24 February 2015

The Dangers of a Slow Boil in Ukraine


Defense News, a defense industry trade publication, just released a report entitled, Ukraine Signs Defense Deal with UAE.  It led with --
“ABU DHABI — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced a deal for unspecified military and technical cooperation with the UAE on Tuesday, and said negotiations are ongoing with the United States and unspecified European nations.
Poroshenko told reporters at the IDEX show here that he hoped talks with the US would yield an agreement to help Ukraine defend itself from Russia. Poroshenko reportedly planned to meet with chief Pentagon weapons buyer, Frank Kendall, at the show.”
An arms deal between Ukraine and the UAE — what gives?  
The UAE is not a major producer of high technology weapons, but it is a big buyer of U.S. weapons, including missile defense systems, ground vehicles and rockets, and F-16s and Apache Helicopters, etc. Nicknamed by some as Little Sparta, the UAE has been and is a major ally of the US in most of the US wars since 1991.  Today, the UAE is home to some of the most important US military facilities in the Middle East, including its only overseas F-22 base. More US strikes on ISIS come from the UAE than any other source. The UAE also is home to a spooky private mercenary army run by the secretive billionaire founder of infamous Blackwater Worldwide, Erik Prince, who now lives part time in Abu Dhabi. 
Note the pregnant suggestion of some kind of involvement by the Pentagon’s weapons acquisition czar in the second paragraph of the Defense News report.  Is there a possibility that the UAE will end up being a back door for funneling arms and military assistance to the Ukraine?
No one can say, but all of this is very mysterious.
More to the point of this posting, the UAE connection illustrates yet another seemingly unrelated thread in the increasingly complex tapestry of the growing confrontation between the US and Russia over the Ukraine.  This confrontation is being created insensibly by a weaving of seemingly inconsequential but growing connections between the US and Ukraine, without any respect for Russia's legitimate security interests.  These connections grew out of what first appeared to be an unrelated NATO enlargement; and lead to our behind-the-scenes participation in the coup of February 2014 that overthrew the legally elected, if unsavory, government of President Victor Yanukovich.  The coup, in turn, opened the door for the civil war and the eventual rise of President Petro Poroshenko, the man who is now making arms deals with one of the best customers of US arms manufacturers. And at the same time, there is a tense internal US debate over whether or not to send arms to Ukraine. 
Americans may see the UAE gambit may seem to be just one small disconnected event, but the Russians might see it as another part of an evolving tapestry of an increasingly confrontational plan to isolate Russia.
Attached herewith is a very interesting analysis of how this slowly boiling confrontation with Russia could evolve insensibly into Cold War II, or even a nuclear confrontation.  It is written by my good friend, William R. Polk, a prominent historian.  His point of departure is the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and he is drawing from his personal experience as an aide to the most senior decision makers in that crisis.
Chuck Spinney

