Monday, November 17, 2003

Postscript to the Jihadi Air Defense

Reader BM asks whether the experience of Orde Wingate who fought Arab guerillas in Palestine seventy years ago still held any lessons for American forces today. Wingate was a British soldier who insubordinately organized Jewish armed groups at a time when official policy was to ignore Arab guerilla raids aimed at driving out their settlements. Wingate hated passive defense. His policy of preemptively striking at the guerillas is best illustrated by Wingate's exchange with a Jewish settler Zvi Brenna, who was rather proud of the fortifications he had erected. Wingate told Brenna:

'Somewhere in those hills are men who will one day come down and wipe you out.' Brenna replied: 'They will not overrun us so easily. We will be waiting for them when they come.' Wingate turned angrily upon him. `That is the trouble with the Jews. Always so calm and patient. Always waiting for disaster to come. You are a race of masochists crying: `Hurt me, hurt me! I cannot raise my hand against you until you have killed my brother and raped my sister and thrown my father and mother into the ditch.' The Jews of Palestine are in bad condition. So long as you all sit in your settlements and wait to fight and die, you will die before you have a chance to fight.' `What else can we do?' asked Brenna. `Why doesn't Hagana go out and fight?' `I don't know,' replied Brenna."

Whereupon, of course, Wingate organized a series of offensives in which Arab guerillas were hunted down by Jewish guerillas. It became the turn of the Arab headman to wonder when the Jews were coming. Leaving aside the question of Wingate's politics, the military question is whether US forces in Iraq can adopt some of his methods in their fight against the Jihadis. The first thing to remember when reviewing this historical campaign is that the Arabs were not defeated by the military methods of Wingate or Haganah alone. They were defeated by the combination of armed resistance and settlement, as nearly every Arab will point out. It was the lethal combination of effective counter-guerilla tactics and the emergence of an alternative Jewish society which ultimately displaced the guerilla base and sounded the death-knell for their cause.

In the context of the current American mission in Iraq, Wingate's operations correspond to CENTCOM's counter-jihadi efforts while the rebuilding of Iraqi democratic society and its economy corresponds to the settlement process. While Wingate could leave the state-building of Israel to the Jews and concentrate on destroying its enemies, America must assume both burdens in Iraq, until that country's civil society can take up the national development effort itself.

One historical insight largely bearing on military issues is that the Arab tradition of raiding, which is methodologically very similar to guerilla tactics, was deeply established in the indigenous culture in Wingate's day and probably from time immemorial. Observers who are surprised by the hit and run methods employed against US forces ought not to be. Even Iraqi bandits do this without prompting or apparent instruction. By contrast, US conventional forces began Operation Iraqi Freedom without even an established doctrine for urban warfare, let alone a counter-guerilla campaign plan, and many a pundit gloomily predicted that Americans would be slaughtered in a Grozny-like cataclysmic battle for Baghdad. But the Army successfully made things up as they went along, and this is apparently a feature, not a bug, of the American way of war.

Typically, the Army's dedicated counter-guerilla unit, the Special Forces, was not entirely available to take over the Wingate role. They are apparently focused on missions of 'national interest', leaving regular Army units with much of the task of interpolating the counter-guerilla meme into their traditional Stability and Support Operations (SASO) and Civil Affairs (CA) roles. Units like the 101st Airborne have apparently responded by running their own do-it-yourself special forces operations, constituting ex-Iraqi soldiers into "private security" companies (rent-a-Mike-Force?) and other things doubtless too hair-raising to state openly. This is far from a bad thing. Observers have been consistently impressed by the initiative of divisional commanders and raised a howl when their discretionary funds were momentarily reduced by the bean counters in the budget office. The funding was subsequently restored, probably in belated recognition that money, moneda, lucre and dinero in the hands of an agressive divisional commander is as lethal in counter-guerilla warfare as any round of ammunition.

The Field Artillery Joins the Fray

In the Jihadi Air Defense, the Belmont Club speculated that the Jihadis were using an air defense system anchored on pickets with hand-held radios or cellular phones. That would give them time to set up against an inbound flight of air assault troops, helicopter gunships or even fixed-wing attack aircraft if low enough. Most recent American casualties have involved rotary wing aircraft brought down or forced into an accident by anti-air missiles. The emphasis on air defense was underscored in a recent Al Qaeda interview with an Arab newspaper, in which five of the interviewees were brandishing MANPADs.

But the cycle of tactical adaptation goes on ceaselessly. Last night, the Jihadi air defense pickets were trumped by an unidentified "satellite guided missile" with a 500 pound warhead which slammed into an Islamist training camp in Northern Iraq. The missile was probably an Army ATACMS artillery round, one version of which is GPS-guided. The system has a 300-kilometer range and is semi-ballistic. That gives it several very scary tactical properties, the first of which is that the projectile arrives faster than the speed of sound from the edge of space. You will never hear it coming. MANPADs cannot even begin to track it. The second is that it has a relatively short time of flight. Unlike air missions, which must often be planned hours or days in advance and may arrive after the enemy has scattered or gone to ground, a Special Forces reconnaissance unit can hammer a Jihadi encampment with a literal bolt from the blue upon transmitting the target grid coordinates.

In many ways, the ATACMS functions like a very long range equivalent of the Israeli helicopter missile ambush tactic, which has been responsible for killing many Jihadi terrorists, often while riding in their cars. The Israelis have always struggled with concealing the approach of the attack helicopter from their targets and have typically camouflaged its onset by flying a number of other aircraft in the vicinity. The ATACMS, being faster than its own sound, arrives unannounced. One disadvantage of the missile is its great cost and inability to engage a moving target. In that respect, the Israeli helicopter missile ambush is superior. And while its time of flight is short, ATACMS is not instantaneous. That limits ATACMS to targets that have momentarily stopped, such an encampments or safe houses. If the US Army can develop a cheap 35 pound round (105 mm equivalent) with an equivalent range, Special Forces or Iraqi agents working for the coalition could plink jihadi security positions, pickets, sentries, or columns at rest with complete surprise.