Behind Israel’s 2006 War With Hezbollah

Sept. 1, 2011

For 34 tense days in the summer of 2006, the Israeli Defense Forces conducted a campaign against the Hezbollah organization in response to a surprise cross-border incursion from southern Lebanon into Israel. Hezbollah terrorists targeted and kidnapped two Israeli soldiers for use later as hostages.

The Israeli counteroffensive, code-named Operation Change of Direction, included the most complex and sophisticated air operation in Israel’s history. It also ended up being the most inconclusive performance by the IDF since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948.

As Israel’s counteroffensive progressed, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared his government’s main goals as an unconditional return of the two kidnapped soldiers and a permanent removal of Hezbollah as a fighting force in southern Lebanon. Those extravagant goals remained elusive throughout the nearly five weeks of fighting.

The frustration felt among Israelis as the conflict unfolded intensified because their forces were unable to stem the relentless daily barrage of short-range Katyusha rockets Hezbollah fired into civilian population centers in northern Israel. A cease-fire finally brought an end to the lethal harassment.

The IDF’s Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz largely determined the campaign’s conduct. He had previously commanded the Israeli Air Force (IAF) and was at the time the crisis erupted the first airman ever to occupy the country’s top military position.

Dahiyeh, a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, and Hezbollah stronghold, after Israeli air strikes in August 2006. (AP photo by Hussein Malla)

His chosen response was to rely at first almost entirely on precision standoff attacks instead of a joint offensive that included an early commitment of ground troops. The campaign’s halting progress and indecisive results led many to conclude that the IDF chief, as an airman, had succumbed to a parochial belief that airpower alone could bring about the campaign’s goals.

Furthermore, a predominant and persistent early impression was that Halutz’s initial choice of strategy and the IDF’s disappointing performance attested to a “failure of airpower”—even though the IDF’s counteroffensive included not only around-the-clock strikes by IAF fighters and attack helicopters, but also an early insertion of special operations forces on the ground and thousands of daily rounds of artillery and battlefield rockets fired against targets in southern Lebanon.

What ultimately “failed” in the campaign’s planning and conduct was not Israeli airpower or any other instrument of warfare per se. Rather, the problem was a blend of ill-advised high-level leadership judgments on the nature of the adversary; initial goals unattainable by any mix of military force that the Israeli people and the international community would likely accept; a poor choice of alternatives for pursuing the campaign’s goals; and government mismanagement of public expectations.

As the first day of combat ended, it became clear that Israel’s strategy, for the time being, was to rely solely on precision standoff attacks to coerce Hezbollah’s fiery leader, Hassan Nasrallah, to do its bidding.

The IDF had a refined contingency plan ready for an air-land counteroffensive intended for just such a scenario to expel Hezbollah’s forces from southern Lebanon, but its leadership was not eager to implement it. During the cabinet’s initial deliberations about a serious ground option as an early move, the IDF’s deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Moshe Kaplinsky, warned that a major land invasion could cost the IDF as many as 400 soldiers killed in action.

The near-certainty of a high number of friendly casualties was a major inhibiting factor affecting everyone in the Olmert government. In 18 years of occupation in Lebanon from 1982 to 2000, the IDF sustained more than 600 troop fatalities, nearly as many as during the Six Day War of 1967. No one wanted a replay of the experience. For Israelis, the Lebanon occupation was and remains their country’s Vietnam-like experience. Halutz rejected any idea of the IDF going back into southern Lebanon to recapture and occupy Lebanese territory immediately north of the Israeli border.

The IDF’s ground commanders also opposed a major land counteroffensive because their troops were totally unprepared for combat against a robust opponent such as Hezbollah. Since the start of its preoccupation with the Palestinian intifada in 2000, the IDF had conducted virtually no periodic large-scale training for major land combat. As a result, operational integration between Israel’s ground forces and the IAF had all but ceased to exist, and ground force readiness for any contingency other than containing the Palestinian uprising had been allowed to lapse.

Two JDAMs are on the ramp as an Israeli F-16 advances in preparation for a mission against Hezbollah. (AP photo by Baz Ratner)

Yet, Halutz wanted to teach Hezbollah a lesson its leaders would not soon forget. Ever since the IDF had withdrawn from Lebanon, Hezbollah had continuously tested Israel’s patience through recurrent border provocations and random rocket firings into northern Israel. With the final outrage of the troop abduction, Halutz decided to seek a sea change in the situation.

The Campaign Unfolds

From the first day onward in this second Lebanon war, some 173,000 artillery and rocket rounds were expended. This was more than were used during the much higher-intensity Yom Kippur War of 1973.

During the campaign’s first week, the IAF flew some 2,000 fighter and attack helicopter sorties day and night against a wide variety of Hezbollah targets. Despite tactical and operational-level successes that week, it became increasingly clear that standoff attacks alone would never bring about the Olmert government’s overarching campaign goals.

Not long after, the government’s principals found themselves in an acrimonious debate on the IDF’s inability to stop the relentless Katyusha rockets and the offsetting concern that escalation to major ground fighting would produce an unacceptable number of Israeli casualties. Eventually, calls for a massive IDF ground incursion to drive Hezbollah’s forces out of southern Lebanon became more vocal.