William R. Polk
24 February 2015
In a rather ghastly 19th century experiment, a biologist by the name of Heinzmann found that if he placed a frog in boiling water, the frog immediately leapt out but that if he placed the frog in tepid water and then gradually heated it, the frog stayed put until he was scalded to death.  Are we like the frog?  I see disturbing elements of that process today as we watch events unfold in the Ukraine confrontation.  They profoundly frighten me and I believe they should frighten everyone.  But they are so gradual that we do not see a specific moment in which we must jump or perish.  So here briefly, let me lay out the process of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and show how the process of that crisis compares with what we face today over the Ukraine. [CS note: Polk's point about the insensible increase in tensions is a valid and important one, but as James Fallows pointed out to me, the boiling frog experiment is a myth, because the experiment involved removing the brain from the frog. One could argue that the removal of the brain, creates a stronger analogy and actually improves on Polk's point.]  
* * *
Three elements stand out in the Cuban Missile Crisis:  1)  relations between the USSR and the US were already "on the edge" before they reached the crisis stage;  each of us had huge numbers of weapons of mass destruction aimed at the other.   2)  the USSR precipitated the Crisis by advancing into Cuba, a country the US had considered part of "area of dominance" since the promulgation of the 1823 Monroe Doctrine. 3)  some military and civilian officials and influential private citizens in both countries argued that the other side would "blink" if sufficient pressure was put on it.  
Allow me to point out that I had a (very uncomfortable) ringside seat in the Crisis.  I was one of three members of the "Crisis Management Committee" that oversaw the unfolding events.  On the Monday of the week of October 22, I sat with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Under Secretary George Ball, Counselor and Chairman of the Policy Planning Council Walt Rostow and Under Secretary for Political Affairs U. Alexis Johnson and listened to President Kennedy's speech to which we all had contributed.   The account Kennedy laid out was literally terrifying to those who understood what a nuclear confrontation meant.  Those of us in that room obviously did.  We were each "cleared" for everything America then knew. And we each knew what our government was seeking -- getting the Russian missiles out of Cuba.   Finally, we were poised to do that by force if the Russians did not remove them.
Previous to that day, I had urged that we remove our "Jupiter" missiles from Turkey.  This was important, I argued, because they were "offensive" rather than "defensive" weapons.  The reason for this distinction was that they were obsolescent, liquid-fired rockets that required a relatively long time to fire; thus, they could only be used for a first strike.  Otherwise they would be destroyed before they could be fired.  The Russians rightly regarded them as a threat.  Getting them out enabled Chairman Nikita Khrushchev to remove the Russian missiles without suffering an unacceptable degree of humiliation and risking a coup d’état.
Then, following the end of the crisis, I wrote the "talking paper" for a review of the crisis, held at the Council on Foreign Relations, with all the involved senior US officials in which we carefully reviewed the "lessons" of the crisis.  What I write below in part derives from our consideration in that meeting.  That is, it is essentially the consensus of those who were most deeply involved in the crisis.  
Shortly thereafter, I  participated in a Top Secret Department of Defense war game, designed by Professor Thomas Schelling of MIT in which he set out a scenario of a sequence of events -- ironically placed near the Ukraine --  to show that the USSR would accept an American nuclear attack without responding.  It was, as he said, in our "post mortem" discussion of the game, a vindication of an extension of the theory of deterrence.  It was to prove that we need not fear a reaction to a limited nuclear attack.  Henry Kissinger had popularized this idea in his 1957 book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy.⁠1  
In the post mortem discussion of the Game I argued, and my military, intelligence and diplomatic colleagues on our war game team agreed with me, that the idea of limited nuclear war was nonsense.  No government could accept a devastating attack and survive.  If it did not retaliate with a "victory-denying response,"⁠2 it would be overthrown and executed by its own military and security forces.    And the original attacker would in turn have to avenge the retaliation or it would face a similar fate.  Tit for tat would lead inevitably to "general war."  Twenty years later, in 1983, a second Department of Defense war game (code named "Proud Prophet") in which I did not participate and which was heavily weighted to the military confirmed what I had argued in 1962: there was no such thing as a "limited" nuclear war if both sides were armed with nuclear weapons.  Limited nuclear actions inevitably ended in all-out war.
So, to be realistic, forget "limited" war and consider general war.  
Even the great advocate of thermonuclear weapons, Edward Teller, admitted that their use would "endanger the survival of man[kind]."  The Russian nuclear scientist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Andrei Sakharov, laid out a view of the consequences in the Summer 1983 issue of Foreign Affairs as "a calamity of indescribable proportions."  More detail was assembled by a scientific study group convened by Carl Sagan and reviewed by 100 scientists,  A graphic summary of their findings was published in the Winter 1983 issue of Foreign Affairs.  Sagan pointed out that since both major nuclear powers had targeted cities, casualties could reasonably be estimated at between "several hundred million to 1.1 billion people" with an additional 1.1 billion people seriously injured.  Those figures related to the 1980s.  Today, the cities have grown so the numbers would be far larger.  Massive fires set off by the bombs would carry soot into the atmosphere, causing temperatures to fall to a level that would freeze ground to a depth of about 3 feet.  Planting crops would be impossible and such food as was stored would probably be contaminated so the few survivors would starve.  The hundreds of millions of bodies of the dead could not be buried and would spread contagion.  As the soot settled and the sun again became again visible, the destruction of the ozone layer would remove the protection from ultraviolet rays and so promote the mutation of  pyrotoxins.  Diseases against which there were no immunities would spread.  These would overwhelm not only the human survivors but, in the opinion of the expert panel of 40 distinguished biologists, would cause "species extinction" among both plants and animals.  Indeed, there was a distinct possibility that "there might be no human survivors in the Northern Hemisphere...and the possibility of the extinction of Homo sapiens..." 
So to summarize:  
1) it is almost certain that neither the American nor the Russian  government could  accept even a limited attack without responding;  
2)  there is no reason to believe that a Russian government, faced with defeat in conventional weapons, would be able to avoid using nuclear weapons;   
3) whatever attempts are made to limit escalation are likely to fail and in failing lead to all out war;  and 
4) the predictable consequences of a nuclear war are indeed an unimaginable catastrophe. 
These dangers, even if today they seem remote, clearly demand that we do every thing we possibly can to avoid the fate of the frog.  We can see that the "water" is beginning to heat up.  We should not sit and wait for it to boil.  We did not do so in the Cuban Missile Crisis.  We and the Russians worked out a solution.   So what will we, what should we do now?
* * *
The first step is to "appreciate" the situation as it actually is and to see clearly the flow and direction of events.  Of course, they are not precisely the same as in the Cuban Missile Crisis.  History does not exactly repeat itself,  but, as Mark Twain has pithily said, subsequent events sometimes "rhyme" with those that went before.
Consider these key elements:  
1) Despite the implosion of the Soviet Union and the attempts to cut back on nuclear weapons,  Russia and the United States remain parallel nuclear powers with each having the capacity to destroy the other -- and probably the whole world.   Hundreds if not thousands of our weapons apparently remain on "hair trigger alert."  I assume that theirs are similarly poised.
2)  Both Russia and the United States are governed by men who are unlikely to be able to accept humiliation -- and almost certain murder by "super patriots" in their own entourages -- and would be forced to act even at the cost of massive destruction to their countries.  So pressing the leadership of the opponent in this direction is literally playing with fire.   As President Kennedy and the rest of us understood in the 1962 crisis, even if leaders want to avoid conflict, at a certain point in their mutual threats, events replace policy and leaders become bystanders.  
3)  Both the Russian and American people have demonstrated their resilience and determination.  Neither is apt to be open to intimidation.  
4)  Both the Russians and the Americans are guided in their foreign policy by what they believe to be "core concerns."   For the Americans, as the Cuban Missile Crisis and many previous events illustrate, this comes down to the assertion of a "zone of exclusion" of outsiders.  America showed in the Cuban Missile Crisis that we would not tolerate, even at almost unimaginable danger, intrusion into our zone.  Among the Russians, as their history illustrates,⁠3  a similar code of action prevails.  Having suffered, as fortunately we have not, horrifying costs of invasion throughout history but particularly in the 20th century, the Russians can be expected to block, by any means and up to any cost, intrusions into their zone.  
5)  We said we understood this fundamental policy objective of the Russians,  and officially on behalf of our government, Secretary of State James Baker, Jr.  agreed not to push our military activities into their sphere.   We have, however, violated this agreement and have added country by constituent country of the former Soviet Union and its satellites to our military alliance, NATO.   
6) We are now at the final stage, just short of Russia itself in the Ukraine, and, as the Russians know, some influential Americans have suggested that we should push forward to "the gates of Moscow."   Those who advocate what the British once called a "Forward Policy," now see the necessary first steps to be the arming of the Ukraine.  And finally,  
8) There is no way in which we or the European Union could arm the Ukraine to a level that it could balance Russia.  Thus, they are likely both to give the Ukrainians unrealistic notions of what they can do vis-à-vis Russia and to be seen by the Russians as "offensive" moves to which they might feel compelled to respond. Consequently, they could lead us all into a war we do not want.
* * *
So what to do?
In a word: stop.  What we are now doing and what we contemplate doing is not in our interest or in the interests of the Ukrainians and is perceived as a threat by the Russians.  We cannot deliver on the policy we would encourage  the Ukrainians to adopt by arming them without a war.  Economic sanctions are a form of that war, but they are unlikely to accomplish what we have been proclaiming.   So, the logic of events could force the Russians and us to the next step and that step also to the next and so on.   Our moves in this direction could cause massive  death and destruction. We should stop doing what does not work and is not in our interests nor in the interests of either the Ukrainians or the Russians. 
But stopping on what terms?
Having myself helped to negotiate two complex but successful ceasefires, I have learned two things:  first, a ceasefire cannot be obtained unless both parties see it as less bad than the alternative and, second, a ceasefire is merely a necessary precondition to a settlement.  So what might a settlement involve?
The elements of a general settlement, I believe, are these:  
1)  Russia will not tolerate the Ukraine becoming a hostile member of a rival military pact.  We should understand this.  Think how we would have reacted had  Mexico tried to join the Warsaw Pact.  Far-fetched?  
Consider that even before the issue of nuclear weapons arose, we tried to overthrow the pro-Russian Cuban government in the Bay of Pigs invasion and tried on several occasions to murder Cuban Head of State Fidel Castro.  We failed;  so for two generations we have sought to isolate, impoverish and weaken that regime.  We would be foolish to expect that the Russians will not react similarly when challenged by an anti-Russian Ukrainian government.   Thus, to press for inclusion of the Ukraine into NATO is not only self-defeating; it risks overturning a generation of cautious moves to improve our security and increase our well-being and is pointing us toward at least a cold -- if not a hot -- war.  We need to adopt a different course.
2)  We must recognize that the Ukraine is not part of our sphere of  influence or dominance. It is neither in the Western Hemisphere nor in the North Atlantic.  On the Black Sea, the concept of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization is an oxymoron  The Black Sea area is part of what the Russians call "the near abroad." The policy implications are clear: Just as the Russians realized that Cuba was part of our sphere of dominance and so backed down in the Missile Crisis, they will probably set their response to our actions on the belief that we will similarly back down because of our realization that the Ukraine is in their neighborhood and not in ours.  The danger, of course is that, for domestic political reasons -- and particularly because of the urging of the neoconservatives and other hawks -- we may not accept this geostrategic fact.  Then, conflict, with all the horror that could mean,  would become virtually inevitable.  
3)  But conflict is not inevitable and can fairly easily be avoided if we wish to avoid it.  This is because the Russians and Ukrainians share an objective which the United States also emotionally shares.  The shared objective is that the Ukraine become a secure, prosperous and constructive member of the world community.  Becoming such a member can be accomplished only by the Ukrainians themselves. But as all qualified observers have seen, Ukrainian society and political organization have far to go to reach our joint objective.  This is true regardless of the Russian-American dispute.  Its government is corrupt, tyrannical and weak.  The best we can do is to remove outside deterrents to the growth of a healthy, secure and free society. 
The way to do this is two fold:  first we need to stop our military intrusion into Ukrainian-Russian affairs, so diminishing Russian fears of aggression, and, second, wherever possible and in whatever ways are acceptable to both parties to assist the growth of the Ukrainian economy and, indirectly, the stability and sanity of the Ukrainian governing system.  A first step in this direction could be for the Ukraine to join the European Union.  This, in general terms, should be and for our own sakes must be, our strategy.
1 Kissinger  realized his mistake and partially repudiated what he had argued in a later, 1961, book, The Necessity for Choice.
2 This was apparently embodied in Jimmy Carter's Presidential Directive 59.  It was carried forward in President Reagan's Fiscal Year 1984-1988 Defense Guidance.  And it was emphasized by Albert Wohlstetter, a former colleague of mine at the University of Chicago and one of the leading neoconservatives in the June 1983 issue of Commentary.
3 I have laid out the Russian experience in a previous essay, "Shaping the Deep Memories of  Russians and Ukrainians" which is available on my website, www:williampolk.com.

