Drones, ROE, Raids, Fathers and Sons, Diamonds and Goats

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 7 months ago

I thought I would give you a lot of loosely correlated things to think about for the weekend.  First of all, Bird Dog at the FORVM says call off the drones in Pakistan.  They have been a tactical success, he notes, but in the same breath, points out that they have been a political failure.  I think that this is about right.  I am not opposed to the drones; nor do I believe that the unfortunate noncombatant souls who get in the way should be reason enough to call a halt to the program.  I just don’t believe that it works considered holistically.  As regular readers already know, we don’t cover high value target hits.  The HVT program doesn’t impress us as a replacement for counterinsurgency with boots on the ground.

Concerning drones, Victor Davis Hanson mentions that “at some point, Obama must answer why waterboarding mass-murderers and beheaders like Khalid Sheik Mohammed is wrong, while executing by missile attack (no writs, habeas corpus, Miranda rights, etc.) suspected terrorists and anyone caught in their general vicinity in Waziristan — or pirates negotiating extortion — is legitimate.”

I think that this is correct, except that I have one better than Hanson.  We’ve covered the rules of engagement fairly extensively, and linked and and provided commentary on the standing rules of engagement, the Iraq-specific ROE, and the rules for the use of force.  Hold that thought for a moment for us to consider the tactical generals.

An amazing revolution is taking place in the history of war, and even perhaps of humanity. The U.S. military went into Iraq with just a handful of drones in the air and zero unmanned systems on the ground, none of them armed. Today, there are more than 5,300 drones in the U.S. inventory and another roughly 12,000 on the ground.

And these are just the first generation, the Model T Fords compared with the smarter, more autonomous and more lethal machines already in the prototype stage. And we won’t be the only ones using them. Forty-two other countries have military robotics programs, as well as a host of non-state actors …

But like any major change in war, the robots revolution is not turning out to be the frictionless triumph of technology that some would describe it. Unmanned systems are raising all sorts of questions about not only what is possible, but also what is proper in our politics, ethics, law and other fields. And these questions are already rippling into all aspects of the military endeavor, well before we get to any world of machines making decisions on their own.

Our technologies are making it very easy, perhaps too easy, for leaders at the highest level of command not only to peer into, but even to take control of, the lowest level operations. One four-star general, for example, talked about how he once spent a full two hours watching drone footage of an enemy target and then personally decided what size bomb to drop on it.

Similarly, a Special Operations Forces captain talked about a one-star, watching a raid on a terrorist hideout via a Predator, radioing in to tell him where to move not merely his unit in the midst of battle, but where to position an individual soldier.

Besides being absurd, can anyone outline how a four star general sitting behind a desk and deciding to drop a bomb on a person who isn’t currently a threat to him doesn’t violate the ROE?  Remember, the ROE doesn’t have any discussion whatsoever of offensive operations.  The entire document is built around self defense, which is why General Kearney wanted to charge two snipers with murder because they shot a Taliban commander who didn’t happen to be pointing a weapon at them.  Not that the ROE is pristine in this failure to address offensive operations – it happens to be ridiculous in this omission.  But the point is that we aren’t holding Generals and drones to the same ROE as we hold the Soldier and Marine in the field.  Not quite fair, huh?

Bird Dog also links The Captain’s Journal and mentions that we point out the obvious similarities between drone attacks and Special Operations Forces that swoop in conducting raids in the middle of the night leaving carnage everywhere, expecting the infantry to clean up their mess the next day – and week – and months.

This brings up a testy exchange between me and Andrew Exum over SOF, where I exchanged e-mail and posts over time (for the last one, see here), charging him with being obsessed with SOF.  Andrew responded that in fact he wasn’t, and that “the so-called “general purpose” forces are the ones responsible for carrying out the main effort.”  He also missed the point – the point being that when piracy has led to a hostage situation it has gone too far.  Sending SEALs into every hostage situation is not logistically sustainable.  But let’s go with the flow here for a minute.

