Beyond Tanks

By Alex Joffe
Monday, March 14, 2011

Military technology continues its long, bloody march into the future. But technologies are only as powerful as the ideas and moralities behind them.

Israel in the past has fought large-scale conventional wars in which infantry and tanks have squared off. It has also faced down terrorists who cross borders to blow up buses or hide themselves among civilians. The next wave is called hybrid warfare, blending (in the words of the military theorist Frank Hoffman) "the lethality of state conflict with the fanatical and protracted fervor of irregular warfare." Forces intermingle and engagements bleed into one another, while TV cameras, bloggers, and human-rights activists stand watching and waiting for states—the element they can identify—to act.

The Israeli military was bloodied in the 2006 war against Hizballah, when irregular forces employed strong defenses in and around inhabited areas, together with powerful battlefield weapons like anti-tank missiles that accounted for 40 percent of Israeli combat casualties and missiles launched deep into Israel itself with the aim of killing and terrorizing civilians. When air attack failed to wipe out Hizballah missile installations, Israeli ground troops were called in; poorly trained and equipped, they seized and lost the same ground repeatedly. Although Israel won the war in quantitative terms, the perception was otherwise, as media-savvy Hizballah spokesmen took journalists to see only what they wanted them to see.

In the next war, Israeli military planners expect their country to be bombarded by thousands of short- and long-range missiles, Hizballah units to penetrate deep into northern Israel, and some Israeli Arab communities to give them shelter and to participate in terror. Just as enemy tactics will be different, so, thanks to Israeli technology and preparedness, will be the response. In late February, for example, Israel's new "Trophy" system was put to the test on the Gaza border. A missile fired at a tank was detected by the tank's radar system, and a computer fired off a spray of smaller projectiles that stopped the attack.

In the meantime, however, the legal and moral approach to war remains encrusted in outmoded ideas and institutions. Conventional wars have the marginal advantage of basic rules, encoded however imperfectly in the Geneva Conventions whose primary elements date back to the immediate aftermath of World War II. These now tie the hands of states that take them seriously. What happens when one side makes no distinction between combatants and civilians, when its fighters slip back and forth among roles in order to achieve cover and entice attacks that will kill its own civilians and thus arouse the horror and pity of credulous humanitarians, and when ammunition dumps are placed inside homes and schools to the same end? Israel has faced some of these issues before, most recently in Gaza, as has the U.S. in Iraq and now Afghanistan. For its troubles, Israel was rewarded with the Goldstone report from the United Nations, predisposed to examine only the accusations of Hamas and to find them justified.   

Modern state armies like those of Israel and the United States place a premium on protecting their own forces as well as civilians and non-combatants on the other side. Their rules of engagement are complex and restrictive, allowing for lethal force only under defined circumstances. Operational decisions are pre-processed through phalanxes of lawyers, sometimes thousands of miles away. But since the legal and moral cover this provides has been insufficient to prevent all mistakes, the human-rights community has been encouraged to bring lawsuit after lawsuit demanding perfection. By contrast, Hizballah and the Taliban, by virtue of their belief that they answer to higher authority, operate under no such legal strictures. Human Rights Watch can issue all the reports it likes.

Is there a technological fix? Systems like Trophy, designed to protect tank crews, have the larger purpose of protecting Western combatants from having to play by the rules of hybrid warfare, which are set by the utterly ruthless. The West is frequently charged with favoring technology over humanity, but in truth the opposite is the case. Technology has a dual moral purpose: saving warriors' lives, and allowing them to fight with greater discretion. The alternative is the Russian method so well displayed in Chechnya, where a modern army laid waste to both cities and countryside, slaughtering combatants and civilians alike.

But technology cannot yet fight house to house, or clearly distinguish a hostage-taker from a hostage. Only trained soldiers can do that, and some of them will die in the process of making such distinctions. Tanks themselves were first introduced during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, where on the first day more than 19,000 British soldiers had been killed. And even when the tanks appeared a few weeks later, they only enabled the British to advance a total of 3.2 kilometers, and the war went on for another two years.

In brief, neither technology nor morality is sufficient to transcend the violent essence of warfare. Nor have decades of lawyers and philosophers fared any better; to the contrary, much too often, their work appears to have empowered the violent and the immoral. Until something fundamental changes, new technologies in the hands of the humane must be cautiously celebrated. But even so armed, Israel faces the prospect of a next war that promises to be singularly costly.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.  Read his feature on "the politics of Purim" here.

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