Fighting in Gaza between the Israeli army and the armed faction of Hamas is a textbook example of modern asymmetric warfare. Whenever fighting ends, it will be studied by strategists and tacticians.
The term “asymmetric warfare” has been used for less than 60 years, but the concept is much older. Originally it denoted a conflict between significantly disparate enemies, often simplistically portraying it as a David vs Goliath situation.
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Asymmetric wars are usually bloodier and more savage than those between regular armies: In a state versus non-state conflict, the latter’s fighters are not recognised as “proper” combatants and thus not considered protected by international conventions and laws of war.
The regular army will use weapons and tactics that might be legally unacceptable in a “proper war”. In a chicken-and-egg situation where it is usually impossible to say which side started with unacceptable practices, the rebels also commit acts that are blatantly illegal, often claiming to do it for not being recognised as equals.
Numerous wars, civil and other, in the last half-century or so, were asymmetric: Vietnam, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Sri Lanka, and Syria. In many cases, the underdogs triumphed, often not by winning decisive battles but by wearing out their enemies, but it does not mean the smaller party always wins.
For the fighting in Gaza, the most relevant cases of asymmetrical warfare are the continued skirmishes of Hezbollah with the Israeli army and the war in Ukraine. Although both Ukraine and Russia are states, there are important elements of asymmetric warfare in Kyiv’s initial response to the aggression.
When it gained independence in 1991, Ukraine inherited an old Soviet Union-style army and it did little to change it. Until Russia attacked it by proxy in 2014 and occupied Crimea. Ukrainian leadership realised that to beat Russia it had to improve on tactics and strategy, so it decided to adopt NATO standards, believing them superior to Soviet-type practices.
But changing a big and inert system takes time (other armies, take note, Israel included) and the leadership realised that the first step in implementing the new doctrines was to allow tactical initiative and independence as the first step. That move, I dare say, saved Ukraine from being defeated in a matter of days, as Moscow almost certainly expected.
Free of interference from higher commands and orders to unify every move, the Ukrainian army, or to be more precise, its highly independent battalion-sized or smaller units, resorted to ingenuity and innovation.
One of the biggest tactical advances was the use of small, cheap commercial drones for innovative tasks. Highly mobile squad-sized units using $200 drones like the ones all children now seem to have, became much faster in action: they would launch a drone over the enemy several hundred metres distant, see its position and adapt the attack or defence almost immediately.
Their Russian opponents were stuck with the old, cumbersome process of asking higher units for reconnaissance assets to be deployed, then having to wait for the results to trickle down the chain of command.
The next step was to arm the hand-held drones. Their big cousins, weighing several hundred kilogrammes and operated by professional pilots, “real” aircraft just without a pilot on board, have been used for more than 20 years. The United States used missile-armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to perpetrate assassinations across the Middle East. Efficient and powerful but expensive, complex and requiring professional pilots and support.
Ukrainian geeks produced “poor man’s pilotless bombers” within days of the Russian attack, arming them with small bombs, weighing just a few kilogrammes, well within the carrying capacity of hand-held drones.
What can such a puny projectile do?
Only Russian artillery commanders know how many gun crews were killed by such bomblets, but the number is significant. Videos of small drones dropping bomblets at soldiers in the field are countless. Russian soldiers are said to fear them so much that many do not dare sleep in their trenches or move across open ground.
After initial success against infantry and artillery, Ukrainians felt emboldened to attack Russian armour. Even the mightiest tanks are scantily armoured on top: they are built to fight against another tank or withstand infantry missiles, both fired from the ground and at ground level, so the front armour is extremely thick but tank topsides have only very thin armour, as they never expected to face major attack from above. Until the advent of drones.
Bomblets dropped on unsuspecting armour directly below may or may not penetrate through a turret roof. If they do, they usually cause the internal ammunition to explode, destroying the tank and the crew. If they hit the engine compartment, they almost inevitably incapacitate the tank. A drone-bomblet system costs a few thousand dollars, a tank a few million.
There are two methods to counter these asymmetric attacks: active protection, jamming the frequencies that the enemy’s drones use, making them useless, or using anti-drone weapons. Much safer to use, cheaper and simpler is passive protection: putting a “roof” on top of a tank.
A simple metal frame is welded onto the tank with a hard-wire mesh. The drone bomb explodes when it hits the wire and cannot damage the tank. A simple, easy and cheap solution, but nevertheless, it took Russians many months to wake up to their losses and start implementing it.
Why such a long description of Ukraine to explain Gaza?
Because we could replace almost every mention of the Ukrainian army with “Hamas” and every “Russia” could read “Israel”. As the Israeli army entered Gaza, they demonstrated the same gargantuan bureaucracy’s slow approach to learning and implementing changes as their Muscovite counterparts.
Since tanks and infantry closed in on Gaza City, Hamas has been releasing videos showing bomblet attacks, with at least some of them demonstrated as efficient. Just a small percentage of mighty Merkava tanks can be seen with “roofs”, indicating that the decisions to implement such simple and cheap solutions still have to be approved and ordered through the chain of command.
Technical and tactical innovation has not (yet) won the war for the Ukrainians, but it slowed their enemy and gave him a very bloody nose. The implementation of similar weapons and methods might not defend Gaza City against massive Israeli attacks, but it will certainly make it longer and bloodier.