Nuance is in order here.  To be sure, there are qualifications – e.g., HALO jumps, use of underwater rebreathers, etc. – that are unique to some and not all.  When you need those billets, there is no replacement for having those billets.  But Andrew goes further.  He said: ” … an average platoon of Marines or Army light infantry does not have the capabilities or the training to carry out the missions executed by Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, and other SOF (to include the SMUs).”  He went further in previous posts to extend this to the “cool boys” doing what amounted to direct action kinetics in counterinsurgency campaigns as “the way we play offense.”

Indeed.  I have discussed this with other active duty officers who found this silly.  The offensive part of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have involved more than just SOF.  From my perspective, having a son deployed to Fallujah, I know that he knows how to fast rope, that he conducted direct action kinetics, that he cleared rooms (not just trained to do it, but did it under fire), and he did it with a SAW (so much for those who complain that a short barrel carbine is needed for small doorways – my son used a SAW and led the way at times).  They used all of the infantry tactics used by SOF, but they weren’t just trained to do it.  They actually did it under fire.

So I have concluded that I simply don’t understand what Exum is talking about.  This notion of the SOF being the ones to conduct direct action kinetics while the General Purpose Forces do the softer side of COIN is an Army brainchild.  It’s foreign to me.  Some brainchild.  I think that the child is braindead.  The problems associated with this thinking could fill a book.

And this is the perfect segue into what I believe fathers ought to be doing with their sons.  Fastroping?  Harumph.  My son knew how to rappel before he ever entered the Marines.  How about the hard work to learn horsemanship that the original SOF guys did when they went into Afghanistan (the Horse Soldiers)?  My Marine son knew how to ride horses before he ever entered the Corps, and my other two sons and I have ridden the trails as well.  In fact, my Marine has broken and trained horses up to and including showing them in the ring for judges.

In fact, all three of my boys were humping a backpack at 6000 feet elevation about as soon as their bones were developed enough to take it.  They have all ridden horses on treacherous trails, they have all rappelled, and they have all pitched camp in dangerously cold weather at a very young age.  I have lifted weights with all of them, and always wanted each one of them to know that if they ever gave their mother a hassle, I would be happy to throw down with them at any place, any time.  As a father, if your time is being spent watching football on the weekends instead of teaching your son(s) to do algebra, analyze the Scriptures, lift weights, start a fire, neck rein a horse, belay a rope or hump a pack, then your priorities need to be re-evaluated and adjusted accordingly.  You’re not locked in on the important things.  You’ve lost focus, and expect other “special” people to do the hard work for you.

Without any segue whatsoever, I’ll leave you with Tim Lynch of Free Range International.  He linked my Analysis of the Battle of Wanat (the category is still second on Google).  At any rate, Tim argues for ignoring the isolated battle spaces such as in the Nuristan and Kunar Provinces and focusing instead on the population.  This parallels the argument of David Kilcullen, but runs counter to my own counsel and that of Joshua Foust.  I will weigh in on this later.

In the mean time, he makes this tantalizing statement: “The Taliban will not come back in power here – not in a million years.  Even if they did they would not be stupid enough to provide shelter or assistance to Al Qaeda.  We have reduced Osama and his surviving leaders into walking dead men who freak anytime someone gets near them with a cell phone or a plane flies overhead.  They could no more pull off another 9/11 than I could pull a diamond out of a goats ass.”

Well, I have spent some time studying the Hamburg cell, financing for the Tehrik-i-Taliban, al Qaeda strategies and tactics, and so forth, and I’m not sure it’s that simple.  Money, language training and willingness to die.  They have all three.  But while I wanted to discuss this with Tim over e-mail, what do you know?  Tim has no e-mail address.  Apparently, he doesn’t correspond via e-mail, doesn’t own a computer, or doesn’t know how to use one.  At least, he provides no such address over his site.

Calling Tim?  Drop me a note?

