Why Can’t We Beat ISIS?

“What’s the point of having this superb military that

you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State


Recent attacks by terrorists have highlighted the issues of ISIS and the eternal mess that is the Middle East. Why does it seem that we have no good options for fighting ISIS? Why can’t we use our enormous resources to exert our will?

Contrary to what you have heard, we are not “doing nothing” about ISIS. The US and its allies have launched 6,700 airstrikes in the last year. Well-known intelligence analyst Jane’s estimated  that ISIS has lost 9.4% of its territory (US estimates are higher).  Indeed, some think that the attacks in Paris were done to bolster ISIS’s image in the face of battlefield losses.

Yet, victory against ISIS still seems far away.  Considering our enormous military budget, shouldn’t we be getting more bang for the buck? What’s wrong with us?  Why can’t our military fix this?

And the problem is not just ISIS. Copious amounts of blood and treasure devoted to Iraq have not yielded positive results. Is our Defense budget a waste of money? Do we need a bigger budget? Why can’t we win?

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I asked for the opinion of Robert Culver, AMREL’s Director of Business Development Programs (DOD), who has had a long career in both Pentagon procurement and the Army.  Culver replied:

“The problem is: I think we have lost our doctrine.  By our doctrine, I mean military doctrine. We’ve replaced military doctrine with political doctrine or convenience.  Rumsfeld’s decision to use smaller quantity of forces at the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom was not based on Military Doctrine. It was based on political optics.”

In the lead up to the Iraqi invasion, Army Chief of Staff Shinseki advocated the deployment of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Critics charged that Shinseki was forced into early retirement because his views clashed with the Bush administration who wanted minimal levels of troops. This perfectly illustrates Culver’s point about the dominance of political doctrine over military.

Culver holds critical views about certain members of the military leadership, political class, and commercial interests. He feels that there is pattern of suborning national interests to personal political goals and interests. Furthermore, the absence of commitment and realism by the public has abetted the lack of integrity in leadership.


Boots on the ground

I asked Culver to assume a perfect world in which our political and military leadership were fully competent and the public had realistic ideas about our capabilities. What would our actions against ISIS look like? Culver drew heavily from the ideas of Leonard Benton, a retired Army NCO, and answered:

“Amphibious Landing.  Establish Beachhead.  Seize port facilities. Move forward. Clear and establish and expand foothold. Invite any of the Syrians that want to be safe to come inside the containment area, employ them to help expand the safe zone/containment area. Continue to expand and also repatriate Syrian refugees from Europe. Eventually the safe zone will occupy most of Syria.  Which means we’ve displaced Daesh and safeguarded Syrian lives at the same time.  And yes, we would be the ‘occupying forces’ for a while, despite the worldwide criticism that would ensue.  The US would bring in civilians (you know, like W.E. Deming) and help train the Syrian people to build their economy. Our military would continue to police and provide security whilst civilian police experts are brought in to establish police academies etc. Eventually we would hand over control of small portions of Syria to the Syrians until all we have are the port facilities. Eventually we would withdraw completely or maybe the Syrians would invite us to stay.”

Students of counter-insurgency will recognize this as a variation of classic oil-spot strategy. It also mirrors fairly closely what retired Army Col. Jack Jacobs (now a military analyst for the media) has said:

“…we’d need several hundred thousand troops on the ground. It would take another commitment of ten years…. you’re not going to be able to do it by dropping conventional bombs on people. Militarily, the only purpose for bombs is to pave the way for people on the ground to seize and hold terrain long enough to create an environment in which there can be a real government to take out the trash. We’re not doing it and it takes a quarter of a million people to do it just in Syria.”


The American people

I am sure most of you have spotted the flaw with this strategy. The American public is exhausted of war. We have no appetite for another long, expensive invasion that places our soldiers in harm’s way. This suggests that this really is a problem of politics and leadership, as Culver has said.

Or maybe not. Maybe the American people are right, and ISIS doesn’t pose enough of a threat to warrant sacrifice on national scale. Whatever the wisdom this lack of martial initiative may or may not posses, very few politicians, despite their bellicose talk, are willing to advocate this type of commitment.

If the American people lack the will for overseas operations, is our military worthless?  What’s the point of our military, if as Albright says, we don’t use it?

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If you want peace, prepare for war

I always hated the above truism. Arms build-ups frequently precede war. What one side sees as defensive measures, its neighbor sees as offensive threats, which then justify their own war preparations. By and large, history makes a mockery of “arming for peace.”

However, when considering the current state of military affairs, I must admit there may be some truth to this notion. To explain, let me tell you a story about World War II.

Abraham Wald, a Hungarian mathematician was asked by the Allies to determine which areas on a bomber needed additional armor. Observers had examined returning bombers, and had assumed that the planes needed armor where the bullet holes were located. Wald startled his colleagues by advocating the opposite. The bombers needed armor where the bullet holes weren’t.  They were only examining bombers which has survived their missions and returned.  Therefore, the bullet holes were located in non-critical areas.  The planes that had been hit in critical areas didn’t survived. Therefore, the additional armor was needed in areas where the surviving planes had no bullet holes.

I think we may be facing a similar situation on a global scale. ISIS and terrorists in general, are fighting a kind of war we can’t respond to, because our strength has eliminated all the other kinds of military actions. In other words, they have learned to shoot where the bullet holes are not.

US dominance has shaped and defined the world’s battle space. National wars are relatively rare and tend not to last long.  There have been comparatively few all-out traditional nation-state wars since World War II, because the US military superiority, as well as its extensive network of alliances, has made them pointless.

