Israel’s Active Defense Doctrine Won’t Work Against Hezbollah

By Yaakov Lappin
JINSA Visiting Fellow

Israel’s weeklong air campaign against Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza last month helped establish a successful anti-rocket/missile combat doctrine, which was well-designed for that particular conflict, but which will not be applicable against Hezbollah.

By Yaakov Lappin
JINSA Visiting Fellow

Israel’s weeklong air campaign against Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza last month helped establish a successful anti-rocket/missile combat doctrine, which was well-designed for that particular conflict, but which will not be applicable against Hezbollah.

Despite the triumphalist cries and unceasing flow of belligerent threats coming out of Gaza, Hamas’ leadership is trying to recover from their deep shock at the extent of damage incurred by their organization during the conflict, senior IDF sources say.

The air campaign began with a surprise when the Israel Air Force killed Hamas’ military chief, Ahmed Jabari. He will be difficult to replace especially as subsequent strikes eliminated more than 30 senior terrorist field commanders. The air campaign also destroyed nearly all of Hamas’ and Islamic Jihad’s Fajr rockets (with a range of 45 miles) and around half of their Grad rockets (with a range of up to 25 miles).

Terrorist groups based in Gaza including Hamas launched some 1,500 rockets and missiles at Israel and scored psychological points by setting off air raid sirens in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. But 87 percent of the missiles heading towards populated, built-up areas were blown out of the sky by the Iron Dome anti-rocket/missile system.

It was that system, composed of five batteries deployed across southern and central Israel, which allowed the IDF to stick to its plan of a limited but highly accurate air campaign, and avoid the need to send ground forces into Gaza during a time of major regional instability.

With Iron Dome providing effective cover to the Israeli home front, and a disciplined Israeli public following IDF safety instructions for such attacks (thereby implementing a passive defense strategy alongside Iron Dome’s active defense), Israel ended the conflict with three tragic casualties, and sustained limited damage to residential areas.

By severely limiting Hamas’ ability to sow death and destruction inside Israel, Iron Dome played a key role in Israel’s successful quest to reestablish its deterrence vis-à-vis Gaza-based terror factions.

In the days and weeks following Operation Pillar of Defense, the Hamas regime has kept to the Egyptian-mediated ceasefire without a single violation, and Hamas has been able to enforce the truce on the other terrorist in Gaza. This would indicate that deterrence has been restored.

Hamas has even forced Palestinian rioters to retreat from the border with Israel, to avoid incidents that could lead to the end of the ceasefire.

Most importantly, the long-suffering Israeli South has returned to normal life. The cities of Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Sderot, and the towns and villages near the Gaza border are experiencing a period totally free of the rocket terror. Children in Sderot are going to school without being targeted by Hamas and without the chilling sound of warning sirens piercing the air.

Iron Dome has proven that an active defense system, in the service of devastating air power, can cow Hamas. But the same formula will not be effective against Hezbollah.

On the one hand, Israel is developing the David’s Sling missile defense system (also referred to as Magic Wand), which is designed to deal with Hezbollah’s arsenal of 50,000 rockets and missiles including those with medium- and long-ranges that place the whole of Israel in danger.

David’s Sling fills gap between by Iron Dome and the Arrow 2 missile defense system, by intercepting projectiles with ranges that exceed 45 miles. Hezbollah has missiles that can hit targets up 125 miles away from their launch sites and carry warheads that are much larger than those carried by the Grads and Fajrs fired from Gaza in November.

Yet, David’s Sling won’t be operational until 2014, by which time a conflict with Hezbollah is a possibility.

Furthermore, even if David’s Sling was operational now, military planners doubt it could stop an onslaught by Hezbollah as effectively as Iron Dome did the barrages from Gaza, as this would require a large number of batteries deployed across the whole of the country, costing an extravagant sum of money. Israel does not have infinite funds to invest in missile and rocket defense systems, and hence, much of the country would likely remain exposed to Hezbollah’s attacks in a future clash.

And some of those rocket attacks could demolish entire buildings.

Additionally, active defense systems cannot prevent the need to set off air raid sirens, which disrupt daily life and can send millions of people running for cover several times a day. If that kind of situation went on for a prolonged period, ordinary life becomes untenable.

For all of those reasons, active defense is playing a secondary role in Israel’s combat doctrine against Hezbollah.

Any future conflict with Hezbollah will therefore be characterized by overwhelming Israeli offensive capabilities. The IAF has been undergoing a technological transformation in recent years, allowing it to strike many times more targets that it could in the past.

For example, had it wanted to, the IAF could have hit all of the 1,500 targets it struck in Gaza within 24 hours rather than over the eight days in which it carried out Operation Pillar of Defense. Major progress being made in fighter jet weapons delivery systems is behind these remarkable abilities.

A pilot can now press a button and hit four targets at the same time from long distance, meaning that one plane can do what many were needed to do in the past.

Israeli intelligence has mapped out Hezbollah’s rocket stockpiles, underground bases, and posts across southern Lebanon.

Hezbollah is more vulnerable than ever to Israel’s offensive capabilities. Military sources have made it clear that the Gaza conflict was a small-scale version of the damage the IDF would inflict on Hezbollah in the event of a conflict with the Shi’ite terror organization.

The IAF believes that such heavy blows stand a good chance of bringing a conflict with Hezbollah to a rapid end, followed by a long period of calm. Defense sources note that six-and-half years after the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has yet to repair all of the damage in southern Lebanon – and this came before the IAF’s enhanced attack abilities currently in place.

The new aerial power is also backed by the threat of a rapid and large-scale Israeli ground attack into Lebanon.

Overwhelming offense, then, and not active defense, is expected to form Israel’s response to a future round of fighting with Hezbollah. In any such scenario, though, the Israeli home front will likely suffer significantly more damage than it did in November.

Hezbollah, like Hamas, is a terror organization that rose to power on Israel’s borders, and, despite its fanatical ideology and gross disregard for the well-being of its people, cannot afford to repeatedly plunge its population into a destructive conflict with Israel within a relatively short period of time. This means Hezbollah and Hamas can be deterred.

It is worth noting that during a war game held by Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies last month, simulating developments in the first 48 hours after an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear weapons development facilities, the player representing Hezbollah was deterred from an all-out attack on Israel due to fears that Israeli counter strikes would cause widespread damage to Lebanon. The player chose to launch rockets and missiles at Israeli military targets only but refrained from the demanded all-out attack.

That is, however, only a war game, and there is no telling what future developments may bring.

Should Israeli deterrence lose its ability to restrain Israel’s enemies, military planners are confident in Israel’s ability to reinstate it, swiftly and painfully.

Yaakov Lappin, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a journalist for the Jerusalem Post, where he covers military and national security affairs. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.