Combined Arms Maneuver Operations and LOAC Implementation: A View from the Golan

By Geoffrey S. Corn
Tuesday, May 2, 2017, 12:50 PM

Last week I was among a group of international law scholars and practitioners invited to Israel by the Israeli Defense Forces Military Advocate General for a three-day conference focused on contemporary LOAC issues. The goal was to highlight the complex legal issues that arise in modern armed conflicts, with an emphasis on ground combat operations—what military commanders would call combined arms maneuver—against quasi-conventional and highly capable enemies. To this end, our hosts devoted an entire day of the conference to a “field trip” to Israel’s northern border. As the group peered over Lebanon from one vantage point, and then Syria from another, IDF operational experts provided briefings on the mission of the IDF forces assigned to their Northern Command. As if on cue, the briefing from a high point on the Golan Heights—a former IDF battle position overrun at the beginning of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973—was punctuated by the periodic thud of artillery rounds exchanged between Syrian government and rebel forces in the plains below.

Our briefings summarized how the IDF plans for the numerous operational and legal complexities that will be attendant when the IDF's hand is next forced to employ its full military might against Hizbollah or other hostile groups across the border. For me, however, history was at least as important as visions of the future. My mind kept drifting to the images of IDF and Syrian conventional forces locked in mortal combat almost 45 years ago in the rolling hills and open ranges we drove through. That brief but brutal conflict brought Israel to the brink of catastrophic military defeat and the U.S. and Soviet Union to the brink of World War III. Fortunately, both those outcomes were averted, in large measure by the superior combat leadership, material, and tactical capabilities of the IDF, and the remarkable tenacity and courage of its soldiers and leaders. Those battles that raged in the Golan and Sinai during the Yom Kippur War were, at least until the 1991 Gulf War, considered a definitive example of modern combined arms maneuver warfare. For the U.S. military, the lessons learned from that fight—to include invaluable insights into the capabilities and limits of Soviet doctrine, weapons, and tactics— played an important role in the formulation of what would become the foundational doctrine for confronting a Soviet assault on Western Europe: Airland Battle.

Airland Battle doctrine drove virtually every aspect of U.S. military preparations during the height of the Cold War, and envisioned a battle that would evolve in ways that were quite like the Yom Kippur war, albeit on a much larger scale. The conflict would begin with a massive multi-front Soviet assault on Western Europe. Like the IDF in the Golan, NATO forward defensive units would have to absorb the initial blows. And like the IDF, they too would be outnumbered, compelled to engage in defensive operations with the objective of slowing the enemy onslaught. While these forces stalled the “first and second echelons” of the enemy offensive, air and missile assets would engage in deep strikes to attrit enemy follow on forces. The combined arms close and deep battle would buy critical time, enabling the initial defenses to hold long enough so that reinforcements could flow into the theater from the U.S., Canada, and from the mobilization efforts of other NATO allies. And, like the IDF in 1973, this would ultimately enable a transition from defense to offense—what U.S. doctrine today defines as “decisive” operations—with NATO forces defeating the enemy in depth.

The world is indeed fortunate that the effectiveness of this doctrine was never put the test in Europe (although it was the foundation for the remarkable success of coalition forces in the first Gulf War). But driving through the Golan Heights serves as a reminder that maneuver warfare and combined arms combat operations are truly nothing like the counter-insurgency (COIN) operations. During COIN operations, the pace of combat affords commanders an opportunity for deliberative attack judgments with attack decisions vetted at multiple command levels. Furthermore, both the pace of operations and the nature of the enemy frequently necessitate “individualized” attack decisions, where combat leaders focus on individual conduct as a basis for those decisions. In contrast, combined arms maneuver operations are inherently faster paced, more chaotic, more intensive. For the IDF, the increasing capability of their anticipated enemies also create a greater urgency for decisive action utilizing combined arms maneuver against threats that pose a real and direct risk to the Israeli homeland and its population. 