While it is easy to focus on the few national wars that have occurred, the modern world is remarkable for the ones that are not happening. For a thousand years, the French, Germans, and British fought wars one generation after another. In today’s world, a major war between Western European nations seems farfetched. The Chinese and Russians build warplanes, but no one expects them to invade US airspace. The Koreans and Japanese have centuries of long simmering ethnic hatred, but they are not likely to attack each other.

Even the feud between India and Pakistan has been curtailed by Pax Americana. Their last war in 1999 was ended by direct US diplomatic pressure. Their previous war was almost 45 years ago, lasted only a few weeks, and resulted in 9,000 deaths. That’s a lot of people, but considering a single day of battle in World War I or the American Civil War often had higher casualty rates, one starts to appreciate just how few people these two large populous nations have lost in their decades-long hostility.

What this means is that while ISIS can kill Frenchmen, they can’t kill France. The United States may lose the World Trade Center, but New York itself is free of the specter of bomber fleets that tormented cities in the World War II. Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq are a mess, but the very fact that there is so much attention focused on them demonstrates just how rare large-scale war has become.

I feel really bad that we have no effective solution to ISIS and terrorism. However, this doesn’t mean that the US military is not doing its job.  The very existence of terrorism means that it is.

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U.S. Army War College Key Strategic Issues

The US Army War College (USAWC) just released its key strategic issues for the academic year 2015/2016. People who wish to understand the direction of the American military would be wise to study this document.

What is the US Army War College?

Every year, the USAWC provides graduate level instruction to approximately 800 Army colonels, and lieutenant colonels. Before matriculation, all students must have first completed U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Also attending are some civilians from Department of Defense, State Department, and the National Security Agency as well as officers from other military services.  After completing a full time 10 month course (or a half-time 2&1/2 year course) students are awarded a master’s degree in strategic studies.

In brief, this is a high-level leadership course for high–level leaders.

What is the Strategic Studies Institute?

A significant element of the USAWC is the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI).  Interestingly, the SSI website does not list education or courses as their “product,” but focus on a variety of white papers, studies, monographs, and books. The SSI has a worldwide network of “external partners” who write about half of these publications. These publications are distributed to decision makers in the military, government, and industry. In addition to the above-mentioned master’s program, these publications are an important way of influencing military and security policies.

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What is the Key Strategic Issues List?

As described by the SSI website, “Every year SSI compiles a Key Strategic Issues List (KSIL) based on input from the U.S. Army War College faculty, the Army Staff, the Joint Staff, the unified and specified commands, and other Army organizations. This is designed to guide the research of SSI, the U.S. Army War College, and other Army related strategic analysts.”


What does the KSIL actually say?

I had two immediate impressions of the KSIL. First, it doesn’t provide answers, it raises questions. For example the KSIL doesn’t state something along the lines of, “The American military better get its act together in the Pacific theater, because China is scaring the bejejuss out of its neighbors.” Instead, it asks a variety of related questions, including “How can the Army best contribute to security assurance and deterrence in East and Southeast Asia?”

Secondly, it lists emails of numerous professors, many of whom are key influencers in their own right. For someone doing serious research on American military thinking, and needs to reach out to significant people, this is a treasure trove of contact information.


Quantitative analysis

One way of determining the importance of a topic is to count how often it is mentioned.  The KSIL is a PDF document, so I was able to use the “find” function to search for appropriate words.

For example, the word “China” is mentioned over 10 times. This is to be expected. The current administration has been very public about its “Pacific Tilt.” It makes sense that the Army would prepare its leadership for this theater.

Cyber war was mentioned 10+ times. I discussed this with Robert Culver, Robert Culver, AMREL’s Director of Business Development Programs (DOD), who has had a long career in both the Army and Pentagon procurement. He reported extreme interest in cyber war at the recent AUSA gathering and suspects significant funding will be flowing in that direction.

More disappointing was the complete lack of references to unmanned systems. Even the more colloquial terms “robot/robotics” were only mention 3 times, and usually in a laundry list of other issues. Just a few years ago, unmanned systems was the hot girl the military couldn’t wait to date. Now, it’s the ex that gets blocked on FaceBook.

Robert thinks the non-mentions of unmanned systems are insignificant. He said that the KSIL is a strategic document, and unmanned systems are a tactical issue.

I understand his reasoning, but I don’t entirely agree. Unmanned systems have important ramifications that could be considered strategic in that they affect our ability to project force on a regional basis. Unmanned systems achieved prominence in Afghanistan and Iraqi campaigns, which despite our continued involvement, are being flushed down the memory hole. IEDs, the most lethal weapon of those campaigns, get zero mentions. No mention at all of counter insurgency (insurgency only once). As further evidence of our disengagement with the Middle East, Africa got more mentions than Syria, ISIL (ISIS), and Iraq put together.

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War is just so complex

Important topics expressed in KSIL are “complexity” and “hybrid” warfare. As illustrated by Russian tactics in the Ukraine, a complex/hybrid war occurs when the enemy is simultaneously fielding traditional state-controlled military forces, irregular militias/guerillas, cyber attacks, and media/propaganda campaigns.  Lt. Gen. Robert M. Shea, USMC (Ret.) writing in Signal magazine, gives a nice, introduction to the challenges of complex/hybrid wars. He is concerned that the traditional American strength of joint warfighting is being eroded by the demands of this new kind of war.


Amateurs study tactics. Professionals study something else.

I was disturbed that there were very few mentions of acquisitions, procurement, and logistics. I understand that these are technically tactical concerns, and are much less sexy than cyber warfare. However, the continued inability of the American military to deal with the problems affecting procurement has profound strategic implications.

Our reliance on expensive weapon systems as well as expensive soldiers has severely limited our ability to project force in many parts of the world. Clever enemies have turned the poor quality of their fighters and equipment into an advantage. A lost battle may cost them $10,000, but the victory for us may cost us $10 million. Even for as nation as wealthy as ours, this is not sustainable. Top-level officers and strategic leaders may not be interested in this problem, but they should be.


