Thursday, October 2, 2014

ISIS Lessons

ComNavOps occasionally will use non-Navy events to illustrate lessons that can be applied to the Navy.  Such an occurrence was described in a Navy Times website article (1) describing a British aerial attack on ISIS targets in northwest Iraq.  From the article,

“RAF Akrotiri station commander, Group Captain Chaz Kennett said that two Tornado GR4 aircraft used bombs and precision missiles to destroy a “heavy weapon position” and an armed pick-up truck.”

A quick check of a map shows that the distance from the base to the target would have been on the order of 400 miles, assuming a straight line flight.  That’s 800 miles round trip with the attendant risk of pilot’s lives and wear and tear on the airframes, all to plink a machine gun, or some such, and an armed pick-up truck.  That’s just stunningly poor allocation of military assets. 

Note that I’m not picking on the British.  The US is doing the same type of thing.

While combat is not an exercise in business principles, there is still an element of cost effectiveness that must be considered and this mission, as described in the article, did not even remotely meet that criteria.  This mission was the equivalent of using a carrier group to enforce fishing regulations.  Oh wait …  The USN actually did that.  Still, you get the idea.

What lesson is there in this?  Well, there’s several possible takeaways from this.

It illustrates the trap that a military that is excessively focused on high tech can fall prey to.  When a low tech task needs to be performed and all you have is high tech assets the result is bound to be a mismatch between target value and resources.  The Navy (and US military, in general) needs to keep an awareness of low tech necessities firmly in mind.  The days of cavalierly throwing million dollar solutions at thousand dollar problems are gone.  Budget considerations demands a better use of resources.

It illustrates the need for boots on the ground and forces in closer proximity.  Of course, there’s a political element at play, here.  The nation is war-weary and boots on the ground would be an unpopular option.  However, there are certain tasks that boots are a much better choice for and we can’t rule out good options because of poor politics.

It illustrates the need for logical and coherent geopolitical strategies.  The ISIS problem arose from our poor strategic handling of the entire Iraq episode.

It illustrates the potential value of area bombardment as opposed to the current obsession with precision.  A B-52/1/2 aircraft performing area bombardment might be a more cost effective solution than trying to plink individual pick-up trucks.

It illustrates the pitfalls inherent in trying to get involved in every dispute around the world.  Whether this particular involvement makes sense or not is not the point.  The US must exercise restraint when contemplating leaps into regional conflicts that have no good outcome and may not involve core US strategic interests.  I’m not specifically passing judgment on this case because that’s a political consideration and outside the scope of this blog. 

This may illustrate the perfect scenario for drone usage.  Drones have a high loiter capability, carry sufficient firepower to plink trucks, don’t put pilots at risk, and, in this case, would operate in a permissive environment.

As I said, the US is doing the same thing.  The Navy is tasking carrier groups with plinking pick-up trucks.  There has to be a better alternative.  There are plenty of lessons to be learned from this simple example. 


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    1. Since when are strategy and op orders determined by a democratic vote among the soldiers?

      I understand the rank's reluctance to re-risk their lives for something we'll undoubtedly just walk away from again. However, that's my point. The fact that we thoroughly mucked it up previously doesn't justify more bad decisions. If we need to deal with these animals (and I'm not at all sure we do!) and if boots is the best way to do so then that's what we should do. Whatever we do, let's do it for the right strategic and tactical reasons not because of poor political decisions in the past.

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    3. Our approach is to "procrastinate" rather than "deal" with these animals. Probably a more idiotic plan.

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  2. Thing is no one can predict what kind of wars will be fought 5-10 years from now.
    Remember the fiasco of the centuries series jet fighters in Vietnam.
    You build jets to potentially fight russia and china, but in the mean time you have to use them for other purposes..
    No big deal.

    1. I beg to differ. It is a big deal.

      From a national security viewpoint, the $5T we spent (operations, refit, and long term medical care) on Iraq and Afganistan is a serious threat to the health of the Republic.

      Nations have historically NOT gone to war when they cannot afford it. Those that did, did not win in the long run (read Paul Kennedy's excellent book: The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers).

      To think that we should not or cannot factor in the fiscal impact into our Military strategy is VERY short sighted.

  3. The problem (at least for the UK) is less bad than it first appears.
    The Tornado is effectively a museum relic, just burning off the airframe hours before the junk heap. Its chances in a hot war are slim.

    Sending the F22 in was a travesty.

    Drones would be a far better Armed Intervention Tool
    Cost is relative, the US and allies can afford a fantastically unbalanced ratio,
    $200,000 of flight hours and a $100,000 missile to plink a $20,000 truck and a $10,000 HMG and crew is a winning ratio.
    Monetarily we can beat them 1000:1, we just cant afford to pay a life for every thousand they can.

    However, its not a winning strategy.
    Even for just the cost of the missile, we could have supplied our allies in the region three Technicals.
    Have to decide who our allies are for that though.

    1. TrT, you're missing part of the point. It's not just about economics. It's also about pilot risk for the sake of a pick-up truck. Do we really want to risk having a captured pilot beheaded trying to blow up a pick-up truck?

      Also, consider not just money but flight hours that are being racked up on front line aircraft (I'm talking about the USN's Hornets now) for the meager return of a destroyed pick-up truck that the terrorists can replace before the attacking aircraft returns to base. Aircraft are only rated for so many flight hours. Once that limit is reached, the aircraft is done (ignoring rewinging and other such costly programs). Spending the flight hours on pick-up trucks is just stunningly poor use of resources.

    2. TrT, you make a great point about supplying Technicals and, by implication, other low tech weapons. The US military is so focused on high tech that we lose sight of the fact that many of our "allies" would be thrilled with Technicals or prop driven planes or similar. Unfortunately, we don't have that type of weapon to give them. There's a lesson there.

