Strategypage.com has a story about how Israeli tanks performed against Hezbollah last summer in Lebanon. That the Israeli tanks generally performed well despite a few hiccups is as I expected at the time (and can be seen in my July/August posts about the conflict), and isn’t really anything noteworthy. However, I think this story conveniently ties together three other common themes of this blog along with an important point. The first is the conversion of Western media outlets into propaganda way stations for the Islamists. The next is the importance of properly funding militaries so they can deal with both counter-insurgency and conventional operations. The third theme is the importance of learning from history, even very recent history, and other countries. Lastly, this further reinforces the fact that the tank is far from dead on the modern battlefield.
From the beginning of this war the media has to at least some extent been a propaganda organ for the Islamists. Even prior to the Afghan invasion we were fed a constant series of stories about the “Graveyard of Empires”, the “Invincible Afghan Super-Tribesman”, the “Ferocious Afghan Winter”, etc (all of which is highly inaccurate by the way). The media could contain its collective glee for all of three weeks before jumping to label the operation a “quagmire”. It is not then unexpected that the media leapt at the opportunity to do some cheerleading for the Islamists last summer. Hardly a news story was written that didn’t include some item about Hezbollah “gutting” the Israeli Defense Force or “unexpected/exceptional Hezbollah resistance”. We have a media today that takes the Islamist line about Hezbollah supermen who with their novel tactics and wonder missiles were destroying the IDF and runs with it without bothering with such a trifle thing as checking its veracity. Now it is becoming clearer as many like myself said last summer that Israeli thrashed Hezbollah militarily. As I pointed out in a post, despite Hezbollah having better training and weapons than past Arab opponents, excellent fortified defensive terrain, and a hamstrung IDF that wasn’t as ready as it should have been, Hezbollah still did no better than past Arab armies. During World War II the media did not fall for the similar German propaganda about the “Nazi Supermen” or with “Nazi Wonder Weapons”. The media ignored it even though it was technically correct if inflated. Many divisions of the Waffen-SS, along with some regular army divisions (the Paras, Groess Deutschland, Panzer Lehr, etc.) were a head and shoulders above any allied division in capability. Germany also had superior weapons in many areas like Panther and Tiger tanks, Me-262 jet fighter, V-2 rockets, SG-44 assault rifles and so on. Somehow the media managed to resist propagandizing this to the home front for the Nazis. Our media by comparison cannot muster the same strength (I know it takes a lot) to ignore the flat-out false propaganda of the enemy. Had the World War II media fallen for Nazi propaganda it would have been a tragedy, but the media falling for Islamist propaganda is simply a farce; one we could well do without.
Another problem this report reveals is what happens when a military is forced to fight a long counter-insurgency operation without a requisite increase in defense spending. Many of Israel's problems can be traced to the IDF simply being unfit for conventional operations due to years of reduced funding for training. Tank crews were utilized as security soldiers for Palestinian areas and thus were not riding around practicing in their tanks. According to the CIA World Factbooks, from 1999 (prior to the second intifadah) to 2003 Israeli military spending declined from 9.4% to 8.75% of GDP despite increased military operations. Between 2003 and 2005, as the intifadah was largely suppressed, defense spending declined much more rapidly from 8.75% to 7.7%. A shrinking defense share of the economy, increased operational tempo, and a focus on counter-insurgency combined to create a situation where the Israelis were not as ready as they should have been for Hezbollah’s challenge. The price for that was paid last summer, is being paid in the large increases now required in defense spending, and will be paid when a revamped Hezbollah returns (possibly controlling Lebanon). A further lesson being taught is that when you elect a leftist to run your country they will not take national security seriously. The rank military incompetence displayed during the actual fighting by Israeli Prime Minister Olmert is continuing after the war. Despite the obvious need to increase the defense budget following last summer's war, Olmert has decided against properly funding the IDF. The soldiers dying to keep Israel safe and free won’t get the extra money they need but the education colleges have had their cuts reduced (note how protective the Labor MK is over education spending, if only they were as concerned with mending the damage low budgets have done to the IDF). Despite claims by the leftist politicians that they take defense issues seriously, when it comes to defense or social spending they will always go for the latter regardless the situation.
A favorite theme of mine is the importance of learning from historical and current mistakes of other countries. Otto von Bismarck made one of my favorite quotes regarding this, “fools learn from their own mistakes, I learn from others’ mistakes.” It’s not like we haven’t ignored Israeli's dearly paid for lessons before. Prior to the Iraq war, if I recall correctly, Israeli officers went to the Pentagon to teach us what they learned about modern counter-insurgency operations. I had expected this since Israel had mountains of information to share and we would need it in post-war Iraq. The program was ended and we didn’t adopt any of Israel's tactics in Iraq since as one of Fox News’ rent-a-generals so astutely counseled, "we’ll rightly ignore the Israelis, we don’t want to turn Iraq into the West Bank" (I paraphrase). A year and a half and scores of dead Americans later we were rushing to learn about the use of armored bulldozers, shoulder fired rockets, house clearing techniques and so forth from Israel. We improved these tactics and used them to great effect in cities like Fallujah, Ramadi, and Tal Afar (the Israelis repaid the favor and didn’t pay attention to our lessons when they attacked Bent Jbail). This story is a very important one indeed for Americans as the Democrat Congress races to repeat Israel’s mistake regarding defense spending. As of right now the military is managing somewhat to pay for both counter-insurgency operations while also maintaining its conventional war fighting capacity. There is a debate brewing over the need to fund both counter-insurgency and conventional capabilities at this time (here's an example, and my view regarding the Air Force at least). The argument for the Israeli-style policy is that the only fighting at the moment is counter-insurgency so that’s all we need to worry about. The fact that we won’t always be fighting counter-insurgencies and that the money being pledged today will take effect years from now when the world situation may be different are disregarded. The Democrats will likely find the billions they could free up for domestic spending by eliminating conventional weapons programs and training too appealing to pass up (my pre-election concern can be seen here). Like Israel, we will find it easier to do this for many years. Also like Israel the price of this policy will far outweigh the benefits and will have to be paid eventually.
My last point is a small one and is only generally related to the others. We have seen yet again that the tank still has a vital role on the modern battlefield. Relearning this is nothing new as the tank has been discounted since its inception in 1916. Part of the reason France and Britain did not focus on tank warfare prior to WWII was because they had learned the wrong lesson from the Spanish Civil War, that the tank was very limited since it could easily be destroyed by anti-tank guns. Then the light tank-destroyer was supposed to kill the tank, then the anti-tank guided missile, and then more advanced anti-tank missiles. Various advanced militaries around the world have at various times proposed getting rid of tanks. The US military did under Gen. Eric Shinseki and then briefly under Rumsfeld. The Canadian military tried at one point to get rid of its few tank units. Britain is presently on a Shinseki-style craze to transform her army into a hi-tech medium weight peacekeeping force without tanks. Even Israel has been reducing her tank fleet for some time. With the exception of Britain, each country has learned through combat operations that the tank is still very valuable. It is true that we have to watch that we don’t allow generals and politicians to hold onto their relics from prior wars, but we also have to see that they don’t get rid of valuable weapons because they incorrectly view them as “relics”.