Read it for yourself

The Key Strategic Issues List is worth reading in its entirety.  Download it here.

The Defense Budget Illustrated [GRAPHS]

Neither the universe, nor the Defense budget are infinite. However, both are so vast that they are difficult to visualize.

The Business Insider has been posting graphs of the Defense budget in an effort to help us grasp a just how big it really is.  Based on information from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the one below compares US spending with the rest of the world.

bi_graphics_millitary-budget-compare-chart-2 (1)

Please note that US Defense spending is larger than all the other countries on the chart combined.

In a separate article, the Business Insider posted more detailed graphics:


Operations & Maintenance as well as personnel still eat up the lion’s share of the budget, while procurement (the part that typically vendors fixate on) remains a relatively small $90.4 billion.


As befits the administration’s “Pacific Tilt,” the Navy and Air Force get more money than the land-based Army.

History DoD spending

Please note the amount of funding that goes to the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), but really isn’t formally part of the Defense budget. As the graphs from the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) demonstrate, overseas troops and the OCO have been decreasing since an all-time of 2008.


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troop levels

BTW, the CFR website is Nirvana for graph freaks. They have a multitude of Defense-oriented graphs illustrating a variety of esoteric metrics, such as “Growth effects on US Military Spending, Share of Global Total.”

Note of caution:  just because it is in a graph, doesn’t mean that you can completely trust it.  Agendas do play a role and information can be slanted in a chart as easily as it can be in the written word.

UFC Fighters vs. Marines [VIDEO]

A bunch of mixed martial art stars visited the Marine Corps Martial Arts Center of Excellence, and basically had their rear ends handed to them. This is a slight exaggeration, but not much of one. See video below.

We asked Richard Barrios, AMREL’s Web Marketing Specialist, UFC fan and ex-Devil Dog, why the Marines dominated the UFC fighters so thoroughly (besides, of course, the transcendental awesomeness that are the Marines). He explained:

“They are trained for completely things.  Marines fight in full battle kit and with weapons. UFC guys fight in spandex and shorts, and are obviously unprepared to move around with heavy equipment.  Strip the Marines down, and have them fight as the UFC do, and you would see a much more equal  competition.

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“US Marines both active duty and former have fought in the UFC.  Although competitive, only a few have reached a championship level.  The UFC fighters in the documentary are stars and championship level and have dedicated more then ¾ of their lives to MMA style of fighting or some kind martial art.  Put a MCMAP Marine in a octagon and the UFC fighters will have their hands full, but would teach the MCMAP Marines a few things about cage fighting.”

The highly selective “truths” of the Iran deal [OPINION]

Did you know the Bible commands us to commit adultery? Sure you do, it’s right there in the seventh commandment, which begins “Thou shalt…” and ends with “…commit adultery.” What could be clearer?

Of course, what I did was edited out significant words, and misleadingly quoted out of context.  Something like this is happening with the Iran deal. People with no background in arms control or nuclear technology are making a lot of questionable assertions based on highly selective interpretations of the proposed agreement.

Below are four highly publicized falsehoods. I also threw in some speculation at the end.

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Side deals allow Iran to self-inspect

First off, this accusation refers to one facility, the Parchin site, which, admittedly, is an important one. Virtually the entire Iranian nuclear infrastructure – from the mines to the processing plants – will be subject to onsite 24/7 inspections by 130 to 150 independent workers of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This kind of unfettered access is unprecedented. No nation, in peacetime, has ever allowed this before.

This accusation is based on an AP story which has been changed several times and is viewed skeptically by nuclear experts. As noted in previous the blog post, the Iranian deal represents a gold mine of intelligence information. To mitigate this, the Iranians have insisted on certain limitations, including the right to do some of their own sampling.

However, the sampling is supervised by IAEA inspectors, and is subjected to rigorous verification and authentification procedures. For a detailed discussion of the verification methods, see the always wonderful War on the Rocks.  In this article, Cheryl Rofer, 35 year veteran of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, points out how the AP story suspiciously leaves out critical aspects of the inspection regime. She details the rather rigorous verification procedure for the samples, which include videotaping and GPS information.

In the video below, another expert, Dr. Jeffry Lewis, finds this criticism so preposterous he can barely stop from laughing. He makes it clear that independent inspectors will be onsite, examining the controversial Parchin facility.

The United States is giving Iran hundreds of billions of dollars in previously frozen assets

Most of the frozen assets are held by non-American entities, so we are not “giving” them anything. Media Matters cites Center On Arms Control and Non-Proliferation (CACNP), who in turn draws on a CIA report:

“Critics of the Iran deal like to exaggerate the amount of blocked funds Iran will receive, claiming that Iran will receive up to $300 billion in sanctions relief. According to US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, that figure is more like $50 billion. Iran owes at least $20 billion to China in addition to tens of billions in non-performing (unpaid) loans and has around $500 billion worth of pressing domestic investment requirements and government obligations.”

Iran will unquestionably benefit economically from this deal, but to what degree and how much money will be channeled to terrorist proxies is very much in dispute.

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The restrictions lasts only 10 to 15 years

According to the Arms Control Association (ACA) (emphasis added)

“The agreement will set up a multilayered system to monitor and inspect every aspect of Iran’s nuclear supply chain and fuel cycle, including continuous monitoring at some sites for 20–25 years. Other elements, including access to a wider number of nuclear sites—notably centrifuge manufacturing sites — and inspections on short notice under the terms of Iran’s additional protocol, will be permanent. Inspectors will have timely access to any site, anywhere, including military sites, if there is evidence of suspicious nuclear activities.”