23 February 2015

Stalingrad on the Tigris: The Kobani Model Writ Large?

Last summer, in a scene reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia, the 350,000 man Iraqi army, trained and armed at an expense of $25 billion over a 10 year period by the US, collapsed in a few short weeks after being blitzed by a few thousand, lightly armed, fast moving ISIS irregulars. The crown jewel in the spectacular ISIS offensive was its capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, on the banks of the River Tigris, 225 miles north of Baghdad.  Subsequent ISIS operations quickly captured most of the inhabited areas north and west of Baghdad (see map). 

On 19 February, CENTCOM announced plans to retake the city using a rebuilt Iraqi army in alliance with the Kurdish Peshmerga army.  If true, the CENTCOM plan to retake Mosul beggars belief for several reasons:

1. To pull this off, CENTCOM must somehow assemble up to 25,000 Iraqi and Peshmerga troops opposite Mosul, then drive out the 2,000 ISIS fighters believed to control the city in a large urban battle.  While the Kurdish Peshmerga forces are near Mosul, they cannot take Mosul alone, because a Kurdish attack would drive the Sunni Arabs remaining in Mosul into the arms of ISIS.  For the same reason, Iraqi forces must include Sunnis as well as Shia’s.  But, the Iraqi forces must march over 225 miles up the Tigris Valley, through ISIS controlled territory, to even reach Mosul.  Such a movement would weaken the forces defending Baghdad and open up the real possibility of ISIS spoiling operations in the south, including attacks on the army’s long exposed lines of communication or even Baghdad itself.  Moreover, how such a power projection and attack by the newly rebuilt and as yet untested Iraqi army could even be launched before the summer heat impedes the massive movement and heavy fighting is a question that boggles the mind.

2. The biggest CENTCOM advantage is airpower.  But airpower is difficult to apply effectively against small units engaged in a big-city urban battle.  Moreover, as any soldier who has experienced urban combat will tell you, the chaotic rubble of urban destruction will increase the defensive power of the ISIS positions.  And … no one knows how many Sunni Arabs remain in Mosul.  Its population numbered 1.8 million in 2008, but about 500,000 fled after ISIS conquered it in 2014.  The population was mostly Sunni Arab, but with Assyrian, Turkmen, and Kurdish minorities. Today Mosul is overwhelmingly Sunni, and as many as a million Sunnis may remain in the city. To be sure, many of these Sunnis hate ISIS, but an attack on Mosul could drive them to support (or not oppose) ISIS.

3. Another large uncertainty is the strength of ISIS. The CIA estimates ISIS forces to number between 20,000 and 31,500, with as many as 20,000 foreigners, while as Patrick Cockburn notes in the attached report, others believe its forces number over 100,000.  Whatever the case, it is clear that ISIS has the sufficient numbers to reinforce Mosul, or more importantly, and more likely in my opinion, ISIS has the forces needed to launch spoiling attacks against weakened Iraqi defense elsewhere, including LOCs and Baghdad.

4. Finally, as Cockburn points out, ISIS is still swimming in resources, with the Gulf oil states still bankrolling it.  

Given these complications, which are explained in greater detail below, a natural question arises:  Why is CENTCOM telegraphing its punch?  Why sacrifice surprise in what would be a rapid and audacious deep stroke that depends on surprise?

Some reporters have interpreted the CENTCOM announcement as an effort to out-psych ISIS.  But how? 

Perhaps, and I am only guessing, CENTCOM planners believe they can taunt ISIS and hype its arrogance to a point where ISIS forgets why it lost the siege at Kobani.  In this vein, perhaps CENTCOM planners assume ISIS leaders are so stupid, that waving the red flag in front of the bull will enable Iraqi-Peshmerga  ground forces to fix ISIS, while US and allied forces methodically bomb ISIS to smithereens in a gigantic repeat of Kobani.  

Let us hope the Kobani model  is NOT part of the psyops operation.  The model does not apply to Mosul.  Kobani was a small city of 45,000 located in the open country.  Mosul, in contrast, is a huge sprawling city with perhaps about a million Sunni Arabs remaining in its environs.  Planners would due well to remember that in August 1942, Stalingrad had a pre-siege population of 400,000, or about half that of ISIS-occupied Mosul.  

The Kobani model applied to a siege of Iraq’s second largest city would imply a siege on a sprawling urban scale far larger than the relatively compact city of Stalingrad.  To be sure, destruction would not be as great due to our obvious resource limitations, but the urban battlefield would be far larger than Stalingrad and far more complex than Kobani.  

Perhaps more sensible heads will prevail in this psyops operation, because it looks like we are in for a long war. 

Private donors from Gulf oil states helping to bankroll salaries of up to 100,000 Isis fighters
Exclusive: In Irbil, Patrick Cockburn hears from a Kurdish official how Gulf oil cash is shoring up the terrorists, and why this, with a divided enemy, suggests a long war ahead
PATRICK COCKBURN, Independent. Sunday 22 February 2015
[Posted with permission of the author]
Islamic State is still receiving significant financial support from Arab sympathisers outside Iraq and Syria, enabling it to expand its war effort, says a senior Kurdish official.
The US has being trying to stop such private donors in the Gulf oil states sending to Islamic State (Isis) funds that help pay the salaries of fighters who may number well over 100,000.
Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff of the Kurdish President, Massoud Barzani, told The Independent on Sunday: “There is sympathy for Da’esh [the Arabic acronym for IS, also known as Isis] in many Arab countries and this has translated into money – and that is a disaster.”  He pointed out that until recently financial aid was being given more or less openly by Gulf states to the opposition in Syria – but by now most of these rebel groups have been absorbed into IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate, so it is they “who now have the money and the weapons”.
Mr Hussein would not identify the states from which the funding for IS comes today, but implied that they were the same Gulf oil states that financed Sunni Arab rebels in Iraq and Syria in the past.
Dr Mahmoud Othman, a veteran member of the Iraqi Kurdish leadership who recently retired from the Iraqi parliament, said there was a misunderstanding as to why Gulf countries paid off IS. It is not only that donors are supporters of IS, but that the movement “gets money from the Arab countries because they are afraid of it”, he says. “Gulf countries give money to Da’esh so that it promises not to carry out operations on their territory.”
Iraqi leaders in Baghdad privately express similar suspicions that IS –  with a territory the size of Great Britain and a population of six million fighting a war on multiple fronts, from Aleppo to the Iranian border – could not be financially self-sufficient, given the calls on its limited resources.
Islamic State is doing everything it can to expand its military capacity, as the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, and the US Central Command (CentCom) threaten an offensive later this year to recapture Mosul. Regardless of the feasibility of this operation, IS forces are fighting in widely different locations across northern and central Iraq.
[Click on Map to Enlarge]

