Military Lessons from the Gaza War
As of this writing, the latest truce is holding and the IDF is withdrawing from much of Gaza. The question now is if Israel achieved its goals and what lessons both sides learned from the fighting?
Obviously, Israel didn’t achieve what it set out to do, when it invaded Gaza. It stated goal was to destroy Hamas. But, as the fighting bogged down and Israeli Army casualties skyrocketed, the Israeli government cut back its goals – something that even senior IDF officers admitted to. A senior Israeli military official told Jerusalem Online that attempting to destroy Hamas, “Would have required staying in Gaza for 2 years.”
Instead, the IDF changed its mission to destroying the tunnels in Gaza – a mission that was considerably easier, but still costly in terms of lives and resources. However, it did destroy 32 tunnel complexes according to Israeli sources.
However, Israel’s decision to change the objective of the operation and then withdraw and claim victory doesn’t hide the fact that their thinking was faulty.
The first problem was the IDF’s decision to engage in a war in an urban environment. As the Monitor Analysis pointed out several weeks ago as Israel prepared to invade Gaza, urban operations are very difficult and costly. They are even harder on armored forces, which can’t use their mobility – as was proven by the number of Israeli soldiers who were killed in armored vehicles that were hit by resistance anti-tank rockets.
Part of the problem is the IDF’s belief in its invincibility. Israel’s successes in the Sinai in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s have impacted its strategic thinking. These swift victories in the barren Sinai have allowed the IDF to think that overwhelming armored power can defeat anything. They, however, have forgotten that in 1967, in the battle for Old Jerusalem, the fighting was much slower and more costly in terms of ground gained.
The result was that Israel invaded Gaza with an army designed to fight an armored war in the Sinai Desert rather than an urban environment.
While the IDF forgot lessons from past wars, Palestinian fighters showed that they had learned from history. They were well-trained and skilled in the use of conventional small arms. They also took the initiative rather than wait for the IDF to attack first. In Operation Cast Lead, in winter 2008-2009, Israel’s coordinated and massive first strike, lasted less than four minutes and killed a third of all the fighters lost during the entire operation. In Operation Pillar of Defense, in November 2012, Israel’s first strike eliminated most of the resistant long-range rockets. An early strike during Pillar of Defense also killed Palestinian military commander Ahmed Jabari. This time, Palestinian military assets seem to have been prepared for an Israeli counterstrike. The military leaders went underground, logistical units ensured that valuable assets were protected, and the entire military structure dug in for a protracted fight.
Palestinian fighters also learned the value of command and control in war. Despite weeks of targeted bombings by the Israeli Air force, they were able to maintain communication lines between rocket units, ground units, and military leadership, and carry out its operational plan. Even as the IDF pounded Gaza, Palestinian units successfully launched combined operations involving artillery and infiltration of ground forces into occupied areas.
Palestinian fighters’ great innovation in the war was their use of tunnels. In fact, it was Israel’s interception of a group of fighters who had emerged from a tunnel in mid-July that forced it to rush into ground operation.
However, the Palestinian tunnels were not merely a way of infiltrating into Israeli settlements and military sites but an integral element of the defense of the Gaza Strip itself. As military thinkers have noted since the advent of armored warfare in WW II, the best way to defeat an armored attack is with a defense in depth that can channel armored vehicles and tanks into killing zones.
This is what the Palestinian fighters successfully executed. The Israelis had underestimated the tactical significance of the tunnels and IDF tanks were hemmed into a relatively small and largely built-up space, and then attacked from the sides and rear by Palestinian fighters relying on the Gaza tunnel system. It soon became clear that IDF losses would have continued to pile up if this attack would have continued – leading to Israel’s withdrawal.
Although the Palestinian resistance tactics of urban warfare were good, the strategic thinking on their missile offensive against Israel was an enormous moral and psychological victory for the resistance but was marginal in its military impact. The rocket fire caused a small number of Israeli casualties. In fact, shorter-range mortar fire nearer the Gaza border was considerably more effective than the missile attacks.