Click chart below to enlarge

iran chart

All the economic sanctions will be lifted immediately on Iran

You could be forgiven for believing this, since the Iranian proponents of the deal are telling this to their own people in order to drive up support. The reality is lot more complicated:

  1. Before any sanctions can be lifted, Iran has to prove that it “…has taken steps to limit its uranium-enrichment program, convert the Arak heavy water reactor, provide required transparency, and give the IAEA the information needed to resolve questions about past activities with possible military dimensions.” (ACA). Some are guessing that this could take 6 months. Others are saying that it could take a lot longer.
  2. The sanctions against trade for technology that would enable nuclear-capable missiles will last at least 8 years.
  3. American economic sanctions based on human-rights violations will last indefinitely, or until Iran becomes a Jeffersonian democracy, whichever comes first.

Of course, sanctions could be “snapped backed” with evidence of violations. The effectiveness of this provision has been criticized as unrealistic. The one thing that is unquestionable is that it is historically unprecedented that China and Russia gave up their prized veto for this provision.


Iran has a nuclear weapons program

I cannot definitely state that Iran has no nuclear weapon program. In fact, I would not bet money on this assertion.

However, this contention has surprisingly strong backing. For one thing, both the IAEA and the CIA concluded that Iran had abandoned its weapon program years ago (12 years ago is one estimate). Luminaries, such as David H. Petraeus, Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, have agreed with this assessment (New York Times).  Bizarrely, the IAEA and the CIA shave stuck with this conclusion, even after admitting that Iran had been conducting suspicious enrichment activities.

This leads to a speculative theory, which again, seems odd, but has surprising merit: the entire Iranian nuclear weapons program is a scam. What is known is that Iran has been trying for decades to get relief from economic sanctions.  After an unceremonious rejection from President Clinton (he wouldn’t even talk with them), Iran decided they needed something to trade in exchange for the lifting of the sanctions. Hence, the Iranian nuclear program was born.  Not because they wanted a bomb (their theocratic leaders have publicly ruled nuclear weapons to be contrary to their religion), but because they wanted economic relief.

Of course, there is a contravening theory that the US and its allies have scammed Iran. After all, the sanction regime, which is one of the most severe in history, was never expected to last under any circumstance. Essentially, we are getting them to throttle their nuclear program in exchange for something (sanctions relief) that they would have gotten anyway.

Whatever the truth is, we can all hope that the proposed agreement will do what it is supposed to do, i.e. prevent the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb. Let’s just pray that we are all around in 25 years to see if it actually worked.

This post is the opinion solely of the author and does not reflect the positions of AMREL or its other employees.

Do you have an opinion? Send it to editor@amrel.com. Be advised we may use the content of your email in a future blog post.




National Military Strategy of USA 2015

The first revision since 2011, a new National Military Strategy was recently released. The following quote reflects some of the report’s major concerns.

“For the past decade, our military campaigns primarily have consisted of operations against violent extremist networks. But today, and into the foreseeable future, we must pay greater attention to challenges posed by state actors. They increasingly have the capability to contest regional freedom of movement and threaten our homeland. Of particular concern are the proliferation of ballistic missiles, precision strike technologies, unmanned systems, space and cyber capabilities, and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) – technologies designed to counter U.S. military advantages and curtail access to the global commons.”

It is increasingly likely that our primary adversaries in the future will not be terrorists, but state actors, as well as “hybrid” threats (state-sponsored theoretically independent insurgents, e.g. the Ukraine). Furthermore, our technological superiority may be eroding or may even be irrelevant. The report emphasizes the importance of multilateral international efforts as well as military support of “…diplomatic, informational, and economic activities that promote our enduring national interests.”

Read the whole report here.

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The Iran Nuclear Deal is a Disaster. I support it. [OPINION]

“The first three things I asked my briefers about when I woke every morning were Iran, Iran and Iran,”

-Marine Gen. James Mattis (Washington Times)

The recent nuclear arms control agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (UN Security Council members plus Germany) is one of the most important diplomatic agreements of this generation. It has spurred heated controversy, and has been shrouded in endless accusations and misinformation. While this is an opinion piece, I have striven to develop and present positions that are informed and balanced.


What does the deal say?

Currently, Iran is estimated to have enough enriched uranium to make approximately 10 to 12 nuclear bombs in a few months’ time. With this deal, under the watchful eyes of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA):

  • 98% of the enriched uranium stock will be destroyed.
  • 14,000 of Iranian 20,000 centrifuges will be taken out of commission.
  • Iran will be forbidden from enriching uranium beyond 3.67% enrichment, a far cry from the 90% necessary for weaponization.
  • The core of the controversial Arak plutonium facility will be exported or destroyed.

In return, some economic sanctions will be lifted on Iran, and some frozen assets will be released.

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Isn’t there a danger of the Iranians cheating?

 “Inspectors will be monitoring the only two mines where Iran can get uranium ore, the fuel for a bomb, and the mills where it’s processed. They will keep tabs on every single centrifuge in the country, as well as the centrifuge factories, the machines that could be used to make a centrifuge, even on imports of technology that could be used to build a machine that could be used to build a centrifuge.”


“I spent many hours of my youth watching, in some cases covering as a newspaper reporter, Senate hearings about nuclear arms treaties that the Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations had negotiated with the Russians. These were contentious hearings, but I don’t remember anything as plainly vicious—and utterly divorced from substance—as the Republicans’ behavior at Thursday’s briefing.”

 Fred Kaplan on Congressional hearings for the Iranian agreement, Slate

By far and away, the biggest lie of this controversy is the accusation that the inspection regime enforcing this deal is toothless. I am using the word “lie” intentionally, because it is simply not possible to reach this conclusion with any kind of dispassionate analysis.

