Russia is willing to fight over the Arctic

Friday, October 22nd, 2021

Russia’s Ivan Papanin-class vessels are intended to be remarkably multipurpose ships designed to function as icebreakers, tugboats, transports, refrigerated cargo ships — and warships armed with deadly missiles:

They have an armored hull so they can clear a path through ice without the support of a dedicated icebreaker. “The vessel will be able to promptly deliver modules with repair shops, medical and housing blocks, and also groups of specialists to research and military bases in the Arctic,” said TASS. “The reefer ship will focus on delivering seafood from the Far East to European Russia.”

The first ship of the class – the eponymous Ivan Papanin – was launched in 2019 and is scheduled to be commissioned in 2023.

Armed with Kalibr missiles and a 76.2-millimeter gun, the Ivan Papanins will pack a fair bit of firepower for what is essentially an armed transport. How well such a jack-of-all-trades ship can perform each individual mission remains to be seen. In particular, while the Kalibr is a GPS-guided weapon that can hit long-range targets based on targeting data relayed from distant vessels and satellites, the Ivan Papanins will need a reliable datalink system to take full advantage of the Kalibr’s range.

More significant is the additional evidence that Russia is willing to fight over the Arctic, where melting polar ice is creating new shipping routes and revealing mineral riches. Russia has developed anti-aircraft missiles designed for Arctic conditions, as well as ground vehicles to support Moscow’s Arctic build-up, which also includes MiG-31 fighters, bombers and radar. The U.S. and other nations are responding, including the recent deployment of U.S. B-1 bombers to Norway, and American air and naval facilities in Norway.

The Battle at Lake Changjin was sponsored by the Chinese government and deliberately timed for release before the country’s National Day holiday

Wednesday, October 20th, 2021

The Battle at Lake Changjin is a three-hour-long war epic about the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, and it has grossed $769 million in China since its release less than three weeks ago:

It’s currently on track to become the highest-grossing film in Chinese history, surpassing “Wolf Warriors II,” which made $882 million upon its release back in 2017.

As the Chinese box office is the largest in the world, “The Battle at Lake Changjin” is technically the biggest film in the international movie market, even outearning the new James Bond flick, “No Time To Die,” according to the industry outlet.

[…]

“The~ Battle at Lake Changjin” was sponsored by the Chinese government and deliberately timed for release on Sept. 30 — a day before the country’s National Day holiday.

The release of the big-budget blockbuster — which cost $200 million to make — also comes just months after China’s Communist Party celebrated its 100th anniversary.

The film’s release also coincides with Beijing’s growing aggression against Taiwan.

Over the weekend — as millions of Chinese moviegoers flocked to watch the film — it was reported that China has recently tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile.

Aviation mines use an acoustic-infrared sensor to identify the noise of an aircraft up to 3.2 km away and then launch a projectile when it’s within 150 meters

Friday, October 15th, 2021

Russia designed aviation mines in the late 1990s:

“Aviation mines reportedly function by using an acoustic-infrared sensor to first identify the noise of an aircraft at up to 3.2 kilometers and then launch a projectile at the identified aircraft when it is within 150 meters,” according to the U.S. Army’s OE Watch magazine, which monitors foreign military developments. “Although currently fielded Russian aviation mines can only hit low flying targets at a very short distance, their employment could greatly complicate Russia’s adversaries’ efforts to protect airfields, drop zones, and any other place where aircraft may fly low.”

The mines can be emplaced by ground troops or even air-dropped from helicopters using “a special ‘aviation’ version of the Bumerang anti-helicopter mine, with six (instead of four in the ‘ground’ version) stabilizing slings, which ensures the accuracy of the installation of anti-helicopter mines in the vertical plane,” according to an April 2021 article in Russian defense magazine Military Industrial Courier (Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kuryer, or VPK). “These mines take stable vertical positions while still in flight, and the NVU [mine] is activated when coming into contact with the ground surface.”

The mines can be laid quickly, including a three-kilometer (1.9 mile)-long minefield emplaced in one hour by Russian sappers during an exercise in March 2018, VPK said. And they can remain functional for at least three months after placement. “The key factors influencing the duration of combat operation are primarily the temperature of the surrounding air and the number of the mine target guidance system activations,” said VPK. “Nevertheless, the minimum guaranteed time for its power source autonomous operation is 90 days.”

