22 May 2017

The Second Lebanon War: Failures, Lessons Learned and the Future

by Mohammad Naved Ferdaus Iqbal

In retrospection of the Israel-Lebanon war of 2006, also known as the second Lebanon war, it would be somewhat parochial to tie Israel’s intelligence failures alone to the country’s performance in the war. There are numerous examples of complex failures starting from the highest political echelons down to even military doctrines including caveats of classified intelligence that contributed to Israel’s defeat as it battled Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. It is imperative that the failures are looked at, critically, from political, military, and intelligence perspectives. This paper, therefore, intends to evaluate Israel’s performance in the second Lebanon war by identifying the key failures, explaining the causes of failures and the lessons learned thereof for Israel’s future. While some Whitehouse and Israeli officials believe that the second Lebanon war has caused significant damage to Hezbollah’s capability, thus supposedly reducing the violent non-state actor’s formidability in a future warfare[i], the paper will, however, argue otherwise and also seek to include an outlook of Israel-Lebanon conflict in the future.

Instances of Israeli leadership’s strategic errors on the political, intelligence and military fronts were evident in the second Lebanon war. Since the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 until the outbreak of the war in 2006, Israeli political leadership chose to believe that Israel’s military strength was a strong deterrence against Hezbollah. The Israeli confidence or overconfidence to be more appropriate prevailed in spite of Hezbollah’s provocations such as soldier abductions, cross-border terrorist attacks and Katyusha barrages. In addition to Israel’s renewed focus during those years on the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza,[ii] there was also economic motivation to exercise restraint on Lebanon. This was because Israel did not want to upset the economic development in northern Israel that followed the withdrawal in 2000.[iii] Further research into the matter also shows that prior to the second Lebanon war, the country’s leadership did receive warnings from the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff about Hezbollah’s growing threat.[iv] The Hezbollah attacks on an Israeli patrol and the abduction of two Israeli soldiers on 12 July 2006, however, finally terminated the Israeli restraint, and Tel Aviv’s subsequent reactions transpired into an active military warfare between Israel and Hezbollah.

Israel did not anticipate full-fledged warfare with Hezbollah since the unilateral withdrawal in 2000. The Lebanon front was hardly discussed in the country’s highest military forum. As a result, the IDF was unable assess its needs prior to the war. Since 2001, the military training budget was reduced by US$ 800 million. Therefore, only a few Special Forces received training geared to operations in southern Lebanon. Also, due to the budgetary constraints, the production of Israel’s top-line Merkava tank had to be discontinued, installation of the Trophy antimissile system on most tanks had to be abandoned and providing the Israeli Air Force (IAF) with bunker buster bombs could not be afforded. Additionally, between November 2002 and March 2006, there was reduction in conscript military service, training and reserve duty. [v]

Israeli intelligence services did not accurately assess Hezbollah’s capabilities. Israel’s Military Intelligence and the Northern Commands Intelligence were primarily responsible for collecting, analysing and evaluating Hezbollah’s capabilities. They failed in monitoring the weapons shipped from Iran and Syria to Hezbollah before the war. This meant that Israel did not know the types and quality of weapons available to Hezbollah. Reasons for the lapses were reportedly the transfer and supply routes, geographical distances and Hezbollah’s strict compliance to communication security protocol between themselves and Iran. Prior to the war, intelligence assessments showed that the IDF had an ambiguous picture of the size of Hezbollah. The number of troops reportedly, ranged from 2,000 active combatants to 8,000 members in the organization as a whole. However, in hindsight after the war, the organization was believed to have more troops available than those previous numbers suggested, in spite of the casualties in 2006. The other critical constraint was that Israel did not have adequate intelligence on Hezbollah’s command chain. Hezbollah had effectively maintained secrecy of its commanders, their roles and whereabouts. The only known figures of senior leadership in Israel’s hit list were Sheikh Sayeed Hassan Nasrallah and Imad Mughniyeh who in any case were known because they were exposed to the media.[vi]