However, the resistance rocket strategy did surprise Israel, especially when its R-160 forced Israelis in the country’s central and northern sections to head for their shelters. Although inaccurate, the chief impact of the rockets was psychological and disruptive – making normal life impossible as people rushed for the bomb-shelters. It also proved that Palestinian fighters can stand up to Israel in a conventional war.
The other goal of the resistance rocket strategy was overall successful – to try to exceed the saturation point of the Iron Dome air-defense system through heavy barrages. The saturation attacks appear to have been successful.
That counters the claims that Iron Dome has been proclaimed an overwhelming success. In fact, there is some criticism that Iron Dome is not as effective as advertised by the Israeli government and that the small number of Israeli casualties was due more to an effective civil defense system and inaccurate Palestinian rockets. If a good civil defense system is partially responsible, that means that Palestinian needs to focus on this infrastructure as they rebuild Gaza.
Despite the inaccuracy of the rockets, resistance was able to maintain a steady if intermittent barrage of missiles over the course of the war despite the massive attacks from the Israeli Air Force and artillery. According to Israeli intelligence estimates some 3,300 missiles were fired towards Israel. The IDF claims to have destroyed some 3,000 more. Its assessment is that some 3,000 missiles are left in Gaza.
Observation for the Next War
Military experts suggest that the IDF will focus more on defeating tunnels. They already used robots for clearing tunnels and better models can be expected. Also expect them to look at developing more effective weapons like thermobaric bombs that can kill soldiers hidden in tunnels and bunkers. These are weapons that utilize oxygen from the surrounding air to generate an intense, high-temperature explosion. They do however cause considerably more destruction when used inside confined environments such as tunnels, caves, and bunkers – partly due to the sustained blast wave, and partly by consuming the available oxygen inside that confined space.
Although Israel may feel smug about its anti-rocket capability, it needs to reassess it in light of the even larger rocket capability of Hezbollah. Repots give it an arsenal of about 100,000 rockets – ten times the size of the Gazans arsenal.
In July 2006, Hezbollah fired close to 4,200 rockets at a rate of more than 100 per day. About 95% of these were Katyusha artillery rockets which carried warheads up to 30 kg and had a range of up to 19 miles. 22% of these rockets hit cities and built-up areas across northern Israel, while the remainder hit open areas. The attacks in that conflict included the Fajr-3 and Ra’ad 1 rockets both liquid-fuel missiles developed by Iran. Israeli intelligence states that Hezbollah possesses the far more advanced Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 rockets, with ranges of 27 and 45 miles; and a huge quantity of simpler 107mm and 122mm rockets with ranges up to 12 miles. These rockets are capable of striking many cities in northern Israel. And, although Iron Dome might intercept some of them, that would mean moving the batteries north and away from Gaza.
The Middle East Unstitched
By Jon B. Alterman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
August 6, 2014
It is easy to claim that everything going on in the Middle East today represents a return to the region’s status before World War I. After millennia of pillage, massacre, and looting, the story goes, Western powers brought order to a fractious region and helped create modern states. Now, critics say the borders of the modern Middle East have outlasted their utility. They are no match for the sectarian feuds and ethnic fault lines that have always underlain—and now tear apart—the region’s independent states. One can use this argument to explain away many of the conflicts in today’s Middle East: the battles inside Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Bahrain, and even the battles between Israel and the Palestinians. These hatreds supposedly go back centuries, so how can anyone hope to sort these countries out?
The Real Revolution in Military Affairs
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
August 5, 2014
It doesn’t seem all that long since the United States was considering how advancements in military technology would allow it to use advances in long-range precision weapons, intelligence sensors, and command and control capabilities to dominate conventional wars. The Gulf War in 1991, the fighting over Kosovo, the initial invasion of Afghanistan, and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to topple a Saddam Hussein all seemed to prove that superior technology and tactics had led to a “Revolution in Military Affairs” (RMA) that would dominate modern warfare. No one can deny the importance of such changes today. Precision strike capability combined with superior intelligence and command and control capabilities have changed the face of conventional warfare. At the same time, the Afghan War, the Iraq War, the fighting in Gaza, the fighting in Yemen, the fighting in Ukraine, and the other conflicts following the political upheavals in the Middle East have all involved a different kind of revolution.
