Tom Ricks's Inbox

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The old military saying is that amateurs talk tactics, but professionals talk logistics. A contemporary version of that might be that while amateurs examine Iraq, many professionals are now focusing on the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, which some fear foreshadows the nature of the United States' next conflict.

U.S. military experts were startled by Israel's woeful performance in that fight -- and by Hezbollah's new tactical sophistication. The radical Lebanese Shiite militia proved adept at setting up ambushes in southern Lebanon and eavesdropping on Israeli communications. Hezbollah also hammered Israel's tanks and infantry, revealing that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had grown rusty at old-school tactics that had been its forte. When Israeli infantrymen took shelter in a building, for instance, Hezbollah members used anti-tank rockets to bring it down on the soldiers inside.

Here are some conclusions from a recent study, not yet released, written by Matt M. Matthews, a historian at the Army's Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. , that worries that five years of fighting insurgents in Iraq may also have dulled U.S. soldiers' skills at more conventional combat:

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. . . Another crucial factor in the IDF's reverses in southern Lebanon was the dismal performance of its ground forces. Years of counterinsurgency operations (COIN) had seriously diminished its conventional war-fighting capabilities . . . .

The fight at Wadi Saluki, for example, revealed the failure of tank commanders and crewmen to use their smokescreen systems, the lack of indirect fire skills, and the total absence of combined arms proficiency. The IDF lost many of these perishable skills during its long years of COIN [counterinsurgency] operations against the Palestinians.

Hezbollah proved to be a highly dedicated and professional fighting force, armed with some of the most advanced weapons systems in the world. There can be no doubt that the IDF greatly underestimated its opponent. From 2000 to 2006, Hezbollah successfully embraced a new doctrine, transforming itself from a predominantly guerrilla force into a formidable quasi-conventional fighting force.

. . . In the tactical arena, Hezbollah proved a worthy adversary for IDF ground forces. Its use of swarming ATGMs [anti-tank guided missiles] and RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] against Israeli tanks was both shrewd and inventive. Of the 114 IDF personnel killed during the war, 30 were tank crewmen. Of the 400 tanks involved in the fighting in southern Lebanon, 48 were hit, 40 were damaged, and 20 penetrated.

. . . While the U.S. Army continues to perform irregular warfare operations throughout the world, it must not lose its ability to execute major combat operations.

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Tom Ricks is The Post's military correspondent. This feature aims to give readers a snapshot of the conversations about Iraq, Afghanistan and other matters that play out in Ricks's e-mail inbox. Have an interesting document? Send it to TheInbox@washpost.com.


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