Israeli intelligence services failed to alert potential abductions by Hezbollah and consequently failed to prevent the attack on 12 July 2006.[vii] This, however, should not have been a major limitation for the country’s intelligence services because the Hezbollah leader Nasrallah had earlier, publicly committed himself to kidnapping of IDF soldiers. Nasrallah’s intention was to use them as a bargaining chip in order to gain the release of Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli prisons. Between October 2005 until July 2006, Hezbollah attempted two abductions of IDF soldiers without success. The latter was attempted at the same location where the July 2006 kidnapping was successfully executed. It would have been obvious to Israeli intelligence services that abduction was a highly likely operation by Hezbollah. The readiness Israel needed was to know when and where the Hezbollah attempt would occur. While the intelligence services failed to provide timely alert, warnings about escalation of threat from Hezbollah were furnished to the Israeli Premier, the Minister of Defence and the Chief of Staff in December 2005 by Israel’s Military Intelligence. The warnings also suggested that Israel’s deterrence posture on the country’s northern border should be enhanced against likely kidnapping attempts by Hezbollah.

Israel’s intelligence services failed to locate Hezbollah’s armaments. As a result, they could not be destroyed from the air, whereas, two months before the war, Nasrallah did brag about Hezbollah’s large arsenal of over 12,000 rockets. He also said, “The Israeli’s know we have deterrent rocket capabilities. If I would go on television today to tell the residents of northern Israeli settlements that they should go down to the shelters, they will all be in Tel Aviv in no time”.[viii] While it was likely that a strong Hezbollah attack against northern Israel would comprise of 150-200 rockets a day, visual intelligence (VISINT) and signal intelligence (SIGINT) enabled Israel’s military intelligence to conclude that locating the arsenals was almost impossible.

Israeli Navy Intelligence service failed to recognize Hezbollah’s capability to use C-802 weapon system. When a senior Military Intelligence analyst in April 2003, warned Israeli Navy (IN) intelligence service that Hezbollah might have received anti-ship 802 missiles and suggested that the IN should further explore the likelihood, the warning did not receive the attention it warranted. IN’s estimate was that a terrorist organization such as Hezbollah did not have the capability to effectively engage heavy and complicated C-802 missiles. On the evening of the same day the intelligence was received, an IN corvette “Hanith” that was sailing sixteen miles off the Lebanese coast was hit by such a missile, suffering heavy damage and incurring four casualties. Post war investigations revealed that IN considered the intelligence about Hezbollah’s potential use of anti-ship missiles as “imaginary and groundless”. As a result, the IN command failed to direct its unit to fully employ their anti-missile defence systems. Also in the war in 2006, Hanith’s radar was not operational and the some of the defence electronic systems of the ship were turned off without the knowledge of the captain. The ship was consequently sailing defenceless near the Lebanese coast.

Israeli political leadership failed to recognize the importance of targeted assassination of Hezbollah leaders. Before the war, Israel’s intelligence services had information about Hezbollah’s ten leading operational leaders. The political echelon, however, vetoed proposals for targeted killings of Hezbollah’s operational leaders such as Imad Mughniye, who led the July 2006 operation and Haj Halil Hareb, the commander of Hezbollah’s elite unit, “Unit 1800”. Despite Mossad’s immense experience in targeted killings of Palestinian leaders and combatants, no members of the Hezbollah leadership were assassinated during the second Lebanon war.

Israeli intelligence services failed to explore alternative means by which Hezbollah’s short-range rocket launchers could have been mobilized. They believed that the short-range rocket launchers being highly mobile were carried by donkeys on a narrow mountain track or by motorbike on a dirt road. This meant that locating them was impossible from the beginning and thus targeting them was ranked low in the intelligence priorities. However, it was apparent during the war that the intelligence services’ assumption was not fully valid. The Special Forces randomly detected permanent rocket launchers and many fixed launching positions, mostly in the orchards of local farmers. The Hezbollah had allegedly paid the farmers for their help. The launchers were hydraulic, could be raised, launched and then lowered back and camouflaged again. There were also reports of usage of thermal blankets to cover them in order to avoid post-shooting hit signature. [ix]

Israeli military intelligence service failed to locate most tunnels and bunkers built by Hezbollah. The most important command bunkers and weapons arsenal bunkers were dug deeply into Lebanon’s rocky hills, to a depth of 40 meters. Nearly 600 separate ammunitions and weapons bunkers were strategically placed. Some bunkers were constructed in the open under the surveillance of Israeli drone vehicles or under the observation of Lebanese citizens with close ties to the Israelis. But most of these bunkers proved to be decoys. Also for security reasons, no single Hezbollah commander knew the location of each bunker. Each Hezbollah militia unit was given access to three bunkers only, a primary munitions bunker and two reserve bunkers. Separate primary and back up marshalling points were also assigned for certain combat units, which were tasked to arm and fight within specific combat zones. [x]

