01 August 2014

Understanding why "Mission Orders" is cool, but not useful.

In WWII the German military continually gave better than it got and still lost. So why today is yet another generation of American officers breathlessly talking about "mission command" or "Mission type orders" and "auftragstaktics"? Why have we been talking about it since at least the 1980s according to the professional journals?

Well, because we think we aren't as good as we are when we've trained in peacetime, and we are culturally so different that there is a mystique of awesomeness about a leadership culture where innovative thinking is encouraged. Also the US Army was in the midst of a cultural shift away from our own "win by attrition and logistics" model of the Civil War, WWI, WWII, and Korea, to a "win on the first day of war" model required post Yom Kippur. At that time, with the threat of the Russian Horde thundering over the Fulda Gap the allure of a independent Battalions and Companies using disciplined initiative to hit above their weight class must have been very alluring indeed.

But Germany lost WWII. General Patton showed that US Forces could maneuver like lighting in WWII. The Gulf War and 2003 advance into Iraq showed that the modern US Army could maneuver like lightning.

So why in the world are we still so focused on "mission tactics"? I honestly don't understand it.

When a German Officer wanted a talented subordinate who could visualize the battlefield and make sound rapid decisions he would have to intensely develop that junior Officer. When an American Officer wants subordinates who can see the battlefield and make sound rapid decisions, he enables that commander to see his own forces with a digital battle tracking system and see the enemy with satellite, spy plane, and UAV camera feeds. If the German subordinate failed, it meant more development. If the American officer fails, it means being replaced by a one of your peers from a nearly inexhaustible supply of Officers aching to be given the privilege of command.

The mythos of "mission command" is that a Superior commander could give sparse guidance with a clear desired endstate, "accomplish this effect on the enemy" and trust subordinate commanders to brilliantly innovate solutions to the problem.  Of course the Wehrmacht under the Nazi regime was not known for particularly following norms of international law when it came to civilian casualties, atrocities, or even human treatment of its own Soldiers.

The truth is that Patton would have been drummed out of today's Army because he created a "hostile and toxic command climate." Heck he might have ended up in the "behavioral health" clinic as a resident if anyone overheard him say he thought he was Alexander the Great re-incarnated.

Without leaders like Patton (and his staff that worked like slaves to support him), mission command is no better than the regular operations planning and execution process we have worked on since before WWII. If you want outside the box results, you have to populate the Officer corps, both leaders and staff, with outside the box thinkers. People who will routinely ignore restrictions as "inconveniences" if they get in the way of a particular outcome. But in a large US Army, outside of the box thinkers who will do things their own way are generally rated as "Center Of Mass" at best, and if on staff are labeled, "not a team player" at worst.

Of course "Mission type orders" can be executed by inside the box thinkers too, as it is really a culture of trust, built over time and personal experience of subordinate level performance and superior level intent.

The casualty count on the German side of WWII on the Eastern front shows that they always killed more Russians than Russians killed Germans. But the ratios are never amazingly lopsided enough for me to say that "Mission Tactics" were in themselves an effective force multiplier above and beyond the technical advantage offered by superior arms in a combined arms team. Having a culture of trust, innovation, and martial heritage isn't everything it is cracked up to be when you bite off more than you can chew.

When bogged down in cities, "mission tactics" produced what result?
When bogged down by a supply system reliant on horses, what was the result?

Instead of attempting to change the culture of the Officer Corps to embrace "mission command" why not accept that what we have is really is as good as it is going to get in terms of an operational framework? Our huge, detailed, ungainly, hard to digest Operations Orders that give all sorts of details to all sorts of commands and staff to make the big green machine function is a technique that has worked, and proven itself to work over time. No it is not fast, but "right" is better than "quick" which is better than "slow" which is better than "wrong."

So I think that the US Army should move beyond this infatuation with a distinctly German cultural artifact (the Germans have so far in the various wars on terror not shown any particular genius for war, which might be a simple result of really damn good staff planning making sure that individual initiative and heroics are not called for). We should continue on our own path, embracing technology, learning how to efficiently turn data into information, and information into advantages. We should continue on our path to minimize our own casualties and achieve political endstates in coordination with the "non-military" side of political agencies tasked with executing foreign policy.

