This article explains how the war was fought, looks at key military applications and technological successes and failures, examines the main battles and offensives, Hezbollah’s campaign achievements and how the Israeli military lost the opening battles yet recovered. Finally the article looks at the hard questions that both militaries will have to answer and the military equipment programs that are now required.
Israel Air Force Performance
The Israeli Air Force (IAF) has come in for considerable criticism during the conflict. The majority of this has been more in relation to the strategic use of the Air Force as opposed to its actual tactical utility. However, the IAF tactical utility, for so long unquestioned in Israel, needs to be examined.
Despite having excellent ISTAR and a formidably short kill chain the IAF, primarily through the use of F-15s, F-16s (using JDAM and Paveway bombs) and armed UAVs, was unable to interdict the small pockets of rocket firings from the border area into Northern Israel. After 16 days of aerial bombardment Hezbollah was still quite capable of sustaining a barrage of 100 or more rocket firings against Israel, despite thousands of combat sorties by the IAF. Hezbollah is estimated to have some 1,250 launchers of all types of which about 300 were destroyed (or 25%). This IAF operational failure caused the IDF to mount a full blown invasion of the region to reduce Hizbollahs capability.
The IAF did have some successes in destroying some protected C2 nodes, re-supply convoys and larger long range missile launchers; indeed it appears the majority of 220mm and Fajr-3 & 5’s were subsequently destroyed after being deployed.
However, the IAF claims of destroying two-thirds of all Hezbollah long range launchers should be closely examined. This is because numerous dummy missile firing sites with fake heat signatures were targeted during the course of the campaign. Furthermore is has been claimed by various Israeli sources that Hezbollah has retained a battery or more of either Zelzal-2 range or Nazeat 10-H (210 and 140 km range respectively).
The IAF didn’t seem capable of degrading the capability of Hezbollah’s Command and control or communications network. Whilst some 23 tons of bombs were dropped on an underground command bunker in Dahiya in south Beirut on July 19, it is clear from the sudden self imposed silencing of the launchers by Hezbollah for the July 31 ceasefire that its command and control, and communications network was still in place. Indeed immediately after the ceasefire front line units resumed pre-planned and co-ordinated firings.
This conflict was the first to have both sides make use of offensive UAVs. Both sides actually made extensive use of Offensive UAVs during the conflict. UCAVs, (specifically IAI’s Heron), were seen to be repeatedly engaging targets with Spike and Hellfire missiles. It is understood that a strike was carried out against Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon on the 31st of July. It could well be that the platform used was Elbit’s Hermes 450 or IAI Searcher II UAVs. This seems unlikely as based on information available it is known that both the Hermes 450 and Searcher II platforms were heavily engaged on ISTAR missions. Iranian UAVs were repeatedly used by Hezbollah and the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) but were unable to repeat the success that they achieved earlier in the year; this is further discussed in detail below.
Perhaps what is most interesting about this conflict is the lack of excitement about the use of UAVs. The wide spread use of ISTAR platforms by Israel hasn’t been a focus of attention, no Sunday newspaper features on the use of “Robot weapons from the future” tells us they have become mainstream.
Air Defence Performance
Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces only managed to shoot down one air platform during the conflict. They shot down a CH-53 with an anti-tank missile. Reports of an Israeli F-16 being shot down on the 17th of July were established to be a partial rocket ignition caused by strikes on a Zelzal rocket launcher. Hezbollah may have had some MANPADS in their inventory but there were no confirmed reports of substantial use. With the IAF able to strike from 15,000 feet and without a high altitude air defence system there was nothing that Hezbollah could do.
Syrian Air Defences did much better. On the 29th of July they managed to shoot down an Israeli Heron UAV that was attempting to “paint” Syrian re-supply convoys. After a couple of decades of air defence ineptitude the Syrians can congratulate themselves; although this did not stop IAF performing low pass flights over Syrian Presidential Palaces as a reminder of their military capabilities. Three other Israeli air platforms were lost, two AH-64a’s to a collision and a AH-64D to what seems to be Israeli artillery fire.