He would not respect rules and regulations that threatened to prevent him from achieving his mission objectives

Thursday, October 7th, 2021

The troops and officers from some of the least belligerent nations in the world — namely, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway — turned out to be quite adept at both using force and playing the odds in the high-stakes political game played in Bosnia:

In late 1993, a reinforced Swedish-Danish-Norwegian mechanized battalion (Nordbat 2) deployed to Bosnia as part of an ongoing UN peacekeeping mission, known as UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force). The battalion was under Swedish command, and with the exception of a Danish tank company and a Norwegian helicopter detachment, was comprised of Swedish former conscripts, led by active-duty officers. The former conscripts had volunteered to return from civilian life to serve in a professional capacity. These Swedish troops, coming from a nation that had not experienced war for almost 200 years, faced a rigid UN bureaucracy, an unclear mandate, and the UN-imposed rules of engagement bordered on the absurd. However, the Swedes had one thing the others didn’t: a culture of mission command that had grown and developed for decades.

[…]

The Swedish Armed Forces were consequently trained to respond to a massive Soviet invasion force, which was expected to attack over land (via Finland), across the Baltic Sea, and by deploying airborne units. The Swedish Army estimated that a breakdown of command and control was a likely scenario as the Soviets would inevitably disrupt communications, destroy command centers, and seize territory, thereby isolating segments of the Swedish Army. In order to cope with this contingency, all units were trained to engage in what was known as “the free war,” (i.e. autonomous operations against local targets, without centralized command). The free war was intended as a last resort, which would only end when the invader had finally retreated. The official doctrine stated that all Swedish citizens were to, without exception, consider any order to surrender to be false, regardless of its origin. This was even printed in all phone books, which also contained instructions for the civilian population in case of war.

Considering that all Swedish Army units were expected to be able to operate autonomously, the culture of mission command completely permeated the entire organization. The officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs), all the way down to the lowest-ranking enlisted men, were taught that the only truly mortal sin was to hesitate. To seize the initiative and act was the primary imperative. There was no priority higher than that of achieving the mission objectives at hand. Orders could be disobeyed, rules could be broken—as long as the mission was successful.

The battalion commanders who deployed to Bosnia to take charge of Nordbat 2 had spent their entire professional lives in this culture, and their men had known it since the earliest days of their own military training. To them, it was as natural as breathing.

[…]

Shortly after it had been deployed to Bosnia in December 1993, Nordbat 2 found itself in its first serious hostile encounter. A Swedish platoon was sent to relieve a Canadian company which was providing security for a mostly abandoned hospital compound in a remote area. As soon as the Canadians left, a Croatian battalion-sized unit showed up and promptly mined the only road leading to the compound, ensuring that the Swedes would be unable to receive reinforcements.

Then they issued an ultimatum: hand over the three Muslim nurses, and we will leave you alone. The Swedish platoon leader, Captain Stewe Simson, radioed battalion command, and was told that it was his call to make, since he was the one in charge at the location. Captain Simson refused to hand over the nurses and instead ordered his men to prepare for combat.

Vastly outnumbered and outgunned, Captain Simson realized that it was unrealistic to expect that his unit would survive a full-out assault. Nevertheless, he was determined not to give in. The Croats started to fire mortar rounds, but the Swedes held their positions. After a few hours, the Croats issued a new ultimatum: the nurses could stay if the Croats were granted free passage to the compound. Again, Captain Simson refused. The situation remained tense throughout the night, with the Swedes maintaining full combat readiness. In the morning, the Croats negotiated with the Swedes and eventually left, quietly dropping their ultimatums. Nordbat 2 had shown resolve even in the face of hopeless odds, achieving a strategically important victory as a result of a decision made by a platoon commander.

Other incidents followed. When fired at, Nordbat 2 often shot back, frequently disregarding the UN rules of engagement. Colonel Henricsson made it clear that he would not respect rules and regulations that threatened to prevent him from achieving his mission objectives. When his own government tried to rein him in, he simply told his radio operator to pretend that the link was down until he had a fait accompli to present to Stockholm.

In one particularly infamous incident, the Bosnian Serb Army set up an ambush for the battalion’s Danish tank company. By launching a feint attack against a remote outpost, the Bosnian Serb Army lured a detachment from the tank company to drive straight into a trap. Anti-tank missiles and heavy guns opened up from concealed positions. Once the Danes started to take fire, their response was furious. The detachment commander simply told his crews to neutralize the anti-tank positions. The Leopard tanks directed accurate and deadly fire against the Bosnian Serb Army positions, using up no less than 72 main gun rounds. One by one, the anti-tank missile batteries and gun positions fell silent. During the fight, a Bosnian Serb Army ammunition supply was hit, resulting in a large explosion. After the engagement, Nordbat 2 estimated that as many as 150 troops may have been killed, although the Bosnian Serb Army denied this.