In regards to the inspection regime imposed by the agreement, I did something that very few people have done; I read what experts had to say. While the track record of the inspectors at the IAEA is not perfect, it’s still a pretty good one. For example, when the whole world was screaming about Iraqi nuclear weapons, they repeatedly and correctly maintained that there was no evidence of their existence.

You can read arms control expert opinions here and here.

While the reaction of the IAEA staff has not been unanimous, it has been overwhelming one-sided.  They are astounded.  Over and over, I read quotes of their disbelief that the P5+1could get a deal this good. The idea that somehow we can get a better deal is completely unsupportable.

The consensus of the vast majority of experts I read is that this deal is the most stringent, detailed, and most comprehensive arms control agreement ever reached in peacetime. The imposed inspection regime on Iran is a foot on the throat of their entire nuclear program.

foot on throatFoot = Inspection regime

Throat = Iranian Nuclear program


What about the “two-week delay” in inspections?

When I researched this issue, my favorite quote came from Foreign Policy, who in an attempt at journalistic impartiality was able to find a few experts who had reservations about the deal. When asked about the famous “two-week wait,” Finnish nuclear weapons expert Heinonen stated, “From an investigative point of view that is a little bit not good.”

This wait period doesn’t apply to the entire known Iranian nuclear infrastructure. As mentioned above, the fact that international inspectors have real-time access to virtually every level of the nuclear industry is unprecedented. The wait period only applies to suspect facilities not officially part of the nuclear infrastructure.

Detecting nuclear weapons and the industrial infrastructure that produce them has been a top priority of the major powers for over 60 years. As a result, the technology for doing so is robust and fairly reliable.

The President was right to mock Netanyahu’s analogy of police warning a meth lab of an impending search. For one thing, most meth labs do not have high powered satellites watching their every move. Secondly, nuclear technology is heavy, clumsy, toxic and radioactive. Nuclear plants, typically, take years if not decades to decommission. In the entire history of nuclear weapons, none have ever been developed in mobile facilities.

nuclear plant

Not mobile

Most arms control experts that I have read dismissed the significance of the waiting period.  It is almost impossible to “scrub” a site of any importance in two weeks.

One of the great things about this agreement is the bonanza of intelligence it will provide about overall Iranian capabilities. In an attempt to stem the flood of data that will be flowing from Iran, their military refused unrestricted access to their entire country. In the history of arms control, no nation, who had not suffered a military defeat, has ever agreed to “anytime, anywhere” inspections.

Could the Iranians cheat without being discovered? With typical bureaucratic caution, a few experts say that it is theoretically possible, but it is highly unlikely. Considering the resources involved, the infinitesimal results such a covert effort would yield, and the overwhelming likelihood that they would be caught, cheating would be a very high risk, very low benefit endeavor.

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War is the only reality

 “Certainly, it can be delayed a month, six months, 18 months. What do you do with the delay is the question. The military can buy our diplomats some time, but it cannot solve this problem straight up.”

-Marine Gen. James Mattis (Washington Times)

Mattis description of 18 months being the maximum amount of delay that can be inflicted by military actions appears to be a consensus opinion among experts (see previous blog article about military options). All likely military scenarios are dangerous, unproductive, and will yield temporary benefits at best.

Continuing or strengthening sanctions will be impossible. It took the President 6 years to get sanctions this tough. The sanctions were only achieved by the President promising that they would lead to a nuclear arms agreement. If the US walks away from this deal, sanctions will unquestionably collapse.

Considering the agreement will delay the development of nuclear weapons far longer than any likely military actions (including nuclear attacks), why is there so much opposition to this deal? Some people oppose this deal for purely partisan reasons. Besides this, there are two major causes for opposition: one legitimate, one not.

Let’s play a game. Remember when the President said that Syrian use of chemical weapons was a “red line?” Let’s suppose in an alternate reality, he ordered a military strike on chemical weapon facilities. He goes on television and announces that he has confidently destroyed between 80 to 100% of the Syrian chemical capabilities. He is hailed as a hero who stood strong.

In reality, the President did destroy 80 to 100% of the Syrian chemical capabilities. However, he did it through diplomatic means. Since he didn’t kill anyone doing it, people accuse him of backtracking and spinelessness.

In the political arena, peace deals and arms control agreements are consistently judged by standards far stricter than military operations. Peace deals must be 100% foolproof with no possibility of anything going wrong. No one goes to wars with this type of assurance. Many assume war to be less risky, and more realistic than diplomacy. Anyone who questions the effectiveness of military solutions is considered a wimp.


General Mattis

Not a wimp

Recently, I discussed the Iranian nuclear agreement with an informed, intelligent acquaintance. Even after describing the stringent inspection regime, he dismissed the deal. “I don’t trust the Iranians,” he said. “It’s too much of a gamble. We should nuke them.”

I was flabbergasted. This man blithely assumed that the option of using nuclear arms was less dangerous, more certain, and more realistic than a diplomatic agreement.

I don’t understand why so many people think war is always a more reliable solution. I’ve notice true warriors tend to be far more hesitant about committing bellicose actions and will often seek less violent alternatives. It is no coincidence that the one person in the Bush administration who expressed reservations about the Iraqi invasion was combat veteran Colin Powell.

While the “war solves everything” argument is clearly not a valid criticism of this deal, some of the opposition is motivated, by what I consider legitimate reasoning.

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Israel opposes the deal.  It would be absurd for them to do otherwise.

Most countries in the Middle East, not just Israel, are suspicious of this agreement. Beyond question, this accord will empower Iran politically, militarily, and economically. This deal will give Iran enormous resources to fund Hamas, Hizballah, and Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Yemen.

While the agreement will likely succeed in its primary objective – delaying the development of a nuclear bomb – it will do so at a price that the people of Syria, Saudi Arabia, Gulf States, and Israel will have to pay. For them, this is no “peace” deal; it is a disaster.

