The pre-emptive Hamas assault on Israel has a bitter lesson for India

With the LoC and now even LAC active around the year conventional artillery might be supplemented with Hamas-type rockets, both by China and Pakistan, Pakistan in particular. India's vital military establishments and civilian targets are right across the LoC and vulnerable to such strikes. A few jihadis from Pakistan have already threatened India with a similar strike.

LoC with Pakistan

Terrorism has assumed an entirely new dimension hitherto unseen, possibly unthinkable.  Hamas's full-scale vicious attack on Israel on 7th October 2023 shocked, surprised, and virtually mesmerized, the entire world. ‘How could this happen’ was and remains the most unanswered question!

Terrorism, as it was known till 6th October, 2023 was related to events viz 9/11 in USA and 26/11 in India. Although terrorists and security forces remain regularly involved in shooting all over the globe most such attacks involve a few terrorists striking targets of their choice, both military and civilian. No military strategist anywhere in the world would have conceived what a non-state actor Hamas has done to a nation-state having a formidable military. Hamas’s ability to sustain the war for 49 days with primitive weapons speaks volumes of their outstanding planning and understanding of the brutal effect of a super-saturated strike.

Exceptional planning and flawless execution

Despite Hamas being declared a terrorist outfit, their strategic wisdom, operational planning, unbelievable secrecy and brutal concentration of weapons fired over a wide area covering nearly the entire length and breadth of Israel in a few minutes to launch a full-scale attack on Israel, rated among the top military powers in the world, is admirable.

Their choice of cheap unguided rockets having varied ranges as the main, in fact only weapon, brought Israel to its knees in the opening hours of the war. While the exact specifications of warheads, launchers, weight etc of Hamas rockets are not known, launching thousands of rockets within a few hours and swamping Israel’s famed Iron Dome Ballistic Missile Defence System was an outstanding example of pre-emptive strike with primitive weapons without using elements of the conventional military.

The Hamas leadership has demonstrated exemplary vision in planning the entire strategy. The chosen date 6th October was also of extreme significance - the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. As of date, no one knows the exact number of rockets manufactured by Hamas over, perhaps, a few years. Storing rockets, distributing them to dozens, maybe hundreds of separate locations along with launchers in absolute secrecy deserves unreserved acknowledgement of exceptional planning and flawless execution. Whether rockets were manufactured at a single location and distributed or is there multiple production facilities may never be known. Were these rockets manufactured in Gaza or were the rockets imported from some other nation is also yet to be ascertained? The exact number of rockets launched between 7th October and 24th November (49 days) may not be known even to Hamas. However, in the first 49 days, thousands of rockets have already been fired. It would be a fair guess that Hamas still has thousands of rockets in their tunnels.

Unbelievable secrecy of operation

To maintain utmost secrecy Hamas must have decided on adopting the strategy of constructing an operationally viable tunnel network by following the North Vietnamese strategy as well as the famous animal Bandicoot. Also, Hamas did not use any electronic communication. Only person-to-person contact through a well-oiled human chain could have ensured such a level of unbelievable secrecy. 

The area of the Gaza Strip is around 500 sq km. If information from open sources is to be believed, Hamas has built a network of around 500-550 km. This implies that every sq km of Gaza has a one km long tunnel underneath. Without a doubt, these tunnels would be interconnected from north to south of the Gaza Strip. Such a mammoth task might have taken years, maybe a decade.

A slow and brutal ground war

The outcome of the war is obvious. Israel will win sooner than later. Even Hamas's leadership must have concluded that before launching the first rocket. But the cost of victory for Israel will be huge. A non-state actor has matched a formidable military power blow for blow. Hamas's attack has demolished the invincible Israel image permanently.

Israel’s unachievable national/military aim of destroying Hamas is indicative of its emotional bankruptcy and professional paralysis. Terrorism can only be contained; it cannot be eliminated. The first phase of the hostage exchange ended on 30th November. Even if Hamas were to release all hostages, Israel is unlikely to maintain a cease-fire because the tunnel network can only be destroyed by slow and brutal ground war, which may extend from a few days/weeks or months. Israel might succeed in killing/capturing Hamas members still hiding in tunnels but there will be many thousands in West Bank or neighbouring countries. A stable Israel, as was envisioned after the Camp David and Abraham Accord and improving relations with the Arab world will remain a mirage.

Hamas's leadership has given a lesson to militaries of the world on training thousands of personnel in absolute secrecy for the execution of such a mammoth strike plan and executing it successfully with flawless precision. The irreplaceable need for consistent and continuous HUMINT (human intelligence) could not have been stated in a better manner. Lack of effective HUMINT and overreliance on ELINT (electronic intelligence) was the sole reason for Israel suffering such humiliation at the hands of a non-state actor.