The IDF mobilized three reserve divisions on July 20, in its largest troop call-up in four years. The government’s issuance of the invasion order came only on Aug. 11, however. This left the IDF with three days to make the most of its long-delayed ground push before a cease-fire went into effect.

During the final 72 hours of combat, the IDF tripled its troop numbers in southern Lebanon to a peak of around 30,000. It suffered its heaviest casualties during those last three days of fighting.

Coordination among force elements was uniformly poor throughout this final phase of the conflict. In some cases, embattled tank crews requested immediate close air support but were denied by the IDF’s Northern Command out of concern that CAS would result in a friendly fire incident.

The performance of IDF ground forces throughout this escalated endgame further revealed shortcomings in combat tradecraft. Infantry units were often unable to coordinate with armor, and tank crews proved repeatedly nonproficient in night operations.

From start to finish, IDF ground activity lacked a clearly identifiable pattern. Troops returning from battle reported that Hezbollah’s dug-in defenses and the hardened fighters who manned them proved far more resilient than anticipated. In the end, the IAF provided abundant on-call CAS as required, and many wounded IDF troops were promptly evacuated by UH-60 helicopters under heavy fire.

Strategic Errors

The second Lebanon war’s less than resounding outcome for Israel in no way reflects a failure of the IAF to perform to the fullest extent of its abilities. Rather, it stemmed from a broader deficiency in the strategy of Olmert’s most senior leaders.

There was nothing wrong in principle with the government’s decision to respond to Hezbollah’s cross-border provocation with escalated force. Yet the ramifications of the response were not adequately explored before proceeding.

There was more than one option available to the IDF in the immediate aftermath of the provocation. However, the options were not systematically assessed and rank-ordered by Israel’s civilian leaders and by Halutz. As a result, the IDF initiated its counteroffensive without giving sufficient thought to the campaign’s best and most attainable outcome.

One key deficiency in the government’s chosen response was that it offered no way of negating Hezbollah’s rocket attacks in case Halutz’s attempt at coercion by standoff fire failed. Critics blamed Israeli airpower for not dealing satisfactorily with the rocket conundrum, but the IAF’s leaders never once claimed that the task lay within their technical and operational competence.

Hezbollah continuously attacked Israel even after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Pictured is an Israeli civilian dwelling, destroyed by Hezbollah rockets.

On the contrary, during a joint training exercise conducted by the IDF just a month before the crisis broke, the IAF’s commander, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Shkedy, warned that no one should expect Israel’s air arm to be able to prevent a continuing barrage of short-range Hezbollah rockets from southern Lebanon. “Expect a success of no more than one to three percent in [our] hitting the Katyushas,” Shkedy said.

A related deficiency in the Olmert government’s chosen strategy was that until the campaign’s last days, stemming the short-range rocket fire—by whatever means—was never high on the IDF’s list of priorities. The government’s most senior leaders, civilian and military, entered the campaign having dismissed the rockets as a mere nuisance factor. The fact that continuing rocket fire represented a core strategic threat to northern Israel’s civilian population and economy only became clear once the counteroffensive was well under way.

The decision to start the campaign with a standoff-only counteroffensive was not Halutz’s alone. It had a consensus among Israel’s ground commanders and civilian leaders alike, because it offered the least unacceptable option for an initial response. The IDF’s top planners, Halutz included, knew full well standoff attacks alone would not end Hezbollah’s rocket fire into northern Israel—let alone achieve Olmert’s most extreme goals of getting the two kidnapped soldiers back and putting Hezbollah out of the military business. The government deferred the transition to a major ground assault as long as possible because no one among Israel’s senior leadership wanted a ground war. As a former IDF Chief of Staff (1998-2002) and then-serving cabinet minister, Lt. Gen. (Res.) Shaul Mofaz, later declared: “If you can do it from the air, it is better.”

Another former Chief of Staff (1995-1998) and land combatant, retired Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, remarked while the campaign was under way that he did not see any particular connection between Halutz’s upbringing as an airman and his choice of strategy for conducting the war.

“Any other chief of staff would have made a similar use of force. Aerial capabilities have developed greatly over the past decade, and it would be a mistake not to make the most of them,” he said.

Female members of Hezbollah shoulder Katyusha rocket models at a rally in southern Lebanon in 2007. The rocket attacks against Israeli towns did not stop until a cease-fire halted the 2006 war. (AP photo by Mohammed Zaatari)

Olmert himself voiced the sentiment to IAF personnel at Hatzor Air Base during the campaign’s second week. “In every combat situation, the preference is to act from the air and not on the ground,” he said.

Another source of trouble for the campaign plan as it unfolded was the IDF’s ground forces’ lack of preparation for serious combat against Hezbollah’s well-trained and disciplined fighters; all they had done for the preceding six years had been lower-intensity operations against the Palestinian intifada. Years of focusing on immediate preoccupations gutted the IDF’s ability to conduct a large-scale ground operation against a capable foe.

