The Ice In My Teeth Keeps the Cristal Cold

Alex Olesker, who in addition to being a top-notch national security blogger also makes the best yerba mate tea in the whole of DC, has started blogging at–covering the topic of the Navy’s efforts to modernize its C4IRS hardware to run with off-the-shelf platforms.

Olesker’s also been busy at i-Con with a new series on the IRA and its legacy of terror. People often forget just how vicious and effective the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) was when thinking of al-Qaeda and its present challenges.

Of course, on a less serious note, Alex also has a post on “Biggie Smalls, Counterterrorism Guru.” Yes, you read that right.


Red-Teaming for the Joint Task Force

Check out this new paper on red-teaming by GEN Carter Ham, COL (Ret.) Greg Fontenot, LTC David Pendall, and Mr. Larry Closter. Part of Red Team Journal‘s occasional paper series. We have some pretty cool new ones also in the works.

Some Scattered Observations on a Never-Ending Debate

Coming off of Gunslinger’s look at “old tanker syndrome,” I’d like to make several points about the COIN vs. COINtra fracas.

To sum up my argument, there is a lack of historical precedent for the stereotype of an Army that suffers from making a direct choice to drink chai instead of driving tanks. There is a problem of causation in pinning COIN as the major reason an Army fails, for historical, technical, and political reasons. And if we are really afraid of losing conventionally, the fact that there has been little thought about conventional wars of the future that takes into account conventional warfare since 1945 is rather troubling.

First, it is hard to think of any militaries who suffered conventionally from being too COIN-focused. What about the British and French in World War I, you might ask? Well, of all of the flaws of both armies prior to 1914, a single-minded focus on irregular warfighting was not one of them. It is difficult to think of any major works of military history offhand that make the argument that imperial warfighting led to their problems. Rigidity, bad operational doctrine, training, poor strategy, etc, you can all make those critiques with varying degrees of accuracy. But even though those nations had colonial possessions to police and conquer, they never lost track of Europe’s centrality as the prime political and military center of gravity.

The Israelis in 2006? Another oversimplification, for two reasons. First, the fact that Tel Aviv focused so much time and energy on irregular warfare stemmed from the not-too-insignificant problem of an Palestinian terrorist movement that killed 1,000 Israelis (approx 42,000 as a portion of America’s population). Israeli irregular warfare focus was not a result of officers itching to quote Lawrence, sip chai, and pay CERP money–they did so to defend their population against terrorists and insurgents whose idea of a fair fight was to blow up Sbarro outlets. Second, there was also the complicating factor of new doctrines that had not been received very well and an RMA-inspired ground structure and a muddled strategy. Lastly, as I’ve commented before, the Israelis did not do as badly as popularly observed and Hezbollah’s position was more precarious than believed.

The United States in World War I had some difficulty moving from punitive expeditions and Indian warfare to large-unit positional operations, especially because of an outdated prewar doctrine that neglected combined arms. But it is difficult to characterize the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) as a complete failure, especially as it adapted (like every other WWI major army) to the conditions of industrial warfare by the end of the conflict. The AEF experience also piggybacked into the doctrinal revisions of the next twenty years. Moreover, the political context of American history in the 19th century is not one that was conducive to creating a European-style army that could compete on the Continent. American performance even in conventional wars (The Mexican War and the Civil War) was nothing Europeans found particularly inspiring—which is why few European military observers (save the Russian Army which liked the Civil War cavalry raids) paid too much attention to American campaigns.

The fact that the Israeli, Imperial British and French, and pre-war American armed forces focused on irregular warfare at all was because irregular forces threatened national security interests—whether it was basic population security (America and Israeli) from the depredations of irregulars or the colonial control (Britain and France) in a time when colonies were pawns in a massive great game. Armed forces exist to do what politicians tell them. In neither the British and French cases were colonial service a major factor in their military difficulties. In the American and Israeli cases, one can make more of a plausible argument—but in doing so would have to take an ahistorical view of the respective political contexts. Moreover, American and Israeli difficulties did not stem in an overriding fashion from love of COIN–especially since modern COIN doctrine as practiced by the US Army did not exist in 1914 and was not something that the Israelis followed in 2006.