The incident greatly upset the UN regional command, which threatened to relieve Nordbat 2′s battalion commander and have him sent back to Sweden. Nevertheless, Nordbat 2 had once again refused to let the parties to the conflict dictate the terms of its deployment. In several other incidents, Nordbat 2 personnel intervened to protect refugees and took action to prevent the cover-up of ethnic cleansing operations. On several occasions this took the form of forcing passage through roadblocks. During one such event, the battalion commander himself forced a sentry to remove the anti-tank mines used to block passage by threatening to blow the sentry’s head off with a heavy machine gun.

(Hat tip to Dominic Cummings.)

Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell

Thursday, September 30th, 2021

I had been meaning to read the copy of The Quiet American on my shelf for some time, when I finally got the audiobook and listened to it instead. As Wikipedia explains, Greene worked as a war correspondent for The Times and Le Figaro in French Indochina 1951–1954 and was inspired to write The Quiet American while driving back to Saigon from Ben Tre province in October 1951, when he was accompanied by an American aid worker who lectured him about finding a “third force in Vietnam”.

The two main characters are the first-person narrator, Thomas Fowler, a jaded British journalist in his fifties who has been covering the French war in Vietnam for more than two years, and the quiet American of the title, Alden Pyle, an idealistic Harvard man working for the recently renamed OSS.

I wasn’t even aware of the 2002 film, but its casting seems perfect: Michael Caine as Fowler, and Brendan Fraser as Pyle. There’s a reason I hadn’t noticed its release:

The first rough cut was screened to a test audience on September 10, 2001 and received positive ratings. However, the September 11 attacks took place the next day, and audience ratings dropped with each subsequent screening. Reacting to criticism of the film’s “unpatriotic” message, Miramax shelved the film for a year. It was finally screened publicly at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2002 to critical acclaim. The film received an Oscar qualification release in November 2002 and a limited release in January 2003.

Fowler is painfully cynical, and Pyle is painfully earnest, leading to remarks like these:

  • I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings.
  • That was my first instinct — to protect him. It never occurred to me that there was a greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.
  • Thought’s a luxury. Do you think the peasant sits and thinks of God and Democracy when he gets inside his mud hut at night?
  • I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.
  • He was impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance.
  • God save us always from the innocent and the good.
  • They killed him because he was too innocent to live. He was young and ignorant and silly and he got involved. He had no more of a notion than any of you what the whole affair’s about…

The novel seems oddly prescient — and, like Cassandra, unheeded:

However, after its publication in the United States in 1956, the novel was widely condemned as anti-American. It was criticised by The New Yorker for portraying Americans as murderers, largely based on one scene in which a bomb explodes in a crowd of people. According to critic Philip Stratford, “American readers were incensed, perhaps not so much because of the biased portrait of obtuse and destructive American innocence and idealism in Alden Pyle, but because in this case it was drawn with such acid pleasure by a middle-class English snob like Thomas Fowler whom they were all too ready to identify with Greene himself”.

One small line from the novel caught my attention: “the restaurant had an iron grille to keep out grenades.”

Three men and a jeep can race along the road, set up, fire one or two missiles, be gone before we can react, then repeat the process a few hundred meters away

Saturday, September 11th, 2021

In Red Storm Rising, Clancy makes the point that “three men and a jeep” can counter an armored breakthrough:

“Every time we break through,” Major Sergetov (the aide to General Alexseyev) observed quietly, “they slow us down and counterattack. This was not supposed to happen.”

“A splendid observation!” Alexseyev (Deputy CINC, Western Theater) snarled, then regained his temper. “We expected that a breakthrough would have the same effect as in the last war against the Germans. The problem is these new light anti-tank missiles. Three men and a jeep… can race along the road set up, fire one or two missiles, be gone before we can react, then repeat the process a few hundred meters away. Defensive fire power was never so strong before, and we failed to appreciate how effectively a handful of rear guard troops can slow down an advancing column. Our security is based on movement…a mobile force under these conditions cannot afford to be slowed down. A simple breakthrough is not enough! We must blast a massive hole in their front and race at least twenty kilometers to be free of these roving missile crews. Only then can we switch over to mobile doctrine.”

Why on earth did the Navy need commandos who could raid anywhere on it?

Friday, September 10th, 2021

Jocko Willink recently interviewed fellow former-SEAL Ben Milligan about his new book, By Water Beneath the Walls: The Rise of the Navy SEALs, which introduces the SEALs as a unit that should not exist:

How did the US Navy create a unit whose operational center of gravity is not only directed at a mission performed on the 29 percent of the earth’s surface that its ships cannot touch, but one so fraught with difficulties that most units of the Army and Marine Corps — the US military’s traditional tenants of its land operations — are not able to perform it with anywhere near the same proficiency?