Is the deal worth the cost? I think so, but as someone who lives in America, I do not have to pay the price. I support the deal, but I sympathize with the opposition of the Middle Eastern countries to it.

The President has addressed this criticism, but not I think convincingly.  Netanyahu has repeatedly attacked the agreement on the basis of its supposed ineffectiveness, or the delusional stance that the Iranians will agree to an even more demanding accord. I think this is a mistake, because it not only undermines his credibility, it also distracts from the legitimate argument that this agreement empowers a terrorist state.


War is not certain

While the nuclear agreement could increase tensions in the Middle East, due to the greater resources available to Iran’s terrorist proxies, it also may not.  For one thing, Iranian aggressiveness has provoked its adversaries into forming an informal alliance.

Here are the official members of the Saudi-led military forces that are fighting Iranian-backed insurgents in Yemen: Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Morocco, Senegal, Sudan, Somalia, and the United States. By some accounts, Turkey is also supporting Saudi Arabia.

This is not an insignificant group of nations, and the nuclear deal could strengthen their ties. The power of this coalition (which in the future may unofficially include Israel) could be an effective counter to Iranian belligerence.

The true wild card in this situation is not whether Iran will cheat or take advantage of their new found economic power. The real question is “How will the deal transform Iran itself?” While the President expressed hope that the Iranians would learn to play nice with their neighbors, he has also expressed strong doubts that they would do so.

Iranian hard liners have been as ferocious in their criticisms of the agreement as their American counterparts have been. It’s easy to see why. Their country will now be crawling with analysts from international agencies collecting valuable intelligence. Their nuclear program, a symbol of national sovereignty, will be dramatically throttled back.

Even more significant is that the rationale behind their tyrannical government – protection from foreign imperialists – will be severely undermined. It is not an accident that the Russian communist party lost its grip on the Soviet Union after glasnost.

Can we count on the Iranians undermining their autocratic regime? No, but nor can we dismiss the possibility.

After the deal was announced, Iranians took to the streets, celebrating the easing of the economic sanctions. One image I saw on television is evidence that change is already occurring. A group of young people chanted “Death to no one!” and were waving their smartphones in the air. What was on their smartphones? Pictures of the American flag.

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This post is the opinion solely of the author and does not reflect the positions of AMREL or its other employees.

Do you have an opinion? Send it to editor@amrel.com. Be advised we may use the content of your email in a future blog post.

Afghan Counter-IED efforts

While the US presence in Afghanistan may be minimal, counter-IED efforts persist.  Indeed, it appears to be one of the few areas in which Afghans are actively trying to emulate the Americans they are replacing.  The following article originally appeared in Strategy page.

In Afghanistan the government officially recognized their most effective EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) technician; Staff Sergeant Abdul Ghafoor Afghan Yar. One of the earliest Afghans trained to do EOD work, Yar has managed to disable over 6,000 roadside bombs, mines and other IEDs (improvised explosive devices), most of them in the last three years and mainly in the most violent place in Afghanistan; Helmand province. For his efforts Yar was promoted to Senior Sergeant, the highest NCO rank. He now spends most of his time training new EOD technicians.

By mid-2013 Afghan security forces had largely taken over from Americans the EOD work. At that time about half the 300 Afghan police and soldiers killed each month were victims of the roadside bombs and mines the EOD teams don’t know about or don’t get to in time. NATO troops suffered a slightly lower rate of loss to these bombs, which indicates that the Afghans were able to be competitive in this area. The Afghan EOD troops have plenty of work. Up until 2014 most Afghan EOD teams were still accompanied by a few of their American counterparts, to advise, warn, and tutor but now most of the Afghan EODs are on their own.

By American standards the Afghans are quick learners but brash and sometimes undisciplined. But each time these bad habits get an Afghan EOD tech killed or hurt, the word gets around and attitudes are adjusted a bit. Many Afghans believed the American EOD men were some kind of magicians but the work is all about precision and discipline. To some Afghans that is still magic, but it’s a form of magic an Afghan can acquire.

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In 2013 the Afghans about 400 EOD technicians and that number has more than doubled since then. In 2013 the Afghan army and police were taking over security responsibility for all of Afghanistan, and currently all but the most violent areas in the south and east were protected by Afghans. Thus Afghan EOD teams were taking care of most of the bombs. Afghanistan needed about a thousand of these specialists to replace the departed American and NATO EOD specialists. In 2013, two or three bombs went off each day and killed three or four Afghans on average. Since then the number of IEDs used has increased.

By 2014 NATO had set up an EOD school staffed with 190 EOD experts and provided 19 different courses. Much of this training prepares soldiers and police to better spot bombs and call in EOD to deal with it. The EOD training is long (eight months) and arduous because the work is dangerous. The casualty rate is higher than being in the infantry but the pay is better and you get a lot of respect, which is a big deal in Afghanistan. The danger is not a totally negative thing because EOD always attracted the adrenaline junkies, who were skilled and disciplined enough to get through the training.

The Afghans have adopted the American attitude that only the best recruits will do and that the skills must be mastered before the new EOD techs are turned loose on the real thing. Trainees take quickly to this arrangement and all the details (of different kinds of bombs) and equipment (robots, sensor, and the full body protective suit) the job involves. Many of the new Afghan EODs already have experience working on the demining teams that have been clearing Afghanistan of all the mines and old munitions left behind by the Russians in the 1980s.

One downside of the American approach to EOD is the use of a lot of expensive equipment (special bomb suits, robots, jammers, and sensors). While the U.S. will leave a lot of this stuff behind, the Afghans are worried about keeping it maintained.

Duffelblog: Satire or Truth?

