Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Israeli Combat Lessons

The Israeli-Hamas conflict offers some combat lessons for the US Navy and Marines.

This is not a political blog so I’m not going to address the political aspects of the conflict.  Further, I’m working only from publicly available information, most of which is based on propaganda from each side.  Nevertheless, there are patterns to be seen and lessons to be learned.

Interestingly, the conflict can be viewed from the perspective of an amphibious assault.  Gaza is, essentially, a port city – exactly the kind of assault target the Marines are supposed to be prepared for.  The Hamas rocket attacks simulate, to a degree, A2/AD attacks on an invading fleet while Israel’s Iron Dome mimics a fleet AAW defense.  The Israeli army can be thought of as an amphibious assault force that has managed to land and is moving to seize its objective.  Here, then are some observations and lessons.

Aerial Suppression.  A few Zumwalts notwithstanding, the Navy has given up its shore bombardment capability in favor of aerial suppression of enemy capabilities.  Marine amphibious assault doctrine depends heavily on aerial suppression during the early stages of an assault.  We see, though, that the Israelis, despite having absolute aerial supremacy, were totally unable to prevent frequent and regular rocket attacks (some 3000 rockets launched over the course of a couple weeks).  This is the most one-sided application of aerial force against an enemy with next to no AAW capability one could imagine and yet it produced no discernible suppression of Hamas strike capability.  Will Navy aviation be able to suppress enemy capabilities during an assault?  This suggests that suppression will be extremely problematic. 

If aviation can’t accomplish the task, what can?  This offers an argument for greater naval gun support and leads to the next two lessons.

AAW.  The Israeli Iron Dome system has performed well at what it was designed to do.  My best guess is that the system has achieved about a 50%-75% success rate, Israeli claims of 90+% notwithstanding.  That success rate is tempered by the fact that the attacking weapons are unsophisticated rockets unsupported by any electronic countermeasures or AAW suppression to aid penetration.  While nowhere near an apples-to-apples comparison, this still offers lessons for the Navy’s Aegis system.  While Aegis is far more sophisticated than the Iron Dome system, so too is the threat (supersonic cruise and ballistic missiles).  The conclusion is that AAW systems can provide a degree of protection but that the degree will be far less than hoped for.  This has implications for the Navy’s doctrine of vast stand-off distances from land and the number and types of weapons that should constitute a ship’s layered defense.  There is no need for the Navy to cower far from land – stand in and fight and let Aegis do its job.  Along with that, the Navy needs to re-evaluate the number and types of short range and close in weapons it uses.  We need far more short range AAW and CIWS weapons in recognition of the number of leakers that will be encountered.

Precision Versus Area Attack.  In keeping with Israeli doctrine, strikes were as precisely focused as possible so as to minimize collateral damage.  While the specific targets were, undoubtedly, largely neutralized, the flip side of such precision targeting is that no benefits accompanied the strikes beyond the immediate destruction of the specified targets.  Rockets, launchers, personnel, weapons, and munitions mere feet away from the intended targets were left untouched and available for use.  In other words, any target that the Israelis did not specifically know about gained a large degree of immunity from attack due to the Israeli’s unwillingness to use area bombardment.  A doctrine of area bombardment would, undoubtedly, have resulted in a significant degree of destruction of unknown targets.  Again, I’m not discussing the political aspects of such a doctrine, merely the tactical considerations.  Area bombardment would, undoubtedly, have suppressed the rocket attacks.  The degree of that suppression is, of course, a matter of speculation.

It’s clear that if an attacker limits itself to only known targets, it will open itself to attack by all the unknown assets which will probably be quite substantial.  The US unwillingness to inflict collateral damage is quite literally akin to fighting handicapped.