Most everyone who has ever tried to casually account for the Navy’s inland creep in special operations has explained it away as simple evolution — essentially, a nearly thoughtless process of natural selection in which the Navy responded to a changing environment by inevitably adapting to new operational opportunities. As I saw firsthand, the problem with that theory is that the US military’s various branches — and no less the US Navy — are legendarily hierarchical, thus legendarily stagnant, and thus require more than just a changing environment to turn the steam pistons of inevitability. In other words, these turns are not inevitable; at least not without the backs to crank-start their own evolution in the direction their own brains decide. Which brings us to the next explanation.

[...]

Why on earth did the Navy need commandos who could raid anywhere on it?

The CIA is better at creating foreign armies

Sunday, September 5th, 2021

The CIA is better at creating foreign armies than the U.S. military:

Since the days of its Office of Strategic Services forebearers, the CIA has been able to get two core principles of covert training and support missions right: Politics is local, and people fight for their families, beliefs, and survival. Obligation to community — or for many, religion — trumps flags and oaths to relatively new constitutions of artificial states ratified by distant strangers to whom these soldiers have no personal or communal loyalty. Training and support, therefore, isn’t an off-the-shelf solution but rather a custom fit.

Even the most conservative estimates suggest Washington spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the Lebanese Armed Forces in the early to mid-1980s and billions building national armies in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, only to see these forces collapse in the face of what Americans perceived to be their enemies. The reality, of course, was that these national armies comprised soldiers who were being ordered to face opposing forces, in some cases from their own communities, or to sacrifice their lives in contests that had no meaning for themselves, their families, or their clans. And they were often led by officers to whom they felt no loyalty or connection apart from a common uniform.

Politically, bureaucratically, and logistically, the U.S. military blueprint tends to assume an integrated force in which the fighters are loyal to the central government and the officers under whom they serve, regardless of their superiors’ ethnicity, religion, or clan. Order of battle, strategy, and tactics are likewise aligned to U.S. strengths and norms, rather than tailored to cultural, historic, geographic, educational, or topographic local realities. Washington then proceeds to arm such troops with weapons too complex and expensive for their use and often unsuitable for the terrain or the enemy’s tactics (for example, Bradley Fighting Vehicles to the Lebanese army or MD 530 helicopters to the Afghan army). Furthermore, there is often no way to measure effectiveness or monitor corruption.

In 2016, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) acknowledged to Congress that, in many cases, “U.S. funding dedicated to the ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] was wasted, whether inefficiently spent on worthwhile endeavors or squandered on activities that delivered no apparent benefit.” Moreover, SIGAR listed five major challenges confronting U.S. efforts to develop the ANDSF that were never overcome: 1) limited oversight visibility; 2) questionable force strength numbers; 3) unreliable capability assessments; 4) limited on-budget assistance capacity; and 5) uncertain long-term sustainability.

The CIA is by its own culture focused on people and relationships. Whereas the U.S. defense establishment is replete with unrivaled experts in their vocational fields, the CIA assigns people to such programs who blend technical prowess with interest and depth in the local history and culture and whose approach is informed by intelligence. The drawback of this approach is that there aren’t enough personnel with Arabic- and other foreign-language skills to scale the program. Nevertheless, CIA officers work more intimately with their foreign counterparts and often remain in such programs, rotating repeatedly with the units they support. Rather than being separated in distant fortresses, CIA teams are more typically collocated with their partners without walls or other barriers between them.

People begged for pieces of his cane as sacred relics

Thursday, September 2nd, 2021

I was aware that a gutta percha walking stick was used in the famous caning of Charles Sumner, but I had assumed that gutta percha was simply a hard wood, ideal for walking sticks, but gutta percha in much more interesting than that:

The stick is made of gutta percha, the hardened latex of the Palaquium gutta tree, originally native to Malaysia. This is a natural “thermoplastic” substance, meaning it can be softened with heat and shaped into a form that is retained on cooling. Gutta percha was introduced to Europe in 1842 by Dr. William Montgomerie, a surgeon serving with the British army in the East Indies who had come across the substance in Singapore, where it was being used to make handles for machetes. He thought the substance would be useful to produce handles for medical devices as well as splints for fractures.

