Monday, January 15, 2007

Israel Offers Many Important Lessons, We Should Pay Attention 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”.


  1. Anonymous9:09 PM

    Keep on going kid!
    BTW, Have you heard of WINEP? If not, google them!.. and if you might think they're just "a propaganda organ for the Islamists", might as well call George W the Bin Laden XO!
    Here what they have to offer on the subject:

  2. Here in Israel we had a slightly different view...

    Yes, the tanks were hurt by anti-tank missiles, but most were repairable, and were back in action with a week or so. In addition, the armor saved lives; while over thirty men died in tanks, Hezbollah launged hundreds of anti-tank missles, and scored over 60 hits. That's not a good kill-ratio for the Hezbos.

    The IDF's main problem, even before insufficient training and declining budgets, was a wishy-washy political echelon. On the battlefield, Israeli troops were better equipped, better trained, and every bit as motivated as their adversaries; Remember the story of the Israeli officer, jumping on a grenade to save his squad? or the order given by Nasrallah, to avoid face to face combat with the IDF?

    The Army is in midst of a housecleaning now, improving training schedules, and updating & standardizing the supply warehouses, in advance of expected conflicts this year.

    We'll see what happens.

    Great post.

  3. I’ve heard of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy before though I’ve only read a few things from them. It was a great report as far as Hezbollah’s abilities go but I think it focused too much on Hezbollah in explaining the result of the fighting and not enough on the role of Israeli policy making. I wrote at the time that Hezbollah presented challenge to the IDF that hadn’t been seen since the Jordanian Arab Legion in 1948 (i.e., small unit tactical ability, advanced weapons, decent training to use said weapons, etc.). It is important to look at both sides of the equation so we should be paying attention to the possible growth in the abilities of the various Islamist and other groups we may have to fight. I think the importance of it is on how we make decisions based on it. Since we can see what decisions Israel made and their consequences I would say the biggest lesson for us was that the kind of muddled incompetent planning that the Israeli government and heads of the IDF displayed causes a lot of the problems Hezbollah was able to exploit. For example, the decision not to send a large number of troops let Hezbollah fight the IDF on 1:1 terms, the decision to only fight a few miles into Lebanon prevented the kind of operational maneuvers that Israeli helicopters and other armored vehicles allowed which Hezbollah could not match (especially given their nebulous chain of command), the decision prior to the war to not properly train or fund the IDF for conventional fighting. Thanks for the link to the report and the comment.

    Thanks Michael, glad you liked the post. Yeah, I agree the IDF’s primary problem was Olmert, Peretz, and Halutz, not the Israeli soldier. Despite all the problems the IDF still performed rather well against Hezbollah; perhaps worse than in the past but not significantly so. I recall reading that Hezbollah had expended a shocking (to their suppliers) number of missiles for a few hit tanks. I quickly, as in shortly after the Gaza soldier kidnapping, realized that Olmert was in way over his head. My posts from July track my growing disbelief at how badly he was managing the situation. I do know about the acts of heroism during the war like the officer who sacrificed himself for his men, but only because I was reading the Jerusalem Post. The US media made no mention of it. It was all IDF getting beat bad, Merkava’s are made out of tin, Israel’s Vietnam returning, Hezbollah more motivated that Israelis, blah blah. I hope the IDF is fixing things, I haven’t been able to closely follow what’s been going on since July. All I know is Olmert won’t allow the NIS 2 billion defense increase (not sure if there was one earlier or if this is the only one though) or front loading of the NIS 8 billion procurement plan. I do hope it goes well here. If we let the Islamists think they beat the Great Satan in Iraq and the Little Satan in Lebanon there won’t be any stopping them.

  4. Personally, i think Israels problem was its unproportional use of force which only succeeded in worldwide protests and even more bile directed at an already isolated nation.
    It had a legitimate reason to take on Hizbullah but once the reports of huge innocent Lebanese deaths came out and the needless destruction of Lebanese facilities then it became untenable.

  5. Lucyp:
    reports of huge innocent Lebanese deaths

    This happened because of Hezbollah's policy of operating inside civilian centers. There were frequent (even constant) reports of their rocket launchers being set up next to mosques or apartment building. During the war, I was watching a Sky News report from the city of Tyre, and could easily see the rocket launches behind the reporter, originating inside the city!

    In addition, as IDF forces closed in, Hezbollah troops would take up positions in the densest parts of towns (Bint Jbail, for instance, where a major battle was fought), specifically to cause a lot of collateral damage.

    The IDF is quite secretive about strategic plans and capabilities (they don't even release the number soldiers in the ranks), but what has come out lately sounds hopeful.

    They got a defense budget increase (tho not as big as they wanted), and they are using it to standardize and upgrade the equipment in the reserve warehouses. 8 front-line brigades are getting all new gear (helmets, flak jackets, etc), with the older gear moving down the line. Hopefully, this will weed out the outdated stuff.

    In addition, field exercises are being heavily increased. As an anecdote, my wife has told me that her co-workers are having more work absences due to miluim (reserve duty), and that the absences are longer.

    The two trends together do bode well.

  6. Well I would agree with both of you on the civilian casualties. Hezbollah was the side trying to create civilian damage and deaths and Israel was the side that was going to be blamed by most of the non-America part of the world. Nothing much can be done about this reality except understand it and plan around it. They fight like that because they know they can't beat a Western military on the battlefield, they can only beat it politically on the Westerner's home front. Today that means cause enough death and wait for the media to show it enough and blame the Western power until support from the US is undercut.

    Because they specifically fight in this manner, it is very important when fighting against Islamists like Hezbollah that you move very quickly. That's why Olmert's prevarications drove me to distraction, he played Hezbollah's game all the way. This would also be another important lesson from last summer fighting, though I didn't mention it since it wasn't directly related to tanks and because we should have already learned it from Iraq.

    That sounds better than I thought about the IDF supply and budget situation though still not good. Like I said I haven't been able to follow the situation in too thorough a manner. I've come across how secretive the IDF can be, they make it extremely difficult to get any info about their order of battle, organization, equipment, and dispositions. Which makes it extremely difficult for an avid wargamer like myself to do anything modern with Israel. Ah well, I guess the IDF thinks the safety of Israel is more important than my gaming for some reason. Thanks for taking the time to inform me about it.

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  8. I agree with you michael, the huge number of deaths were because of Hibullah taking up positions in built up areas, that was their tactic as was inviting the media to come see the bodies and damaged buildings.
    They knew what Israel's unproportional response would be (as we all did) and what the Worlds reaction would be to the sight of them doing it would be (as we all did).
    Undeniably it worked but at a devastating cost of human life. Israel were defeated by a better PR machine.

  9. they make it extremely difficult to get any info about their order of battle

    Jarod, the IDF doesn't even release the number of soldiers on the rolls. And really, with potential enemies in all directions, they have reasons to be secretive.

    Israel has been losing the PR war ever since Abba Eban retired. Amazing, considering the PR talent available in Bibi Netanyahu, for example.

    As for strategy, I hope when the next round starts, that the army will go in fast and furious, and win it quickly. The appt of Ashkenazi as Chief of Staff is hopeful; he's a good officer, with a good record, and an infantryman who intimately familiar with the northern borders.

  10. Cool, . I heard Halutz stepped down which I would say is good, but the fish rots from the head and he was somewhere below so hopefully Olmert is next. Thanks for the opportunity to push this comment thread into double digits.

  11. Thanks for the opportunity to push this comment thread into double digits.

    Glad to be of service...

    With any luck, there'll be an election here soon, and we can get rid of Olmert and his "appeasement/sell out" crowd.