Small Wars

This Week at War: Don't Arm the Rebels, Train Them

The ragtag anti-Qaddafi forces need basic combat skills a lot more than bigger guns.

Libya's rebels need boot camp, not more weapons

Two weeks ago, when an armored column loyal to Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi was poised to crush the rebellion in Benghazi, U.S. President Barack Obama dramatically reversed his policy and endorsed a limited air campaign against Qaddafi's forces. A week ago, the rebels were on the march toward Tripoli and seemingly on the verge of removing Qaddafi from power. Alas, it was not to be. A Qaddafi counterattack has sent the scattered rebels fleeing once again back toward Ajdabiya and Benghazi. This second setback for the rebels has resulted in a debate inside the White House over whether the coalition should arm the rebels, another escalation in the conflict.

On March 30, it was reported that CIA officers were in Libya with the rebels, making an assessment of their situation and possibly directing airstrikes in support of their fighters. We can gather from open sources much of what these intelligence officers are likely to report. As a military force, Libya's rebels are a disorganized rabble and seem incapable of preparing and holding defensive positions or maneuvering effectively against rudimentary enemy resistance. The rebels need boot camp, fundamental infantry training, and the development of some battlefield leaders, not a new stockpile of weapons.

Those Western leaders whose plan currently consists of hoping that Qaddafi will be spontaneously overthrown need to think again. Absent a Western invasion of the country, the rebel force is the only means of removing Qaddafi, and the rebels will need many months or even years of training before they are capable of defeating loyalist ground units and marching all the way to Tripoli.

A comparison with Afghanistan's Northern Alliance is instructive. The anti-Taliban Northern Alliance was the battle-hardened survivor of a decade-long struggle against the Soviet Red Army. After that Darwinian test, the Northern Alliance had capable leaders, a disciplined command structure, and proven tactics. When CIA and Special Forces advisors arrived in October 2001 to assist the Northern Alliance, they found a capable military force to support. By contrast, just a few weeks into their struggle, Libya's rebels are far from being able to accomplish the military goals they seek.

Some analysts have suggested that the rebels only need some anti-tank weapons to deal with Qaddafi's tanks and armored personnel carriers. The rebels already have a very effective anti-tank weapon at their disposal -- NATO airstrikes. But as I predicted two weeks ago, Qaddafi's forces have adapted to the arrival of coalition air power by abandoning their armored vehicles and now move about in the same pickup trucks used by the rebels. Out of fear of striking either rebel vehicles or civilians, coalition air attacks on Qaddafi's forces west of Ajdabiya appear stymied for the moment, which is allowing Qaddafi's superior firepower to batter the rebels in eastern Libya.

Obama's team and other Western policymakers fear a stalemate in Libya. A deadlock would make these leaders appear ineffectual against Qaddafi. They also fear an erosion of political support for the intervention both at home and internationally.

However, one advantage of a stalemate is that it would give the rebels, assisted by Special Forces advisers, the time necessary to organize and train for the long fight that will be required to push on to Tripoli. If Obama and other Western leaders are serious about removing Qaddafi from power -- without Western "boots on the ground" -- they and Libya's rebels will have to brace themselves for a long and nasty slog.

A new bomber is cheaper than Tomahawks -- if you do enough bombing

When military planners for Operation Odyssey Dawn received orders to demolish Libya's air defense system, they turned to a weapon they have used since the 1991 Desert Storm campaign against Iraq: the Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile. British and U.S. warships fired 110 Tomahawks during the first night of the conflict and have launched nearly 100 more over the following two weeks. War planners use the low-flying and virtually unstoppable missiles against air defenses and other targets they consider too dangerous to attack with manned aircraft.

With the Tomahawk missile once again performing the most dangerous missions, particularly against air defenses, why does the Pentagon insist on spending billions on a new stealth bomber, which is designed to foil the same air defenses the Tomahawk has been reliably neutralizing for two decades? Although the Pentagon has yet to disclose its description of the new airplane (a successor to the Air Force's B-1, B-2, and B-52s), the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a well-connected Washington think tank, foresees a program costing as much as $56 billion for 100 new, heavy, long-range bombers.

Defenders of the next-generation stealth bomber point to two arguments for why their airplane will trump long-range stand-off missiles like the Tomahawk. First, bomber proponents believe the economics are on their side, at least given certain assumptions. Their case comes from an introductory microeconomics textbook. As explained in a report from Rand Corp., the Tomahawk missile, at a replacement cost of $1.5 million, is an example of a business with low fixed costs but high variable costs. Its competition in this case is a cheap old-fashioned gravity bomb fitted with a GPS guidance kit that costs only $22,000. Dropped from the exotic and very pricey stealth bomber, the Tomahawk's competition is an example of a high fixed-cost, low variable-cost business.