Urban Combat.  Given the degree of technological superiority and prevalence of armored vehicles of various types, the Israelis have suffered a somewhat surprising number of casualties among their infantry.  Of course, not knowing what specific objectives the Israelis were pursuing and what tactics they were using, it is difficult to assess whether the number of casualties were acceptable or not.  Still, it is possible to make the general observation that urban combat is a messy and dangerous undertaking.  This is hardly a surprising finding as the Marine’s experience in Iraq has amply demonstrated.  Further, the presence of armor is no guarantee of safety or tactical success. 

I can offer no specific tactical lessons or suggestions but I can state that the Marines need to re-evaluate their approach to urban combat.  The rate of losses suffered by the US Marines in Iraq and the Israelis in Gaza are tactically unfounded.  Losses could be greatly reduced by a willingness to inflict greater collateral damage.  Further, I suggest that tactics need to be re-evaluated to better integrate infantry and armor in an urban setting.  The Marines tend to view urban combat as an infantry exercise and that view is just going to get soldiers killed unnecessarily. 

Finally, Marines need to recognize that urban combat is a unique environment.  As one small example, it may be that instead of tanks, a heavily armored and actively (think Israeli Trophy) protected vehicle equipped with a very short barreled cannon (for maneuverability in physically close quarters) capable of firing wide area munitions,  capable of extensive and sustained use of obscurants and debilitating agents, and capable of transporting and sheltering troops is needed.  Hey, I’m not a ground expert so this is just my own uniformed speculation.  I may be way off base.  The point is that the Marines are not currently equipped for effective urban combat nor do they possess the required doctrine for success in the urban environment.

Collateral Damage.  The Israelis have demonstrated an extreme unwillingness to inflict collateral damage even to the point of accepting additional casualties of their own.  While they have attacked schools and other targets that directly housed enemy weapons, a reluctance to inflict collateral damage has allowed Hamas to freely maneuver throughout the urban landscape and obtain shelter and respite as needed.  Historically, the US has largely shied away from attacking sensitive targets even if they contained enemy personnel and assets.  Unless the US is prepared to accept inordinate casualties, a re-evaluation of the collateral damage issue is called for.  Allowing an enemy safe refuge is tactically indefensible.

Nature of War.  Historically, the US has a tendency to try to fight with half-measures and more concern for public relations than sound tactics.  Israel is also doing that in Gaza.  War, in particular urban combat, is an ugly and vicious exercise.  The only good thing about war is ending it quickly and victoriously.  If that means area bombardment and infliction of collateral damage then the US needs to re-evaluate its doctrine.  Many will argue that the nature of our conflicts calls for more limited actions and “gentler” force to achieve nation building goals or something similar.  I would suggest that such limited conflicts have rarely succeeded long term and, indeed, often have unintended negative consequences.  It might be prudent for the US to give more thought to the wisdom of limited conflicts rather than just leaping into them too readily. 

ComNavOps’ personal philosophy is, “In it to win it, or don’t get in it.

This is veering into the political realm so I’ll leave it at that. 

The point is that the US needs to remember what all out war is and what it entails.  We need to start equipping for high end war and revising or developing doctrine to deal with it.  War is ugly.  Trying to wage a limited, “gentle” war is only going to prolong the conflict and ultimately cause more deaths, both civilian and military.

In summary, the Israeli-Hamas conflict has many of the characteristics of an amphibious assault on a port city – just the type of thing the Marines and Navy claim to want to be able to do.  Even for the casual observer, divorced from any intimate knowledge of the objectives and tactics of either side, there are readily apparent lessons to be learned.  For a Marine Corps that hasn’t conducted an opposed assault for quite some time, this conflict offers an opportunity to observe the realities of urban combat and adjust their doctrine accordingly.


  1. I have a theory on collateral damage, is not really a political question, but a simple question of are our own people dying? If the answer is yes, our attitude will be completely different, than if they are not.

    If your opponent's tactic is to simply fire more targets than we can engage, we find ourselves in a difficult situation. The lesson I see in Gaza is a relatively unsophisticated enemy can force you to expend a large number of very expensive missiles to engage a large number of very basic targets. I problem with no simple solution.