      Great comment!

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      Bit of welding to attach a HMG, RR or mortar

  4. The nice thing about the current crop of drones-UAV-RPA, or whatever we are calling them is that only the largest are expensive to operate. According to the Air Force cost per flight hour of a Predator is 2000 dollars and cost for a Reaper is 3000. Compare that to a F-16 at 22,000 per hour, or a F-15 at 30,000 or a B-1 at 60,0000.

    So a Reaper can blow up those same targets with a 40,000 dollar JDAM for a fraction of the cost.

    This scenario right here is why i am pushing for the low end strike version of the UCAV, the Naval Reaper if you will. If the aircraft only costs $15 million and takes $5,000 a flight hour that is a tiny fraction of what the F-35C is going to cost to buy and operate.

    1. USMC, I'm a bit puzzled by the emphasis on manned aircraft attacks as opposed to UAVs. I would have thought that supporters of the strike version of the Navy's UCLASS would have jumped at the chance to demonstrate, even partially, the value of a strike version of the UAV. Now, perhaps we are using UAVs but we just don't have enough of them?

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    3. Good point about the aerial refueling.

    4. Sorry to be late back to the party.

      Many critics of the "Naval Reaper" variant of the UCLASS have said that it is not needed because we will always have bases available for the traditional reaper and predator. Eventually we will, probably, but in the early stages of a war where the Navy/Marine Corps does well because we can sail to the problem spot, that requirement for long endurance and loiter time is still there.

      As for what is being used i really do not know anything outside of open source. Possibly a global hawk is parked overhead but maybe not and they are not armed anyway.

      But the problem remains that churning through high end TACAIR to do pick up truck plinking is horribly expensive.

  5. Happy to see you talk about costs effectiveness ComNavOps. I have such a hard time explaining to civilians and quite a few military people how a country even as rich as the USA can't just be blind to how much operations costs.

    1. NICO, ops can't be driven by cost considerations but they can't be oblivious to them, either. In this specific example, a much more cost effective solution would be a mortar round or even a 0.50 cal sniper round. Of course, that means boots on the ground which presents its own set of problems.

    2. CNO,

      While 50 BMG rounds are getting expensive these days, you are correct that they are significantly less than the JDAM or LGB coming off a TACAIR aircraft flying from 400nm away. Just understand, that sniper and his Barrett or Remington can also incur a significant cost. Per Army studies, the current T3R (Tooth To Tail Ratio) is between 20-30% - that is three or four support troops to every one combat soldier. There is an enormous logistical base that ensures that our "boots on the ground" are well supplied, well fed, and healthy.

      Every night during OIF PHASE IV/V soldiers were conducting late night route clearance patrols covered by CAS, EW, and ISR aircraft to clear roads so conventional combat forces, SOF, and convoys loaded with bottled water, protein powder, and dip could move safely on Iraqi roads. That's billions over several years. US Landpower is absolutely required in certain circumstances, but it isn't necessarily a more economical method of applying military force.

    3. TA, I'm well aware that there is additional cost associated with each soldier. I'm comparing the cost of the immediate attack.

      Costs are one of those things that you can say whatever you want and be "right". A soldier standing guard duty back in the US requires logistics, a base to house him, a vast network of leadership to supervise, an entire procurement department to buy his equipment, and so on. With that definition, guard duty costs a billion dollars.

      My point was that a mortar round or bullet is vastly cheaper than an 800 mile round trip aerial attack, assuming the assets are in place.

    4. CNO,

      I fully acknowledge that a mortar or rifle round is less expensive than a PGM from an aircraft, but you must define the term "immediate attack." Is that only the trigger pull to the target? If you discount both the 800nm fuel cost of the aircraft and the in-country sustainment cost of the soldier that got both capabilities to the terminal area, you must acknowledge that an aircraft strafing run is only marginally more expensive than an IBCT squad engagement. Both capabilities are means to destroy an ISIS Toyota HiLux pickup and it's occupants.

      Bear in mind, I do not necessarily believe that either airpower or landpower are the most effective or economical method of securing US national interests in this particular instance. We shouldn't burn fuel, hours, and fatigue life on Hornets to destroy base model trucks, but we serve at the pleasure of the President.

      Boots on the ground may be the answer. Does it have to be our boots?

      "We are not about to send American boys 9 or 10,000 miles away from home to do what Asian [Middle Eastern] boys ought to be doing for themselves..." - LBJ

  6. I thought this whole thing was just a live fire training exercise?

    In which case a pretty good use of resources?

    (I mean it's not like there's a real strategy being implemented)

  7. LOL, John you’re probably not that far from the truth.
    It’s a statement, and it’s done for psychological and geopolitical effects in the region. Its telling ISIS that they are now incurring our rath in the hope their troops and support will reconsider their devotion to an organisation that appeared ( up to this point ) to be folding all before it.
    And it’s a statement to the local powers that we will help them defend what is theirs.
    We have done some great work taking out CNC and probably more importantly ISIS’s source of funds. Economics does play a role in warfare, because it’s difficult to replace a 50 cal when you have no cash or machinery to get one. ( Do you seriously think these people manufacture them ? )
    With incredibly few strikes we have done disproportionate damage to their ability to make war.
    This should always be the strategy of you opening attacks ( or arguably any strike in war time ).
    [Getting bogged down in numbers of kills, square feet of land, or taking out leaders is amateurish]
    Specifically the Brimstone \ Pick-up incident was a close air support action, and allowed ground troops ( other countries have them you know, not just us ) to advance. This in itself justifies the strike. Grand was taken, ISIS forced back, on what has become in some areas a rather static line (desert warfare, tut!)


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