Friday, September 16, 2005

Mind the Gap

This week's Defense News has a very important article on the failure of US reconnaissance and communications during a critical engagement of the Iraq War on April 2, 2003, at Objective Peach, a major highway bridge over the Euphrates River. The US Army battalion-size Task Force 3-69 raced to the bridge and secured it. The US force was subjected to a night counterattack by two Republican Guard brigades and supporting units. It was the largest direct "force-on-force" battle of the war.

When the smoke cleared, the US had won an overwhelming victory. The failure was that the counterattack had not been anticipated and the movements of the Iraqi brigades -- totaling over 8,000 soldiers and 70 tanks and other armored vehicles -- had occurred without detection. The article, Network-Centric Blind Spot by Greg Grant, who was embedded with Task Force 3-69 during the battle for Objective Peach, is restricted to paid subscribers, but here's an excerpt:

For two weeks, the Abrams tanks and Bradleys of the US Army's 3rd Infantry Division had rolled like an iron fist through sandstorms and fanatical Iraqi militia. Their final drive to Baghdad would begin with a push across a massive road bridge over the Euphrates 30 miles southwest of the capital city. Save Baghdad itself, the bridge at Objective Peach was the most important piece of terrain in the entire campaign.

Intel officers who had poured over 1-meter-resolution satellite imagery concluded that Objective Peach was undefended.

In fact, the nearby city streets, palm groves, and canals concealed a sizeable Iraqi force in an elaborate network of trenches and bunkers. They were concealed from state-of-the-art American sensors by simple camouflage and time-tested techniques.

How is it possible, you might ask? The fact is, it is still much easier to hide tanks in the bushes than to find them. Even with all the technology at the beckon call of the modern US military. This transcript from the Frontline program, The Invasion of Iraq, describes the encounter at Objective Peach from both sides. It even more clearly illustrates that the engagement itself was a crushing victory for US forces. However, the more important fact is that such a large-scale engagement happened at all.

In 2002, I interviewed Maj. General Patrick Cordingley, DSO, (ret.), commander of the British Army's 7th Armored Brigade ("The Desert Rats") during the Gulf War of 1990-91. He described for me a situation where his leading elements unexpectedly ran into a company of Iraqi tanks in an area that intelligence said was free of enemy forces:
Once through the minefield, the plan was for the Desert Rats to go a hundred-plus kilometers to put in an attack on a particular enemy brigade position that we knew was there. In the actual event, we bumped an unexpected position that had to be dealt with first. One of the problems of the Gulf War was that there was a lack of detailed information at the tactical level. The information existed, but there was a dissemination problem. We had these wonderful downlinks - most of them American - from satellites, AWACS, and J-STARS all pumping the information into Riyadh. Although we obviously asked for information about certain areas and grid squares, the problem was that there was such a large amount of information in Riyadh, it was almost impossible to work out who wanted what and then disseminate it. When we went across the line of departure, we only had sketchy information about the brigade that we were going to have to attack. We were through the minefield going due north, and then we turned almost due east. Just south of the main axis of advance there was an Iraqi communications site that was protected by a company of infantry and about a dozen T-62 tanks. We hit those by mistake, meaning we didn't know they were there. We would have hit them in any event, but had we known, we might have been more cautious about it.

The night was pitch black, made particularly difficult because it was heavily overcast and raining. Curiously, we didn't have any of the artillery's guns unmasked and ready to fire. The battalion commander who made the unexpected contact with the enemy asked for some artillery, and I said, "Are you sure you need it? The Iraqis probably don't know you're there, because they don't have thermal sights and you do. Wouldn't it be better to just pick them off and see what happens?" And that's exactly what we did. We put the attack in at about 22h00. The thermal sights enabled our tanks to engage targets at a range of up to three kilometers, where naked-eye visibility was less than 50 meters. Once the T-62s started burning, there was quite a bit more light, and our infantry could get out and into the enemy slit trenches. We then put up artillery illumination (some of the guns were unmasked by then) so we could see what the hell was going on, and we had all these prisoners milling around. That became a feature of the next three days -- huge numbers of prisoners. The action had an important effect on our troops. The attack we put in was what we would call a quick attack, and the drill used was exactly the drill that we'd used in training -- and it worked. That was good for morale.

So, training, tactics, and decisions by small-unit commanders have enabled US and UK forces to overcome failings in intelligence and communications to achieve victory. Sometimes these are not enough, as with the case of the abortive raid by US Army AH-64 Apache combat helicopters on the Karbala Gap of March 24, 2003.

Although developed for a potential conflict in Europe, the Apache, using hover-mode engagement tactics, was a star performer in the Gulf War of 1991. AH-64As of Task Force Normandy fired the opening salvo of Desert Storm in 1991 when they launched Hellfire missiles at Iraqi air-defense sites in a nighttime "deep-attack" raid. The first cracks in Apache doctrine, however, appeared during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan in early March 2002. AH-64As of the US Army's 101st Airborne Division supported ground soldiers of that air-assault division and 10th Mountain Division that were involved in attacks on Taliban and al Qaeda positions in the Shah-e-Kot Valley (see The Apaches of Anaconda). The close-quarters fighting, in which targets often were identified only after they had opened fire at ranges of less than a kilometer, was not something for which crews had been thoroughly prepared.

