Fighting the Elusive Enemy – PGM in the Empty Battlefield

Maj. general Gershon HaCohen, Commander, UDF Northern Command. Photo: IDF
Maj. general Gershon HaCohen, Commander, IDF Northern Command. Photo: IDF

In a briefing at the recent Land Warfare conference held in Latrun, Israel earlier this month, the commander of the IDF Northern Command, Major General Gershon HaCohen, examined maneuver and fire alternatives and their role against the evolving hybrid warfare challenges. “It is obvious land maneuver is not a goal in itself. Classic maneuver should shake an enemy force out of balance, however, maneuvering against irregular, ‘disappearing’ forces is difficult due to the lack of clear center weights” said HaCohen.

In a previous article we examined the evolution of the Syrian army and Iranian backed insurgent organization Hezbollah into a semi-irregular military organization specializing in hybrid warfare. This type of operation offers several advantages to such formations, particularly in their ability to sustain overwhelming odds and survive. However, it practically eliminates their ability to conduct meaningful offensive operations.

How can a conventional, technologically superior army like the IDF can degrade the fighting capability of such ‘hybrid’ forces and how do one assess the wear, remaining combat capability and operational potential of such irregular forces? In the linear war, where ‘battalions’ ‘brigades’ and ‘divisions’ form the main fighting power, clearly defined numerical data is available, sensing groups of fighting vehicles, and translating the information into clearly defined targets which are ‘dead’ or ‘live’. Under such conditions, having destroyed military formations could be regarded as final, or at least temporary, until enemy reinforcements could arrive to replace the losses, which would take time and further opportunities for targeting. However such clear definition cannot be attributed to a small commando unit, irregular guerrilla element or remotely controlled rocket site being activated at will.

Eliminating the threat of rockets has also become a major concern for the Israeli Army. Sustaining continuous rocket attacks (launching ‘flow’) is a critical capability the Hezbollah developed and maintained through the duration of the conflict, achieving a kind of ‘strategic parity’ with the Israelis. “Fighting against rocket launchers is different from operating against the regular military” HaCohen admits, “You cannot take such arrays out of balance.” While known targets can be eliminated by an opening, or deliberate strike conducted with precision fires and air attacks. “Ongoing precision engagements throughout the campaign are gradually eroding the enemy’s launching capability, but are depending on human-intensive intelligence analysis processes, but remain only effective operational guidance as long as they are real-time assets.” HaCohen explained.

Even this highly sophisticated phase gradually loses momentum, as the enemy adapts and find ways to avoid our attacks. In fact sporadic or unreliable information becomes virtually worthless and limits or even denies precision engagement capability. “Once the precision engagement phase loses momentum, it is time to consider the land maneuver to achieve its massive effect by exposing the enemy and eliminating its combat elements with superior firepower and rapid movement, in concentrated action.” he stressed.

General Hacohen is warning of the military tendency to shift from understanding the art of war and mastering it in complex operations, towards virtual management systems, using modern technology to monitor events from afar, rather than keeping abreast in personal directing critical phases during the mission. He stresses, that hi-tech systems, used as tools of command are highly effective means to monitor real-time situation awareness, preventing fratricide, but cannot replace the commander’s authority in directing combat itself.

Overusing technology in complex combat situations (like the 2006 Lebanon War) can cause a so-called ‘production line’ process, in which the commander is depending on highly effective information process, streamlined towards execution of precision engagement, seemingly achieving maximum yields. However, in understanding the merits of effective land warfare maneuvers, constant involvement of the higher command level with the subordinated units becomes crucial in sudden changes in the battle-plan. The commander’s personal intervention in the right moment can create the opportunities for winning wars.

“Unlike precision engagement processes that depend on intelligence and targeting to achieve their goals, land maneuver forces can operate autonomously, employing its integral assets to obtain the updated information necessary in targeting, to engage the enemy directly, or create the opportunities for other elements in engaging that enemy, if placed in superior firing locations. Ground maneuver forces can respond rapidly and contain unexpected situations, defeat the enemy and create adequate conditions toward achieving the conflicts’ ‘end phase’. However, in retrospect of recent conflicts, seizing enemy territory is no longer the ideal solution to reach a long term end of campaign.” HaCohen said.

Following the 2006 war the political leadership became reluctant to employ land maneuver, as primary means for armed conflict. This indecisiveness proved dangerous during the 2009/10 Operation ‘Cast Lead’ and prevented achieving a strategic victory, with long term benefits. The political leadership turned down several proposals from the military to seize and retake the 1994 agreed ‘Philadelphi’ line southwest of Rafah, along the international border with Egypt. In securing this highly strategic line, would have cut once and for all the umbilical cord feeding the vital weapon supply line into the Gaza strip, which inevitably would eventually dry up the weapons caches of Hamas. Unfortunately, the IDF preferred to go after irregular forces in the Northern part of the Gaza strip, in an effort to apply more pressure and eradicate rocket launchers, which, if the former solution would have been chosen, would have stopped, due to lack of supplies, for an unspecified term, forcing Hamas to find alternatives.

A crucial element, which is currently dominating modern warfare is high precision fire, hitherto never available to ground commanders.
Presenting a relatively new phenomena in 21st Century warfighting, is often blurring between the definition of ‘offense’ and ‘defense’, particularly when addressing those precision fires. In a rapidly moving offense, lack of clearly defined targeting makes it hard for a conventional military force to direct an offensive move against an invisible enemy, particularly after an opening phase has eliminated the pre-allocated ‘target bank’ prepared in advance. Superior precision fires that depend on high quality and precise intelligence and real-time targeting information is slow to catch up, and with the absence of clearly defined fighting formations, what and who are you attacking?

Employing maneuver forces at this phase could rout out and reveal these hidden elements, forcing them to react and expose themselves, by fighting back or trying to escape. At this phase planners should ask themselves what is the purpose of their action: is it to seize and dominate the occupied territory? clear a location from enemy forces? Destroy the enemy’s fighting capability or stop them from firing at you? The answer is both difficult and highly complex in modern counter insurgency and ‘hybrid’ warfare, the latter only being in its first steps.