Victorian society quickly took to gutta percha. Chess pieces, mirror cases and jewelry were fabricated with it, and dentists found it useful for filling cavities. But perhaps the biggest impact was on the game of golf. At the time, golf balls were made of feather-stuffed leather, were expensive, and not exactly aerodynamic. Balls fashioned out of gutta percha were cheaper and flew further. When they were dinged up, these “gutties” could be repaired by softening in boiled water, and then reshaping in a hand press. The ball’s popularity increased when it was discovered that grooves cut into the surface allowed for a longer flight. Gutties were the ball of choice until about 1900, when they were replaced by the Haskell ball, made of a solid core of rubber wrapped tightly with rubber threads.

Interestingly, rubber, which is also an exudate of a tree, and gutta percha have almost identical molecular structures. They are both polymers of a simple molecule, isoprene, so can be termed as polyisoprenes, but different “kinks” in the long molecules, referred to as “cis” or “trans,” allow for different properties. While gutta percha is thermoplastic, rubber is thermosetting, meaning that once formed into a shape it cannot be reshaped with heat. The rubber used in the Haskell ball was “vulcanized,” a process introduced by Charles Goodyear, who discovered that treating natural rubber with sulphur allowed it to be made into a very hard material. It turns out that the sulphur atoms cross-link the cis polyisoprene units to form a tough latex.

Michael Faraday, the brilliant English scientist who carried out numerous experiments with electricity, found that gutta percha was an excellent insulator — a property that allowed it to be put to use as a coating for the newfangled telegraph cables. In a monumental engineering undertaking between 1854 and 1858, the first transatlantic telegraph cable, insulated with gutta percha, was laid down. Unfortunately, it quickly failed. But by 1865, improvements in technology resulted in a properly functioning gutta percha-insulated telegraph cable that allowed messages to be sent between the continents in a few minutes. Prior to this, communication was via ships and could take weeks. Gutta percha proved to be a huge triumph and served well until it was eventually replaced by polyethylene insulation.

[…]

In 1856, Democrat Preston Brooks brutally attacked Republican Sumner with his walking stick on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Sumner, a dedicated abolitionist, had made a strong speech against slavery, a practice that Brooks favoured. The attack was so violent that Brooks’s gutta percha cane broke into pieces, some of which were recovered from the Senate floor and cut into rings that southern lawmakers wore on neck chains to show their solidarity with Brooks, who boasted that people begged for pieces of his cane as sacred relics.

(Hat tip to Hans Schantz.)

Dissenting voices were ground into dust by the national security bureaucracy

Wednesday, September 1st, 2021

We can divide what went wrong in Afghanistan into three decision-making failures, John Robb says, each owing to an inability to update operating assumptions:

First, a failure to accept that the Taliban had won the guerrilla war and adapt to the situation once it was apparent. Second, a failure to adapt to the speed of the Taliban’s offensive by building contingencies to protect the U.S. evacuation effort. Finally, a failure to appreciate the dangers of being besieged in Kabul and to take steps to protect U.S. troops and civilians.

[…]

The leadership’s unshakable attachment to the viability of the Afghan government and the success of nation-building wasn’t based on evidence. It was a belief based on a political and institutional need that it be true. It was necessary to maintain the illusion that the U.S. was there to modernize and globally integrate Afghanistan at the political level. Institutionally, it was needed to justify the losses (thousands of U.S. lives) and vast expense (trillions of dollars) already consumed by the venture and protect the careers of those involved with it. As a result of these imperatives, dissenting voices were ground into dust by the national security bureaucracy and by political factions committed to the social-reform effort there.

[…]

Guerrilla wars are slow-moving conflicts fought in the moral sphere. You can picture a guerrilla war as opposing planets competing through gravitational attraction. The way you fight it is to create the highest gravity possible (a moral pull that attracts: incorruptibility, moral integrity, altruism) while causing the competing planet to break apart (moral repulsion: corruption, unpopular social changes, selfish abuses). Because of the dynamics of this type of warfare, when victory arrives, it often does so suddenly, with the complete disintegration of the opponent. That’s what happened in Afghanistan, and we should have quickly accepted this fact.

[…]

When it became clear in July that the Taliban had won the guerrilla war and were conducting a maneuver-based offensive to take the country, the U.S. should have responded by deploying contingencies. Chief among them should have been retaking the abandoned and defensible (not surrounded by a heavily populated city) Bagram airbase north of Kabul to ensure air support and evacuation missions were always available, particularly if the single runway at Kabul’s airport was damaged or denied. With Bagram swiftly reopened, stepped up air-support missions for the Afghan army could have been provided, slowing the Taliban’s advance. Additionally, special operations units could have been employed to evacuate civilian personnel stranded by the rapidity of the Taliban’s advance. And the leadership should have radically sped up the evacuation of U.S. civilians and accelerated the awarding of visas to Afghan nationals who might be at risk. It didn’t: the State Department was still forcing citizens to pay a $2,000 repatriation fee—more for non-citizens—and sign promissory notes if they didn’t have the cash, up until August 20, five days after the fall of Kabul.

