Sunday, May 8, 2011

Royal Marines in Misrata? The italian experience in Lebanon

As promised, here i will provide a summary of the "Operation Leonte", the UN-mandated intervention of multinational forces of interposition in Lebanon to end the bloody 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war. It is possibly the operation that more closely resembles the concept behind the plan of having Royal Marines eventually landing in Misrata to finally secure the town, under siege from over two months. 

The war in Lebanon

12 July 2006, 9 in the morning. Hezbollah forces fire rockets over the Israeli towns of Zarit and Sholomi, hitting villages and IDF positions alike. It turns out to be, however, merely a diversion, as in the same hours an attack is launched across the border, against two Israeli Humvees on patrol. Of the seven men on board, 3 are killed, 2 wounded and 2 kidnapped. Ehud Goldwasser e Eldad Regev were brought into Lebanon, and only in 2008 it was possible to know that they were both killed soon after the attack.

A first Israeli attempt to save the two soldiers fails: a further 5 men are killed and a tank is destroyed in Lebanon territory during the raid.  By the evening, the situation is already degenerated: prime minister Ehud Olmert calls the kidnapping of the two soldiers an act of war of Lebanon, as Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government. The immediate call for the release of the two men goes unanswered, and Israel launches immediately the operation “Fair Retribution”.

On 13 July, war is already ongoing, with the air elements of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) launches powerful strategic strikes deep into Lebanon, hitting also civilian infrastructure, from roads to bridges to the motorway Beirut-Damasco and the airport of Beirut, causing its closure. The operation evolves with a naval blockade that puts Lebanon under siege.

On 14 July, the Israeli corvette Saar-5 Hanit is hit and damaged by a C-802 cruise missile. Four sailors are killed, and the ship limps back to port. The air attacks are intensified in answer.

On 23 July, the IDF launches the land attack into Lebanon. The attack is centered on the village of Maroun al-Ras, and two days later they reach Bint Jbeil, where the most ferocious fighting happens, destined to continue for the whole of the 34-days conflict. Israel finds a nasty surprise in the area, that it had once patrolled, until its withdrawal back in 2000. For six years, from 2000 to 2006, Hezbollah has been turning the border area in a massive trap. Many houses have been turned into fortified, highly-hardened strongpoints, connected by underground tunnels and shelters. True bunkers are built underground, and equipped to act as true anti-tank firing positions organized to cover the whole area, and provide adequate fire support to cover the raids of groups of heavily armed insurgents, normally 7 or 8 in each group, that ambushed the Israeli forces exploiting the underground passages. Each road has been “treated” with IEDs and mines, from simple and common IEDs made with 155 mm artillery shells to sophisticated, massive explosive traps with Infra-Red fuzes. Syria did provide radar early warning information about Israeli air movements for the whole of the war, and Hezbollah communications were accurately prepared with underground cables, making it impossible for the Electronic War elements of the IDF to break the Command and Control system of the militia. Hezbollah, on the other hand, was able to listen to radio communications of the Israeli forces thanks to equipment supplied by Iran. Hezbollah has been able to store significant amounts of advanced weapons, from the shoulder-launched RPG-29 Vampire to the Kornet anti-tank missile.

For the IDF, it is a nightmare, and the losses are surprisingly high. Over 100 armoured vehicles are damaged or destroyed, and 52 of these are Merkava tanks. In the 45% of the hits against Merkava tanks, there’s been some degree of penetration. In 11 cases there’s been no losses in the crews, but in 10 more hits a total of 23 members of the IDF were killed. 13 more victims inside armoured vehicles were caused by mines and IEDs exploding under the belly of the vehicles. Only 5 of the 52 damaged tanks were written off entirely: 2 Merkava MKII, one MKIII, but also two of the latest, vaunted Merkava IV. In total, 18 Merkava IV were damaged. 

The land campaign continues, and on 8 August the government of Israel orders the army to continue pushing forwards, up to the Litani river, occupying all of Southern Lebanon, with the operation “Change of Direction”     

By 11 August, however, the international pressure grows too heavy: the UN Security Council unanimously approves the resolution 1701 for the Cease Fire. On 12 August, Lebanon and Hezbollah agree to cease fire, and Israel agrees the successive day, with the cease fire starting at 8 in the morning of august 14, 2006. During the war, Hezbollah has pounded Israel with a rain of rockets: between 3970 and 4228. Many more are destroyed before launch by the IDF, which use drones and loitering ammunitions to find and hit the rocket batteries as soon as they are taken out of their hiding places. Hezbollah had, according to estimates, over 13.000 rockets at the start of the conflict, from the old 107 and 122 mm Artillery rockets (30 kg of warhead, 30 km range) to the Zelzal-2, derived from the Russian Frog-7 and with 200 km of range. The IDF air force flew over 15.700 sorties, of which 10.000 were strike ones, 1200 transport flights, 1300 reconnaissance missions, 2000 sorties of attack and utility helicopters and 1200 SAR helicopter sorties. The Navy fired over 2500 shells over the coast, and also the army did employ nearly its total force, included many reservists. 120 Israeli soldiers die in the war, 400 more are wounded, and 43 civilians die because of the rockets, against 500 to 600 Hezbollah militia, 34 lebanese officers and policemen and over 1000 civilians.