These small losses confirm that Hezbollah and the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) were unable to interdict the massed Israeli heliborne advances in the past week or even deter strike or reconnaissance operations. Considering that Iran deployed a number of high-prestige weapon systems into southern Lebanon it can be assumed that they also deployed its most effective air defence systems. This poor performance would put pressure on Iran to procure S-300s and M1-Tors because it seems to confirm their indigenous and Chinese-supplied air defence systems are ineffective against [Israeli] airborne electronic warfare [equipment]. When these systems might be delivered is unknown as Rosoboronexport recently confirmed that any future orders for S-300s could only be delivered from 2011 onwards, due to a huge backlog and a lack of qualified technicians.
Israeli air defences would appear to be relatively competent against airborne platforms. Earlier this year Hezbollah was twice able to make return flights with an Iranian Mirsad UAV (or maybe an Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industries (HESA) Ababil-3) into Israeli airspace. However, during this conflict Iran was unable to repeat this earlier success. Three Hezbollah UAVs were shot down by IAF Python V air-to-air missiles whilst attempting to enter Israeli airspace. Two of these UAVs, according to some sources, were carrying bomb loads. It would appear that all attempts to cross the border were at night-time, suggesting that Iran has added an infrared application modification to the standard television camera.
Israeli air defences seemed to be less capable against rocket and missile fire. Despite large-scale investments none of the three key air defence systems (MTHEL, Arrow & PAC-2) engaged targets, although that is arguably because Hezbollah decided not to strike at Tel Aviv. It seems that MTHEL was not deployed, which is worth noting, as it was specifically designed to counter exactly the low altitude strategic rocket threat. It is understood that the number of batteries needed to meet the threat and operational cost made deployment cost-prohibitive.
The Rocket Campaign
Before the conflict started Hezbollah was armed with some 12,000 rockets supplied by Iran and Syria. Some 10,000 of these were the Iranian 107 mm and 122mm rockets which have a range of less than 20km. Syria supplied a limited number of 220mm rockets with the longer 30km range. Iranian Fajar-3 and Fajar-5 rockets used from the second week of the war onwards (43 and 75 km range respectively) had not been used against Israel before and caused proportionately more damage and casualties than the 107mm and 122mm rockets.
The effectiveness of the Hezbollah rocket campaign against Israeli civilian targets is fairly difficult to quantify, except in terms of absolute casualties. Whilst some 4,000 rockets were fired they managed to cause only a limited number of casualties. In comparison, Iraq’s blitz of Teheran in the final year of the Iran-Iraq war, using fewer Scuds, caused much higher casualties and disruption. Indeed, more casualties were caused by Iraq’s pre-emptive Scud bombardment prior to Operation Desert Shield.
It was widely reported that Israel seemed incapable of stopping rocket attacks. But upon closer examination it is clear that certain strategy dynamics employed by Hezbollah changed over the campaign. At the beginning of the campaign Hezbollah was merely countering IAF strikes with short range rockets, as part of a “tit-for-tat” strategy. By the second week of the war Hezbollah was using the long range Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 rockets in order to place political pressure on Israel. By the final week of the campaign, with its forces being surrounded and with Israel not responding to cease fire initiatives, Hezbollah was forced into committing whatever rockets it had remaining in forward areas. So, it appeared that Hezbollah was escalating their campaign, with the Israelis unable to prevent them, but it was actually the opposite. Hezbollah’s escalation was simply an attempt to gain some utility from stocks that were out flanked.
The performance of the opposing ground forces is difficult to rate because of the different strategies that were used in the different stages of the war. A review of events is followed by analysis of the operations.
The first significant battle was at Bent Jbail which began on July 24 and finished on the August 1. Skirmishes continued through to the 8th of August presumably as pockets of infantry were flushed out or attempted to manoeuvre. The initial fighting was characterized by Israeli forces struggling to fight their way into fortified positions with small teams of infantry and penny packets of tanks. Bent Jbail was manned with some 200 skilled ATGM (Anti-tank guided missile) operators and fighters. They had large stocks of forward placed rockets and knew exactly where to hit even Merkava MK4’s. These early engagements allowed Hezbollah to focus their forces against the IDF. This concentration of forces gave them an unexpected firepower and combat capability; with them able to kill over 15 IDF soldiers. Parallel with operations at Bent Jbail was the Battle of Maroun al-Ras where three Merkava’s were penetrated between July 19 and July 22.