Instead of adapting, the U.S. leadership froze — overloaded by a fast-moving ground campaign that constantly shifted priorities and disoriented by deceptive Taliban diplomacy that promised a return to the status quo. While the U.S. talked, the Taliban acted. The result: textbook maneuver warfare. It was so effective that when the Taliban began to take major cities in early August, all American leaders could do was plead with the Taliban for mercy.

[…]

As the evacuation dragged on, it became increasingly evident, even to a U.S. leadership unwilling to admit it, that the Taliban could turn the U.S. mission into a hostage crisis within hours. To prevent this outcome, the U.S. was undoubtedly forced to make concessions to the Taliban. On the surface, this took the form of government public messaging that increasingly depicted the Taliban as reformed and reasonable rulers of a new Afghanistan — trustworthy partners who would help protect the U.S. mission from harm and assist in evacuations. Behind the scenes, there may also have been concessions on removing the Taliban from terrorist watch lists, removing trade restrictions, and providing access to Afghan government funds. Announcements on such concessions, if they occurred, would obviously be delayed due to the political costs of revealing them now; by the end of 2021, we’ll probably know the extent of the capitulation.

[…]

Despite this failure, it’s likely that nothing will be done to ensure that it doesn’t happen in the future. Politicized analysis of the retreat will depict it as a victory for diplomacy. Few U.S. soldiers were killed, and over 100,000 people were evacuated. Further, claims will be made that any analysis that doesn’t support this narrative is the equivalent of delusional disinformation. The institutional failures that prevented successful adaptation, from recognizing the failure of nation-building to the danger of relying on a single point of failure during a military evacuation, will be glossed over and forgotten. From the start of the effort decades ago to its ignoble end, nobody responsible for the venture will accept any accountability for it. No one will suffer damage to his career or incur reputational damage, except those brave souls who tried to stop it.

After the crazy events had happened, people acted as if they were predictable

Sunday, August 29th, 2021

I recently read William Shirer‘s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which I had been vaguely aware of and interested in since childhood, but Nassim Nicholas Taleb got me interested in Shirer’s Berlin Diary a couple decades back, when he made this point in his own first book, Fooled by Randomness:

I was brought up in Lebanon, where we always recreate memories, revise experiences and read more into them than necessary. During the war there, when I was 15, I wanted to be a philosopher. While I was hiding in basements I read William Shirer’s Berlin Diary: The journal of a foreign correspondent 1934 to 1941. It made me realise three things about the people around me: that they were always predicting (wrongly) that the war was going to be “solved” soon; that they seemed confident about their estimates for the future even though crazy events were happening all the time; and that after the crazy events had happened, people acted as if they were predictable. I realised that you can find an infinity of narratives to fit your data.

This Herculean effort couldn’t have been done without the unofficial heroes inside the airfield who defied their orders

Friday, August 27th, 2021

An all-volunteer group of American veterans launched a mission on Wednesday night — dubbed the “Pineapple Express” — to shepherd hundreds of at-risk Afghan elite forces and their families to safety:

Moving after nightfall in near-pitch black darkness and extremely dangerous conditions, the group said it worked unofficially in tandem with the United States military and U.S. embassy to move people, sometimes one person at a time, or in pairs, but rarely more than a small bunch, inside the wire of the U.S. military-controlled side of Hamid Karzai International Airport.

The Pineapple Express’ mission was underway Thursday when the attack occurred in Kabul. Two suicide bombers believed to have been ISIS fighters killed at least 13 U.S. service members — 10 U.S. Marines, a Navy corpsman, an Army soldier and another service member — and wounded 15 other service members, according to U.S. officials.

[...]

“Dozens of high-risk individuals, families with small children, orphans, and pregnant women, were secretly moved through the streets of Kabul throughout the night and up to just seconds before ISIS detonated a bomb into the huddled mass of Afghans seeking safety and freedom,” Army Lt. Col. Scott Mann, a retired Green Beret commander who led the private rescue effort, told ABC News.

[...]

The operation carried out Wednesday night was an element of “Task Force Pineapple,” an informal group whose mission began as a frantic effort on Aug. 15 to get one former Afghan commando who had served with Mann into the Kabul airport as he was being hunted by the Taliban who were texting him death threats.

