Saturday, November 15, 2003

The Jihadi Air Defense

If the touchstone of the anti-American Left is Vietnam, the formative experiences of Al Qaeda were rooted in Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent, Somalia. It was here that they gained confidence in their ability to defeat a superpower foe. Neither began auspiciously for the jihadi. Kabul was taken in a textbook aerial assault by the Soviet Army. For years afterward, the Islamists were unable to make any headway against Soviet forces because the helicopters provided Russian commanders with an instant source of vertical envelopment.

After suffering thousands of casualties against a seemingly invincible Soviet foe, the jihadi began to develop a series of tactics designed to make the Soviet rotary-wing advantage an actual liability. The key was to achieving this was the US Stinger missile which inflicted heavy losses on Soviet transport and attack helicopters. It forced Soviet Frontal Aviation to fly at over 2,000 foot altitudes, which essentially blinded the ground columns and denied them aerial support. Then the jihadi took a page out of the North Vietnamese army playbook. They deliberately initiated contact with the intention of ambushing the relief force. In one violent engagement, the jihadi tricked the Soviets into landing 800 air assault troops into a kill zone, blocked out the airbridge with missiles and killed the Russians to a man. By forcing the Soviets to fight on terms of essential tactical equality, the jihadis eventually prevailed.

In Somalia, the Al Qaeda experimented to see whether the concepts they had developed in Afghanistan would work against the Americans. When the UN ordered Americans to hunt down General Aideed, Osama Bin Laden had a perfect opportunity to play against Rangers and Special Forces. He realized that if he could develop effective tactics against those elite forces, they would perform with even greater effect against regular Army units. The result was the infamous "Blackhawk Down" incident. From Mogadishu, the jihadi learned that US vertical assault tactics were vulnerable to mere RPGs if these were used to strike helos in the last, low level stages of their descent. Moreover, he discovered that Americans would cancel offensive operations immediately and concentrate on recovering the survivors of the first attack. They codified the notion of trapping the first fly and swatting whatever came to its rescue.

Although the cause of the crash of two UH-60 Blackhawks over Mosul has not yet been officially determined, it may have been caused or provoked by an RPG attack on helicopters responding to an attack on a US ground element. Even if the cause of the crash is subsequently determined to be accidental, the effect is certainly one that Al Qaeda training manual would have aimed for. The American adaptation has been partly technological and partly tactical. Army aviation -- which has been the primary target of the shootdowns -- is doctrinally committed to high-speed, low-level flying. That is their key pilot skill and bragging right. US rotary wing craft also have far better decoys, like flares, than the Soviets. But these advantages can be negated by a foe which pickets certain lines of approach, using an outpost of spotters with cell phones to give the missile shooters a few minutes of warning about the heading of inbound helicopters. And the tactical and technological adaptations vanish utterly when an air assault helicopter flares for its final approach and the enemy is firing unguided RPGs, which cannot be decoyed away.

The cycle of adaptation never ceases, and the US is working to deploy rotary wing UAVs and other robotic platforms to change the fundamental need to risk lives to obtain information. These UAVs will eventually be armed, too. But one tactic that will soon be viable with the availability of more Iraqi policemen and intelligence agents to coalition forces is the counter ambush against anti-air forces. The jihadi air defense men, pickets and lookouts are themselves vulnerable to being spotted by Iraqis on the ground. Keeping lookout on a hilltop copse, or trundling through a street in a car full of RPGs, these jihadis are vulnerable to destruction or capture in detail at the instance of a sharp-eyed coalition agent, disguised as an ordinary civilian. The coalition can pick off their spotters by the dozen. That fact alone would collapse the jihadi air defense and lead to a further penetration of the enemy's cells. During the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill often wondered why the Nazis never attacked the Chain Home radar sets which provided advance warning to the RAF of Luftwaffe raids. One historian writing about an unrepeated German attack on British radar said:

No German agent during the war learnt much about the British radar system. Had they done, German Intelligence would have discovered that the power and receiving rooms were extremely vulnerable to attack, and that the raid on Ventnor had been a devastating success. It is certain that had German intelligence discovered the full effect of their attack on Ventnor, more radar stations would have been increasingly bombed, with devastating consequences.

The Germans could have altered the course of the Battle of Britain with existing technology and tactics if they had analyzed the enemy's weakness correctly. They didn't and lost the war. The fight against the jihadi enemy will require creative thinking as much as it will need new and better equipment.