Of course by the time a US Army unit develops the organizational culture and personal relationship familiarity to execute "Mission Type Orders" it is broken apart and the experience spread throughout the rest of the Army as part of our force management cycle. So we can do it, but it takes time, longer time in command than regulations require, and longer in staff as well.

So units that have been together for a long time, and have built the trust relationships necessary for "mission tactics" will be fine, even if all their staff products and operations orders are made the American way, and units that are tossed together (I was recently at a Change of Command ceremony where every single O5 and O6 in the Regiment swapped out, talk about rebuilding the team) will have to work the kinks out the way the Navy does a "shakedown cruise" to see how the ship and crew perform together.

31 July 2014

Contingency planning

Throughout my career I've been part of a number of "contingency plans." Some as simple as getting ready to go somewhere and never going, some as simple as being on a recall notice.

If you heard that a unit was conducting training to respond to a dirty bomb attack on American soil, would that worry you?

I really hope not, because I did that training in 2004, a decade ago, as a plain old Joe. After 9/11 every unit started taking large scale terror threats much more seriously. I do not know if units still break out the decontamination systems and train on them, but I really hope so. There are some skills that atrophy if not used, and if those skills are needed there isn't time to hone them.

Currently I'm part of the planning process for another contingency mission. Again it is a "oh crap, need it now" sort of contingency, and so we go through the pain of working very hard for a mission we hope not to do.

One of the things that military planners will tell you is that there is a plan for everything, and the one you really need will be so far out of date as to be practically worthless as anything but a starting tool for going through the whole planning process again. Units that you planned for have changed out capabilities under some "modernization plan" and sometimes even weapon systems are retired, or new systems adopted, that change the force requirements.

But, as Eisenhower said, "Plans are useless, but planning is priceless."

28 July 2014

Range means options, the range war with China.

Go here, read the whole thing. Hat tip to Dick for the link.


Everybody back? Summary, China has missiles that can really reach out and touch someone with a big enough boom to really limit your tactical options for closing distance to the Chinese coast via sea routes from the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Just a reminder if you aren't spun up on Chinese over the horizon radar capabilities: http://fas.org/nuke/guide/china/facility/oth-b.htm, and one with pretty pictures that give a good idea of scale of capabilities: http://defence.pk/threads/chinas-high-frequency-hf-or-over-the-horizon-oth-radars.304589/

Ok, here is the skinny on what this means if you are a ground pounder.

Bunkers are more effective than anti-missile systems for actually keeping your ass alive, so forward island staging bases in Japan, Okinawa, Guam, Korea, etc, need to be ready to take a hit.

Stealthy ships are great for James Bond films, last I checked we didn't have them in our inventory. This means that before ground pounders can get to the beach, somebody else has to take care of the missile threat.

The Air Force claims that they need at least 500 F-35s to do the job. Color me skeptical that the publicly briefed battle plan from GEN Hostage is going to be the actual battle plan.

Chinese submarines for a long time were "diesel" and despite having short legs underwater, have been able to surface inside of a US Carrier Group ship formation. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2006/nov/13/20061113-121539-3317r/

Now we have to deal with Chinese Boomers http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Type_094_submarine which can launch nukes.

The Chinese arms race isn't for superiority with China, it is for parity. By having a parity of arms they will have an effective standoff from their home base while US forces would not. When in a parity fight, the defender maintains the advantage.

But, by working on Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) missile and radar systems, it effectively requires the USAF to embrace stealth as the end all be all, hence all the hype about the F-35 being necessary. This is all well and good for the USAF, but the US Navy is stuck shaking their heads going, "Stealth aircraft are all well and good, but we aren't flying them from stealth aircraft carriers, or refueling them with stealth tankers."

As long as China can maintain some semblance of parity, they can prevent an attack before it happens. It makes me wonder if the very compromised F-35 program will actually impart enough advantage for someone to be crazy enough to attack China.

