the decision to shoot or not to shoot, as they are engaged by enemy elements positioned in areas with high civilian presence. Difficult decisions may also need to be made regarding the employment of preparatory fires in areas with civilian populations. The alternative, awaiting enemy engagement of US forces before engaging with suppressive fire, may cause high friendly casualties.
Finally, the wargames held at the Ft. Knox concluded that US forces could be successful against such an enemy. But the outcomes cautioned that translating US tactical victories into strategic success when fighting against a hybrid enemy might be difficult. Operational success may not be quick or easy. US casualties could be substantial and civilian casualties and collateral damage to infrastructure could be very high. US military leaders must ensure that their civilian political masters understand the nature of the war that a US force might fight against such an enemy. Our leaders must reject the notion that success can be achieved from a standoff with precision weapons. Helping civilians understand the nature of the war in which a nation is about to embark is a crucial role of military leaders. Such an understanding is a prerequisite for making informed choices when selecting strategic-military objectives.