Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Problem With Patterns

I want to follow up a little on what my colleague Brendan Rivers wrote earlier about a lesson learned from Operation Allied Force in 1999.

Military deception in war is the strategy of the lesser power. A possible exception that proves the rule is the feint at the Calais prior to the Allied landings of Normandy in 1944. Of course, the ruse of an illusionary army was considered necessarily precisely because of the inherent dangers and vulnerabilities of a cross-channel invasion. In general it is the weaker power that employs deception to remain in the field against a more powerful opponent. The greater power, seeking to bring the enemy to grips, is less interested in concealing its forces. Moreover, it has less to fear from an enemy whose main objective is to avoid offering battle.

With this in mind, the stronger power will easily fall into patterns of behavior. Sometimes this is carelessness brought on by complacency. But often it is because planners don't see what the weaker enemy might be able to do to exploit these patterns. Also, patterns are sometimes a practical outgrowth of operations: unfortunate but unavoidable.

In the context of modern operations, powers that employ land-based air power are susceptible to having their patterns read. Planes have to take off from airbases and planes are not invisible. They also make a lot of noise. Many airbases, particularly those in Western countries, are located near population centers. The Israelis have their F-15 base out in the Negev Desert, conveniently close to potential enemies but sufficiently remote that enemy spies and agents are unlikely to be loitering nearby. But this is a unique case. Being open societies, Western countries cannot maintain a cordon sanitaire around their facilities deep enough to prevent agents with cell phones from serving as an early warning network for an enemy power. An observer with a minimum of knowledge and training will be able to identify the type and even the loadout of aircraft as they take off on a mission.

This was apparently what contributed to the shoot-down of a US F-117 Nighthawk fighter-bomber and an F-16 during the Kosovo campaign against Serbia in 1999. The enemy knew the aircraft were coming. There was no avoiding this. However, the US probably contributed to the loss by keeping the same ingress routes night after night. This enable the Serbs to position their air-defense sensors and missile systems in the expected path of US strike aircraft, increasing the likelihood of a successful shoot down.

The Serbs forces famously employed deception in Operation Allied Force in two ways: by masking their air-defense batteries and moving them frequently, and by the liberal use of decoy tanks and artillery pieces. It's amazing that Rommel's plywood tanks still work, but they do. The Serbs used deception so extensively -- and successfully -- because they needed to preserve their forces in the face of vastly superior Allied air power. But they also used deception to bring down a vaunted Stealth Fighter, scoring a propaganda victory that resonated loudly at the time.

At the risk of repeating myself, here is one of my favorite anecdotes on the subject: 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.

History repeats itself, too. Watch those patterns. Even if you're the stronger one.

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