27 July 2014


The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Killing children is a tough subject, and it is hard to explain good intentions to such an inherently evil act. We see children as unsullied, pure, the hope of the future. To destroy that pure potential must surely require evil, or at best a seriously calloused set of morals.

Hitler's life was saved multiple times. Once as a child he was pulled from a freezing river. In WWI as a Corporal he was bayonetted in the gut, then given medical care so that he lived. Each time a young Hitler's life was saved, it was the most moral act at that time, and in that place.

But looking back on the untold horror that was unleashed because of Hitler's rise to power in Germany, we can see that a moral act in the moment became a huge disservice to humanity.

The movie "Loopers" staring Bruce Willis (not the worst time travel movie Willis has done, that will forever be reserved for "12 Monkeys") deals with a similar subject where a man goes back in time to stop a tyrant but his actions actually create the tyrant. It is a horrible film, but it does as the questions of causality that humans like to mull over from time to time.

So would you kill German children in WWII with British and American bombs? Would you kill Japanese children with an atomic bomb?

Israel is being bombarded with rockets by Hamas. Hamas is using children as human shields in an attempt to maximize their political and military (but I repeat myself, war IS politics) gain from the deaths of children.

I believe that in the long run, a short, extremely violent response is better than a protracted campaign in terms of lives lost in the long run. I believe that this is possibly the most moral and ethical way to conduct a war and minimize human suffering.

Now here is the question, how many of your children must die before you accept the death of innocents to stop it from happening again? What would you do to protect your children? And more importantly, what wouldn't you do?

Proportionality, what does it really mean?

The idea of proportionality gives some people fits. Along with "distinction" and "necessity" you have to follow the principle of proportionality to meet the standards for "legal" war. When you have a one on one fight, "distinction" is very easy, one attacker and one defender. The "necessity" to defend yourself is also very easy to explain, if I don't, I'll be injured or die.

If someone attacks you with their fist, does that give you legal recourse to shoot them?

If someone attacks you with a knife, does that give you legal recourse to shoot them?

If someone attacks you with a vehicle, does that give you legal recourse to shoot them?

The answer to all of these questions is yes. Proportional response means that if you are attacked with lethal intent, you can respond with lethal intent.

Whenever a JAG officer has to give a class on proportionality there will always be the question, "Can I kill a bad guy with an AK by calling in a JDAM strike?"

The answer is, "It depends, but odds are yes you can." So here is a lawyer speaking (pulled this quote shamelessly from Wikipedia, it is cited in articles on both necessity and proportionality), citing all sorts of relative international law, that basically says you can do whatever you want as long as you get the legal standards of distinction, necessity, and proportionality met before you do it.

Under international humanitarian law and the Rome Statute, the death of civilians during an armed conflict, no matter how grave and regrettable, does not in itself constitute a war crime. International humanitarian law and the Rome Statute permit belligerents to carry out proportionate attacks against military objectives,[7] even when it is known that some civilian deaths or injuries will occur. A crime occurs if there is an intentional attack directed against civilians (principle of distinction) (Article 8(2)(b)(i)) or an attack is launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage (principle of proportionality) (Article 8(2)(b)(iv)).
Article 8(2)(b)(iv) criminalizes:
Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated;
Article 8(2)(b)(iv) draws on the principles in Article 51(5)(b) of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, but restricts the criminal prohibition to cases that are "clearly" excessive. The application of Article 8(2)(b)(iv) requires, inter alia, an assessment of:
(a) the anticipated civilian damage or injury;
(b) the anticipated military advantage;
(c) and whether (a) was "clearly excessive" in relation to (b).
Now in a terrorist campaign of rocket attacks based from a largely "civilian" area, the matter of "distinction" becomes more problematic.

Israel has a huge public relations problem because it has to explain how any operation they take to stop the rockets meets all three criteria.

Is it necessary for Israel to use ground forces and air strikes to defend against rocket attacks from Gaza, especially when they have Iron Dome, Arrow, and Patriot missile batteries to defend themselves? The answer is yes, and simply because you are wearing a bullet proof vest when your attacker shoots at you is no reason that you cannot shoot back.

Is it proportionate to use bombs, tanks, and artillery against rockets? Yes, lethal force is lethal force.