The wonderful Duffelblog website specializes in military humor, usually from an insider’s perspective. I find the articles sharp, funny, and often revealing about what’s going on in today’s military.

The only problem is that the satirical stories are often indistinguishable from reality. For example, the supposedly funny headline Pentagon to Rename Confederate Bases for Army Values sounds totally plausible.  Another example is reprinted below from the Duffleblog website. You tell me: satire or truth?

New Battle Command Network Offers Unprecedented Micromanagement Opportunities

satire or truthFORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — The U.S. Army unveiled its latest digital command and control system, allowing commanders at higher echelons to make decisions at increasingly lower levels of responsibility.

“We hear all this talk about Carl von Clausewitz and ’empowering subordinates’ in ARDP 3-0″ said Brig. Gen. William Burleson, Commander of the Mission Command Center of Excellence, referring to the Prussian officer’s influence on the Army’s latest operations manual. “But what I think we’re forgetting is that Clausewitz never said anything about empowering subordinates. The guy was actually a huge micromanager. With this new battle command network, we can micromange our troops in ways Clausewitz never dreamed of.”

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Officials at the Mission Command Center of Excellence demonstrated how commanders could monitor whether or not soldiers were wearing reflector belts through an “exquisite” computer network linked to imagery from surveillance drones. Other unique features allow generals to examine down to the individual soldier level, such as whether or not they had complied with mandatory Consideration Of Others (CO2) training.

Burleson added, “Leadership is based on mutual trust, and if you can’t trust us generals to make decisions, honestly, who can you trust?”

Army officials also noted that, by concentrating on mundane details like individual soldier equipment and company-level PT formations, senior Army leaders were freed from messy, time-consuming issues like budgeting, force levels, and formulating a clear exit strategy from Afghanistan.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army Chief of Staff, praised the new system.

“When I was a lieutenant — back before email — I could plan and execute an entire M-16 range by myself,” Odierno said. “But thanks to the advent of email in the 1980s, I had the ability to plan and approve the same M-16 range as a company commander. Now, thanks to our battle command networks, I can schedule, arrange, plan, and approve an entire M-16 range myself.”

“The great part about modern technology is that it allows us generals to re-live our glory days as 22-year old lieutenants.”

Are soldiers turning into police? An informal conversation

Sometimes the best way to learn about a subject is just to listen to a bunch of well-informed people sit around and casually discuss it. This is the basis of AMREL’s Rugged Radio Podcast, in which we talk about the so-called “militarization of police.”

William M. Arkin, writing in Gawker, has turned this controversy on its head by contending that soldiers are becoming more like police. His article is worth reading in full and you can access it here.

Arkin cites the rise of biometrics enabled intelligence as well as forensics enabled intelligence as evidence of how soldiers are adopting police tactics.  For reasons unclear to me, he writes that counter-IED efforts are also police-type activities. He ends his post with the dramatic, if somewhat ominous, “The world has become a crime scene.”

I was curious what AMREL’s local military experts thought about this article. So I sought the opinion of Rob Culver, Director of Program Management for AMREL.  A former U.S. Army Special Forces soldier (AKA Green Beret), he has 23 years of experience in the Army.

Rather than describe his reaction, I’ll just let you read it in a slightly edited form:

“This is the most ****** up article I’ve read in a while.

“Arkin is skilled at weaving words to create the semblance of a pattern that does not exist.

“He goes from the assumption that ‘forensics is a police-only tool to the conclusion that the ‘world has become a crime scene.’  Catchy.   What the hell does that mean anyway?

“What he describes as forensics can also be termed Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB).  In the conduct of IPB, you evaluate the terrain.  Slow go/no go terrain.  Swamps, rivers, bridges, mountains, open spaces.   You also evaluate population density and characteristics, i.e. who supports U.S. activities versus those who oppose us. Also, you evaluate ever increasingly the more complicated relationships such as Sunnis and Shias and Kurds etc…   Frenemies.   It gets complicated.  But, it has always been part of military training and operations.

“When the Indian scout jumps off his horse and examines the hoof tracks and droppings in the trail, he can tell how long ago the enemy was there,  how many, how heavy, the condition of the horses as well as what the horses have been eating.  Using his special Indian scout database (all that information stuck in his brain by his elders, training, and experience), he determines where the closest food source is for what the horses have been eating, and…. abracadabra – forensics! It has been a part of warfare since a patrol from one tribe started tracking a raiding party from another tribe.

“As for biometrics, it has always been part of military operations and population and movement control. Special Forces teams in Vietnam used fingerprints identification to ensure they were not double paying local guerrilla forces (Montagnards, etc.).The difference is instead of using our eyeballs to observe and measure, we have high tech gadgets. Still does not make it police work.

“Everything Arkin refers to can be found in the ‘Small Wars Manual: United States Marine Corps 1940.’  Yep. That is pre WW II. The only difference is the technology and terminology.

“For some reason Arkin states:  ‘The Navy, always the single manager for explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technology, which includes technical exploitation of recovered explosives, explosive devices, and other explosive hazards, is more heavily involved in weapons technical intelligence and exploitation than ever before.’

“To which I reply, yes. IEDs are an explosive hazard and in the past decade posed a greater threat to our forces than previously. What is your point William?  How is protecting military forces and local populations during operations NOT a military responsibility?

“Arkin also states ‘Because, ironically, if military’s role is merely collecting evidence, then the fundamental post-9/11 talking point that terrorism is not a law enforcement matter needs to be revised.’ This premise is so flawed; I gag and do not know where to begin.  If you think, all our military is doing, is collecting evidence these days… I don’t even know what world you inhabit.