During the visit, we learned that the capabilities of non-state armed groups are steadily improving, increasing the risk that the IDF will have no choice but to engage in close-quarters ground combat operations. These operations involve speed, lethality, and full-spectrum combat dominance. The use of combined arms maneuver will ideally produce a shock effect on the enemy, enabling IDF forces to seize the initiative and set the tempo of the battle. But scope and intensity of such operations will almost certainly produce a shock effect on the wider public. And, while the context of our visit was Northern Israel, it is clear that the IDF is not alone in anticipating the need to engage in such operations. The U.S. and other closely allied armed forces have increased the emphasis on “decisive action” combined arms operations. This is a clear recognition that the enemies they expect to confront in the immediate future will not be defined by asymmetry in capability, but will instead be able to create something much more akin to peer to peer combat environments, even if limited in time and space.

The IDF MAG seems cognizant of this, and also how difficult it will be to preserve a perception of legitimacy if the legal assessment of their operations is distorted by a false expectation of COIN-type operations. This risk is exacerbated by the nature of the “hybrid” enemy they and other armed forces must anticipate confronting. These enemies will compel resort to brutal and destructive ground combat, purposefully drawing the combat into the urban terrain to exploit his proximity to civilians in order to reap tactical and strategic gain. In my view, the pervasive focus on COIN related LOAC issues, with a significant emphasis on individualized attack judgments and deliberative attack decisions, does create a risk of distorting the legal assessment of combined arms maneuver operations; a risk that transcends the IDF and extends to the U.S. and other armed forces. It is therefore worth thinking about the defining characteristics of such operations.

There are countless operational differences between combined arms maneuver and COIN. One of the most significant is how the concept of “mission command” will influence tactical and operational execution. During the execution of combined arms maneuver, attack judgments are rarely conceptualized as isolated from the broader operational and tactical objectives, nor are they subjected to substantial deliberative process. Instead, maneuver operations are executed pursuant to a concept known as “mission command”, which emphasizes the decentralized nature of combat decision-making and prioritizes the exercise of initiative by battlefield commanders to exploit opportunities in a rapidly changing and unpredictable tactical and operational environment. Army Doctrinal Publication 6-0 explains this bedrock concept of effective maneuver operations:

The mission command philosophy of command is one of the foundations of unified land operations. Mission command is the exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of unified land operations. The mission command philosophy effectively accounts for the nature of military operations. Throughout operations, unexpected opportunities and threats rapidly present themselves. Operations require responsibility and decision-making at the point of action. Through mission command, commanders initiate and integrate all military functions and actions toward a common goal—mission accomplishment.

The success of the IDF in on the Golan in 1973, like the success the U.S. military expected would flow from Airland Battle doctrine, was in large measure the result of mission command. Junior combat leaders were entrusted with broad authority to exercise initiative and exploit opportunities within the very broad mission command guidance provide by the commander’s intent. The pace and intensity of maneuver warfare requires this entrustment of responsibility, as small unit combat leaders will rarely have the opportunity to vet attack decisions with higher headquarters or seek legal advice to guide their decisions. In fact, the pervasive role of JAGs in COIN operational decision-making creates a misleading expectation of how LOAC will be implemented during combined arms maneuver. While it is common to highlight how U.S. and other militaries, including the IDF, have “pushed” military legal advisers “down” to lower level of commands, the reality is that most maneuver commanders will operate at echelons far below those levels. Indeed, a company and even battalion commander might be perplexed at the characterization of a “push down” of the JAG to brigade level; for those commanders, the brigade is “up”, and for many of them, way up. But it will be those commanders, and their subordinate platoon, squad, and team leaders that will provide decisive leadership in the employment of combat power to execute their commander’s intent.