Is the target distinct? Here is the biggest grey area, where Israel gets the worst press. Hamas and Hezbollah both routinely place rocket launch sites in civilian crowds hoping for protection by the crowds, or a propaganda opportunity when Israeli bombs hit the crowd or civilian site.

When I look back at the carpet bombing operations of WWII and the rubbled cities left behind in their wake, and the clear justification that such indiscriminate use of dumb bombs to destroy the enemies logistical support, I can only chuckle at those who refuse to draw the same conclusion with Palestinian support to Hamas.

If the Palestinians didn't want Hamas in charge, they would take Hamas out of power. Americans did it at the Battle of Athens, so it can't be such a stretch of the imagination that the Palestinians are actively or passively supporting Hamas.

But you will still find people arguing that there is no military necessity for Israel to go into Gaza. You won't find any actual military experience in those people, but everyone is entitled to their opinion, no matter how uninformed.

25 July 2014

Why Israel dithered, and why we'd dither too if it happens to us.

If you don't have a broadband connection, don't bother clicking on this link as it is seriously pic heavy.

What do those photographs show?

Palestinian vulnerability.
Israeli strength and dignity.

Please note the photograph of the successful Iron Dome intercept. Please not the complete lack of any pictures of Hamas lighting off rockets, any photograph at all of a "palestinian militant" or any sign of Hamas aggression. When a picture speaks a thousand words, playing the victim is easy. Pictures of dead kids are not popular with people. No one wants to be the "baby killer." Hamas knows this, which is why they use densely populated areas to launch rockets.

What is it like living under the Iron Dome? Reuters manages to look at the cost, effectiveness, and what the experience is like, but the question remains, which is better at defending Israelis, bunkers or missiles?


Until this conflict is over these photographs of dead and dying Palestinians will keep coming, as the Palestinians who know that their neighbor is a Hamas bad guy, but don't care too much because "Insha Allah" (if God wills it) the rocket will strick or not.

Israel stalled because they knew that these photographs would come out, they knew that the Palestinians would parade their dead and wounded in front of the cameras. They knew that it would be unpleasant and difficult to deal with.

So they dithered.

But dithering does not make removing the Bandaid any less painful, it only prolongs the pain. Sometimes it is better to just rip things off quick. There is very little glory in fighting for your country, there is no real honor in war. But sometimes it is still a very necessary thing.

24 July 2014

Why did Israel delay going into Gaza for so long?

Maybe my experience with Iraqis and Afghans has jaded my thinking, but it is my experience that when a muslim is attacking you, the only way to stop it is to attack back or let them run out of ammo or interest.

Maybe that is why Israel waited so long before going into Gaza? Hoping that the terrorists would lose interest? Or maybe run out of rockets? I would say that the Israelis have been "dithering" for lack of a better word.

I've made the case that Iron Dome is a losing proposition for actually winning a war. Now we have seen the IDF send ancient M113 APCs which was blown to hell by an anti-armor missile.  Most likely it was a Kornet, but honestly it could have been any anti-tank missile, or even newer generation RPG that did the deed.

But clearly Hamas knew that eventually Israel would have to come into Gaza. Hamas wouldn't have bothered smuggling in anti-armor weapons had that not been the case.

Does anyone else remember the "No land for peace!" slogans from a few years back? 

Well, if there was ever a time for Israel to start rubbling Gaza, now would be it. With the "Arab Spring" turned into the "Arab Clusterfuck" from Tripoli to Baghdad, Cairo to Damascus, what credible threat would any of the muslim countries surrounding Israel bring to the table if Gaza started getting pummeled with counterfire?

Only Jordan remains as a possible threat, but the moment Jordan commits any forces against Israel, it runs the risk of internal troubles from ISIS or some other group...

On the other hand, there is a saying, "Practice some tactical patience." which is good advice, letting the situation clarify before acting. Still, if peace suddenly breaks out Hamas will only use it as time to re-arm and kick this can down the road for another year or three. A lasting peace means an empty Gaza as far as I can tell. Not a popular sentiment, but I don't see Hamas changing their behavior, ever.