Israeli intelligence services failed to collect and analyse the intelligence essential for IDF’s ground operation to occupy the territory between Litani River and the international border. The Military Intelligence could not assemble a complete picture of the terrain, obstacles, control grounds, possible axis of movement, location of minefields and potential enemy ambushes. Dissemination of available intelligence for the ground forces was further exacerbated by information compartmentalization. Earlier in 2006 before the war when the Military Intelligence produced a report titled “Hezbollah’s War Conception”, containing information about Hezbollah’s ground deployment, the way it had camouflaged its underground facilities called “natural reserves” and pictures and drawings, the document was caveated at the highest level of classification with access to only a few outside the Military Intelligence. As a result, the intelligence officials of the 91st Galihee Division, the main IDF facing Hezbollah was allowed to read the report, but the Division commander was not. The Military Intelligence had ranked the distribution of high level documents to a few consumers of intelligence as a higher priority than providing the actual users with their needed information. Also, they held back critical information from the combat forces before the war began for the same reason of information caveats. The critical information was kept in locked metal boxes. These intelligence kits were supposed to be made available to the combat units once the war began, but due to bureaucracy, the intelligence delivery was delayed by two weeks and could not be used effectively. When the intelligence kits reached the ground forces, they found out that the information was out-dated, including air photographs and maps from 2002. Lack of updated information was attributed to budgetary cuts in 2003 when it was decided that updating of maps would be discontinued.[xi]

Israeli political leadership failed to define the confrontation with Hezbollah as war from the onset. This significantly harmed the reserve forces’ mobilization, the command and control chain, the dissemination of intelligence from the strategic level, the application of pre-planned operations and logistical support. In July 2006, Israel’s political and military echelons approved an operation, which escalated into a war. The Israeli Chief of Staff Dan Halutz testified that during the initial stage of the operation, he considered it as a retaliationary attack, not war. Accordingly, he directed his subordinates to refrain from relating the operation as war. Simultaneously, he expected the commanders in the battlefield to act as if they were in war. The Deputy Premier Shimon Peres was the only War Cabinet member to urge the Cabinet to decide if it was war or not.[xii]

Israeli Military Intelligence did not have human sources in southern Lebanon. This is also attributed as a critical failure of the intelligence service to provide IDF’s ground forces with the intelligence they needed to carry out operations.[xiii] In comparison with Israeli operations in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, the use of human sources effectively supplied IAF with bombing targets. The absence of human sources in southern Lebanon offered no such advantages. As a result, the short-range missile launchers remained active and IDF was unable to inflict significant damage to them.[xiv] Although the Israeli intelligence services sought cooperation from the Christian Maronites to get information about Hezbollah’s infrastructures and activities in the area, the sources were not adequately cultivated. Veteran General Security Service (GSS) officers viewed that this lapse of the Unit 504 was caused by low calibre manpower and lack of intimate knowledge of the local population. GSS also believed that their agency that had enormous experiences of counterterrorism in southern Lebanon could have yielded better outcomes. GSS was, however, denied involvement by IDF because the army wanted to monopolize its intelligence activities in southern Lebanon.

Israeli intelligence services failed to compromise the communication security exercised by Hezbollah. Hezbollah would always assume that their operational talks were monitored by Israel. Therefore, they adopted a much simpler method based on the fact that they knew one another intimately and had shared their exclusive personal experiences to produce codes that outsiders couldn’t extract any useful value from. Nasrallah did brag about the organization’s communication security in his speech on 23 May 2006, comparing it to Israel that used codes and closed circuits. When Hezbollah members talked amongst themselves, the hints and symbols they used would be absolutely useless intelligence for eavesdroppers. For example, when the Israeli monitors received a message such as “meet me near the house where Ali used to live five years ago”, they understood the text but were not able to utilize it to their benefit. [xv]

The second Lebanon war in retrospection typically shows Israel’s lost sense of vulnerability toward Hezbollah since the unilateral withdrawal in 2000 until the outbreak of the war in 2006. Confirmation bias and overconfidence that critically constrained Israel’s approach in 2006 had also led to the country’s poor performance in combatting Hezbollah. For example, the IN, that did not reconsider the tip from the Military Intelligence, remained obstinate with its prevalent conception that a terrorist organization such as Hezbollah did not have the capability to use a complex weapon system as C-802 missiles and were subsequently proven wrong. Also, the Israeli leadership’s over confidence since the unilateral withdrawal that Israel’s deterrence posture would suffice in holding back Hezbollah, also surfaced as a strategic mistake.