The contrast between the history of conflict in the Golan and the threats the IDF faces today also highlighted another important consideration. The battles that raged in the Golan during the Yom Kippur War were examples of combined arms maneuver. However, enemies such as Hezbollah, ISIS, and other hybrid forces IDF and U.S. commanders plan to confront today add new types of complexity to effective execution of “decisive” operations. This complexity is inextricably linked to LOAC compliance—complexity that flows from confronting enemies who deliberately seeks to exploit densely populated areas to maximum effect by employing tactics designed to exacerbate civilian risk. These enemies often view the tactical fight as a supporting effort to a broader international information campaign, able to claim victory not because it defeats its enemy in battle, but because it exploits the inevitable civilian suffering caused by its own tactics. This was abundantly clear as we sat on the Lebanon border, learning about Hizbollah's massive Iranian facilitated increase in missile, artillery, and mortar capability, while peering out over the civilian villages and homes that Hizbollah uses to shield its military assets, all just mere meters away from U.N. peacekeeping posts. It is therefore almost self-evident why the IDF and the U.S. armed forces devote increasing effort to preparing for such operations, to include preparing to deal with the immense LOAC challenges they will generate.

If and when the IDF, U.S., or other closely allied armed forces are called upon to conduct combined arms maneuver against such increasingly capable enemies, “mission command” will define how those operations are conceived and executed. The highly capable and lethal enemies will compel a type of combat that will seem more brutal, more chaotic, more intense, and more destructive than what those accustomed to COIN have come to expect. Junior leaders will lead their forces against a constantly adapting enemy who utilizes tactics and resources to blunt the effect of superior firepower supported by advanced intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance capabilities (Hamas’ tactic of going “underground” (analyzed in a 2014 report available here) is an example of how such tactics seek to nullify the advantages of more advanced opponents). Those of us who contemplate legal implementation in such conflicts ought to expect them to be much “dumber” than they are “smart”, because the enemy indeed gets a vote.

The importance of LOAC compliance is, of course, in no way diminished in the context of combined arms maneuver operations; far from it. The speed, intensity, and inevitable risk to civilians (on top of the danger posed to the enemies' own civilian population due to their tactics) inherent in such operations require unquestioned commitment to the law. But the MAG conference highlighted an important message: a need to reorient our thinking about LOAC implementation to the context of combined arms maneuver operations. These operations will be defined by speed, lethality, and the synchronized employment of overwhelming combat power. Commanders will seek to use this combat power to seize and maintain operational and tactical initiative by setting the tempo of the battle, and by employing all available resources to disable or destroy enemy capabilities rapidly and decisively. In my view, it is essential that this operational context is understood by those who will provide both legal advice and legal critique. I also believe this involves increasing the emphasis on implementation measures related to “dynamic” attack decisions—decisions made by operational commanders with limited to no time or opportunity for vetting; most notably precautionary measures. These measures, which include effective training and integration of targeting limitations in the mission command orders, will play a decisive role in effective LOAC implementation and civilian risk mitigation during combined arms maneuver operations, especially in densely populated areas (for thoughts on the importance of precautions, see Peter Margulies’ newly posted work here, and my previously published articles here and here). In these conflicts, it will be commanders and their subordinate small unit leaders that will be decisive in ensuring LOAC implementation and compliance, with a much less dominant role for the JAGs/MAGs engaged in the deliberate targeting process.

Ultimately, what this conference brought home for me is that our collective expectations of how the law intersects with military operations must be aligned with a genuine understanding of the true nature of those operations. Legal expertise can only be enhanced by such contextual understanding. Nearly two decades of experience with COIN has provided great insights into those operations, but may also be driving a flawed expectation that future operations will fall into a similar mold. They almost certainly will not, but will instead challenge ground combat commanders in ways similar to conflicts of the past like those fought by the IDF in 1973, and in ways that we might not even be able to imagine. But mission accomplishment will and should remain a constant for these commanders, who must understand that both the reality and perception of LOAC compliance is an essential aspect of their mission. For them, it is essential that the LOAC be understood as an essential component of the tactical and technical competence needed to execute their battle-tasks to achieve mission success in these chaotic battle-spaces. However, it is equally essential that those of us with a deep commitment to the core LOAC balance between military necessity and interests of humanity work to ensure our own understanding not only of the law, but also of the challenges these type of operations will create.