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.
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 Gaza ’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. Israel
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
unwillingness to inflict collateral damage is quite literally akin to fighting handicapped. US
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
has amply demonstrated. Further, the presence of armor is no guarantee of safety or tactical success. Iraq
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
and the Israelis in Iraq 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. Gaza
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
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. US
Nature of War. Historically, the
has a tendency to try to fight with half-measures and more concern for public relations than sound tactics. US is also doing that in Israel . 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 Gaza 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. US
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
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. US
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.