Israeli Mistakes Against Hybrid Adversaries Serve as Cautionary Tale for U.S. Military

For Release

January 20, 2012

A review of recent Israeli military conflicts indicates the United States may be ill-prepared for "hybrid" warfare against state-sponsored adversaries who have a modicum of training and small force numbers, but possess advanced weapons and enough expertise to challenge the U.S. military, according to a RAND Corporation report issued today.

As the United States reviews its global defense strategy, the RAND study finds that the U.S. military understandably has focused much of its effort in recent years on irregular adversaries, particularly insurgents in Iraq and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

However, researchers say the United States could be following the same path as Israel, which made costly mistakes—that all made sense at the time—leading up to the Second Lebanon War.

In retaliation for Hezbollah rocket attacks, ambush of Israeli patrols and kidnapping of its soldiers, Israel sent air and ground forces into southern Lebanon in 2006. It expected sharp fighting, but was confident the Israeli Army would defeat Hezbollah forces quickly. Instead, the conflict dragged on for weeks and ended with a negotiated settlement.

"The United States can learn from the mistakes Israel made prior to the 2006 Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah, and the corrections it made just two years later during Operation Cast Lead, when Israel fought Hamas in Gaza," said David E. Johnson, the study's author and a senior researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "Those wars provide invaluable lessons for the United States on how it can—and cannot—defeat a hybrid foe."

The study shows that the Israeli experience provides compelling insights that will be important to the United States, which could unexpectedly find itself in a hybrid war similar to that of the Israelis in the Second Lebanon War.

Hybrid adversaries are irregular forces—fighters who do not belong to a nation's formal Army—that typically employ standoff weapons such as antitank guided missiles and man-portable air-defense systems. These adversaries also seek to nullify advanced air power and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities by hiding in complex terrain and "amongst the people" in urban areas.

Defeating such opponents requires different tactical and operational concepts for ground and air forces than those that are used to fight irregular forces who do not have standoff weapons, researchers say.

It also requires sufficient ground forces to secure an area where the adversary is operating. Israel was not able to do this in 2006 in southern Lebanon with elements of four divisions and 12 brigades.

To identify lessons the U.S. military might learn from the Israeli experience in Lebanon, Johnson examined the state of the Israeli military before the Second Lebanon War, the challenges that Hezbollah posed and the lessons the Israelis learned from the 2006 war. He also examined the reforms the Israeli military undertook to address its deficiencies and how Israel fared during Operation Cast Lead three years later.

Johnson finds that the Israeli experiences in Lebanon and Gaza illustrate that an enemy's military capabilities largely will determine the war a nation will have to fight.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the imperative for the United States to conduct protracted low-intensity operations with a limited supply of ground forces has led to training and combat preparations that have diminished the readiness of U.S. military forces to prevail against a hybrid enemy.

The Israeli military had become accustomed to training for, and confronting, irregular forces, Johnson said. This approach ultimately resulted in Israel's surprising stalemate against Hezbollah in 2006.

"The Israeli lesson is that future wars may not be against insurgents or, for that matter, high-end state actors," Johnson said. "The Israeli army's almost exclusive focus on low-intensity conflict resulted in a military that was generally incapable of executing the integrated joint air-ground operations associated with major combat."

Among Johnson's recommendations for the U.S. military:

  • Strengthen the ability of the Air Force and Army to work together across all types of operations. These skills have atrophied because of protracted counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. One immediate step is to include hybrid operations and hybrid opposing forces in training exercises.
  • Prepare U.S. forces for the hybrid challenge through training, organization and equipment. This is vital because stand-off weapons, particularly man-portable air defense systems, could materialize in Afghanistan or elsewhere. These joint forces also require armored forces that can survive in this lethal environment.
  • Invest in countermeasures against stand-off precision fire systems such as man-portable air-defense systems, and improve the tactics to defeat these weapons.

"Israel learned the hard way that it had a gap in the middle of the range of military operations that required highly integrated air-and-ground arms fire and maneuver to address," Johnson said. "U.S. joint forces can learn from this mistake by being better prepared for the hybrid forces that await them."

The study, "Hard Fighting: Israel in Lebanon and Gaza," can be found at The work was conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE and the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program of RAND Arroyo Center.

RAND Project AIR FORCE is a federally funded research and development center for studies and analysis aimed at providing independent policy alternatives for the U.S. Air Force.

RAND Arroyo Center provides objective analytic research on major policy concerns to leadership of the U.S. Army, with an emphasis on mid- to long-term policy issues intended to improve effectiveness and efficiency. The center also provides the Army with short-term assistance on urgent problems and acts as a catalyst for needed change.

About RAND

RAND is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.