“Also, ‘…as if the experiences of the past 14 years governs or should govern how the United States forms, trains and equips its military.’   Why yes it should, William. Along with, and in context with our previous 200 years of warfare.  Or, Mr. Arkin, do you suggest we ignore the lessons learned of the past 14 years of conflict?   Again, this article is so flawed from the very beginning of its premise; I do not know where to start.

“In this article, Arkin referenced his other article Improvised Explosive Devices Are Reducing Our Freedoms. From that I found this excerpt.  ‘But now wherever and whomever the perpetrator, ‘bomb’ has been rebranded as IED and turned into a supposed tool and act of terror.’

“Yes William, IED is a newer and more accurate description of some types of bombs. For those who have driven through an IED ambush, there is no doubt that an IED is a ‘tool and act of terror.’  Nothing ‘supposed about it.

“Arkin, you are wrong.”

For those who don’t know Rob, he is a pretty easy going guy, so his strongly worded response was a bit of a surprise. I found some of Rob’s points convincing, but I think he may be missing the bigger picture. My reply to him:

“I think you may be right on the money on the specifics, but not the overall point. Sure identifying the enemy and collecting intelligence have always been traditional activities in war. While military operations have always involved elements of policing, haven’t policing missions overwhelmed what has been regarded as traditional military actions? Isn’t this a natural consequence of asymmetric warfare?

“Seems to me that at the beginning of the Iraq/Afghanistan mess, I heard more than one brass hat complaining that the military was doing a job it wasn’t trained for.  In other words, we know how to take out tank formations and infantry in trenches, but how are we supposed to patrol neighborhoods?

“When I lived in Israel, I heard this argument a lot.  The military was worried that their decades-long mission of patrolling the disputed territories was eroding their abilities to fight a traditional war. Israel’s less-than-stellar performance during the Second Lebanon War seemed, to many, to reinforce this fear (Personally, I blame the Lebanon fiasco on staggeringly incompetent civilian leadership).

“You are right that stuff like biometrics and ISR have always been the province of the military.  But the missions have changed.  Most of the wars fought post-World War II have not been World War II style wars.  The only one I can think of was the First Gulf War.  That war was a cakewalk, because our military was designed to fight it.  Everything else has been a problem, and despite everyone’s efforts, it doesn’t seem like we have figured out a solution.

“Three other points:

  1. In the wake of Ferguson there’s has been a lot of talk about the militarization of police.  I read comments in news articles by veterans stating they would never act as the police in Ferguson do.  Trained in counter insurgency, soldiers know better than to point automatic weapons at peaceful demonstrators. Furthermore, the veterans thought the police were wildly over armored and over armed for their mission. Also, soldiers look for ways to deescalate a situation, something some cops obviously haven’t learned. As I have written before, I think the problem is that the police are not militarized enough.
  2. 9/11 was in some ways the beginning of the ‘War on terror.’ The NYPD declared the ruins of the World Trade Center a ‘crime scene,’ and repeatedly reminded everyone about this. Indeed, the ‘world is a crime scene.’
  3. The article mentioned the old argument ‘Is the terrorism a criminal or a military problem?’ It’s a military problem when we want to use the military. It’s a criminal problem when we want to ignore the military code of justice (Sorry Red Cross, no prisoners of war here!). It’s a military problem when we want to ignore the constitutional rights of accused criminals. Those special courts in Guantanamo are a travesty and ineffectual as well. US prosecutors have had a better success record in regular courts.

“As I wrote above, I agree with your criticisms about the article, but I think his overall point may be valid.”

Rob wrote back:

“You might be right.  You do make your points.   Arkin, tho’, has a track record.

“We got fat and lazy.  The only war we (The Military) were gearing up and training for, involved the godless communist hordes roaring across the Fulda Gap, where we would stop them, standing toe-to-toe, trading tactical nuke for tactical nuke.  Thank God that didn’t happen.  But it was easy on the military mind. Might and Right.

“But where do these wars fit in? Barbary Wars, the Banana Wars, Spanish–American War, Philippine–American War, Moro Rebellion, Boxer Rebellion, Poncho Villa Expedition, etc.

“I guess you have to start with a definition of traditional military actions, which means ensuring we differentiate between the mission of the infantry and the mission of our nation’s military. I would argue that our nation’s military is a tool with applications far beyond ‘close with and destroy the enemy.’

“The US Military is conducting joint airborne operations with Latvian forces this week.  Just a training exercise.  But why?  To get better at jumping?   Or does it have something to do with containing Russia?

“Yeah, it is a lot simpler when the bad guys wear bad-guy uniforms and the good guys wear US uniforms and the civilians live somewhere completely ‘not here.’  But that nostalgia is based on fantasy.  It never has been that way. During World War II in Europe, homes were bombed and civilian lives were shattered. Crime was rampant.

“War has never been simple. It has always been messy. And there is always some ***** that thinks we should ‘kill them all and let God sort them out’ or ‘bomb them back to the Stone Age.’ Anything less is ‘not our job.’  But despite TV, movies, and brass-hatted jack assess, that has never been ‘The Mission’.

“Is terrorism a crime or an act of war?  I think, in general, what we frequently call domestic terrorism should be treated as a crime. Terrorism can be a tool of criminals such as drug cartels and mafias, as well as military. Terrorism on US Soil conducted by outside elements is war. Terror conducted by US Citizens, overseas, against US asset is war. Was Johnny Walker Lindh a criminal or an enemy combatant?  We already know he is a dumbass.   I say ‘enemy combatant.’ I don’t think he belongs in a penitentiary; he belongs in a POW camp.  Nor do I think he deserved a civilian trial.”

I’ll let Rob get the last word (for now).  What do you think? Have the military’s missions become mere policing? Is terrorism a legal or military problem? Send your opinion to editor@amrel.com

 The opinions discussed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of AMREL, its employees, clients or partners.