Friday, July 30, 2010

Men still better than machines...for now

A recent article on the internet pointed out the difficulties the U.S, Air Force is having supplying enough pilots to fly surveillance air craft in Afghanistan. Though not the point of the article in question, I think the real story is the tacit understanding that the military has been relying too much on technology like drones instead of people. One can almost hear the pitches company representatives made to the Pentagon over a decade ago in which they dazzled procurement officers and politicians with the allure of a panacea: cheap surveillance and weapons platforms that would keep pilots out of harms way. But one has to wonder if the pitch convinced anyone the drones would be more effective than pilots and their planes.

fast forward to the fighting in Southern Afghanistan going on right now.  Ground units need aerial surveillance and their aren't enough drones or surveillance planes such as the MC-12 Liberty, a twin turbo prop. Pilots can look out the cockpit window and actually see things like enemy movements and troops in trouble. The article I mentioned above points this out, but does not really address the core of the issue: People and training have been neglected in favor of technology.

Drones are probably the future of the military, but for now, in this war, people are still better than machines.

Monday, July 26, 2010

What Time is it in Kandahar?: 1st in an occasional series

What is the state of operations in Kandahar Afghanistan? I do not mean the specific operational details, but we should be able to get a sense of the general flow of events. Although their has been mounting U.S. and enemy casualties in and around Kandahar news reports indicate the operation to secure the city and surrounding provincial has not officially begun yet. This after the Pentagon has been putting out statements in the media for months about the impending fight.

The problem is that a decision was made at a high level (circa 2006?) that the War on Terror has to be waged with a minimum of fighting as codified in the new COIN manual.  It has been whole-heartedly embraced by the Obama administration. We don't yet know what effect this decision to downplay combat in a war will ultimately have on the military and the public, but the effect on the enemy is that they can believe the U.S. is not willing get into the mud and slug it out. In fact they have a date to look forward to as President Obama has repeatedly assured the left wing of his base that U.S. troops will be begin to withdraw from Afghanistan next summer.

President Obama's public lack of a long term commitment to win has encouraged the enemy's often repeated line: "You have the watches, but we have the time." There is not doubt Afghanistan is a messy, unforgiving place, but there is a tendency in our age to over complicate things, to dress up difficult problems with phony intellectualism and pretend nuance is a virtue in war.  The simple truth is that Afghanistan is a backward, tribal society with deep ethnic divisions that will resist all efforts of "government in a box" whether originating from Kabul or Washington. However, like in Vietnam, some tribes will decide it is in their interest to fight with us against a vicious enemy. This is the coalition of the willing we need in Afghanistan.

Most importantly however, U.S. leaders need to remind themselves that the bottom line of any war, COIN or otherwise, is the enemy must be defeated on the battlefield before a lasting political settlement can be achieved. Instead of rehashing Mao's various stratagems, our leaders would be better served carefully studying Sri Lanka's recent ferocious and successful COIN campaign against the Tamil Tigers. Nuance and social theories were conspicuously absent, but there was a fair amount of actually fighting and killing the enemy.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Super Hawk could take a bite out of Army's dilemma

The U.S. Army has never had enough transport helicopters or attack helicopters. The former Soviet attempted to solve this problem with the Mi-24, a heavily armed troop carrying helicopter we know as the Hind. The Hind has served effectively for decades in dozens of militaries around the world. Dating back to the Vietnam War the Pentagon decided to build a dedicated helicopter gun ship to support the iconic "Huey" troop carriers and came up with the AH-1 Cobra.

Since Vietnam we have seen the UH-60 Black Hawk, AH-64 Apache, AH-1 Supercobra and the V-22 Osprey tilt rotor. All are either troop carriers or attack craft and none are a combination of both.  The Black Hawk has been of limited value in Afghanistan because of the altitudes, the Apache is powerful but has been more vulnerable to ground fire than expected and the Osprey had significant development problems and will likely never be available in large numbers. The workhorse of the Army is the classic twin rotor CH-47 Chinook.

The Pentagon could reduce the overall number of helicopters and save a lot of money by developing an all new transport/attack helicopter that incorporates the best of the two types. The TA-70 (Transport/Attack) "Super Hawk"  would essentially be a redesigned Black Hawk with elements of the Apache. It would have a somewhat streamlined fuselage to help make it less of a target than the Black Hawk, but be roomy enough to incorporate a rear door/ramp and troop compartment that can hold 8-10 soldiers. It would be armed with a combination of guns, missiles, rockets and bombs so it would need know gun ship support - it would be its own gun ship. It would need larger engines to handle the extra weight and still be agile and be able to attain a respectable altitude.