Unguided vs guided missiles/rockets

.A successful attack on Israel by using unguided rockets in large numbers has brought out the effectiveness of a supposedly primitive weapon. Guided cruise missiles/SSMs appeared in battle areas in large numbers during the Op Desert Storm, which commenced on 17th January 1991. A 37-nation multinational force exhausted its entire stock of cruise missiles in the first 42 days of the war.  Each cruise missile currently possessed by militaries of the world costs millions of US dollars each and carries a few hundred kg warheads. GPS ‘un’ reliability/wrong target coordinates have made numerous million-dollar weapons waste material in quite a few cases. For the cost of each guided cruise missile, thousands of unguided rockets with launchers can be produced. Thousands of unguided rockets will play more havoc than guided cruise missiles. Guided cruise missiles with conventional warheads are the most expensive single-use weapons. 

While a nation can possess and launch thousands of unguided rockets it can only possess, maybe a few hundred guided surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs). Economic considerations, ease of manufacture, storage and primitive technical know-how required to produce thousands of cheap unguided rockets fare favourably as compared to sophisticated SSMs.

No known Ballistic Missile Defence Systems (BMDS) can or will be able to neutralize saturated rocket attacks as demonstrated by Hamas. Ironically, a primitive rocket costing maybe a few thousand dollars can only be destroyed by a BMDS missile costing a few lakh dollars. One BMDS missile can destroy only one rocket. All BMDS are one of the most expensive but extremely ineffective weapons.

Can it happen to India? 

We need to consider this aspect without delay. Yes, it can and possibly will. With the LoC (Line of Control) and now even LAC (Line of Actual Control) active around the year conventional artillery might be supplemented with Hamas-type rockets, both by China and Pakistan, Pakistan in particular. India's vital military establishments and civilian targets are right across the LoC and vulnerable to such strikes. A few jihadis from Pakistan have already threatened India with a similar strike.

There has been a lot of noise to create a rocket force along the same lines as Russia and China. We would be falling into a trap, if we decide to invest in guided rocket force. It is a prohibitively expensive economic option. While this issue may also be examined in the meantime, should we not adopt the brilliant Hamas strategy, both on LoC and LAC? Hamas is a terrorist organization but that does not mean that a professional military cannot adopt their operationally proven strategy. India can manufacture lakhs of such rockets at a fraction of the cost.

To counter China in the Ladakh region we have nearly decided to produce tanks, photos of a prototype 37-ton tank have already appeared. When this proposal was being examined during the tenure of the first CDS, I spent considerable time reading Maj Gen JFC Fuller’s volumes on the North African campaign. The brilliant soldier and strategist has written a wonderful account of how, where and when armoured can and should be used. Undulating terrain and mountains are unsuitable for the use of armour. Although not in public, China is cursing itself for creating unusable airfields in TAR. Due to extreme environmental conditions and high altitude no aircraft, fighters and helicopters in particular, can operate from these airfields, whose elevation is more than 3 km. 

Are we trying to commit similar hara-kiri by planning to create tank formations and take them on a one-way journey to Ladakh from factories? Will we be able to create the logistic infrastructure needed for moving and maintaining an armoured division at that altitude? Will a combination of shoulder-launched anti-tank missiles, air power and Hamas strategy not be able to neutralize the advancing Chinese armour? We must not forget that unguided T-10 rockets launched by IAF hunters created the famous tank graveyard at Longewala in 1971. Can we not explore the same option with ground-based unguided rockets?

Cheap but effective option

The outcome of the Hamas-Israel war is of lesser interest to me than acknowledging the outstanding Hamas plan to use short-range unguided rockets for super-saturated strikes for annihilating civilian and military targets close to LoC and LAC.

It is an irony of sorts that a terrorist non-state actor Hamas has proven my theory of SUPER SATURATED STRIKE propagated more than 40 years ago while undergoing a course at Defence Services Staff College, Wellington in 1981. I failed to convince my colleagues in uniform and it was thrown out of the window. My theory of SUPER SATURATED STRIKE was in the context of firstly, neutralizing an aircraft carrier; and, secondly, making any BMD system ineffective. Its applicability in land warfare is equally applicable as has been proven beyond any doubt by Hamas.

I strongly recommend that India consider this cheap but effective option instead of wasting our time and money on half-baked DRDO projects for producing multi-million dollar SSMs.

(The author is a former Director, India's Ministry of Defence. Views are personal.)

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