The UN-mandated interposition force

26 July sees a multinational conference in Rome, where discussion gets underway for the plans of a UN force to send in Lebanon for a peacekeeping mission. The conference ratifies the plan for: 

1)      UN interposition force to be deployed in Lebanon
2)      Humanitarian mission to start immediately
3)      Enduring cease-fire between the two parts.     

The UN already had a force of interposition in Lebanon, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, which was created by the United Nations, with the adoption of Security Council Resolution 425 and 426 on 19 March 1978, to confirm Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon which Israel had invaded five days prior, restore international peace and security, and help the Government of Lebanon restore its effective authority in the area. UNIFIL was essentially an humanitarian mission, and the 2006 resolution instead put the basis for UNIFIL 2, a more “military” intervention with different rules of engagement.

Italy offered around 2500 men for UNIFIL 2, and was followed by France (who also got the command of the operation) and Spain, plus other countries later on, European and non European. In total, the new UNIFIL force tops 15.000 men at its maximum. The UNIFIL workis dangerous: in multiple “incidents”, 292 fatalities were registered from 1978 to 2010: 276 troops, two military observers, eight international civilian staff, and six local staff.
The border clash on August 3, 2010 is a good example of the risks of the mission, and the limits of the UN force in effectively enforcing the cease fire.

On 29 August 2006, after Emergency Planning has been completed, from Brindisi sets sail the Italian Task Force: on the ships, 2000 men.

Operation Leonte

The Italian Task Force 425, Joint Amphibious Landing Task Force, is made up by the navy’s Flagship, aircraft carrier Garibaldi, with 4 AV8B Harrier, 3 SH-3D Sea King (Italian counterpart of the Sea King HC4, we can say) and 3 AB-212 helicopters in sea control variant, with radar and FLIRs. All three LPDs of the fleet are included in the force: San Marco, San Giusto and San Giorgio, plus a civilian Ro-Ro ship taken up for use as transport for the heavy vehicles and engineering equipment. Escorting the task force is the corvette Fenice, chosen because more suited to operations close to the shore. 

Flight operations on the deck of the carrier Garibaldi during operation Leonte

The San Giorgio embarks two more Sea King helicopters and two Combat-Support AB-212 helos with door mounted machine guns and rocket pods. San Marco carries other two Sea Kings and an AB-212 and San Giusto a further one airframe of each type. The current Italian LPDs aren’t big ships, and carry the vehicles to disembark on their flight deck, less than optimal arrangement as anyone can observe. A couple of Marittime Patrol Helicopter AW101 Merlins will reach the task force in a second time. 

The LPD San Giusto. San Giusto, San Giorgio and San Marco are technically part of the same class, but San Marco has a refined design.
The aircraft carrier Garibaldi, carrying the Joint HQ for the operation, dashes ahead of the task force, and at an average 25 knots speed reaches Lebanon in just two days. 1 September 2006, admiral De Giorgi, commander of the task force, can be carried in Beirut by a Sea King helicopter, which lands in a pad cleared in the damaged port of the town as the airport is still knocked out after the Israeli strikes. In Beirut, the admiral meets the Italian ambassador and the commander Alain Pellegrini, head of the already on-site UNIFIL force. Plans are refined for the entrance in theater of the Italian Task Force, around 1000 men and women with their vehicles, building on the reports of members of the Landing Force which have already scouted for suitable landing zones between 21 and 23 august, and have had meetings and planning sessions with the Lebanese authorities.  

The LPD San Marco on route for Operation Leonte. Note the vehicles carried on the deck and the evident differences in the design of the ship compared to the two earlier "Santi" vessels of the same class. The italian navy is planning for a new class of two LHDs of around 20.000 tons each to replace these three small and relatively limited vessels.
Entering Lebanon

Why an amphibious operation? For a list of good reasons. The first option abandoned is bringing the force in by air: the airports are closed, damaged and unsuitable, and the Italian air force has in the C130J its biggest cargo aircraft. Bringing in a force of 1000 men and vehicles by air is impossible, and arguably only the USAF has the strategic equipment needed to launch an operation on such scale. Entering from Israel and moving into the country by road is impossible, and entering from the North, coming from Syria, is equally unsuitable an option. The sea is the only way in. But where to land? Beirut has an excellent port, which is not so damaged to be unable to take the disembarking forces, but the problem is the state of the roads leading out of town: Israel air strikes have destroyed most of the bridges and cut all the roads to the south, where UNIFIL 2 must deploy. Once landed in Beirut, Italian forces would have to drive south past the Litani river, but would have to rebuild all the roads and bridges before them in order to do so. It would take too much time, and time is not on the UN side, as the situation at the border is still white hot and the interposition force must arrive as soon as possible. 