The inability of the IDF to win decisively at Bint Jbeil, combined with the failure of airpower to rein in Hezbollah rocket strikes, forced the Israeli government to commit significant forces to a full scale invasion of Lebanon, abandoning its cross-border raids and air power demonstration strategy in the process.
The IDF quickly reacted to these events with some 15,000 reservists being called up on July 28 and by July 31. Five brigades struck North East into Lebanon blocking off the Syrian border to the region and placing the army in a position to move to the Litani river. This drive also cut off Hezbollah forces operating south of this point. By August 1 there was heavy fighting at Aita el-Shaab, Al Adisa, Kfar Kila and Taibe with further fighting in the north at Marjayoun. For the next five days the battles of Aita el-Shaab and Taibe continued with Israeli forces suffering significant armoured losses at Taibe on August 5 and August 6.
By August 9 the IDF was at least nine miles into Lebanon. A slow advance across the length of the southern border began with fighting being renewed at Bent Jbail Aita-el-Shaab and Dibel as the IDF attempted to clear out enemy fighters. On August 10 Marajaoun fell, allowing Israeli forces to move north up to the Litani river. It would appear that this obligated Hezbollah forces to maneuver and fierce fighting erupted the length of the frontline. Later than night airborne forces moved on to the Litani river line with the largest Israeli military airlift in 30 years.
By August 13 Israel had all but surrounded remaining Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon. Knowing that ceasefire lines always follow the final frontline both sides spent the final day of the war heavily engaged in what was the bloodiest day of the conflict. The IDF lost 24 dead in a number of different engagements with around 100 or more casualties. Hezbollah casualties are unknown but can be presumed to be equal or higher as their earlier advantages of local knowledge, surprise, prepared positions and superior local firepower were now lost.
Thus there are three distinct phases of the campaign. The first stage it is arguable that the strategy and tactics let down the IDF. With limited resources and operational scope against a well prepared and motivated opposition the IDF struggled, particularly at Maroun al-Ras and Bent Jbail. The second phase is the move to bypass Hezbollah positions and maneuver to the north East through Marajaoun. This second phase confirmed that the Israeli reserve call up system is as sharp as ever with large numbers of reservists being called up and quickly deployed into operations. There is a clear failure to effectively finish off Hezbollah force concentrations in the border region, leading to further conflict and rocket attacks. The third phase is an operational and strategic success for Israel as they managed to maneuver around Hezbollah and give them no further advantage in continuing the fight.
Observations on the ground campaign
Hezbollah proved that they had mastered positional warfare, absorbed modern weapon systems and had the organization and morale to withstand being surrounded and overrun. Hezbollah will have lost many of their best units and weapon systems during this conflict but enough have survived to rebuild again. Furthermore Iran will quickly move to re-supply Hezbollah with more of “what worked” and less of “what didn’t”. Given a breathing space Hezbollah ought to come out of this conflict technically more capable and with veteran cadres.
The high casualty rates suffered by Hezbollah can be traced to the second week of operations when Hezbollah failed to appreciate that the operational tempo had increased. Nor does it appear that they were prepared for this or able to change as Hezbollah were seen adding finishing touches to bunkers and sowing mines rather than falling back. Although it could be argued they had no plans to fallback And the troops had no interest in falling back to fight another day.
Israeli heavy armoured forces seem to have suffered a series of setbacks with some 30 tanks damaged, although only 10 appear to have been either badly damaged or destroyed. Most of these casualties were caused by long range man-portable anti tank missiles such as the Kornet-E 9P133, Metis-M 9M131, the 9K113 Konkurs (AT-5 'Spandrel') and the 9K111 Fagot (AT-4 'Spigot'). It is understood that over 500 missiles were fired with around 50 hits on Israeli armoured vehicles. This was clearly been a surprise to Israeli commanders, who committed penny packet armoured forces in unsuitable roles. With tank crewmen taking half of IDF casualties it will act as an early warning to the Israeli military that even their powerfully armoured Merkavas are vulnerable.