The greatest failure for Israel, however, was the imbalance both Olmert and Halutz allowed to develop between the extravagant goals initially declared by the prime minister and the incapacity of his government’s response to achieve them. Not only were those initially outsized goals progressively ramped downward as the campaign progressed, they also created early expectations in Israel’s rank and file that had no chance of being fulfilled.

Still, having bought wrongly into a baseless view of what airpower alone could accomplish was not the Olmert government’s main failing in the planning and conduct of Operation Change of Direction. Retired Air Commodore Jasjit Singh of the Indian Air Force later wrote, “The end result was that the two sides were fighting a war at different planes, with different strategies, seeking to exploit asymmetric vulnerabilities in targeting different centers of gravity. Israel targeted Hezbollah’s military assets and infrastructure, while Hezbollah targeted Israel’s civilian community.”

An Israeli soldier protects his ears as a heavy artillery piece fires into southern Lebanon in July 2006. That same day, Hezbollah fired a barrage of rockets into the Israeli city of Haifa, killing eight and wounding seven. (AP photo by Kevin Frayer)

Singh pointed out that Israel’s use of force was inconsistent with the campaign’s aims and “was not tailored to a correct assessment of how the enemy would fight, in spite of excellent intelligence about the specific capabilities of the enemy.” He added that this “makes the traditional debate about airpower versus ‘boots on the ground’ irrelevant to the real issues.”

Fundamentally, the IDF unleashed its counteroffensive without giving adequate thought to the campaign’s likely endgame. Consequently, the government lacked an appropriate plan for ending the war on a high note.

Assessing the Results

Worse yet, both IDF leaders and their civilian masters took an overly unreflective view of what military power of any kind, unaided by an effective strategy, could accomplish in a situation where the government’s initially declared goals were so unrealistic. Neither of these consequential missteps in strategy choice had anything to do with any strengths or limitations of Israel’s air posture.

In combat mission areas, the IAF performed to its usual high standards throughout the 34-day engagement. Indeed, the final report of the Winograd Commission, which had been tasked by Olmert to investigate and assess the IDF’s and government’s performance after the campaign ended, concluded that the IAF had registered “impressive achievements.” The Israeli Air Force was deemed the most effective participant by far in all aspects of Operation Change of Direction.

Those achievements included the IAF’s largely successful pre-emptive attack against Hezbollah’s known and targetable medium-range rockets during the campaign’s opening night. They also included its subsequent highly effective time-sensitive targeting attacks against short-range rocket launchers, and against some medium-range launchers as well, often within minutes after Hezbollah squads had fired their weapons.

The only major disappointment in the IAF’s combat performance was in timely and effective CAS delivery, owing to an absence of joint rehearsals during peacetime training exercises over the preceding six years.

In all, the IAF flew 18,900 combat and combat support sorties and struck some 7,000 approved targets throughout Lebanon at an average rate of 340 sorties a day. Roughly 12,000 of those were fighter sorties in all mission categories, with attack helicopters racking up another 2,500 sorties. More than half of the strikes were flown at night.

Maj. Gen. Eliezer Shkedy (r), IAF’s commander during the 2006 war, briefs Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, IAD Chief of Staff, in a Tel Aviv air operations center. Nearby monitors show radar imagery from a G550 airborne early warning aircraft and full-motion video from UAVs in the theater.

In addition, more than 1,500 surveillance sorties and roughly 1,300 air mobility sorties were flown during the campaign. IAF rotary wing aircrews conducted roughly 120 combat search and rescue missions, nearly half of them inside Hezbollah-infested territory and almost always under heavy fire. Furthermore, 110 combat medical evacuation sorties were flown, 94 entailing emergency rescue operations under fire.

Viewed with the benefit of five years’ hindsight, the IDF’s inconclusive campaign against Hezbollah does not appear now to be the unqualified setback many had initially presumed. Although the second Lebanon war ended in a less than decisive outcome for Israel, Hezbollah’s military infrastructure and combat capability were dealt a severe blow by the IDF’s massive retaliatory attacks.

Israel also gained a much-improved security situation in southern Lebanon, with the formerly volatile border region now more quiescent than it has been in a generation. With the singular exception of three short-range rockets fired into northern Israel from southern Lebanon during the IDF’s subsequent 23-day campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip more than two years later (which Hezbollah quickly denied responsibility for), not a single rocket has been fired from Lebanon into Israel since Operation Change of Direction ended.

This trend is in spite of Hezbollah harboring far more short-range rockets (as many as 50,000) in its since-reconstituted arsenal than ever before. This suggests Hezbollah’s postcampaign motivations and behavior have, at least for the time being, been affected for the better by the significant bloodying the IDF inflicted on it.

Benjamin S. Lambeth is a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a position he assumed in July 2011 following a 36-year career at the RAND Corp. This article is derived from his 2011 RAND Project Air Force study, “Air Operations in Israel’s War Against Hezbollah: Learning From Lebanon and Getting It Right in Gaza.” An electronic copy of the full report can be downloaded at Lambeth’s most recent article for Air Force Magazine was “A Short History of Military Space,” in December 2004.