Yet doctrine dies hard. It took a celebrated failure of a deep attack by 32 Apaches of the 11th Aviation Regiment of the 101st Airborne in Iraq on March 2003 to cause Army Aviation to re-examine its doctrine more seriously. In the March nighttime attack, the Apaches were damaged and driven off by concerted Iraqi anti-aircraft fire from concealed positions that had not been detected by US reconnaissance means, with a loss of one helicopter. The crew was captured, in part because enemy fire was too intense for a combat-search-and-rescue mission to be mounted.

Here is a short essay I wrote in January 2002 about missing the trees for the forest. Interestingly, I had called this piece, "Blind Spot."

One of the great British aces of WWI was Albert Ball, who had 44 victories to his credit. Ball had developed a tactic of engaging enemy flights by himself from the rear and below. Climbing slowly up on the tail-end aircraft from its blind spot, he would deliver a fatal burst at point-blank range from a Lewis gun angled upward. Ball was generally able to claim a second aircraft before breaking away. Although a gifted squadron commander, his reputation grew as a lone hunter and marksman. During the battles around Aaras in the spring of 1917, Ball made a habit of flying by a particular clock tower in the village of Annoeulin every evening to check the time. Some German infantry noticed the pattern. On the evening of May 7, German machine gunners hidden in the tower shot him down.

A century earlier, the Duke of Wellington famously reported after the Battle of Waterloo: "They came on in the same old way, and we shot them down in the same old way." Wellington was referring to the attack of the French Imperial Guard, by then much diminished, but by inference he was announcing that, in fact, it was Napoleon's genius that had dimmed. It wasn't so much that the corps-based system of warfare Napoleon had engineered to smash his enemies was no longer valid. The problem was that the emperor's enemies had learned the system, eliminating his relative advantage. When the French were delivering flank attacks and rear attacks they were masters of the field. Forced to fight front-to-front, casualties were about even. And there were more non-French in Europe than French.

War is all about patterns. Once you have identified the enemy's patterns, and understand their cause and effect, you own him. This is why intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) activities are so vital. They provide the key to understanding the enemy's patterns. This is how you apply strength against relative weakness, rather than pitting strength against strength.

However, at what point do ISR activities themselves produce patterns that the enemy may discern? At what point do procedures of systems development and acquisition produce a predictable outcome of capabilities and concepts of operations? If an enemy can identify and understand how you conduct ISR operations and deploy the systems that support them, then he may well be on his way to owning you.

During the Gulf War, US pilots claimed to have killed quite a few mobile Scud launchers. In fact, none were killed. The Iraqis, well aware of US reconnaissance capabilities and tactical air operations, used tactics identical to those developed by the Germans in WWII for launching V-2 rockets from mobile launchers in the face of unrelenting Allied airpower. During the Kosovo War, US pilots claimed to have killed 120 tanks, 220 armored personnel carriers, and 450 artillery pieces. In reality, they had only killed 14, 28, and 20, respectively. The Serbs understood how the US would conduct reconnaissance and tactical strikes, and they fabricated wooden and canvas decoys that completely fooled the attackers.

In its bid to control the spectrum and use it to destroy the enemy, has the US become predictable? Sometimes, in its understandable enthusiasm for its talent and technology, the US forgets that its potential adversaries will look for ways to circumvent or counter those strengths. Although the US prevailed in the Gulf War and Kosovo in spite of enemy deception, the uncomfortable truth is that patterns of US operations had been successfully identified and exploited using clever, yet exceedingly simple tactics. In the future, the results could be more dire.

In the battle for Objective Peach, most of the reconnaissance assets in theater were deployed elsewhere, apparently in the Western Desert looking for Scud missile launchers. I have written in the past about how "political weapons" such as the Scud can be effective in drawing off assets that would be more effectively used to defeat maneuver forces. In the breakout of the Desert Rats in the First Iraq War, the problem was that communications were not able to convey reconnaissance information to tactical commanders in a timely way. In the failure of the Apache deep strike in the Karbala Gap -- and the ineffective Scud hunts in both Iraq Wars, not to mention the inability to locate Serbian armored vehicles in the Kosovo intervention -- the problem was that old fashioned camouflage and military deception were able to defeat modern reconnaissance sensors.

The US is attempting to develop a network-centric approach to warfare. Central to this is the creation of a common, integrated battlespace picture that shows all friendly commanders the locations of their own and enemy forces. It will be important to keep in mind that the little red icons on the map might not be what they appear to be. And there could be other enemy units lurking in the gaps. The integrated picture might not be telling the whole story, and it might not even be telling the truth. Rather than accepting the picture at face value, commander's will always want to try to get inside the enemy's mind. You can be sure that the enemy will be trying to get inside of ours.


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