- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Trapped in the studio for hours at a time, I find myself staring at video images that continually shift between those of Israeli soldiers marching off into the night to engage Hezbollah and innocent Lebanese women and children being pulled from collapsed houses, the victims of errant Israeli airstrikes.

The two images reflect the dilemma that the Israeli military faces in this war. They can fight the enemy on the ground, lose too many soldiers and suffer condemnation at home, or bomb from the air, kill civilians and suffer condemnation from the global community. The American military has been dealing with precisely the same dilemma for more than four years in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At first glance the aerial approach to solving the dilemma seems the lesser of two evils. But the tragic bombing in Qana highlights the increasingly unacceptable human costs of relying on precision killing from the air to achieve what are essentially human objectives inherent in wars such as these.

Plus the aerial solution is very expensive. Since the end of the Gulf War, we have spent almost $1.5 trillion dollars building aircraft, precision bombs, sensors, satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles in an effort to track and kill an ever more elusive and skillful enemy from the air. In spite of the cost, we still look first to solving military challenges with precision killing. It’s in our cultural DNA.

Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and now in Lebanon has taught al Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah how to lessen the killing effects of Western weapons by choosing to fight in urban areas, where they can disperse and hide among the innocents. The race between precision-killing technologies and an elusive enemy is a contest that neither Israel nor the United States can win. How many more examples are needed to prove that an insurgent can find ways to adapt faster than we can develop the technologies to find and kill him from the air without harming innocent civilians?

What about the ground alternative? Haven’t Israeli losses in places like Bint Jbeil (or Marine losses in Fallujah) shown that it’s too expensive in soldier’s lives to confront the enemy on his turf? Haven’t we learned in places like Korea and Vietnam that tactical close fighting on the ground is exactly what the enemy wants? Maybe. But experience in Lebanon seems to have resurrected once again the concern that perhaps we haven’t tried, really tried, to find ways and means to engage an insurgent on the ground without suffering excessive casualties.

Note that most Israeli dead suffered so far come from the Golani Brigade, an elite light infantry unit. In this country almost four out of five dead suffered at the hands of the enemy since World War II have been light infantry, a force that comprises less than 4 percent of our military — to be sure, body armor, night-vision devices and superior supporting fires from aircraft and drones flying overhead have made today’s light infantry more effective and have saved lives.

But these are differences in capabilities that a determined enemy can offset with its familiarity with the terrain and affinity with the local population. The bottom line is as simple as it is startling: Except for better training, morale and leadership, Israeli and American light infantry go into battle today with a cumulative advantage not much better than their grandfathers had in Vietnam or during the Six-Day War.

If we are to win the long war against radical Islamism we must fix this problem. During the past half century we have invested pennies on the defense dollar to keep light infantry alive in battle. That’s why we know far less about the science of ground warfare than we know about the science of air warfare.

There are many areas that desperately need attention if we are to commit to keeping light infantry alive in battle. Just a few: Put precision small arms in the hands of infantry; give them better networks to connect them to the outside world and to each other; provide even better personal protection from small arms; and most importantly, find a technological breakthrough that will conceal light infantry as it rushes across the last 50 meters, the so-called “deadly zone” where most of them die.

Keeping our soldiers alive should be a national — not a service — effort. The Army and Marine Corps are too consumed with fighting today’s battles to take on this task alone. If the nation would commit to an expansive long-term program done in a manner similar to the effort that gave us absolute dominance in the air, we might begin to find ways to destroy Hezbollah and its evil clones without losing too many more precious Israeli and American lives.

Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales is a former commander of the Army War College.

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