2006 Israel-Lebanon War Looms Large in Pentagon Debate on Future

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By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009

A war that ended three years ago and involved not a single U.S. soldier has become the subject of an increasingly heated debate inside the Pentagon, one that could alter how the U.S. military fights in the future.

When Israel and Hezbollah battled for more than a month in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, the result was widely seen as a disaster for the Israeli military. Soon after the fighting ended, some military officers began to warn that the short, bloody and relatively conventional battle foreshadowed how future enemies of the United States might fight.

Since then, the Defense Department has dispatched as many as a dozen teams to interview Israeli officers who fought against Hezbollah. The Army and Marine Corps have sponsored a series of multimillion-dollar war games to test how U.S. forces might fare against a similar foe. "I've organized five major games in the last two years, and all of them have focused on Hezbollah," said Frank Hoffman, a research fellow at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico.

A big reason that the 34-day war is drawing such fevered attention is that it highlights a rift among military leaders: Some want to change the U.S. military so that it is better prepared for wars like the ones it is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, while others worry that such a shift would leave the United States vulnerable to a more conventional foe.

"The Lebanon war has become a bellwether," said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command. "If you are opposed to transforming the military to fight low-intensity wars, it is your bloody sheet. It's discussed in almost coded communication to indicate which side of the argument you are on."

U.S. military experts were stunned by the destruction that Hezbollah forces, using sophisticated antitank guided missiles, were able to wreak on Israeli armor columns. Unlike the guerrilla forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, who employed mostly hit-and-run tactics, the Hezbollah fighters held their ground against Israeli forces in battles that stretched as long as 12 hours. They were able to eavesdrop on Israeli communications and even struck an Israeli ship with a cruise missile.

"From 2000 to 2006 Hezbollah embraced a new doctrine, transforming itself from a predominantly guerrilla force into a quasi-conventional fighting force," a study by the Army's Combat Studies Institute concluded last year. Another Pentagon report warned that Hezbollah forces were "extremely well trained, especially in the uses of antitank weapons and rockets" and added: "They well understood the vulnerabilities of Israeli armor."

Many top Army officials refer to the short battle almost as a morality play that illustrates the price of focusing too much on counterinsurgency wars at the expense of conventional combat. These officers note that, before the Lebanon war, Israeli forces had been heavily involved in occupation duty in the Palestinian territories.

"The real takeaway is that you have to find the time to train for major combat operations, even if you are fighting counterinsurgency wars," said one senior military analyst who studied the Lebanon war for the Center for Army Lessons Learned at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Currently, the deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have prevented Army units from conducting such training.

Army generals have also latched on to the Lebanon war to build support for multibillion-dollar weapons programs that are largely irrelevant to low-intensity wars such as those fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. A 30-page internal Army briefing, prepared for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and senior Pentagon civilians, recently sought to highlight how the $159 billion Future Combat Systems, a network of ground vehicles and sensors, could have been used to dispatch Hezbollah's forces quickly and with few American casualties.

"Hezbollah relies on low visibility and prepared defenses," one slide in the briefing reads. "FCS counters with sensors and robotics to maneuver out of contact."

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is expected to stake out a firm position in this debate as soon as today, when he announces the 2010 defense budget. That document is expected to cut or sharply curtail weapons systems designed for conventional wars, and to bolster intelligence and surveillance programs designed to help track down shadowy insurgents.


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