A Turkey Road Map for the Next EU Foreign Policy Chief
By Marc Pierini
July 30, 2014
European Union leaders are currently busy selecting the next heads of the union’s key institutions. Among the new bigwigs to be appointed is the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy—in short, the EU’s foreign minister—who will succeed Catherine Ashton in December. The next high representative will inherit a lackluster record but, more importantly, will also have to tackle a host of thorny topics, from Ukraine to Syria to Iraq. Turkey will be another of these critical issues. The country is not ablaze; on the contrary, for the EU and NATO, it is a pillar of stability in a highly volatile region. But in the eyes of Turkey’s Western partners, a number of domestic and international concerns could challenge that stability. Faced with an unstable regional context, how should EU leaders handle their southeastern neighbor?
Jordan: Between Stability and Spillover
By Andrew Spath
Foreign Policy Research Institute
The swiftness with which the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, now the Islamic State) assaulted and overran northern Iraq brings a new level of concern to policymakers. The offensive blew a hole in Washington’s desire to maintain “a ring of Syrian containment” that favored a political solution with limited measures to support rebels against the Assad regime. As the organization expands in number and territory, and ambitiously declaring the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate, anxiety is growing among leaders and citizens in the neighborhood. Jordan, the key U.S. ally bordering territories held by the Islamic State and comprising a central part of its desired Sunni empire, is precariously situated on the frontline of the ISIL’s violent campaign.
ISIS Governance in Syria
By Charles C. Caris and Samuel Reynolds
Institute for the Study of War
The Islamic State’s June 2014 announcement of a “caliphate” is not empty rhetoric. In fact, the idea of the caliphate that rests within a controlled territory is a core part of ISIS’s political vision. The ISIS grand strategy to realize this vision involves first establishing control of terrain through military conquest and then reinforcing this control through governance. This grand strategy proceeds in phases that have been laid out by ISIS itself in its publications, and elaborates a vision that it hopes will attract both fighters and citizens to its nascent state. The declaration of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, however, raises the question: can ISIS govern? Available evidence indicates that ISIS has indeed demonstrated the capacity to govern both rural and urban areas in Syria that it controls. Through the integration of military and political campaigns, particularly in the provincial capital of Raqqa, ISIS has built a holistic system of governance that includes religious, educational, judicial, security, humanitarian, and infrastructure projects, among others.
What Iraq’s Kurdish Peshmerga Really Need
By Michael Knights
August 7, 2014
Prior to August 1, the Iraqi Kurds had not felt the full brunt of attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, which now styles itself “the Islamic State”). Yet after a string of powerful ISIS strikes on Kurdish peshmerga units between Mosul and the Syrian border, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s forces are fully engaged. On August 5, KRG president Masoud Barzani stated, “We have decided to go on the offensive and fight the terrorists to the last breath.” The United States should certainly support its historic allies, the Iraqi Kurds, in this fight. However, amid a clamor of voices calling for Washington to arm the peshmerga, it is important to draw lessons from the recent fighting that highlight the Kurdish military’s more pressing needs.
The United States, Turkey, and the Kurdish Regions
By Michael Werz and Max Hoffman
Center for American Progress
July 31, 2014
The past four years have swept away the old pillars of U.S. policy toward the Eastern Mediterranean. Egypt, a traditional American security partner, is confronting a staggering political and economic crisis. Syria has descended into a horrific civil war with no resolution in sight. Lebanon is clinging to basic stability in the face of long-standing sectarian tensions and a massive refugee crisis. Jordan remains a strong U.S. ally but faces structural threats that stem from demographic trends and the war in Syria. Iraq is once again engulfed in a struggle against militancy stoked, in part, by perceptions that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his supporters have institutionalized their ascendancy in a way unacceptable to Iraq’s minorities. Of course, governments across the region are struggling to confront the rising influence of violent Salafi jihadists. The seizure of Mosul—Iraq’s second-largest city and home to nearly 2 million people—by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, brought this reality into stark relief.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
C: 202 536 8984 C: 301 509 4144