Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Thinking soldiers

For outstanding examples of how military transformation can make life difficult for your enemy, look towards Israel. Then look north.

Setting aside political baggage, a look at the performance of combatants belonging to the Lebanese political party, Hezbollah, during the summer 2006 war with Israel reveals many instances of military innovation that are relevant to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

Whoever planned Hezbollah’s war strategy broke the mold that Arab armies had used against the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) for decades.

One caveat: I have never been to the Lebanon. The inferences I draw here are based on post battle analysis and the pile of magazine clippings on the 2006 war that I've amassed.

In tank versus tank combat with Arab armies, IDF tankees had proven unbeatable. So Hezbollah waged war without tanks.

Israeli warplanes had an unmatched battle record against Arab aircrews. So Hezbollah went into battle without a single combat aircraft.

The Israeli Navy had Sa’ar 5 stealth corvettes bristling with missiles, automatic weapons and cutting edge electronic warfare gear. Hezbollah had no navy. But it attacked an IDF Sa’ar 5 corvette with a shore-based anti-ship missile, casting a poser on whether the Israeli Navy had really woken up to the loss of the destroyer Eilat in the world’s first SSM attack decades earlier.

Despite overwhelming odds, Hezbollah transformed its land-based force into a lethal war machine that fought the IDF to a stalemate.

To Hezbollah combatants, IDF armour such as Merkava main battle tanks were no deterrent. Merkava tanks were high-value targets whose destruction was sought after for its propaganda value.

IDF infantry who invaded southern Lebanon by the hundreds were not to be feared, but captured and used for barter.

Hezbollah’s missile teams had no compunction using anti-tank guided weapons against IDF infantry bunched up in defensive battle formations during urban combat. While conventional armies would ration anti-tank missiles for use against real tanks, Hezbollah tactics called for the use of these weapons in precision strikes against IDF infantry. Bunched up in Lebanese streets, Israeli infantrymen made nice tight targets for Hezbollah’s missile teams.

On 9 August 2006 (Singapore’s National Day), nine IDF soldiers were killed after the building they had occupied was demolished by Hezbollah guided missiles. The liberal use of ATGWs rewrote the playbook for such ordnance.

Rocket-propelled grenades were issued to Hezbollah infantry on a scale unheard of in most conventional armies. This includes the SAF section, armed with just two single shot Matador light anti-tank weapons under the current TO&E.

Add Metis-M anti-tank missiles to the mix, combined with fortified primary firing positions, multiple secondary firing positions as well as dummy firing points and one can understand the confidence with which Hezbollah infantry engaged their adversary.

Hezbollah waged war with Israel by transforming the way in which its forces met the Israeli war machine. It did not follow the linear growth path of military modernization. It did not evolve from one generation of war machine to a more advanced version.

Given a blank sheet to build its arsenal, Hezbollah’s military advisors chose to do things differently.

Their panache and innovativeness is different from Singapore’s military transformation, which has largely replaced older war machines with more capable ones and placed much faith in the power of a network-enabled fighting force.

Bionix 1 was augmented by Bionix 2. Old A-4SU Super Skyhawks made way for F-15SG Strike Eagles. Missile Gunboats retired as Formidable-class stealth frigates entered operational service. Old makes way for new in much the same way as old Israeli war machines are replaced with new ones.

But they faced a new enemy, an ardent combatant whose highly-motivated forces were fighting with a home ground advantage, fired up with the promise of an eternal place in paradise for those who waged war for the Party of God.

During operations, Hezbollah banked on the aversion of Israel’s citizen’s army to casualties and the free world's disdain for civilian bloodshed.

To achieve this end, Hezbollah made astute use of the world’s media. Foreign journalists were hosted on embeds in safer parts of Beirut, kept safe from harm to feed the world’s appetite for news of the war. Hezbollah's media officers conducted tours of Lebanese neighbourhoods devastated by Israeli air strikes to showcase Israeli brutality.

They are said to have fought the information war as resolutely as the physical battlespace. This is something the SAF should take note of.

Fighting without air cover meant the IDF won air supremacy by default.

To Hezbollah, this meant its combatants had to move faster and make better use of the urban sprawl to escape the attention of omnipresent Israeli eyes-in-the-sky.

These tactical considerations were matched by a strategic bombardment campaign, fought using a bewildering variety of unguided rockets, the likes of which Israel had never endured before.

Missiles fired singly and in barrages disrupted the Israeli economy and sapped civilian morale.

These rockets exerted an impact on Israel’s political and military scene all out of proportion to their actual military value.

For Singapore, the master plan for hardening civilian infrastructure has been thrown behind schedule, thanks to wrangling by developers more concerned about their bottomline and the creativity of architects who skirt the mandatory bomb shelter rule by leaving a token structure standing (all new Singaporean homes must include a bomb shelter). Thanks to such dilatoriness and foot-dragging, the number of Singaporean homes equipped with a hardened shelter has fallen somewhat behind what the master plan had envisaged. Pity.

If Singapore was to face with an enemy willing to think out of the box like Hezbollah, the SAF would probably fare no better than the battle-tested IDF. Indeed, our tight adherence to the scripted war plan would probably see the SAF worse off.

With Malaysian peace keepers on active duty in southern Lebanon, it probably won’t take long before the Federation’s military intelligentsia give some thought to Hezbollah’s war fighting methods.

When that translates into the real transformation of the Malaysian Armed Forces, the SAF will really have its work cut out for it.

And if we don't stay one step ahead of regional armies, our young officers will never make it to CO. And by that I don't mean Commanding Officer...


edwin said...

