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Israel and the evolution of asymmetric warfare

September 27, 2019 at 11:51 am

Palestinians protest during the Great March of Return in Gaza on Friday 13 September 2019 [Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor]

War, wrote the 19th century Prussian General and military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, is an “act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.” This is an enduring maxim of the essence of war to this day, with von Clausewitz’s work still studied by army officers around the world.

It is generally understood among military academics that a distinction should be made between war’s objective nature and its subjective character. Among them is professor of international relations and strategic studies Dr Colin Gray, who stated that, “Nothing essential changes in the nature [of war] in sharp contrast to the character – of strategy and war.”

The character of war, it is argued changes over time and can be impacted by factors such as technological advances, culture and ethics.

Ever since the end of the Cold War and more so post-9/11, the concept of “asymmetric warfare” has become increasingly relevant and prominent in literature on contemporary warfare, especially with the supposed decline of state against state warfare, for the time being, at least.

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In simple terms, Dr Rod Thornton describes it as “violent action undertaken by the ‘have-nots’ against the ‘haves’.” The have-nots are usually non-state actors, explains the Senior Lecturer in Defence Studies, and seek to generate profound effects by capitalising on their relative advantages against vulnerabilities in larger, conventional opponents, essentially national armed forces.

In relation to the attacks in the US on 11 September 2001, Thornton wrote how four aircraft were brought down, along with twin icons of American economic might — contributing to the 3,000 people killed in the world’s most powerful state with the world’s most sophisticated military – by men “armed only with box cutters”. However, recent developments would suggest that things have changed considerably in asymmetric warfare since that fateful day.

The “game-changing” usage of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) — commonly referred to as drones — by Yemen’s Houthis against big defence spender Saudi Arabia and its oil producing facilities, resulting in halving its output and a temporary surge in oil prices, is notable in this respect. One Reuters article quoted an unnamed Saudi security analyst who acknowledged that, “The attack is like September 11th for Saudi Arabia; it is a game changer.”

Supporters of the Houthis participate in a march to mark the 5th anniversary of Houthis' control of the Yemeni capital Sanaa, on 21 September 2019 [Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency]

Supporters of the Houthis participate in a march to mark the 5th anniversary of the Houthis’ control of the Yemeni capital Sanaa, on 21 September 2019 [Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency]

Elsewhere in the Middle East, tensions appear to have flared up again between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, after two Israeli drones crashed into the southern suburbs of Beirut, where the movement has its headquarters. It will be interesting to see how this perceived evolution in asymmetric warfare affects the balance of power between the Israeli army and Hezbollah’s armed wing, Al-Muqawama Al-Islamiyya or the Islamic Resistance, a reference to the struggle against the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon in the early 1980s whence the social movement was founded.

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Hezbollah believes that its armed resistance is legitimate as Israel continues to occupy the Shebaa farms in Lebanon to this day; the area is part of the occupied Golan Heights, most of which belong to Syria. Earlier this year, US President Donald Trump caused uproar with a controversial decision to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian Golan, contravening decades of US policy on the region. In addition to being committed to liberation for Palestinians living under occupation, Hezbollah says that it must continue its armed struggle to reclaim all Lebanese territory.

During the 2006 Lebanon War, Hezbollah used several Iranian made Ababil drones, which were shot down by Israel’s air defence systems. The movement has managed to enter Israeli airspace on numerous occasions since then, despite Israel’s Iron Dome defence system.

Israeli soldiers walk near an Israeli Irone Dome defence system (L) on 25 February, 2016 [AFP/Gil Cohen-Magen/Getty]

Israeli soldiers walk past an Israeli Iron Dome defence system on 25 February, 2016 [AFP/Gil Cohen-Magen/Getty]

Although Hezbollah’s drone usage continues to become more sophisticated, the movement has “led the way in the deployment and use of drones for non-state groups for more than a decade”.

Hezbollah’s first known use of a drone occurred in 2004, when it infiltrated Israeli airspace for reconnaissance purposes, successfully returning to Lebanon before the Israelis, who were caught off guard, could intercept or destroy it. It was alleged to be an Iranian supplied Mirsad-1 UAV.

Iran began manufacturing drones in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, primarily for surveillance and aerial monitoring purposes, although they have grown in sophistication and capability and have been exported over the years to regional allies in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and occupied Gaza. In late 2010, Israeli Brigadier-General Nitzan Nuriel confirmed that both Hezbollah and Hamas were in possession of a number of drones with a range of 300km.

READ: Iran ‘will attack’ countries inciting others against it

Israel is a leading developer of drone technology and has the upper hand, but Iranian made UAVs certainly constitute a “limited threat”.

Hezbollah’s battle experience has also undoubtedly been bolstered by its involvement in the Syrian civil war. This extends to its knowledge in utilising drones, or as one Hezbollah fighter told Middle East Eye in 2017, “We are definitely learning a lot by working with Russians and Iranians in the Syria war and more specifically when it comes to UAVs.” Israel has also turned to drones for the many air strikes which it has been accused of carrying out in Syria.

An image released by the Iranian military in April 2016, showing it's replicated shell of the captured US RQ170 drone

An image released by the Iranian military in April 2016, showing it’s replicated shell of the captured US RQ-170 Sentinel drone

Due to the low-cost, high impact nature of drone attacks in contemporary warfare, the stakes are definitely higher, especially with the increased access of open source satellite imagery since the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Such images can enable the careful, strategic targeting of specific sites.

Writing about a Houthi drone attack earlier this year on Saudi-backed forces, author Aaron Stein mentioned how the Houthis are “using drones in ways reminiscent of precision-guided-munitions.”

For over a decade, Israel and Hezbollah have maintained an uneasy absence of hostilities, although occasional comments by observers always suggest that another war is flaring up. That narrative is being heard more often with the downing of the Israeli drones in Beirut, and the response by Hezbollah, which claimed to have destroyed an Israeli armoured vehicle, killing and wounding the soldiers inside.

READ: US backs Israel’s right to self-defense in Lebanon border tensions

Israel has vowed to use its 2006 “Dahiya doctrine” — named after a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut and which involves “indiscriminate destruction of infrastructure and disproportionate force against communities thought to be supporting Hezbollah across the country” – although there is arguably nothing exactly novel or unprecedented about this. We just have to look at Israel’s military offensives against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which have not, it must be said, deterred the resistance movements there.

Returning to von Clausewitz, who wrote of “friction” in warfare, more widely understood as the “fog of war”, there is still that inherent element of ambiguity and uncertainty, as the Aramco attacks have illustrated. What is certain, though, is that asymmetric warfare has evolved with the democratisation of drones among non-state actors; they are set to be an enduring part of contemporary warfare, especially in the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.