    I am thinking only a gun based system can give you the ability to intercept large numbers of targets at a low cost per target.

    One thing I have noticed is if you look at Russian naval ships they always have far more gun based CIWS's than their US equivalents. Ours may be more sophisticated, but a gun can only engage one target at a time. Perhaps it not so silly after all.


  2. Aerial vs NSFS Suppression

    The problem is not delivering ordinance. The problem is finding the targets in the first place. Warships have no way of finding these targets on their own. So the failure of aerial suppression does not lead one to believe we need more naval guns. Instead, we need better ways of finding targets in difficult terrain.

    The IAF has had more success attacking larger rocket launchers. These would be closer to the types of mobile ASCM launchers the Navy and Marines would see in an amphibious assault.

    One has to recognize, though, that the situation in Gaza is unique. Hamas has had decades to prepare and has refined its tactics over many conflicts. Would the Marines ever attack such a well dug-in and prepared enemy? I hope not.

    Precision vs Area attack

    Do you know of actual cases of precision attacks missing nearby launchers or fighters due to their precision? Or is this supposition? The notion that area bombardment would've suppressed rocket attacks is not backed by any evidence I'm aware of. You would have to bombard all of Gaza constantly to have any real effect. Might as well just nuke it.

    Urban combat

    It appears as though active protection systems have worked in Gaza. The Israelis are buying more Trophy systems for their front-line units. The MPC or ACV needs such a system.

    Collateral Damage

    The Israelis have to take great lengths to limit collateral damage or rally the world's opinion against them.

    1. Smitty,

      I strongly concur with your point about targeting - spot on!


    2. Its also probably good to point out the moderately publicized case of NSFS from Israel warships almost hitting the hotel where the majority of foreign journalists were stay. The shell was a slightly strong wind gust from slamming into the hotel.

      That pretty much killed using NSFS for the rest of the op.

      The real problem with Gaza is that unless you are willing to accept a LOT of collateral damage, you pretty much have to use highly targeted precision strikes. The whole of gaza has a population density on the order of San Francisco, and just looking around, even 500lb bombs would result in high civilian causalities here if used.

  3. Absolutely wrong about targeting. OK, to be fair, half wrong.

    The failure of the Israeli aerial suppression absolutely leads to the conclusion that area bombardment is needed (assuming the goal is victory with the minimum number of casualties for our side). If we won't risk collateral damage then we'll only ever attack targets we can find and identify - a very small subset of the enemy's assets. The entire point of area bombardment is to destroy some portion of the unknown and "invisible" targets. While your suggestion that we need better ways to find targets in difficult (urban) terrain is quite valid, until that capability comes to be we need to be able to destroy the unseen targets to whatever degree we can and that can only occur through high volume, high explosive area bombardment.

    "Would the Marines ever attack such a well dug-in and prepared enemy?" Well, there's any city, port, base, and facility in Iran, N.Korea, and any place we might engage the Chinese, so, yes.

    Suppression of rocket attacks by area bombardment is simple probability. Statistically, some portion of an enemy's assets will be destroyed by area bombardment. Further, an enemy is less likely to peek their heads out during a sustained bombardment. This is simple doctrine and proven out repeatedly throughout history. That's what suppressive fire is.

    Without treading too far into the politics of it, could the world hate Israel any more than they do? Could the various anti-US groups and religions hate the Great Satan (US) any more than they already do? At some point, it's better to simply wipe out the threat and be done with it. Do you think Israel is "winning" the PR battle by trying to limit collateral damage? Do you think Arabs hate Israel less for trying to be careful?

    1. Let's do a little math. Let's assume we want to suppress Qassam 3 rocket fire against a beach assault. The Qassam rocket is VERY unsophisticated, but should be a relatively easy system to suppress, right?

      Qassam 3 has a 16km range, so assuming we have no knowledge where rockets might be fired from, we need to suppress the area within a semi-circle with a radius of 16km.

      16km^2*pi/2 = ~400 square kilometers (slightly larger than the city of Detroit).