Great post! One interesting point is that, even if potential adversaries adopted such a strategy, there would be very little tell-tale signs in terms of new procurement and equipment.

HaveAHacks said...

But is the mission of the SAF to defend Singapore or to be used as offerings everytime the government needs to suck up to Uncle Sam ? If you believe the ultimate guarantor of Singapore's security is the US of A, then you want to integrate yourself into the American way of warfare so that you can offer up your troops everytime the Americans need to form a rainbow coaltion of the willing. The problem, of course, is that when Singapore actually needs them the Americans won't remember who the Sings are.

goat89 said...

The fact that they have a large stock of man-portable AT weapons makes their army effective. It seems to me that Infantry is becoming more and more important in today's world. Would more training for the rank and file Infantry change such battlefields?

Anonymous said...

That's why it was obvious that Israel lost and the terrorists won.

fazvik said...

this is a great post on asymmetric warfare.
History is littered with stories of david winning against goliath.

America's humiliating defeat againts the lowly vietcong during vietnam war,the defeat of the soviet war machines against the mujahidden in afghanistan during the cold the current day insurgency in iraq.

George lucas was trying to say something as well when the ewoks beat the evil empire in star wars.
I guess the point is technology alone would not guarantee victory,the hearts and mind of the populace and military would need to be won as well

Anonymous said...

I think the asymmetry has to be seen in context. The SAF is developed in a certain operational context. Will it face a state adversary or a non - state actor adversary? In our regional context, can any potential adversary take possible poltically unplatable decision to go the totally asymmetric route of Hezbollah? Can any regional armed forces declare that it will not compete conventionally and all the capability development it entails? I do realise that that the integrated and networked approach adopted by the SAF has come under brick bats....but let's not also forget that the same armed force that suffered for a few years in Iraq before turning the tide did crush a non - networked and integrated opponent. Or that the Allies in WWII had to perfect their own version of Blitzkrieg before they can achieve tactical successes against the Germans. Context, Context, Context....

Ben Choong said...

Not only will hearts and minds be important, but technology we acquire must be able to deal with asymmetric threats. The BX2 has got a new gun and networking systems, but it still won't save it from well hidden IEDs. Building on what goat89 said, training is pretty important. Besides spotting concealed enemy trenches, we've now got to be alert for strange wires on the ground, slow cars with compressed suspension implying its carrying explosives...amongst the many other things. Identifying and sounding off these threats via the BMS would then come in helpful. I'll always remember images of Bradleys in Iraq shooting at thrash piles on the road in the hope of defusing/detonating an IED. I dare say its a creative improvisation of the HE round, but since I'm a BX gunner, frankly the ammo can better spent. Sadly, I can't think of any asset in my ABG's ORBAT that can handle that sort of threat. I suspect waiting for the Brigade to send in suitable assets will take too long as well! :(

Its a good thing we're getting the Iron Dome, which should save us from Katyushas. If we have an advantage over insurgents, its the fact that we know what weapons they use. The tough part is figuring out how they can creatively use them in non-conventional ways, and then think of countermeasures, which is where new tech, new TRADOC and open mindsets come in.

weasel1962 said...

The "success" of hezbollah is over-emphasised.

There's a lot more hype than effect. What exactly did hezbollah achieve?

It is clear once a battle is conventionalised, the ability of alternative strategies fade. SG does not face hostile borders. But if it did, I do not see how difficult would it be to "conventionalise" its response...

Callsign 24 Seira said...

Great post. Hooah !
Hezbollah's 2006 tactics actually woken up the Israelis.

Callsign 24S

Anonymous said...

Anyway if Lebanon was a 'failure', then see CASTLEAD (Gaza Strip) for two things. Firstly, the proper application of conventional capabilities in a campaign of limited and defined objectives and secondly, how the operational learning of the IDF is something that the SAF should emulate. In the full spectrum of asymmetery possibilities out there, while you can plan for everyone, the only solution is to build an armed forces with the cognitive adaptability to learn quickly and adapt itself quickly. That is the basis for why a Learning Organisation is given so much emphasis in the SAF

Tankee said...

Great post. But it does make me wonder (and worry)... If I were Malaysian, won't I be so glad you're building my people's confidence and poking holes in your own country's. You've great insight, but I'm sure there's a better way for you to voice all this. Join some strategic think-tank maybe? Forget about Genting la. Don't waste your brain power. :)

Anonymous said...

"And if we don't stay one step ahead of regional armies, our young officers will never make it to CO. And by that I don't mean Commanding Officer..."

Can someone enlighten me on this? Pardon my lack of knowledge.

David Boey said...

Hi tankee,
I'm sure you've come across commentaries written by Americans, Israelis and UK writers which push their arguments far more robustly when talking about their own armed forces' conduct in real, shooting wars.

So what's the preferred route? Puff pieces? We get enough of those in PIONEER magazine.

I hold the view that if we believe a certain line of action is the "right" one, then this option can be defended whatever commentators throw at it.

re: Malaysians. I have held back making known some of the views MAF officers shared with me during LIMA'07 and other study trips.

I can tell you this: The Malaysians do not need this blog to stiffen their resolve. If you think they do, then you really don't know what you're up against.

Spike said...

go read this book - Beaufort. By Ron Leshem. Really good read. Especially pertinent to this topic.

Anonymous said...

Don't worry, we have a modern day Sun Tzu Boey here, he will single-handedly hold off the Malaysians with his Steyr AUG at the causeway when they attempt an invasion! Hooah!

edwin said...

Ironically even if Cast Lead can be said to be a successful operation for the Israelis, they still lost the media battle during the Operation IMO.

Anonymous said...

my head hurts from thinking!!!!