Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Deadliest Combination

Not bad for a group infamously described as the terrorist "jayvee" team.

According to The Wall Street Journal, ISIS's recent capture of Ramidi revealed a new level of tactical sophistication and innovation that allowed them to take the capital of Iraq's Anbar province and send government security forces scurrying from the city.

"An examination of how Ramadi fell indicates that Islamic State commanders executed a complex battle plan that outwitted a greater force of Iraqi troops as well as the much-lauded, U.S.-trained special-operations force known as the Golden Division, which had been fighting for months to defend the city.

Islamic State commanders evaded surveillance and airstrikes to bring reinforcements to its front lines in western Iraq. The group displayed a high degree of operational security by silencing its social media and propaganda teams during the Ramadi surge.

The group also churned out dozens of formidable new weapons by converting captured U.S. military armored vehicles designed to be impervious to small-arms fire into megabombs with payloads equal to the force of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Over the three-day surge in Ramadi, Islamic State fighters launched at least 27 such vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or Vbieds, that destroyed Iraq security forces’ defensive perimeters and crumbled multistory buildings."

Analysts interviewed by the WSJ also gave ISIS grudging credit for masking its troop deployments to Ramidi.  In April, the terror group put out a call for fighters to move from Syria to Iraq, in preparation for the Ramidi campaign.  But instead of transiting in the familiar Toyota pick-up trucks long associated with the group, many of insurgents rode in ordinary sedans, traveling in groups of two or three.  That shift in tactics made it more difficult to identify--and target-- ISIS movements.  The deployments were also aided by the group's recent seizure of several checkpoints along the border between Iraq and Syria.

But the terrorist victory in Ramidi was more than a case of cowardice by security forces, or the introduction of new tactics and weaponry by ISIS.  Indeed, the terror army's recent success in Anbar can also be attributed to a deadly combination in Washington, D.C.: American political reticence, coupled with a steadfast refusal to use effectively employ available assets, namely airpower.

And we're not talking about a "bomb them back into the stone age" campaign plan.  The lack of air support at key moments in Ramidi was a major reason that ISIS took the city.  Consider this telling account from the WSJ report:          

By May 13 [after earlier attacks were repulsed], Islamic State had established a team of snipers closer to where Iraqi police and army units were based, said Iraqi soldiers and state media.

The next day, Islamic State launched its surge by sending a single armored bulldozer to the concrete barriers on the outskirts of the government lines. The bulldozer worked unimpeded for close to an hour, removing concrete walls, Iraqi officials said. Once the road was cleared, Islamic State fighters drove about six Vbieds, including an armored Humvee and armored dump truck, into the government complex, said Iraqi and U.S. officials.

“It was incredibly devastating, just horrific, gigantic explosions that took out entire city blocks,” a senior U.S. official said.

You don't need to be Billy Mitchell to understand the potential impact of airpower at that critical moment.  If a single A-10, F-16, AH-64 or Reaper drone had destroyed the bulldozer, the barriers would remain in place, making the VBIED attacks much more difficult to execute.  And, because the first wave of truck bombs were deployed within a few blocks of the bulldozer, many of them could have been neutralized before they targeted Iraqi security forces

But they weren't and the VBIEDs did their job--breaching Iraqi defenses and installing panic in the troops who manned them.  To be fair, some of those units needed little incentive to throw down their   weapons and run, but it's also safe to surmise that some would have remained on post if American air power had been overhead, with qualified SOF personnel or a Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) to
direct those assets and put bombs squarely on target.

But there are no TACPs or SF controllers with Iraqi defense forces.  Instead, our air power is used largely against fixed enemy facilities or fleeting targets detected by pilots overhead, or UAVS.  But in many cases, those "perishable" targets escape.  This past week, an unnamed USAF fighter pilot, with experience against ISIS, told Fox News that once a fleeting target is discovered, it can take over an. Hour to secure command approval to attack it.  By that time, many of those targets have disappeared, or reached areas where fears of collateral damage prevent execution of an air strike.

Indeed, "The New York Times" recently reported that the U.S. has pinpointed the location of a major ISIS headquarters in Syria, but has rejected potential attacks on the complex, which lies in a civilian neighborhood.  Ironically, that account appeared on the 70th anniversary of a fire raid in Tokyo during World War II that targeted Japanese Imperial Palaces.  It goes without saying that Emperor Hirohito was in our cross-hairs that night,  along with civilians who lived in adjoining neighborhoods.  The legendary Curtis LeMay, who was running B-29 operations from Guam, decided it was with the risk; so did his superiors in Washington.

Obviously, conditions are much different today, but those changes are (in part) a function of national willpower.  During World War II,  we were willing to do whatever it took to defeat savage enemies, with the realization that total victory entailed risk.  Today, tactical considerations often drive strategic decisions, a flawed strategy that is aggravated through indifference by the commander-in-chief.  Mr. Obama apparently decided long ago that ISIS does not constitute a serious threat to our national security.  That's one reason our air campaign looks like a cross between Vietnam 1965 and Bosnia, circa 1996.  Targets are carefully selected at the White House, and highly restrictive ROE prevents timely execution, on a scale that would actiually make a difference.

No boots on the ground means less effective targeting from above.  It also tells our allies and enemies that we aren't serious, encouraging ISIS to be more aggressive, and prompting Iraqi troops to cut and run.  Brought to you by a President who can't move beyond his infamous--and incorrect--characterization of a terrorist jayvee team.  In reality, the Islamic State represents the big leagues of transnational threats, while the U.S. looks more and more like great power without the will to fight, let alone win.





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