      A single artillery battery of 6-8 155mm guns can suppress an area of around 250m x 250m, or about 0.0625 square kilometers. However, since suppressive effects dissipate within a few minutes after the battery ceases firing, the battery will largely be tied up for as long as you want to suppress the area.

      So we'd need 6,400 artillery battery-equivalents to suppress the entire potential area a Qassam 3 rocket could fire from.

      Clearly that is not feasible. Even at the height of our WWII naval prowess, we couldn't muster that amount of suppressive fire with the entire fleet.

      Now can we reduce the area we have to suppress based on intelligence and informed guessing of go/no-go areas? Perhaps. Though in a city like Gaza or other complex terrain, perhaps not.

      Qassam 3 is a short ranged system. The area required to effectively suppress longer-ranged ASCMs grows with the square of the missile's range. The Chinese C-803 ASCM could hit ships 30km off the coast of New York City from a launch area around Albany!

      So area suppression short of nuclear weapons just won't work, unless you can narrow the possible launch locations down to a VERY small area.

      The Arab states' responses to the Israeli invasion has been rather muted. The calls for cease fire only became loud after a few well publicized cases of non-combatant casualties. So yes, limiting collateral damage is in the Israelis' interest.

    2. B.Smitty, c'mon, now, this is just simple common sense. Possibly you're focusing on the very strict definition of suppressive fires? I'm talking about generically suppressing the ability to launch 9000 rockets (the publicly estimated inventory of Hamas rockets as stated by Israeli spokesman) unimpeded. We can suppress the ability a number of ways: kill the launch crew as they move about the battlefield, destroy the launchers (if they're separate from the rockets), destroy the rockets in whatever "depots" they have, and chew up the streets and launch areas with craters and debris making it difficult to move personnel/launchers/rockets into firing positions. All of these actions suppress the ability to utilize the rockets. It only takes one shot per area to achieve the effect. I'm not talking about continuous suppressive fire on the same area. Add in a little bit of targeting on known likely areas, targeting of known transportation/movement chokepoints, and the fact that we have 9000 chances to hit a rocket (to be fair, they're probably stored in groups - but who knows? - maybe there's one in every home?).

      There's a reason why area bombardment has been part of every invasion ever attempted - but you know that. I won't belabor it further.

      I repeat, the Israelis gain nothing by attempting to limit collateral damage. Has any Arab country increased their support for Israel because they exercised restraint? No, of course not. From a purely military strategic perspective, does it make sense to repeat this invasion cycle every few years? Of course not. The obvious answer is to end the threat permanently. Again, that's a purely military perspective.

    3. Untargeted or loosely targeted bombardment does not have a good
      track record for suppression or killing effects.

      Chewing up streets and buildings definitely impedes movement, but not just for defenders. It also impedes movement for the attackers.

      Destroying crews, launchers and rockets requires targeting. You can't just target "the city of Gaza", and expect to suppress it without completely flattening it. You will kill a thousand non-combatants for every combatant, and leave the city uninhabitable. You have to see launch crews setting up a launcher, or fire a counter-battery mission down the flight line of a rocket, or find a launch vehicle hidden somewhere.

      Which brings me back to my original point: the problem isn't delivering ordinance, it's finding targets.

    4. You could not be more wrong but to debate it further would delve into issues of ethics, philosophy, and moral courage which are not the subject matter of this blog so I'll leave it at that and call it an unresolvable disagreement. On to the next topic!

    5. Like I said earlier, I'm not doubting that we COULD suppress this type of activity, but it would require the use of nuclear or chemical weapons (or conventional weapons of equivalent magnitude).

      I'm curious. What historical examples you are basing your thoughts on?

    6. You *could* do suppressive fire but it would basically be wide area continuous carpet bombing. Load up B52s with 500lb bombs, send several wings in, start at one side and keep rolling thunder all the way to the other. This would however as CNO point out, require a debate into politics and assumed reactions.