They knew he had worked with U.S. Special Forces and the elite SEAL Team Six for a dozen years, targeting Taliban leadership, and was, therefore, a high-value target for them, sources told ABC News.

Two months ago, this commando told ABC News he had narrowly escaped a tiny outpost in northern Afghanistan that was later overrun while awaiting his U.S. special immigrant visa to be approved.

The effort since he was saved in a harrowing effort, along with his family of six, reached a crescendo this week with dozens of covert movements coordinated virtually on Wednesday by more than 50 people in an encrypted chat room, which Mann described as a night full of dramatic scenes rivaling a “Jason Bourne” thriller unfolding every 10 minutes.

The small groups of Afghans repeatedly encountered Taliban foot soldiers who they said beat them but never checked identity papers that might have revealed them as operators who spent two decades killing Taliban leadership. All carried U.S. visas, pending visa applications or new applications prepared by members of Task Force Pineapple, they told ABC News.

“This Herculean effort couldn’t have been done without the unofficial heroes inside the airfield who defied their orders to not help beyond the airport perimeter, by wading into sewage canals and pulling in these targeted people who were flashing pineapples on their phones,” Mann said.

With the uniformed U.S. military unable to venture outside the airport’s perimeter to collect Americans and Afghans who’ve sought U.S. protection for their past joint service, they instead provided overwatch and awaited coordinated movements by an informal Pineapple Express ground team that included “conductors” led by former Green Beret Capt. Zac Lois, known as the underground railroad’s “engineer.”

This technical detail caught my attention:

Around 8 p.m. EST Wednesday, the shepherds reported in the chatroom, which was viewed by ABC News, one by one that their passenger groups maneuvering discreetly in the darkness toward rally points had suddenly gone dark and were unreachable on their cell phones.

“We have lost comms with several of our teams,” texted Jason Redman, a combat-wounded former Navy SEAL and author, who was shepherding Afghans he knew.

There was concern the Taliban had dropped the cell towers — but another Task Force Pineapple member, a Green Beret, reported that he learned the U.S. military had employed cell phone jammers to counter the IED threat at Abbey gate.

Once the Soviet Union was destroyed, the British would see reason and give in

Tuesday, August 24th, 2021

After citing the introduction to Bevin Alexander’s How Hitler Could Have Won World War II, I naturally had to go ahead and read the whole book, in which he explains how, after it had achieved the most spectacular, rapid, and overwhelming military victory in the twentieth century, the Reich destroyed itself by attacking the Soviet Union directly:

Hitler came to this decision by an incredibly convoluted and illogical process. Since Britain refused to sign a peace treaty, and since invading Britain would be extremely hazardous given the strength of the Royal Navy and the weakness of the German navy, Hitler concluded that the only way to overcome Britain would be to destroy the Soviet Union. Hitler decided that Russia was Britain’s chief remaining hope for assistance, its “continental dagger,” and once the Soviet Union was destroyed, the British would see reason and give in.

[...]

A war against Russia would be nothing like the war in the west, where distances were limited, populations concentrated, objectives close, and the Atlantic Ocean a finite boundary.

He had no idea how to go on and bring the war to a victorious conclusion

Monday, August 23rd, 2021

When I recently noted that Hitler’s strategy through mid-1940 was almost flawless, it wasn’t because I had just read How Hitler Could Have Won World War II, but because I was reading William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and it kept making points that seemed familiar from my long-ago skimming of the intro to Bevin Alexander’s book:

In truth neither Hitler, the High Command nor the general staffs of the Army, Navy and Air Force had ever seriously considered how a war with Great Britain could be fought and won. Now in the midsummer of 1940 they did not know what to do with their glittering success; they had no plans and scarcely any will for exploiting the greatest military victories in the history of their soldiering nation.

This is one of the great paradoxes of the Third Reich. At the very moment when Hitler stood at the zenith of his military power, with most of the European Continent at his feet, his victorious armies stretched from the Pyrenees to the Arctic Circle, from the Atlantic to beyond the Vistula, rested now and ready for further action, he had no idea how to go on and bring the war to a victorious conclusion.

[...]

The Germans, despite their vaunted military talents, lacked any grand strategic concept. Their horizons were limited — they had always been limited — to land warfare against the neighboring nations on the European Continent. Hitler himself had a horror of the sea and his great captains almost a total ignorance of it.

[...]

There was of course another alternative open to the Germans. They might bring Britain down by striking across the Mediterranean with their Italian ally, taking Gibraltar at its western opening and in the east driving on from Italy’s bases in North Africa through Egypt and over the canal to Iran, severing one of the Empire’s main life lines. But this necessitated vast operations overseas at distances far from home bases, and in 1940 it seemed beyond the scope of the German imagination.