This is not a magic bullet, but it would redirect the Army's inventory toward a more efficient and combat effective channel instead of trying to rely to much on expensive and delicate technologies that may or may not prove themselves in the future.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Endless Argument: Review of "Endless War" by Col. Ralph Peters

Mr. Peters is an effective writer with a lot to say and a lot of it is dead on, but some of it comes off like he just wants to win the argument. Case in point: he repeatedly blasts the Bush administration for incompetence and ineptitude for how it waged war and peace in Iraq between 2003 and 2007 before the "surge" was implemented. As a student of history he cites many historical examples such as the invasion of Normandy in which more than two thousand soldiers were killed on the beach. Was General Eisenhower and his generals incompetent? Was their plan inept? or did they encounter heavier resistance and helplessly watch little mishaps pile up at the water's edge along with the bodies?

Obviously mistakes and missteps piled up in Iraq too - one I agree whole heartedly with Peter's on is the decision to not kill Muqtada al-Sadr and allow him to grow his Mahdi Army in defiance of the new Iraqi government.  According to Ambassador Bremer, he and the Army were for killing the terrorist leader, but were overruled by the Marine Corps leadership who had responsibility for al-Sadr's neighborhood. Was this general incompetent or merely mistaken?

The most important parts of the book are Peter's attempts to convince readers that  al-Qaeda and their ilk truly are Muslim terrorists who actually believe they are fighting a Jihad for Allah. He points out that many westerners, even tough minded intelligence analysts cannot quite wrap their heads around the emotional religious fervor of the enemy.

He is correct that the government in general and the Pentagon in particular has been incompetent when it comes to identifying and analyzing the militant Islamist nature of the enemy. Stories of brave intelligence analysts trying to buck the trend such as Major Coughlin are almost legendary within the defense community.

A followup book that focuses on the Obama administration instead of the Bush administration would be an interesting exercise. One can imagine the biting rebukes the Colonel would have for such recent follies as "man caused disasters", "overseas contingency operations" and more importantly and perhaps tragically the announced timeline/withdrawal date of summer 2011 for large numbers of U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Send in the Clowns

Along with the reading of the Declaration of Independence, 5k race and fire works  the Huntington Beach 4th of July parade is a staple of the day's celebration. Every year the Shriners dazzle children of all ages with their miniature motorcycles and cars and bright carnival costumes that evoke an exotic Arabian past.

The fun of the 4th perhaps obscures the Shriners mission to provide medical care to seriously ill children without means. This missions is similar to the Pentagon's charge to provide short-term and long-term medical care to serving military personnel and veterans. Unlike the Shriners which is a fairly efficient private organization dedicated to a specific purpose, the Pentagon has taken it upon itself to be the healthcare system for the military.

The government's Veterans Administration system made more sense with the massive mobilization of World War Two and the Cold War. Healthcare was a lot cheaper mostly because high technology had not yet come to dominate the field. Now that MRIs and laser surgery are routine healthcare is routinely expensive and increasingly so. The recent passage of President Obama's ruinous health care legislation that seeks to wrestle control of nearly a sixth of the economy is exactly the wrong way to go.

The privatization of the military's healthcare needs, at least the out patient and long term care needs, could have provided a model of an efficient and effective healthcare delivery system. The U.S., for now, has the best medical care in the world so why not get the Pentagon out of the business and foster a relationship with the civilian system that is the envy of the world? A voucher system could go a long way toward accomplishing what the Shriners do everyday for children and we all agree that our veterans are worth the effort.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Backpack Boot Camp

Boot camp is too precious a time to burden it with anything unnecessary. All drill and ceremony practice should be kept to a minimum.  Every waking hour should be orientated toward making young men and women into warriors not simply government workers with weapons. We have been at war since 9/11 and al-Qaeda, Taliban and other militant Islamists show little sign of surrendering.

Boot camp should become the entrance not only into the military, but also to the reality of a war footing. A war footing is not only about producing more weapons and conjuring up deployment schedules. It has to be about a warrior psychology  that trains new soldiers to be tough enough to be part of a more effective, more lethal military that honors the unique skills and contributions of combat troops.

Upon arrival at boot camp, along with their running shorts, boots and uniforms the soldiers should be issued their backpacks or rucksacks, rifles and helmets. These should be as much a part of boot camp as running shoes and boots. at formations, during calisthenics and during marches and runs the troops should be wearing their gear. Chin ups, pushups and runs are a whole new ball game with twenty pound packs, helmets and unloaded rifles. But why wait? Isn't more important to produce tough warriors than to produce shiny new soldiers who can march perfectly to the sound of the music?