  4. If we were to set aside the moral question if "how we win is more important than just winning", I consider your aerial bombardment position somewhat flawed. As you've stated, the Israelis have complete air superiority, yet it is not their tactical capability that limits their effectiveness; it is instead their chosen rules of engagement. Successive waves of F-15Es could easily loiter over the target area lugging tons of 500# guided and unguided weapons, interspersed with a few 2000# bombs for good measure.

    Likewise, 2 carriers 200nm off the coast could provide 24hr coverage of an assault objective. If we don't care how surgically we suppress the area, how about BLU-118Bs (FAE) and 2000# class HE for suppression, combined with FA-18Es with 18 Multi Mode Brimstone for precision targeting of armor or fixed emplacements throughout the area?

    Sure, I'd love to have more naval guns. What ever happened to that proposal to put the 120mm AMOS/NEMO mortar on the RCB? I remember seeing a .ppt about that in the building a few years ago.

    More importantly than any tactical solution, if we are in it to win it, and don't care how we win, why bother sending a Marine to do the job of a ballistic missile?

    1. TA, I assume you're addressing me when you question aerial bombardment? If so, I'm not sure what you're questioning? Are you saying that aerial bombardment can't work? Are you saying aerial bombardment is too effective and requires ROE? You're making a point but I'm totally missing it. Try again?

    2. Whether the fire support came from the air or from the surface, the Israelis could have conducted area or precision counter battery fires at will. Their self imposed ROE restrained them from executing area suppression. I contend the lessons are not in favor of aircraft or guns, as ROE restricted the unconstrained "all in" use of either.

      I'm for all forms of fire support- direct, indirect, aerial, etc.

    3. The CB90 in the end was determined to be too small to effectively use the AMOS/NEMO mortar system. So they built at least 1 and tested it, but it was just too small.

  5. An article on War is Boring shows a Hamas rocket launch as filmed by an Indian TV crew.

    Looking at the video, its apparent that trying to detect launch sites is obviously very hard and nearly impossible from the air/satellite.

    Indirect fire doesn't work too well if you have buildings surrounding the launch site as collateral damage will be huge. Precision strikes will work better.

    The use of command cables to trigger the launch and the fact that Hamas will evacuate all personnel from the launch site, means it is pointless to target a launch site after a missile is launched.

    Good intel and 'boots on the ground' are perhaps more important than firepower (in whichever form).

    1. Yep it paints a pretty depressing picture. Counter fire isn't going to be effective and likely to do more harm than good overall for the Israeli position. And its pretty hard to do much else since the vast majority of the arsenal is easily transported and setup.

      About the only solution I can think of short of basically pure eradication, is a forced temporary relocation of pretty much the entire gaza strip, followed by a complete dismantling of everything and then a massive rebuilding project. You would pretty much have to sweep from one side of the strip to the other, forcing people out, taking everything down to dirt, and then building it back up all the while controlling the moving border.

      Though even that is a lost cause until all the indoctrination and youth programming is removed.

  6. A comment was removed for offensive language. Anon, feel free to remove or restate your sentence and repost, if you wish. All comments will be respectful and polite.

    1. Fair enough. I missed that.

    2. Anon, I again removed your comment. My problem was the sentence that started with "Screw it ...". Unless that's an historical quote, it's inappropriate. If it's a quote, please do me a favor and reference it. The rest, even from the original, was fine. Feel free to clean that part up and repost. Whether I agree or not, your points were worthwhile. Thanks for your understanding and patience.

  7. Were we seeing suppressive fire being used,? My take was that the targets were hit because of intelligence that had been gathered previously. As the army moved in, more intelligence was gathered and more targets became avaliable.

    1. Seemed like strictly aimed fire to me.

    2. Hard to do suppressing fire against artillery rockets that can basically be launched using a simple V rail and are almost always launched remotely. Not to mention can be setup relatively quickly and discretely.

    3. ats, not hard at all. Just a matter of the will to do it.