On Tuesday night they made a surprise attack with between 300 and 400 fighters, many of them North Africans from Tunisia, Algeria and Libya, on Kurdish forces 40 miles west of the Kurdish capital, Irbil. The Kurds say that 34 IS fighters were killed in fighting and by US air strikes. At the same time, IS was battling for control of the town of al-Baghdadi, several hundred miles away in Anbar province. Despite forecasts by a CentCom spokesman last week that the tide has turned and that IS is on the retreat there is little sign of this on the ground.
On the contrary, IS appears to have the human and financial resources to fight a long war, though both are under strain. According to interviews by The Independent with people living in Mosul reached by phone, or with recent refugees from the city, IS officials are conscripting at least one young man from every family in Mosul, which has a population of 1.5 million. It has drafted a list of draconian punishments for those not willing to fight, starting with 80 lashes and ending with execution.
All these new recruits receive pay, as well as their keep, which until recently was $500 (£324) a month but has now been cut to about $350. Officers and commanders receive much more. A local source, who did not want to be named, says that foreign fighters, of whom there are an estimated 20,000 in IS, get a much higher salary – starting at $800 a month.
“I know three foreign fighters,” said Ahmad, a 45-year-old shopkeeper still working in Mosul. “I usually see them at checkpoints in our neighbourhood: one is Turkish and the others are Europeans. Some of them speak a little Arabic. I know them well because they buy soft drinks from the shops in our neighbourhood. The Turkish one is my customer. He says he talks to his family using the satellite internet service that is available for the foreigners, who have excellent privileges in terms of salaries, spoils and even captives.”
Ahmad added: “Isis fighters have arrested four high-school teachers for telling their students not to join Isis.” Islamic State fighters have entered the schools and demanded that students in their final year join them. Isis has also lowered the conscription age below 18 years of age, leading some families to leave the city. Military bases for the training and arming of children have also been established.
Given this degree of mobilisation by Islamic State, statements from Mr Abadi and CentCom about recapturing Mosul this spring, using between 20,000 and 25,000 Baghdad government and Kurdish forces, sound like an effort to boost morale on the anti-Isis side.
The CentCom spokesman claimed there were only between 1,000 and 2,000 Isis fighters in Mosul, which is out of keeping with what local observers report. Ominously, Iraqi and foreign governments have an impressive record of underestimating Isis as a military and political force over the past two years.
Mr Hussein said at the end of last year that Isis had “hundreds of thousands of fighters”, at a time when the CIA was claiming they numbered between 20,000 and 31,500. He does not wholly rule out an offensive to take Mosul but, as he outlines the conditions for a successful attack, it becomes clear that he does not expect the city to be recaptured any time soon. For the Kurdish Peshmerga forces to storm Mosul they would need far better equipment “in order to wage a decisive war against Isis and defeat them”, he says. “So far we are only defeating them in various places in Kurdistan by giving our blood. We have had 1,011 Peshmerga killed and about 5,000 wounded.”
The Kurds want heavy weapons including Humvees, tanks to surround but not to enter Mosul, snipers’ rifles, because Isis has many highly accurate snipers, as well as equipment to deal with improvised explosive devices and booby traps, both of which Isis uses profusely.
Above all, Kurdish participation in an offensive would require a military partner in the shape of an effective Iraqi army and local Sunni allies. Without the latter, a battle for Mosul conducted by Shia and Kurds alone would provoke Sunni Arab resistance. Mr Hussein is dubious about the effectiveness of the Iraqi army, which disintegrated last June when, though nominally it had 350,000 soldiers, it was defeated by a few thousand Isis fighters.
“The Iraqi army has two divisions to protect Baghdad, but is it possible for the Iraqi government to release them?” asks Mr Hussein.  “And how will they get to Mosul? If they have to come through Tikrit and Baiji, they will have to fight hard along the way even before they get to Mosul.”
Of course, an anti-Isis offensive has advantages not available last year, such as US air strikes, but these might be difficult to use in a city. The US air force carried out at least 600 air strikes on the Isis-held part of the small Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani before Isis finally retreated after a siege of 134 days. In the most optimistic scenarios Isis splits or there is a popular uprising against it, but so far there is no sign of this and Isis has proved that it exacts merciless vengeance against any individual or community opposed to it.
Mr Hussein makes another important point: difficult and dangerous though it may be for the Kurds and the Baghdad government to recapture Mosul, they cannot afford to leave it alone. It was here that Isis won its first great victory and Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi declared the caliphate on 29 June last year.
“Mosul is important politically and militarily,” he says. “Without defeating Isis in Mosul, it will be very difficult to talk about the defeat of Isis in the rest of Iraq.”
At the moment, Peshmerga forces are only eight miles from Mosul. But  Isis fighters are likewise not much further from the Kurdish-held oil city of Kirkuk, which Isis assaulted last month. Given the size of Iraq and the small size of the armies deployed, each side can inflict tactical surprises on the other by punching through scantily held frontlines.
There are two further developments to the advantage of Islamic State. Even in the face of the common threat, the leaders in Baghdad and Erbil remain deeply divided. When Mosul fell last year, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki claimed that the Iraqi army had been stabbed in the back by a conspiracy between Kurds and Isis. The two sides remain deeply suspicious of each other and, at the start of last week, a delegation led by the Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani failed to reach an agreement in Baghdad on how much of Iraq’s oil revenues should go to the Kurds in exchange for a previously agreed quantity of oil from Kurdish-held northern oilfields.
“Unbelievably, the divisions now are as great as under Maliki,” says Dr Othman. Islamic State has made many enemies, but it may be saved by their inability to unite.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of The Rise of Islamic State: Isis and the New Sunni Revolution (Verso)

18 February 2015

Can the Iraqi Army Retake Mosul

Attached is an excellent report that discusses the prospects for the Iraqi Army to retake Mosul.
The author, Patrick Cockburn, is on the very best reporters now covering the wars in the Middle East.  His bleak sitrep describes the gloomy prospects for driving ISIS out of Mosul.  Two of his points worth emphasizing: 
1. The Iraqi Army includes 50,000 ghost soldiers who never existed but whose salaries went to officials and officers.  Today, only about 12 brigades with a theoretical strength of 48,000 might be combat ready. This is barely enough to defend Baghdad and the surrounding areas. [Bear in mind, the US already spent over $25 billion on the Iraqi army before it immediately collapsed under ISIS pressure last summer.] Moreover, the most effective Iraqi fighters are the highly sectarian Shi’a militias, whose murderous actions serve to alienate Sunnis and increase their sympathy and recruitment to ISIS.
2. No one knows how many fighters are in ISIS, but Cockburn thinks the ISIS ranks may have swollen to 100,000 Jihadis. This estimate is far larger than official estimates. If true, and Cockburn is a seasoned observer with an impressive track record, the huge number of ISIS fighters is evidence that President Obama’s bombing program to “degrade” ISIS is not accomplishing that objective.  In fact, quite the opposite appears to be taking place. The swollen ranks would not augur well for the retaking of Mosul.  To make matters worse, support for Iraqi government is divided inside Mosul, with many Sunni Arab inhabitants supporting ISIS, some out of fear, others out of sympathy.  Thus emerging conditions are setting the stage for a very violent urban battle, should the Iraqis try to storm Mosul, a fight in which supporting airstrikes will be ineffective and counterproductive. 
The asymmetries in the balance of power explain why Cockburn does not think Iraq can mount a counteroffensive to retake Mosul this year, notwithstanding the Iraqi government’s statements to the contrary.

