Beauty of Gray

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

Weep for the future

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 10:46 AM

Another dog that didn’t bark

There has been a fair amount of attention to several “dogs that didn’t bark” in this war, from Saddam’s WMD’s to the bloody urban warfare to foreign troops deploying in Iraq. But there was one that I haven’t heard mentioned, and that’s the lack of surface to air missiles, especially the man portable ones (MANPADs, for short.) In Afghanistan, there was a lot of anxiety about leftover Stingers that might pose a threat to US aircraft. But these were only present in small numbers.

Iraq, on the other hand, with a large standing army, presumably has quite a few of these missiles stashed away. Indeed, at least one report (which I can’t locate) about an uncovered arms cache, mentioned finding a large number of SA-7’s, the most common variant of these types of missiles, the most primitive Soviet variant.

Most of these missiles are not a major threat to aircraft, since their operational range largely precludes their use against high flying jets. However, MANPADs are helo pilots’ worst nightmare, since they are stuck flying low and slow, and helos are also fairly delicate aircraft that are vulnerable to even small warheads (as the effectiveness of RPG’s in Somalia proved.) Indeed, the use of Stingers against Soviet helos in Afghanistan is credited with turning the tide in the war there, largely eliminating their use as lethal close air support platforms for Soviet ground forces.

So in Iraq, we’ve had an environment with lots of MANPADs around, lots of allied helos and A-10 aircraft flying low, making for very appealing targets, yet, at least in press reports, there has been nothing about missile attacks. And if there have been, as far as I know we haven’t lost any aircraft to such attacks. While at the same time, our helos have been operating in hot enough areas to have lost several to small arms fire from the ground, and to have had many more damaged. So where have the missiles been?

Presumably, Army and Marine Corps analysts will be taking a look at this issue, since the effectiveness of helos against ground troops armed with MANPADs has long been a matter of some debate. Why the difference between the US experience in Iraq, where we had no trouble with MANPADs, and the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, where MANPADs were a very serious threat and over a hundred helos were lost to them?

I can think of a few explanations, although I may be missing others.

Threat level: maybe there aren’t that many MANPADs around in Iraq. Possible, but seems implausible, given their cheapness and the attention given to other air defense systems in the country.

Training: The missiles are there but the Iraqi just don’t know how to use them. Again, seems improbable since these weapons aren’t that tough. There’s a little more to it, but they’re more or less point and shoot. If a few CIA operatives can teach the Afghans how to use Stingers (which many worried were to complex for easy use in combat), a standing army ought to be able to use the simpler Soviet models.

Maintenance: Iraq has been under an embargo, and one thing that gets limited ins the spare parts. That combined with general low levels of maintenance in 2nd world armies, could have led to the majority of Iraqi missiles being inoperative. If the MANPADs had been sitting in a box for 10 years, there’s a good chance when you take them out, they’re not going to work as designed.

Primitive technology: SA-7’s are old, primitive missiles, that are fairly easily fooled by countermeasures. If the Iraqis only had these missiles, then maybe simple countermeasures (like flares) were enough to defeat the threat. If this is the answer, then it doesn’t say much about future wars, since there have been 3 or 4 generations of improved models beyond the SA-7.

Tactics: Perhaps allied tactics that are being used have been enough to defeat the threat. I know it’s standard practice for planes making close strike runs to release flares in case of an enemy MANPAD launch. And TV images of some A-10 strikes on Baghdad confirmed that they were doing this—they were launching out numerous flares during or after their attacks. Other possible tactical solutions include rapid attacks and suppressive fire.

As I said, I don’t know the answer, but it’s an important question for future military planners. Hopefully as part of the follow on to the invasion, there will be some investigation into this issue, including debriefing of Iraqi soldiers, to figure out just what the conditions were that led to the ineffectiveness of the MANPADs. Is it something we did, that we could repeat in other countries? Or is it something unique to the Iraqi situation, that we can’t count on in future conflicts?