A MEN landing craft heads towards the shore with two VCC "Camillino" vehicles, an italian variant of the immortal M113.
The French chose Beirut despite these considerations, and suffered the price of the decision: for nearly a month, the French force will be stuck because of the devastated roads. Italian forces chose to mount an amphibious landing in the area of Tyro, with the aim of driving inland on Jabal Maroun, historical stronghold of Hezbollah, where the regular Lebanese army and UNIFIL forces have never dared venturing.
It is an amphibious landing, but not an operation of Forcible Entry: use of weapons is destined to self defence only, and while all the care is used in the operation, the plan is made to land the forces causing the less possible damage to the already war-torn country.

The litoral area south of Tyro is chosen, but in its north half it is a tourist area, with beaches and hotels that the Task Force has to respect, while the south area is protected because a natural oasis for the sea turtles. The LZ, “Green Beach”, is a small corridor between these two areas. An helicopter landing zone is identified at short distance, and named Albatross. The port of Tyro is unsuitable because of works undergoing into it, so the alternative LZ is the small port of Naqoura, 10 km south and area of an UNIFIL command.

The Lagunari soldiers are ashore with their AAV7A1 amphibious vehicles.

1 September 2006 is the first time for the Forza di Proiezione dal Mare (Sea-projected Force) of the Italian armed forces. The Task Force includes a detachment of Military Police (Carabinieri, “Tuscania” regiment), the amphibious regiment “San Marco”, a Special Forces detachment, Maneuver Support Battalion “Grado” and logistic support battalion “Golametto”, a company of soldiers from the regiment “Lagunari Serenissima” [NOTE: Italy lines two amphibious infantry regiments. One is the Navy’s own “San Marco”, while the “Lagunari Serenissima” is the Army’s amphibious force], elements of the 7° NBC Regiment and a company of the 3° Regiment Engineers with EOD personnel. Preparation lasts the whole day, and early in the morning of 2 September the divers of the RECON force of the San Marco regiment ride to the shore in RHIBs, to secure the beach and ensure that the landing area does not poses risks to the integrity of the landing crafts. They take photos of the area, and send them back to the ships via UHF data-radios. The backwash is very strong, and causes some hesitations: the largest Italian landing craft, the MEN (MTM 217, a 18,50 meters long landing craft with a capacity of 80 troops or 30 tons) which have to bring ashore the VCC armoured vehicle (Italian variant of the immortal M113) risk sustaining damage or running aground. (A problem that Royal Marines could solve with the HIPPO Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicle, which has no equivalent in the Italian landing force)
Since it is not a Forcible Entry ops, no one wants to take risks: the Ro-Ro merchant ship with the heavy vehicles has to be send in Beirut, since there’s no other way to disembark the precious equipment on board. The MEN with the VCC vehicles will use the port of Naqoura, while the armoured AAV7 amphibious vehicles and the thick of the force will land in Tyro.

The Sea Kings begin to fly back and forth from the ships to the LZ Albatross, carrying Marines, but without tactical assaults and aggressive flying. No one wants to give the impression that Lebanon is being invaded. The AAV7s also come ashore in line, without aggressiveness. By night, most of the force is already ashore, but operations are prudently suspended for the night, and completed the successive day, when the forces re-join in an area south of Tyro where the VCCs arrive from the port of Naqobura, before the whole group moves inland around 20 kilometers, reaching Jabal Maroun and bringing with them UNIFIL and Lebanese army personnel as well. A base is swiftly built, and on four September even the command post is completed, and the force begins to operate its peacekeeping role. By 12 September, the Italian task force transits under direct UNIFIL command, and a few FOBs are created, with forward deployed forces, such as in Marakah, with a couple of mechanized groups, one with 15 VCCs and one with 5 AAV7s. Another FOB is in Zibqine, and a company of Lagunari soldiers with 5 AAV7s go to Al Hinniyah, together with a logistic battalion from China. Chama is identified as the base for the future second group of the Italian force, which will stand up later as more troops arrive from Italy.

UNIFIL takes the shape of a 5 battalions force: ITALBAT is the Italian battalion, a French one, a Ghana one, one from Spain and one from India complete the force.