According to Rand, just 20 days of heavy cruise missile use over a 30-year period (the projected life of the new bomber) is enough to make the bomber the more economical alternative. If over that 30-year period, the bombers leave their hangers only a few times, it will be cheaper to attack those difficult targets with Tomahawks. But if the United States has more than 20 days of heavy bombing over those 30 years, it will be cheaper to send the pricey bomber armed with cheap GPS-guided bombs.

Bomber advocates also note that the Tomahawk cannot threaten those targets some adversaries value the most, those that are inside hardened bunkers or deep underground. The Tomahawk's maximum warhead weight is only 1,000 pounds, which is woefully inadequate against targets such as North Korea's buried nuclear facilities or Iran's underground uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. The Air Force's bombers are the only aircraft capable of the delivering the huge bunker-busting bombs that can penetrate very hardened and deeply buried targets.

The return of the Tomahawk cruise missile to combat may renew the debate over whether the U.S. Air Force needs a pricey new stealth bomber. According to Rand, the answer is a simple matter of break-even analysis. Over the past two decades, U.S. presidents have shown themselves quite ready to turn to air power to solve foreign-policy problems. Given that penchant, hitting Rand's break-even mark should be an easy assumption to make.


Small Wars

This Week at War: The Latest Temptation of Air Power

The Libya air campaign will not be as quick or painless as the White House seems to think.

Has Obama been seduced by air power?

After one week, Odyssey Dawn, the operation aimed at protecting Libya's civilians from Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces, seems to be bumping up against the limitations of its U.N. Security Council mandate. Coalition military officials believe they have demolished Qaddafi's air force and have suppressed his air-defense systems. But in spite of increasing airstrikes against Qaddafi's tanks and artillery, his ground forces are still on the verge of crushing rebel resistance in Misrata and are thwarting attempts by the rebels near Benghazi to advance westward.

Many of President Barack Obama's advisers, particularly those who served in Bill Clinton's administration, may have some nostalgia for how the former president appeared to deftly employ coercive air power on two occasions in the Balkans and, in doing so, avoided bloody and politically ruinous ground wars. Clinton's successor was not so lucky. Having observed the dramatically different political consequences for the Clinton and Bush administrations, Obama may be expecting air power to similarly deliver Clintonian success for him.

Obama may unwittingly be placing his hopes for easy success in Libya on Col. John Warden, a retired U.S. Air Force officer and chief planner of the strategic air campaign against Iraq in 1991. Warden explained his theory for using air power to achieve decisive effects in the latest issue of Air & Space Power Journal.

According to Warden, war planners should view their adversary as a system and devise a strategy that inflicts war-winning damage on its critical nodes or weak points. For Warden, enemy military forces in the field -- currently the focus of air strikes in Libya -- are merely the end point of the system's long chain of motivations, decisions, and processes. Enemy forces destroyed in the field can be replaced if the system creating, supporting, and leading them remains in place. Focusing only on those forces will likely lead to a stalemate. Much better, according to Warden, is to focus strikes against an adversary's leadership, and the processes and infrastructure that recruit, train, equip, support, and control their war effort.

There has been much open debate this week on whether the coalition can and should attempt to kill Qaddafi with a bomb or missile. To Warden, targeting Qaddafi would be a good start, but the air campaign should encompass an even broader array of leadership targets. Qaddafi's lieutenants should also be in the bomb-sights, along with the assets those regime members value most. Warden cites the air campaign against Slobodan Milosovic's forces during the 1999 Kosovo crisis. At first, coalition aircraft attacked only Serbian military forces in the field, attacks which were of little concern to Milosovic and thus generated little coercive leverage. During the second month of the Kosovo campaign, coalition planners added a wider range of leadership figures, including economic assets these leaders valued, to the target lists. Dissension inside the Serbian leadership broke out and Milosovic soon agreed to withdraw from Kosovo.