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 9:54 AM

Why is there a debate going on now?

OK, so the emerging CW is that we’ve gotten the easy part out of the way in Iraq, and now it’s on to the tough bit—rebuilding society. And this brings along a host of questions—who should run the country? How should they run it/ What to do with the oil? Which Iraqi exile groups should get power? What is the role of the UN? Of the US military? Does the Pentagon get the lead? Does State? And so on.

These are the issues of the day, being hashed out in the back rooms of the administration, and debated in magazine columns, op-eds, and blogs. But is no-one else as utterly appalled as I am by this process? Why on earth is this being debated now, when something needs to be done in a matter of days or weeks? There’s emerging chaos on the ground, with everyone under the sun jockeying for position in Kuwait, and a power vacuum in Iraq. Is it not a planning failure of colossal proportions to, only now at the 11th hour, to be trying to figure out what to do in Iraq?

We’ve been pretty sure we were going to invade for the past year, at least, if not since September 12th. We’ve spent months building up troops in the region and wrangling in the UN. All throughout, the one thing that everyone agreed on was that, if we did invade, we’d be able to oust Hussein and defeat his army with relative ease. In fact, the relative ease with which we have done so was, if anything, tougher than most were predicting. So the existence of the current situation was a fait accompli for at least a year.

And you’re telling me that nobody sat down and came up with a plan for postwar reconstruction anytime over the past year? It seems to me that anyone with a shred of competence would make having a follow-on governance plan a precondition of military action. And yet, astoundingly, the decision makers seem to not have had a clue that the situation that everyone knew was coming would, in fact come, and maybe they should spend a few minutes thinking about it before starting the whole thing in motion.

It’s absurd, and if things fall apart because of it, the failure will be directly attributable to the Bush Administration and their failure to prepare for this entirely predictable situation. They spent months and months arguing about how to do the easy part, and apparently decided to leave the hard part for later, when they’d have days instead of months to figure it out. So now we’re left with no-one knowing where they stand, and multiple competing plans with no guidance from the top.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 9:39 AM

Internalized spin

I have been content lately to sit by the sidelines, not writing anything, since most of what I’d want to say about the issues of the day had already been said multiple times and was continuing to be said in other, more popular venues. (It seems to me that the skill required to be an op-ed writer is not so much ability to write, or the ability to think and come up with new ideas, but the ability to be comfortable parroting old, worn-out ideas as if they were new, and your own. And to do this every week, for the rest of your life.)

Anyway, one thing that struck me while sitting out the fray was how much of what is usually called spin—the adjusting of facts to support political arguments you want to make—is not so much a conscious process of dissimulation as an unconscious filtering. In this case, what I’m specifically thinking of was the differing assessments of the conduct of the war about a week ago, in its brief “quagmire” phase. Almost without fail, those who had been opposed to the war before it started were those that were, given the exact same data inputs from news reports, the most pessimistic about its prosecution. If you had only read Talking Points Memo, a week or so ago you might have thought the US forces were in terrible condition, balancing on a knife edge of imminent defeat. Similar negativity exuded from Maxspeak, although not to the same extent.

Meanwhile, from the same reports, Instapundit and other hawks were trumpeting the great success that the war was, and how much progress had been made.

It was interesting to me because, on the face of it, these two points would seem to be completely independent. Judging the progress of the war from news reports has nothing to do with how one felt about the morality of wisdom of waging the war in the first place. And yet, once they had signed on to oppose the war, many people became so wedded to the position that the war was a bad idea that they ended up searching for support for this position and finding it. While others (who turn out to have been correct int his case) who thought the war was a smashing idea and would be a cakewalk, looked at the same data and decided that, what do you know? They were right all along.

Not exactly a new point to make, but it does point out that charges of dishonesty in political debate are probably misplaced. Even when someone is wrong, it’s not so much that they are deliberately attempting to deceive, as that their pre-existing ideas corrupt the data they receive so that they come to false conclusions.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 9:32 AM

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