ISIS Digs In
Fight to the Death for Mosul
by PATRICK COCKBURN, Counterpunch, 18 February 2015

[Re-posted with permission of the author and the editor of Counterpunch]
“I fled Mosul when Isis threatened to conscript my brother as one of its fighters, though he is under 18 years of age,” says Ali Hussein Mustafa, a student who left the city a week ago. The self-styled “Islamic State” is seeking to bolster its military forces as it wages war on many fronts and it has introduced a new rule under which men under the age of 18 are no longer exempt from conscription.
The Iraqi government is threatening that it will soon send its army north to recapture Mosul, a city of two million, the loss of which last June was the first in a string of victories by Isis. The Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced this week in an interview that “we are now planning an offensive against Mosul in a few months”.
If the army does attack it will face formidable resistance from the armed forces of Isis that may now number well over 100,000 in Iraq and Syria. Moreover, people in Mosul, the northern capital of Iraq, are divided in their loyalties, judging by interviews with The Independent conducted this month, either after they left the city or by mobile phone, although Isis has banned their use. In a predominantly Sunni Arab city, many are more frightened of largely Shia Iraqi government forces than they are of those on the side of Isis, though they may not like either.
“Some fighters treat the residents cruelly and harshly, while others are well-educated and treat the people well,” says Ali. He cites a local mathematics teacher who joined Isis recently “but was very kind to people and gave money and food to the poor. He often asked me whether I have any information about widows and the disabled in the city. He was donating part of his salary to them.”
Though Ali and his family have become refugees he still argues that many Isis fighters are better than their equivalents in the Iraqi army, which held the city for 10 years before 2014.
At the same time, Ali recalls examples of extreme barbarity, with the hands of men accused of theft being publicly amputated and people discovered using mobile phones receiving 30 lashes. Isis is fearful of spies using mobile phones relaying information to US drones that hover continuously overhead. There are daily air strikes by US aircraft, though most of these are taking place outside the city.  Several senior Isis officials are reported to have died when their vehicles were targeted.
Foreign fighters are particularly brutal towards women not wearing the niqab, a piece of cloth covering the head and face. Ahmad, a shopkeeper who still lives in Mosul, says he was shocked when a woman he knew was taken to a local police station because her eyes were showing even though she was wearing a niqab. He says her punishment was that “a bit used by donkey was put in her mouth and she was told to bite down hard on it – which she did and then had to be taken to hospital afterwards because she was bleeding heavily.”
Mosul is increasingly isolated from the outside world because of the prohibition on the use of mobile phones. Isis has blown up many towers that previously carried a signal, though mobile phone use is still sometimes possible from high places such as rooftops or hill tops.
One place previously used was a stage in Concerts Square in al-Majmu’ah al-Thaqfiyah area but three people were whipped for making calls from there. Whipping is also the punishment for those found at checkpoints to have SIM cards in their pockets.
There is an increasing number of checkpoints inside the city and those at the main exit points often stop anybody leaving who does not have a valid excuse. Trenches have been dug to stop Kurdish Peshmerga forces to the north and east of the city – with, in one case, Isis even putting out a public tender for a trench system.
The Kurds have made advances in recapturing much of the Sinjar area west of Mosul, advancing behind heavy US air attacks against any point where Isis is resisting. But this tactic would be less feasible  in built-up areas such as Tal Afar or Mosul itself.
Kurdish leaders say they would not advance into Sunni Arab areas where all the Sunni would rally against them. One Kurdish commentator, Kamran Karadaghi, says that Kurdish public opinion would not welcome a battle for Mosul in which there would be heavy losses. He says people would ask: “Why should so many Kurds die for a Sunni Arab city?”
Despite Mr Abadi’s declaration that the Iraqi army will recapture Mosul this year, such an assault appears to be well beyond the strength of the Baghdad government, if it relies on its own regular army. This is now said to number 12 brigades with a nominal strength of 48,000 that might be made battle-worthy when aided by US advisers.
But this is barely enough to defend Baghdad and fight in some neighbouring provinces, while the disintegration of the Iraqi army last year as it abandoned northern and western Iraq is not a hopeful portent.
In the past, Iraqi officers have always bought their jobs in order to make money through embezzling funds intended for supplies of food and equipment or by levying tolls on all goods vehicles passing through their checkpoints. Mr Abadi revealed last year that 50,000 soldiers in the army are “ghosts” who never existed but whose salaries went to officials and officers.
The most effective armed force of the Iraqi government is made up of Shia militias which have retaken Diyala province north-east of Baghdad and Sunni towns to the south of the capital. But the Shia militias are highly sectarian, killing or driving out Sunni Arabs who are treated as supporters of Isis whatever their real sympathies.
Isis has targeted Shia civilians in Baghdad and elsewhere using car bombs and suicide bombers causing horrific casualties, thus enabling Isis to pose as defenders of the Sunni Arab community when the Shia retaliate.
Life in Mosul may be grim for its inhabitants with shortages of clean water, fuel and electricity, but food supplies are still adequate. In some respects Isis runs a more active state apparatus than Baghdad which has traditionally done little for the victims of violence.
Ali Hussein Mustafa says that when there was fighting recently between Isis and the Peshmerga, many of the Sunni Arabs from Tal Afar fled the rocket and artillery fire and went to Mosul where Isis organised their accommodation. Isis can afford such bounty because it has confiscated the houses of Christians and others who have been forced to flee.
A successful counter-offensive against Isis leading to the recapture of Mosul does not look likely this year whatever Mr Abadi’s declared intentions. Many of those in the territories of the “Islamic State” would like to end its rule, but only if it were replaced by an  Iraqi army that is disciplined and non-sectarian enough to provide an acceptable alternative.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of ‘The Rise of Islamic State: Isis and the New Sunni Revolution’

11 February 2015

Killing the Hog (V)