So to sum it up, the idea that US capabilities are dying and that it will be difficult to upshift into major combat operations because of COIN does not really have any readily identifiable historical precursors–in large part because the current situation is exceptional and because the rhetoric this fear stems from is overly simplistic. There is, of course, the perennial problem of leaders not giving the armed forces the money or attention they need, growing complacent, or just being plain unprepared (Korea, WWI, Kasserine Pass, etc), but that’s another argument entirely.

The technical details of this debate have been discussed over and over. But the debate does not take into account the fact that the US, in some ways, has not fought a competent conventional adversary since Korea. Iraq barely counted during the first Gulf War and essentially self-destructed in the second. So it is natural that in peacetime or simply in an violent era in which necessary data is difficult to draw from that crucial skills might lag. As Gulliver pointed out in the linked Ink Spots post, without a compelling threat it’s also difficult to gin up the resources for major 1980s-style training as well.

We have heard a lot about the threat of conventional operations. But the shape of those conventional operations in future warfare matters a lot to how we prepare for them. If future warfare is Chinese submarines playing Catch-A-Carrier in the Pacific, ground doctrine does not matter. Moreover, the next conventional war will be far different from the last three major wars the United States has fought (WWII, Korea, and the Gulf War) and look more like the conventional wars in the Third World (Yom Kippur, Iran-Iraq, Pakistani-Indian Wars, China’s incursion in Vietnam, etc). For all of the hysteria about the US losing a conventional war, we are not seeing a great depth of thought about what kind of conventional war we will fight.

It seems that older concepts of conventional warfare predominate in public debate. The idea that the corps is the decisive unit, for example, was already outdated by the Gulf War, in which heavy divisions became operational building blocks in their own right. So by now everyone, even the most fervent chai-drinkers, have accepted that we will fight conventional wars in the future. What are they going to look like? What skills do we need for then? What conventional ideas from Air-Land Battle and the 1990s-early 2000s FM 100-5s do we need to change? Sven Ortmann, as usual, is one of the few who is using his deep knowledge of military history and his eye for future warfare to think about this, with an interesting blog on the “age of movement to contact.”

Let’s get away from the back and forth about COIN and COINtras and have a conversation about conventional operations. One, however, that must be grounded by post-World War II (non-Fulda Gap) conventional military history and a realistic projection of future adversaries and the tasks that armed forces will likely be ordered to complete in the post-COIN era.

What You Can’t See Might Kill You

DefenseTech has a great piece on Chinese military modernization that dovetails with a lot of recent PLA studies research by James Mulvenon and others. Just because China is building towards a MTR-style recon-strike complex doesn’t mean that it will hit anything without the “recon” part of it:

What’s missing is the reconnaissance piece. Smart weapons require a smart reconnaissance and targeting network otherwise they’re useless. The overlays on the map above are misleading in that we do not know whether China can accurately target those areas that fall within various missile envelopes. So far anyway, the U.S. is the only country to have built a truly global reconnaissance strike complex. Cold War exigencies and nearly limitless defense spending enabled the U.S. to build both the reconnaissance and the strike components, something other nations were unable to do.

China’s challenge, even in the limited context of its Western Pacific playpen, is to develop a system of systems that can track and target the US and other assets within the region. We know, from translations of Chinese operational art, that they aspire to do so but aspiration is very far from reality–especially within the context of joint operations and C2. China has, however, made some truly impressive leaps in doctrine and capabilities since the 1970s, when they found themselves underperforming in a “local war” gone wrong against the Vietnamese.
Their leaders are very cognizant of the fact that they need to catch up to now 40-year old family of technologies that originated with the PGM/recon-strike revolution of the late 70s and culminated in the kind of capabilities that enabled a small group of special forces soldiers to devastate an Iraqi mechanized company in 2003. This is not Sun Tzu-esque trickery (although the Chinese military literature sometimes places a bit of an emphasis on it) but basic common sense.
However, the old strains of Maoist thinking about protracted war and “luring the enemy into the deep,” as Ka Po Ng noted in a 2005 Chinese doctrinal review, still have a conceptual hold on some Chinese military thinkers. This might also retard their adaptation to modern conventional operational doctrine and technology.