Israeli special forces launched two known large scale raids. August 2 saw a large airborne raid on the Hezbollah stronghold of Baalbek some 62 miles behind enemy lines. Whilst the original mission to capture a high ranking Hezbollah figure failed due to complications and quick defensive reactions, Israel did manage to withdraw successfully with 5 captured soldiers. August the 5th saw a second raid with Naval Commandoes raiding an apartment in Tyre. It seems likely that this was another airborne raid but the outcome is unknown.
Israeli ground force casualties were primarily caused by small arms fire and long range anti-tank missiles. The scale of Israeli ground force casualties can be attributed to the some 40 Hezbollah and IRGC command bunkers and their numerous associated firing position entrenchments, their tactical decision to stand and fight, as well as their relative professionalism. This was compounded by Israeli strategic policy early in the war. Around 50% of Israeli casualties can be attributed to anti-tank missiles, 25% to small arms and mines, around 10% to friendly fire, 10% to rocket fire and 5% to accidents. Historically the majority of casualties are caused by artillery so it makes for interesting statistics.
Neither side released exact Hezbollah and IRGC casualties, and the precise number will probably never be known due to the fog of war and political reservations. It is expected that Hezbollah and IRGC casualties were high. The reasons for this are that the Israeli persistent surveillance assets deployed over the combat zone allowed Israeli commanders to immediately identify significant enemy manoeuvres. This forced Hezbollah and the IRGC to remain in static positions. This combined with a Hezbollah determination to stand and fight rather than melt away into the remaining population would have made for a high casualty environment. The Israeli heliborne capture of the South side of the Litani river would have further increased casualties through interdiction amongst those enemy forces attempting to retreat north. Thus out of a 6000 strong force it is believed that around some 600-900 Hezbollah and IRGC troops were killed during the fighting.
Perhaps the most discussed topic on defence related blogs and forum boards has been the C-802 strike against the Israeli Navy Corvette Hanit. Indeed news that the missile was not a UAV was broken on blogs and forum groups days before it made the mainstream press; an interesting phenomenon that we will surely see more of in the future.
The turbojet-powered C-802 has a range of up to 120 km. and a 155-kg blast-fragmentation warhead. The missile was fired by either Hezbollah or the IRGC using a Lebanese coastal radar. This would appear to be confirmed as following the C-802 strike there was a subsequent destruction of the Lebanese coastal radar network by Israeli forces.
How a C-802, a relatively mediocre anti shipping missile, managed to hit the most modern ship in the Israeli fleet is of obvious interest. The Israeli position is that the Hanit had its automatic defences off because of an IFF conflict with IAF forces operating in the area. Two missiles were fired; one hit the Hanit and the other hit an Egyptian “trawler” that was fishing nearby. This would go someway to confirm claims that the missile has “98% effectiveness”. However, this is not matched by the missile’s ability to distinguish targets or actually arm its self properly, as the missile that hit the Hanit failed to go off. This non-detonating strike caused only a minor fire in the flight deck and with the ship out of repairs after 14 days according to an Israeli Defence Spokesperson.
Hezbollah have proven themselves to be a professional, dedicated and organised force, whose prime position, equipment and personnel seems to have been squandered for two captives.
The Israeli military also seems to have been misused for two of the three weeks of the conflict. The air force attracted much negative publicity for expending large amounts of ordinance for little apparent gain. The regular army forces were initially committed to attacks against superior forces that were dug in- for no apparent strategic gain.
There are a number of technical military questions that have come out of this conflict. The failure of Hezbollah in the air war asks questions about the quality of Iranian air defence capability.
The Israeli army needs to examine exactly how it lost so many tanks and will presumably speed up and increase the size of the current program for armour self-protection suites that is being fought between Rafael with Trophy and IMI with Iron Fist.
IFF has shown itself to be of vital importance with an Israeli warship, 10 Israeli soldiers and an AH-64D all apparently lost due to poor IFF (the bill for this alone would pay for an IFF program)
Another interesting question is why, with Hezbollah using Iranian Electronic Industries 1950s era analogue VHF radios, Tadiran jammers were not able to break down Hezbollah command and control.
Finally, a review of the MTHEL and ballistic missile defence programs needs to be made as none of them were able to influence the outcome of this conflict [nor even to shoot down any incoming rocket-Ed] -- a significant expense for no apparent gain.
Ben Moores is a defence analyst with a specialisation in European defence electronics and Iranian military capability.