The work of the Italian force is hard, especially in the first period, when logistics are to be established and the devastated roads of Lebanon have to be cleared, fixed and reopened. Some 270.000 kilometers were run in patrols by the vehicles of the force, and over 158.000 liters of fuel used. The engineers worked on a 450 Km stretch of roads to fix, made EOD checks on an area of 260.000 square meters, moved 18.000 cubic meters of earth and rendered safe 261 cluster bombs, 6 israeli bombs from 500 to 2000 lbs size, 7 rockets, 4 mortar bombs, 4 155 mm shells, 2 hand grenades. The NBC force made 13 interventions (mainly for depleted uranium contamination) and ran over 40 NBC searches. Over 150 civilians were given medical care, and these are just examples.

For the landing phase, the AV8B flew 200,3 hours, surveying the task force from above and protecting the operations. The Israeli ships were still keeping Lebanon under siege, and the risk was real. The Sea Kings flew 512,2 hours, the AB-212 521 hours, the AW101 Merlin 232,2.

Misrata – Analogies and differences

The conflict between Hezbollah and the Israeli IDF was ferocious and violent, and had an high technological content, on both sides, since even Hezbollah was able to line advanced weaponry such as the RPG-29 (the only kind of RPG that, in Iraq, proved capable to perforate even a Challenger II, even if the Chally fared far better than the Merkava). But the war was pretty much finished when the Italian peacekeeping force intervened. The Cease Fire was effective, and the Italian marines were not shelled by artillery while landing.

Misrata, in Libya, is far less welcoming. The town is still under siege, and Gaddafi’s forces have shelled the docks of the port with artillery guns and rockets, and even laid mines in the Gulf of Sirte to try and block access to the town from the sea. It is definitely not certain that, was the UN to upgrade the resolution 1973 and allow the landing of a “Peacekeeping force”, Gaddafi would agree to a ceasefire. And even if he does, he might not respect it: it would not be the first time from the start of the crisis.

A landing in Misrata would be far more warlike than Leonte was. The risks are many and diverse: the RAF has just bombed Gaddafi’s arsenal of Scud and FROG-7 missiles, a further proof, if it ever was needed, that there is still a great amount of firepower that could be used against a beach head despite the long and successful campaign of air strikes. And the Royal Marines are short of air cover at close distance to call upon, save for the Apache helicopters embarked on HMS Ocean, that, was the operation to really start, would have their very first war experience at sea, ultimately validating the embarkation trials already done and showing once and for all the usefulness of having the UK Apaches truly capable to operate anywhere in the world. Further support might be obtained via France, with the Charles de Gaulle and her airwing, or even from Italy’s Garibaldi, already in action with her Harriers.  

It would be interesting to know what HMS Albion has embarked: if the idea of a landing in Libya is realistic at all and really has been considered by the MOD, an handful of Challenger II tanks might have found space onboard the ships of the task force too. The operation in Libya would not be an aggression, but in order to secure the area of Misrata, the troops would have to build a defensive line around the town, and the Chally would provide the firepower and protection necessary for such an ambitious enterprise.

Will it really happen?
Hard to say, but it is a real possibility. The Royal Marines might be the first in, and an European Union battlegroup might follow, as it has already been proposed. However, doubts remain on the effective possibility of making Europe move unitarily and deploy, for the first time ever, an EU-flagged, coherent force abroad. It would be a massive step up in the maturity of the whole union concept, but problems are already evident, and it may end up being another proof of just how much still needs to be done before the united Europe gains at least a little bit of credibility.


  1. Hi there, thanks for blogging. Have read the article with interest, particularly this: The NBC force made 13 interventions (mainly for depleted uranium contamination) and ran over 40 NBC searches.

    Am very curious to learn more about the DU interventions, please could you email me at to discuss it further? Also happy to discuss out thoughts on the UK's CLIP programme - in which we have a vested interest!


    Doug Weir
    Coordinator, ICBUW

  2. I would be glad to help, but i've no detailed knowledge of the exact nature of the DU searches: the data i reported is mainly information made available by the italian Ministry of Defence, and i'm not aware of more detailed reports into the NBC activity. I'm sorry, i don't think i can be of help in this case.

  3. Thanks for the swift response. Would it be possible for you to send us the original source documents from the Italian MoD? We're very interested in plotting where DU has been used and by whom and some of my Italian colleagues would be able to follow it up further. You may not know but was there any indication of whether the DU was from the 2006 conflict or earlier?

  4. I believe the DU was from the 2006 conflict, even if of course there could be areas still affected by earlier attacks.
    Anyway, my source of data was a fascicle attached to Panorama Difesa, a specialized Defence publication here in Italy, which wrote a special report on Leonte inclusive of the wide array of powerpoint slides and official reports of the italian MOD.

  5. Many thanks, will take a look!



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