  • Baba Tim

    Hey Herschel,

    As you have correctly deduced I am not tech savvy and will have to get the folks back in CONUS to add a contact button on the FRI blog. I have a laptop, it is the shaky internet access and a congenital lazy streak I must battle to keep the damn blog going. Savvy enough to update my blog roll though and I just added you because I am frequent visitor and am really pleased to find myself linked in your post.

    I will concede that al Qaeda remains a threat for the very reasons you made above. My position is that the Afghans will never let them back inside Afghanistan nor will they accept Taliban rule. I saw a news release from Foggy Bottom last week which explicitly stated that if we abandoned Afghanistan al Qaeda will return and once again threaten our nation. Given the source I am now more convinced than ever that I’m right. al Qaeda will be a threat to us for years to come (more like decades) and you are absolutely correct – it will not easy to eliminate that threat. But Osama is done, or dead; it will be left to others to carry on the fight.

    I recognize we are in a long war and it was growing frustration at seeing us throw so much time, money and manpower around Afghanistan while losing ground that prompted me to take up the pen. We are going to be at this a long time – probably in other countries too and we have to get smarter about how we do these operations. I believe risk aversion combined with the inability to determine the actual level of threat in different geographic and cultural zones inside Afghanistan has cost us a fortune. Even worse there is no indication that we recognize this fact be a problem. You could have landed in Kabul and drove anywhere you wanted in this country back in 2002 with no drama. You can’t do that now and this, me thinks, is a direct result of risk aversion based micro management from on high. I would hit that point with more vigor but don’t want to jeopardize access to pecan pie and the mega gym at my local Big Box FOB. A man can only eat so much kabob and pilau – hitting the DFAC is important – hitting the gym even more so.

    But this is a target rich environment so in the evenings when I get the chance I pound away on the laptop venting my spleen like a talk show host creating massive posts which confuse the hell out of me. I then cut about 50% out of the them, try to decipher the words which have stumped the spell check, read them out loud to my puppy Scout, paste some pics in and by that time I’m sick of the whole process and I’m off to bed. Every time I read through them I find misspellings or bizarre attempts at punctuation which drives me nuts. But I’m getting my message out – and it is being heard by some people of influence which makes the whole tortured process worth it.

    And I’m off in left field again – this is like blogging writing to you. Sorry

    My email is tim@freerangeinternational.com and I look forward to corresponding. We are going to agree more than not – I too do not think much of “Special Forces” and am a strong supporter of straight leg infantry (preferably of FMF origin.) It is on their shoulders the future of this nation currently rests.

    Semper Fi

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    I’m honored that you would drop by my site. Thanks for the comment, and I’ll be sending you mail.

    The thing about tech savvy was tongue-in-cheek. You’re apparently savvy enough to make good posts. I, too, lament the wasted time in Afghanistan.

    I’ll have to work some to understand why the Taliban can’t make a comeback. They seem to be pretty strong in some areas now. It took the 24th MEU and 400 dead Taliban to drive them out of Garmser, only to see it devolve again when the Brits took over.

    At any rate, we’ll work on this one via e-mail. Watch your six.

    V/r

  • TSAlfabet

    Alot of interesting bits in your post. Thank you.

    Article by Michael Phillips in WSJ on 5/5/09 that bears on your discussion dealing with boots on the ground in A-stan:

    http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB124146742384384333-lMyQjAxMDI5NDAxNTQwNjU3Wj.html

    Contrast this with the article you related in Backwards Counterinsurgency. These guys seem to be on to the right approach. I just hope that they have some arty or CAS handy if/when the Tali-baggers mass and try to overrun one of the outposts. 150 men seems to be pretty sparse when the nearest help is more than a couple hours away.


You are currently reading "Drones, ROE, Raids, Fathers and Sons, Diamonds and Goats", entry #2864 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Abu Muqawama,Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,Fathers and Sons,Featured,Rules of Engagement,Tehrik-i-Taliban and was published May 8th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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