The U.S. military should stop being one of the best suppliers of tactical instruction to the bad guys

Friday, August 20th, 2021

The bad guys are getting better at basic tactics:

Consider Boko Haram. Having only launched its military campaign in 2009, it has already mastered the use of coordinated fire and maneuver elements at the tactical level to execute complex raids, ambushes, assaults, and even withdrawing by echelon when on the defensive. It even staged an amphibious assault that overran a Nigerien Army garrison on an island in Lake Chad. Another example is from much closer to the U.S. homeland. Utilizing tactics diffused through U.S. military training, drug cartels such as the infamous “Zetas” and “Jalisco New Generation” have institutionalized combat training that allows them to regularly wreak havoc on Mexican security forces. In the wake of a recent downing of a Mexican military helicopter through the employment of rocket-propelled grenades, the disturbing discovery was made of tactical gear emblazoned with “CJNG – High Command Special Forces” (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generacion). Further evidence comes from the Iraqi campaign to defeat ISIL. Conventional forces struggled mightily to eject ISIL from Iraq’s territory, and only succeeded due to the heavy use of Iraqi special operations forces and liberal American airpower. The battle of Mosul, for example, lasted for nine months despite significant material U.S. support and a 20:1 force ratio against the ISIL defenders. Afghan conventional military forces are often defeated by an increasingly competent Taliban. On the other side of the world, Filipino forces had to destroy much of the town of Marawi to liberate it from jihadist insurgents during a five-month siege last year. Furthermore, these enemies seem to be gravitating towards operations in urban areas. These environments hinder the United States and its partners from utilizing their high-tech advantages, resulting in a playing field that could get ever more level. Finally, given the ease with which such groups can infiltrate poorly vetted partner forces, the U.S. military has probably provided tactical instruction to the enemy directly and indirectly for a long time. As one U.S. military advisor in Afghanistan told one of us: “Sometimes a trainee just doesn’t show up right before graduation, and then – sure enough – you are fighting him on the next objective.”

In summary, rather than celebrating the (shockingly slow) destruction of the ISIL caliphate, the U.S. military should realize that one of its enemies just learned a whole lot about combat: basic infantry tactics, urban operations, and the clever blending of emerging technologies. These lessons will spread globally, and faster than many expect.

What should be done in response? First, the United States has to recognize that the bad guys will get better. Rather than perpetuating the comforting myth that enemy ranks are saturated with incompetent wackos, planners and policymakers must understand that these groups have highly motivated and – with the right training – potentially capable fighters.

Second, we need to remember that humans are more important than hardware. The welter of debate over high technology widgets has obscured the fact that technologies are leveraged by individuals and organizations. Biddle wrote a prescient article back in 1996 entitled “Victory Misunderstood” about the implications of the 1991 Gulf War in which he challenged the hypothesis that technology would be the deciding factor on 21st century battlefields. His analysis showed that basic soldiering skills were crucial to the lopsided victory over Iraqi forces. He argued that technology may simply “be magnifying the effects of skill differentials on the battlefield. If so, then a given skill imbalance may be much more important today than in the past”. We proposed a similar argument here. Therefore, the U.S. military needs to not only be wary of the changing skill sets of the enemies of the United States but also keep a similarly watchful eye over the maintenance of our own human capital. U.S. forces are only as good as the men and women they select, train, and develop.

As a consequence, the U.S. military should stop being one of the best suppliers of tactical instruction to the bad guys. Planners should be more discerning when it comes to building partner capacity. Additional scrutiny should be placed on which partner nation military units are being trained, what roles they will play in the fight, and how large and good they need to be. Most of these nations do not need a Western-style conventional military, but rather a politically reliable force dedicated to internal security and counter-terrorism. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, large (and probably unsustainable) conventional partner forces fight poorly (when they do fight) and, therefore, the specialized counter-terrorism and elite units U.S. mentors have carefully crafted are consistently overused as assault troops. In the words of another U.S. military advisor in Afghanistan, speaking of the country’s elite commando units: “Eight percent of the troops do 80 percent of the fighting.” Rather than choosing to train large numbers of poorly vetted partner conventional forces, the United States should probably choose to save such training (and resources) for smaller numbers of higher quality and better vetted forces. Such efforts will inevitably involve the diffusion of training and technology (and the risk of a future “Zetas” blowback). Therefore, the United States needs to be more mindful about who gets what, and for what purpose.