Iran So Far Away

Crispin Burke has a hilarious look at Iran’s problem with actually coordinating its Air Force. Apparently, Iran’s ancient (by our standards) 1970s F-4 Phantom fighters, due to C2 problems, show down their own drones (the same ones that Iran has been trumpeting lately). He quotes from a recent Wall Street Journal story:

A few weeks ago, according to official and private reports, the Iranian air force shot down three drones near the southwestern city of Bushehr, where a Russian-supplied nuclear reactor has just started up. When the Revolutionary Guards inspected the debris, they expected to find proof of high-altitude spying. Instead, the Guards had to report to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that the air force had blasted Iran’s own unmanned aircraft out of the sky. Apparently, according to official Iranian press accounts, the Iranian military had created a special unit to deploy the drones—some for surveillance and others, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad bragged on Sunday, to carry bombs—but hadn’t informed the air force.

This, however, is nothing new. The coordination problems between the regular military and the IRGC during the Iran-Iraq War were quite epic. Middle Eastern dictators love creating “Republican Guard”-type auxiliary armies with more ideological commitment to the regime and the ability to hold the regular army in check, operational integration be damned. Much of Iran’s equipment in general is vintage as well. This hasn’t stopped them from puffing out their chests–or resorting to Photoshop:


I can haz sum missiles plz?

Espionage/Cyber Recon vs. Cyber War

One of Timothy L. Thomas’s terms is “long-range electronic reconnaissance” which is a better description of most cyber activities than war. When China accesses our systems, it is gain intelligence, industrial secrets, or just tests our electronic defenses. Cyber war would consist of military operations with the goal of disabling, controlling, or destroying systems to aid an overall military effort or accomplish a standalone mission to inflict violence for political effect (the equivalent of firing off a few cruise missiles during the 1990s).

Most of what we have seen, with very few exceptions, has been cyber-reconaissance or just plain espionage. Cyber war, on the other hand, is a different matter. H. Lucien Gauthier III describes a bit of the theoretical challenges:

In cyber-warfare we are growing our capacity to both wage and defend against this type of warfare. But, we have not even started to get close to being able to define where it is that a kinetic, or real world, response is warranted. If a Nation-state purposefully destroyed the Hoover Dam, it would be unequivocal that we would have to respond in kind. However, in a cyber-attack, if the NYSE was taken offline we would 1) struggle to say who was guilty of the attack and 2) struggle to prove the efficacy of a kinetic/real world response to the attack—does utter economic devastation demand a nuclear response? Is a way of life shattered the same no matter if the cause is nuclear or electronic? We have this ‘gray area’ in our use of force continuum because of the novelty of ‘warfare’ in a completely synthetic domain (online). We do not have thousands of years of experience to fall back on, or to show a precedence to warrant our course of action, or to make the decisions readily understood by the guy on the street. However, to both effectively protect our infrastructure and project force in this domain we have to have a clear ethical and philosophical foundation from which to act.

While there are historical parallels (such as the use of strategic bombing, sea power, or limited uses of force), there are specific technical aspects of the usage of cyber tools for force that are specific to the domain that makes it difficult to transplant operational understandings valid to one domain to the other. A good deal of contemporary research and writing on cyber warfare deals with these unique issues. But the foundational frameworks of integrating it into our dominant understanding of warfare are more common in other non cyber-specific studies like David Lonsdale’s 2004 work.

For All of the PLA-Watchers Out There

The latest Jamestown Foundation China Brief has some great articles from Willy Lam, Russell Hsiao, and PLA studies star Dennis Blasko (side note: his book The Chinese Army Today is probably one of the better single-volume reads on modern PLA).

The most interesting ones are by Blasko and Lam. First, Blasko shatters some myths about the China’s amphibious abilities for cross-strait invasion. China’s amphibious capabilities are not at the stage where they can credibly threaten a seaborne invasion and appear to be structured for different missions. Blasko’s article is very technical and difficult to summarize, but he does a detailed analysis based on both open-source reporting as well as the latest DOD report on Chinese military structures.

Second, Lam reports on an emerging foreign policy split between China’s “hawks and doves” over future strategy. Apparently China’s civilian security establishment–such as civilian professors of international relations and defense analysis at military academies and civilian universities, are warning of overreach and urging Beijing to hew to core interests more narrowly. Meanwhile, the more hawkish military intellectuals see themselves under broad threat from the United States in the Pacific and urge a stronger stance to expand Chinese power.

Hsiao also has an interesting piece on the continuing expansion of PLA military satellites, devices that can be used to further targeting of units operating on China’s periphery.