Israel however, already put in place some of its lessons learned from the second Lebanon war. In a decade’s time, the IDF Chief had unveiled a new national security strategy called the Gideon Doctrine, which observes that the main threat confronting Israel in contemporary times is from violent non-state organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas. The Gideon Doctrine reinforces Israel’s posture of deterrence. It has done so by stating the importance of clarifying IDF’s role in developing a means for prolonging the period between wars. The doctrine also attempts to redefine military decision making in terms of attaining political goals which will lead to a post war improved security situation. What this means is that in an asymmetric warfare, conclusive defeat or surrender of the enemy should not typically be the expected outcome.[xvi] The new security strategy would likely enable the political leadership and the military to better recognize the security priorities for Israel, which will manifest in military budget allocations, intelligence priorities and capabilities and setting realistic aims in hybrid warfare.

The integration of the Air Force and Military Intelligence emerge as another key improvement since the second Lebanon war. Israel has focused efforts in deciphering the way Hezbollah hides and uses its forces in Lebanon. The IDF now reportedly has accurate intelligence regarding thousands of targets, and changes in the air force enable attacks at a much higher success rate than back in 2006.[xvii]

Israel is in a dangerous neighbourhood in which military strength will determine survival. The political leadership would be well advised to recognize the country’s location as a vantage point for hostile neighbours and therefore support increased defense budget to implement some of the lessons learned from the second Lebanon war such as longer training for reserve units and procurement of better weapon systems.[xviii]

Careful analysis of the second Lebanon war also reveals the importance of using human sources in enemy territories and defeating inter-agency rivalries to counter a common enemy of the state. In the second Lebanon war, IDF could have been expected to yield better results in human intelligence (HUMINT) by leveraging GSS’s experiences in counterterrorism in southern Lebanon.

The border between Israel and Lebanon is relatively quiet since the implementation of the cease-fire in August 2006.[xix] But this is not necessarily an indication that another round of conflict with Hezbollah is avoidable. According to 2016 data, Hezbollah has over 100,000 missiles, thousands of which have a range and accuracy to strike cities and strategic sites throughout Israel. The organization has also built extensive new infrastructure, further embedding it into communities and the terrain in southern Lebanon. There are rumors that Hezbollah has built a network of tunnels, which extend under the border into northern Israel and would be utilized in the organization’s next battle with Israel. Hezbollah’s current involvement in fighting the Syrian civil war on the side of the Assad regime would also mean enhanced combat experiences which will render the next Israel-Hezbollah war even more challenging for the IDF. [xx]

Israel’s new national security strategy in the Gideon Doctrine remarkably identifies that violent non-state actors such as Hezbollah and Hamas pose as threats to Israel. This to a great extent can help shape Israel’s security priorities and deterrence and defence postures against these formidable enemies. The lessons learned from the second Lebanon war had also given Israel ample pointers of where they were deficient. It is imperative that Israel would be able to see past its confirmation bias and over confidence in particular for the rest of the lessons learned to work to its advantage in the next conflict with Hezbollah or other neighbouring non-state violent actors. Regardless of how some Israeli officials believe that Israel had significantly diminished Hezbollah’s capabilities for a future conflict with Israel, the evidences from the 2006 war indicate otherwise. Israel’s failure in the second Lebanon war was catastrophic. It means that after the failure of IAF to degrade Hezbollah’s assets significantly in the first 72 hours of the war, Israel’s chance of winning a decisive victory against Hezbollah was highly unlikely. The paper thus ends with a quote from a US military expert who put it more appropriately as he described Israel’s performance in the second Lebanon war, “Israel lost the war in the first three days. If you have that kind of surprise and you have that kind of firepower, you had better win. Otherwise, you’re in for the long haul”.[xxi]

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