In spite of the Kosovo success (which Qaddafi and his family have very likely studied), political and practical limitations are likely to bog down Warden's theory. Although modern air weapons are incredibly precise, aerial reconnaissance remains inadequate to track down individual leaders who strive to remain hidden. In many cases, it is too difficult to disentangle damage to strictly military infrastructure and processes from damage to electrical, water, and food distribution to the civilian population. One errant bomb aimed at a military target can change a whole campaign. In 1991, while attempting to implement Warden's theory against Saddam Hussein, a U.S. laser-guided bomb scored a perfect hit on an underground bunker thought to be one of Saddam's command posts. But that night, the command post was being used as a bomb shelter for civilians. Scores were killed and the United States subsequently suspended Warden's strategic bombing campaign against downtown Baghdad.

The messy infantry-centric wars in Iraq and Afghanistan further tarnished Warden's vision of air power's ability to single-handedly deliver decisive results. The head of Joint Forces Command, Gen. James Mattis -- a quintessential dirty-boot Marine Corps infantry officer -- banished Warden-inspired "effects-based operations" from the military's doctrine. In Mattis's long experience, war is too chaotic and too human to be solved by systems analysis. Mattis quoted Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman: "Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster."

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, the guidance for Operation Odyssey Dawn, is almost surely too restrictive to permit a decisive air campaign against Qaddafi. As frustration mounts in the days ahead, coalition policymakers will likely seek to expand the target lists drawn up by their air planners. They may even look to Warden's theory for an easy way out of the Libya conflict. But they won't find enough there to avoid a looming stalemate.

Marine Corps takes a calculated risk with its future

Last autumn, the Marine Corps appointed some of its officers and civilian officials to prepare a recommendation for how the Corps should restructure itself after it finishes its mission in Afghanistan. The Force Structure Review Group's (FSRG) report recommends some serious cost-cutting and a return to the Corps' amphibious and expeditionary roots. In doing so, the FSRG plan takes some calculated military risks, which these planners recognize and attempt to mitigate. But their plan also carries some political risks for the Marine Corps, which may end up being even more dangerous.

The FSRG's most notable recommendations are significant chops to frontline Marine Corps combat power, reversing most of an increase in headcount since 2007. The report recommends an 11 percent cut in infantrymen, a 20 percent cut to both tanks and artillery units and a 16 percent cut in its fighter jet squadrons. As this frontline combat power is reduced, the report also calls for associated reductions in headquarters units, logistics support capacity, and other support staff.

The premise behind these reductions is that the Marine Corps is not likely to be called on for any more "major sustained operations ashore" such as the five-year effort to pacify Iraq's Anbar Province or the ongoing large counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. The big cuts to tanks, artillery, and tactical air support indicate an even lower probability assigned to another Desert Storm-type armored battle.

While the plan reduces the capacity for conventional high-intensity combat, it retains irregular warfare skills acquired over the past decade. The plan adds to the Corps's special operations headcount, retains much of the training and support for irregular warfare built up since 2002, bolsters specialized law enforcement support capabilities, and adds to the Corps's cyber operations capacity.

The FSRG came to a carefully considered conclusion that the Marine Corps should be most ready for missions such as partnership engagement with foreign security forces, a variety of amphibious operations, humanitarian and disaster assistance, and rapid crisis response. At the same time, the group knew that it would have to take risks somewhere. It concluded that it could take a risk with the Corps's capacity to mount large or open-ended manpower-intensive campaigns such as those it waged in Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In spite of this seemingly recurring pattern of long bloody slogs, the FSRG planners were willing to scale back their expectations of this pattern repeating yet again.

The FSRG intends to mitigate this risk by tapping, if necessary, the Marine Corps Reserve for the extra manpower and capabilities its plan will cut from active duty forces. The report also implies a shift in responsibility to the Army should the country get bogged down in another long struggle involving general-purpose ground troops.

Using the reserves and the Army to hedge the risks of a new and economical force structure plan seems like a reasonable military judgment. Whether it is a wise political judgment for the Marine Corps is more questionable. If, due to an FSRG miscalculation, the Marine Corps finds itself constantly mobilizing reserve forces for costly overseas contingencies, Marine Corps leaders are sure to hear about it from angry overseers on Capitol Hill. Similarly, if the Marine Corps's plans are premised on an Army bailout when reality clashes with force structure shortfalls, questions about why the Pentagon needs a large Marine Corps may surface once again.

The FSRG made a careful assessment of the post-Afghanistan world and has designed a new Marine Corps force structure to match that assessment. In addition to saving the taxpayers money, the proposed realignment will shift the Marine Corps away from manpower-intensive scenarios toward the types of missions the planners believe are not only the most likely but also match up well with the Corps's organizational strengths. But the plan's political risks may be more dangerous than its military risks.

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