Air Force Headquarters Declassified and Released Incomplete Data to Further A-10 Smear Campaign
Mandy Smithberger, Project on Government Oversight, February 9, 2015
[Readers can find all postings on this subject at this link]
Air Force headquarters is getting desperate to dump the A-10. Congress has demonstrated strong support for keeping the A-10 and is skeptical of the Air Force’s attempts to retire the platform. An Air Force general even accused any pilot who tells Congress why the A-10 supports troops so effectively in combat of committing treason.
Now, to further muzzle any honest debate about providing adequate close air support for our troops, Air Force headquarters cherry-picked and then declassified selected statistics for USA Today—all to tar the A-10 with having killed more American troops and Afghan civilians than any other plane. Those cooked statistics excluded—and kept classified—data that is essential for a basic understanding of the issue.
The key issue Air Force headquarters obscures is the rate at which these tragic losses occur. Obviously, some aircraft have flown far more attack missions than other aircraft. For instance, the A-10 has flown 4.5 times as many firing sorties as the B-1. However, the critical number is not the total soldiers and civilians killed and wounded, but the ratio of those losses to the number of sorties flown. Without this crucial rate, which the Air Force downplayed or excluded entirely, you can’t determine the likelihood of friendly or civilian casualties or which plane types are least likely to inflict these terrible losses.
Even when you look at the Air Force headquarters’ doctored statistics, it turns out the A-10 is significantly safer than most of the other planes. Only a total misreading would suggest that the A-10 is the plane most dangerous to friendly troops or civilians. For example, the data sheets the Air Force prepared for the press showed the A-10 had a “.3%” rate of incidents causing civilian casualties, which was the second lowest rate of any aircraft.
Using the same data sheets and long division, you quickly find that the A-10 suffered 1.4 civilian casualties for every 100 “kinetic” (weapons employed) sorties. The B-1B bomber, the platform Air Force headquarters always touts as the preferable alternative, had a rate 6.6—nearly five times worse than the A-10. Every other aircraft except for the AC-130* also had rates well in excess of the A-10, but neither the Air Force nor available reports even hinted this was the case.
So how did Air Force headquarters cook the numbers? For one, the numbers were cooked by time frame. The chart comparing civilian casualties starts in 2010, conveniently excluding the 2009 Granai Massacre in which a B-1 killed between 26 and 147 civilians and wounded many more. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission estimated 97 civilians killed, which the Department of Defense has not disputed. Including 2009 would have made the B-1 bomber the worst killer in theater by far.
For the fratricide data, on the other hand, the Air Force incongruously extended the time-frame back to 2001. If they had used the same time-frame, the B-1 bomber’s killing of five American troops in 2014 would have made it top the list for fratricide.
Second, the Air Force’s data doctoring went so far as to exclude all wounded U.S. troops, all killed or wounded allied troops, and all wounded civilians over the same time period. Including these statistics would have collapsed their case against the A-10. If the Air Force included all friendly killed and wounded, three aircraft would have caused substantially greater total fratricide losses than the A-10. This was also an obvious conclusion from the released data sheets, but not mentioned in the press reports.
Finally and most importantly, to make sure no one could compare aircraft using the crucially important friendly casualty rate per 100 sorties, the Air Force withheld as classified the number of firing sorties each plane flew during the fratricide data period (2001 to 2014)—notably the same data they declassified for their civilian casualty chart from 2010 to 2014.
Using these declassified 2010 to 2014 sortie totals and corresponding civilian casualty totals for each plane, simple long division yields the following table of casualty rates for each plane.

Platform       Civilian Casualties per 100
                              Kinetic Sorties
AC-130                         0.7
A-10                             1.4
F-15E                           1.6
F-16                             2.1
F-18                             2.2
B-1                               6.6
AV-8                             8.4

The table makes it clear that the A-10 is the safest airplane in Afghan combat, except for the AC-130. In fact, the A-10 produces nearly five times fewer civilian casualties per firing sortie than the B-1 bomber, even in the artificially truncated 2010 to 2014 time period. But when you consider that the A-10 makes at least two to three times as many firing passes per kinetic sortie as the B-1 bomber, the comparison becomes even more lopsided, with the A-10 causing at least 9 to 13 times fewer civilian casualties per effective firing attack than the B-1 bomber.
As for friendly troop losses, when and if the Air Force is forced to release this still-classified data on sortie totals for the fratricide data period, it is almost certain that the A-10 results will be similarly lopsided.
Air Force headquarters is engaged in an all-out campaign to use any means possible—including threatening servicemembers and doctoring data for the media—to bolster its failing argument on Capitol Hill to prematurely retire the A-10. Retiring the A-10 gets rid of an Army-supporting mission Air Force generals despise and protects the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program from a combat-proven competitor.
As part of the nation’s obligation to provide the best possible close air support for our troops in current and future battle, it is essential for Congress to investigate whether or not the A-10 is essential to the safety of the people who are fighting our wars and to prevent Air Force headquarters from recklessly retiring any additional A-10s until the truth has been determined. Congress needs to ask the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to gather and assess the available combat experience of ground troops plus the complete combat data, all fratricide and civilian casualty data, and all kinetic sorties. The GAO should then report back to the House and Senate Armed Services committees before they mark up the new defense policy bill. In addition, these committees should hold hearings on the A-10 controversy and include witnesses with meaningful combat experience—and not limit its hearings to witnesses hand-selected by Air Force headquarters—to accurately testify and provide the needed facts for and against the Air Force’s troubling effort to deprive our forces of the A-10’s unique capabilities as fighting continues in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
What we don’t need is more doctored and incomplete information from Air Force headquarters to sell their dumping of the A-10.
*We originally published that this was the KC-130, based on Air Force data that mislabeled what should have been the AC-130.

Image from the U.S. Air Force.

09 February 2015

Killing the Hog (IV)

In addition to being an outrage in itself, the A-10 scandal is becoming a poster child for what ails the Pentagon in general -- i.e., a domestic political economy that puts hardware before people and ideas (see Killing the Hog III).  The attached report in the Arizona Daily Independent adds more ammunition to both conclusions.  
Chuck Spinney

USAF desperation behind A-10 friendly fire death message
ADI News Services, February 9, 2015
“They follow the principle that when one lies, it should be a big lie, and one should stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.” ~ Joseph Goebbels, Third Reich Minister of Propaganda
An article in USA Today regarding the United States Air Force’s A-10 and friendly fire incidents has caused a fire storm across the military community. The article, A-10 warplane tops list for friendly fire deaths, by Tom Vanden Brook, appears to many to be a desperate attempt by the USAF to discredit the craft just as it is being hailed by enemies of ISIL.
Tony Carr, who won the Distinguished Flying Cross and writes in the popular, military blog, John Q. Public, describes the article as a “lamentable piece of journalism, with Vanden Brook perhaps unwittingly advancing a despicable bundle of lies on behalf of the unnamed officials who made him their message mule.” [CS note: See Killing the Hog (III)]
Senator Kelly Ayotte, a staunch advocate for the A-10, issued a statement in response to the piece: “Every death of an American or allied service member or an innocent civilian is a heart-breaking tragedy. No aircraft that conducts close air support missions — which by definition involve the close proximity of friendly and enemy forces — is immune from fratricide. But as our ground troops and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers will tell you, the unique CAS capabilities of the A-10 have saved hundreds of American lives.”
“Unfortunately, the Air Force is again making selective use of data to support its misguided, dangerous, and premature divestment of the A-10—a divestment that ignores the advice of the overwhelming majority of Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) who know close air support best,” concluded Ayotte. … [continued]

08 February 2015

Killing the Hog (III)

Previous Postings
Attached is an awesome rebuttal to the Air Force’s plan to retire the A-10, known affectionately as The Hog.  The author, Tony Carr, is a retired AF pilot.  Carr dispassionately dissects the extent to which the Air Force leadership is lying about the performance of the A-10 in combat to justify its decision to send the A-10 to the boneyard.  These lies do a disservice the AF pilots flying highly effective combat missions in the A-10 — but they also shine a bright light into the murky problem that makes managing the Defense Department so intractable.  
The skunk fight over whether or not to kill the Hog may look like just another insider issue over a favored hardware toy in an arcane Pentagon budget battle. But it is also a revealing case study highlighting the moral relativity lying at the heart of the bureaucratic pathologies plaguing the Pentagon.  
Carr explains how bureaucrats and Washington insiders are pulling out the ethical stops by manipulating effectiveness statistics to justify their decision to trash the A-10.  While Carr does not say so, their cynical effort aims to place the interests of (1) the Military - Industrial - Congressional Complex (reflected in this case by the AF leadership’s unbounded lust for shoveling more money into the high-cost, problem-prone, behind-schedule F-35) and (2) the AF's institutional prerogatives before the clear combined-arms needs in an ongoing war.  The name of the AF game is to suppress  information revealing what really works and what does not work in combat.  
This kind of bureaucratic gamesmanship — which unfortunately is all too typical in all the services — goes to the heart of the behavioral pathologies that repeatedly produce the un-auditable programmatic shambles that is the Pentagon’s five-year budget plan.  This shambles takes the form of (1) a high-cost modernization plan that can not buy enough new weapons to modernize the force on a timely basis (e.g., in this case, the F-35), (2) continual budgetary pressure to reduce existing readiness to bail out the floundering modernization program (e.g., in this case, trashing the A-10), and (3) corrupt accounting system that makes it impossible to sort out the information needed to correct the first two problems (explained here).  The A-10 debate is also a window into the behavioral pathologies that have turned the relatively small, low tempo, never-ending Global War on Terror (when compared to Korea or Viet Nam) into the second most expensive war in U.S. history.

Tony Carr, John Q. Public, 7 February 2015
The author is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and veteran advocate. He served globally as a pilot, staff advisor, and squadron commander, logging several hundred combat hours in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.

The A-10 is a superb weapon, but it doesn’t fit into the Air Force’s vision of the future. The service has committed itself to getting rid of the warplane, and will stop at nothing to make it happen.
“Lie: to create a false or misleading impression.”
“Win: to achieve victory in a fight, contest, or game.”
There’s a game afoot, and the Air Force is lying to win it.
The game is the annual round of sanctioned government chicanery attendant to passing a defense budget. The Air Force’s objective in this game is to rid itself of the A-10 so it can re-purpose the funding it occupies for other priorities. After failing in previous attempts to achieve this objective, the service is engaged in a take-no-prisoners effort to make it happen, and is willing to leave its integrity at the door in the process. This is extreme and regrettable behavior from an institution that claims integrity as its guiding value. What explains the willingness to betray that value?
The service says the A-10 issue is all about money, and that is has no choice but to pursue the jet’s retirement. Getting rid of the A-10, so the argument goes, is necessary to free up budget tradespace for modernization, particularly funding of the F-35. But this doesn’t really explain the willingness to resort to dishonest tactics. For that explanation, it’s necessary to think about motive.
Contrary to the Air Force’s insistence, this isn’t just a routine budget issue. This is about ridding itself of a Close Air Support (CAS) mission it doesn’t want — a function it doesn’t consider to be part of its core duty to national defense. The campaign to retire the A-10 has been ongoing for two decades, and misrepresenting its contribution to national defense has been part and parcel of that campaign.
But the current debate has occasioned a particular episode unique in its sheer mendacity, which gestures toward a more deeply-rooted intent. After being humiliated on the A-10 issue over the past several budget cycles, senior officers seem to be letting emotion trump reason. Double-dealing of this nature reflects an almost vendetta-level desire to re-establish control and squelch opposition by any means necessary. Recent attempts to chill A-10 debate within the service by marking its advocates with the stain of treason is further evidence.
The latest signal that enmity has overtaken reason among service leaders is the recent article by USA Today’s Tom Vanden Brook, caustically (and disingenuously) titled “A-10 warplane tops list for friendly fire deaths.” This is a lamentable piece of journalism, with Vanden Brook perhaps unwittingly advancing a despicable bundle of lies on behalf of the unnamed officials who made him their message mule. .... continued

05 February 2015

Privatizing the Afghan War

Feasible Exit Strategy or Prescription for Perpetual War?

President Obama told Congress and the American people in his SoU address that the American combat mission in Afghanistan is over, but as the attached report shows, that claim is a bit disingenuous, to put it charitably.  

To be sure, the military presence has been reduced, and only 9,800 troops remain in Afghanistan. However, in response to a question posed during his confirmation hearing, the incoming Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, already indicated a willingness to slow down or possibility reverse the ongoing drawdown, should security conditions “degrade."  

As the attached report in The Nation by Tom Shorrock indicates, there is a ample potential for security conditions to degrade.  Almost 40,000 private contractors remain in Afghanistan.  These contractors have a twofold mission:  

First, they will train, support, and assist the Afghan security forces in its anti-Taliban and anti-drug operations.  The United States has already poured over $65 billion into this project with limited results and much corruption.  

Second, the contractors will run an un-auditable program known as Business Stability Operations, which is aimed at convincing private investors to exploit Afghanistan’s mineral wealth (how such an exploitation will be interpreted by distrustful Afghans is an open question: but given the levels of corruption to date, a worst case assumption would be prudent).  

In short, these contractors will be lucrative targets for xenophobic Afghan guerrillas.

Readers longing for a little light at the end of the Afghan tunnel should also remember that the Obama Administration signed a bilateral security agreement that allows US troops to remain in Afghanistan until at least 2024 — and its language does not preclude these troops from engaging in combat operations

The Afghanistan War Is Still Raging—but This Time It's Being Waged by Contractors
Tim Shorrock, The Nation, February 4, 2015 - 11:05AM ET

The killing of three US Pentagon contractors at the hands of a uniformed Afghani Army soldier in Kabul last week casts considerable doubt on President Obama's recent proclamation that America's "combat mission in Afghanistan is over."
The US-trained Afghani security forces have now "taken the lead" in the 14-year-old war, Mr. Obama told Congress in his State of the Union address on January 20.
But after digging into the contractors involved and the circumstances behind their untimely deaths, it's apparent that the US-led war against the Taliban is still in full swing, and that Americans—along with many Afghans—will continue to die.  (continued)

02 February 2015

Don't Interrupt the Money Flow, Add to It

Déjà vu All Over Again

Front Loading the New AF Bomber

Mark Thompson of Time, IMO one of the best reporters covering the Pentagon,* has written a short but accurate portrait of the kinds of accounting gimmicks the Pentagon uses to make a new weapons program appear to cost less than will ultimately be the case (his report is attached below).  These accounting  gimmicks are particularly important in the early stages of a program’s development.  They are a seamless part of budget gaming strategy known in the Pentagon as a Front Loading.  Mark’s exemplar describes how the Air Force is playing “hide the pea” games with the cost estimates for its new long range strategic stealth bomber.  Front loading the new bomber is in its very early stages, but dollars, jobs, and profits are already flooding out of the Big Green Spending Machine: the FY 2016 budget continues to slip the bomber's nose into budgetary tent by adding another $2 billion in R&D funding to the $2.5 billion spent in the last two years (see page 1-20 of Program Acquisition Costs by Weapon System).

Front loading is the art of downplaying the future consequences of a current decision in order to obtain a premature approval to go forward.  Examples of front loading games include (1) Low balling estimates of future cost (this is the subject of Thomson’s report) to pave the way for a premature decision to enter concurrent engineering and manufacturing development, (2) over-promising future combat effectiveness, (3) over-promising improvements in reliability and  ease of maintenance to justify the inevitability of the higher unit procurement costs of increasingly complex weapons with the claim that the higher procurement costs in the nearer term will be accompanied by significantly lower unit operating costs in the very distant future, etc.  

The goal of the Front Loading power game is to obtain an early approval to proceed forward with large expenditures for developing a new weapons concept before that concept or its consequences are fully thought out.  Once the front loading operation turns on the money faucet, the political engineers in the defense industry and the Pentagon start building a political safety net by quickly spreading dollars, jobs, and profits to as many congressional as possible.  This second phase in the two-pronged assault on the taxpayer, known in the Pentagon as Political Engineering, is aimed at paralyzing decision makers (in the Pentagon, White House, and Congress) by making it too costly politically to cancel the program.  Working together the goal of the front loading and political engineering power games is to make the program "too big to fail" before anyone gets wise to what they have signed up for.

There is nothing new in these  power games or in our appreciation of their destructive long term consequences (see my 1990 pamphlet Defense Power Games & and my 2002 statement to Congress).   The  “too big to fail” F-35 disaster ought to be proof of their effectiveness to readers who doubt the power of these games.

Thompson’s report is a timely warning that the Air Force is busily front loading a new high-cost stealth bomber into the defense budget. If the AF succeeds in building yet another “too big to fail” bomber program, the pressures of cost growth will have enormous ramifications on its future force structure size, weapons aging, and combat readiness — all of which will increase pressure for even larger defense budgets in the future.**  

But the more important message is that the new bomber is a real-time case study in how the Pentagon cynically ensures that the defense budget remains beyond control of the President, the Congress, and the American people.  We know what is going to happen -- will the political decision-making system muster the will to stop it?

Some people may wonder why the Pentagon never learns from past experience.  Thompson’s report is a reminder that that Pentagon and its allies in the defense industry and Congress have learned their lessons very well: They know what works in the Hall of Mirrors that is Versailles on the Potomac.  That is why they do it over and over, with greater subtlety and refinement.  

The Defense Power Games may have little to do with national security, but they have a lot do with the ensuring the security of a comfortable status quo throughout the Military - Industrial - Congressional Complex.   

The strategy, as the American strategist Colonel John Boyd said, is simple: "Don’t interrupt the money flow, add to it."
* Caveat: Mark Thompson is a long time friend.

** The consequences of the front loading and political engineering games are well understood and documented.  For example, my 1996 unclassified report Defense Budget Time Bomb described how the consequences would unfold in the early 21st Century after the AF front loaded F-22 and JSF (F-35) into the modernization program in the early 1990s.  Today’s force structure/aging crises in the AF tacair force structure is the predictable consequence, even though the budget has rose to record levels in the first 15 years of the 21st Century.

How the Pentagon Bombs Budget Estimates to $mithereens
And why skepticism should accompany Monday's proposed 2016 defense budget
Mark Thompson, Time, Feb. 1, 2015
[Re-posted with permission of the author] 
And why skepticism should accompany Monday's proposed 2016 defense budget
President Obama is sending his proposed $585 billion 2016 Pentagon budget to Capitol Hill on Monday. It consists of reams of documents, charts and tables that make it difficult for normal folks to understand. So let’s take a look at a single line item—the Air Force’s new bomber, for which the service is expected to seek about $1.5 billion next year—for insight into why Pentagon numbers don’t always add up.
But the highly-classified warplane already has a well-publicized price.
The cost, the Pentagon has been saying since 2011, is $550 million per bomber. It’s the only price tag attached to the new bomber and, and a result, it’s the one cited when the new plane is discussed.
An artist's conception of what the Air Force's new Long Range Strike 
Bomber might look like - Northrop Grumman

“It’s like $550 million per copy,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said earlier this month. “It’s an estimate based upon multiple reviews of the program and not a single source.”
“Five hundred million dollars per copy sounds like a lot of money, but for the capability that we will be achieving, it actually is considered to be affordable,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told Bloomberg last summer.
A team of Boeing and Lockheed Martin is competing against Northrop Grumman to build the Air Force’s next crown jewel. Northrop produced the nation’s newest bomber, the B-2, and hinted at its desire to build the Long Range Strike Bomber during Sunday’s Super Bowl, when it aired a 30-second spot in Washington, D.C., and Dayton, Ohio, home of the Air Force’s acquisition corps.
The $550 million figure has been cited so often that those not playing close attention could be forgiven for thinking that it’s the actual cost of the airplane. Kind of like the bottom line on the sticker you see on the window of a new car. But it’s not. Like any bureaucracy dedicated to expansion, the $550 million sum is the lowest figure the Air Force number can say with a straight face.
After repeatedly planting that $550 million flag in the minds of lawmakers and taxpayers, Pentagon officials have sometimes acknowledged that the $550 million represents what is known inside the military as the “APUC,” or average procurement unit cost. What’s important about that figure isn’t what it includes, but what it leaves out.
First of all, the $550 million price tag is based on buying between 80 and 100 of the bombers. Driving the price per plane down to $550 million requires economies of scale that only come over such long production runs. Early aircraft off the assembly line are very expensive, as the radar-eluding B-2 “stealth” bomber made clear. “Cost of Stealth Bombers Soars to $450 Million Each,” the Washington Post reported breathlessly on its front page nearly 30 years ago, in May 1988. Few believed at the time that a bomber could cost so much. But that was for a planned buy of 132 planes. The Air Force ended up buying only 21. The B-2’s ultimate price: $2.1 billion each. [According to Winslow Wheeler, this estimate is in FY91$.  If true, the $2.1 billion/cy price tag would equate to $3.2 biillion/cy in today’s FY 2015 $).
Secondthe $550 million doesn’t include the research and development needed to actually build the plane. Without the R&D, the plane would truly be stealthy—because it wouldn’t exist. Experts inside and outside the Pentagon estimate the new bomber’s development will add between $20 billion and $25 billion to the Pentagon’s projected $55 billion procurement price tag for 100 planes.
Third, the $550 million price is based on the value of a 2010 dollar. That’s 12 years before the first pair of bombers is slated to be delivered. Accounting for inflation since has already driven the cost per plane close to $600 million, and that number will keep rising in the future. Delays in the plane’s production schedule will push it even higher.
Finally, the $550 million estimate doesn’t include anything for the all-but-certain cost overruns a weapons program like this will experience. No one can say how much unanticipated costs will add to the bomber’s ultimate price, but one can declare with certainty that it won’t be zero.
Todd Harrison of the independent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments think tank estimates the bomber program’s true cost—assuming 100 planes and no cost overruns—at $90 billion. That’s $900 million a copy, 64% higher than the Air Force’s official $550 million figure.
“I actually think it’s very important that we buy the bomber,” Harrison says. “I just think we should acknowledge what it is likely to cost.” He also thinks there will be cost overruns, and that fewer than 100 will be bought. That’ll drive the price per plane into the B-2’s billion-dollar stratosphere.
Harrison isn’t the only one with doubts, judging from what some Air Force officials have said while describing the new bomber’s advertised price. Eric Fanning, the Air Force’s #2 civilian, has called the $550 million figure “a pretty firm chalk line.” Chief Air Force weapons buyer William LaPlante describes it a “marker in the sand.”
Whatever. It’s obvious that the Air Force’s $550 million estimate isn’t carved in stone.