Friday, November 28, 2008

Mumbai Mayhem – in the streets and among the pundits

I’ve already seen a fair amount of speculation bouncing around the internet and over the airwaves about the perpetrators of the latest terror attack in Mumbai (aka Bombay), India. Sherlock Holmes at this point would probably be muttering something about the futility of speculation in the absence of sufficient information – and I would suggest that the majority of these pundits still have insufficient information about a group or organization whose latest (if not first) terrorist operation is still ongoing. Certainly my own stints as an analyst taught me this same kind of caution – which as I expect all analysts know is one of the things that drives your policy-maker/decision-maker customers right up the wall.

All of that said, I personally would dare already to disagree about the sophistication, etc. of this attack, based upon what information we already have available.

In the first instance, the principal weapons used by the terrorists appear to be automatic weapons including AK-47s or at least some variation of the Kalashnikov automatic rifle family. This class of firearm is the entry level weapon for both domestic and international terrorists and can be found just about anywhere around the world. Even my daughter has fired one!

The timing of the operation – apparently dusk or early nightfall – offered the attackers both a somewhat covered approach to their objective(s), especially if they did in fact arrive by boat. It also, in Mumbai, offered them a ‘target-rich’ environment. In such a situation, the presence of a large number of civilians offers numerous advantages to the terrorists:

1) multiple targets – the care of the wounded and the identification of the dead impose a major burden on the responding security forces;

2) potential hostages – the assembled civilians in the targeted streets, hotels, restaurants, etc., included a significant number of foreigners (especially UK, U.S., and even Israeli citizens who we understand already were clearly of greatest interest), but also the significant presence of wealthy and/or prominent Indian citizens;

3) cover and concealment – the presence of a large number of civilians offered the terrorists both a crowd within which to lose themselves and a shield that would impose constraints upon the responding security forces.

The multiple targets raise two somewhat contrary thoughts. The targeting of more than one location resulted in dispersal of the terrorists’ numbers vice concentrating their entire force upon a specific target or targets in close proximity from which the terrorists would be able to support each other against responding security forces. On the other hand, the dispersal of targets and the terrorists spread wider panic and forced the security forces to also spread their responding strength. To my mind, along with the absence of masks or any other concealment of the attackers’ identities, this dispersal also supports that as some pundits have already suggested – this group was fully prepared to die in the execution of this attack having maximized the confusion, panic, and physical damage they could create.

The different attacks were not literally simultaneous, according to the timelines so far appearing from Indian and other media sources, although the coordination is evident. The weapons are pretty much the entry level terrorist arsenal of automatic weapons and grenades, and while I would defer to the Indian soldiers who have discussed this, learning the proper use of these weapons is not that difficult for even the average person (or else armies around the world would look very different than they do.). Even the rubber boats (if in fact part of the operation) are available for recreational use in many places around the world.

The one real surprise is that the terrorists were able to plan this attack and raise and equip the force that carried it out without anyone apparently recognizing that this was coming. The Indian security forces were clearly not prepared to prevent this specific attack or anything like it. That part of the terrorists’ operation was reasonably sophisticated – the rest of their operation reflects tactics that can be learned from any of a number of books readily available in public libraries, online, or even in book stores (I have a number of them on my own shelves). They can also be learned from a number of computer/video combat or shooting games – or even via practice with paintball or similar amusements. There are also a number of online sources for overhead imagery that may have facilitated the planning of the attack – assuming that the terrorists didn’t use the old-fashioned technique of actually walking over the ground and checking out the local streets and alley ways. None of the photos of the terrorists so far shown by the media suggest that any of these individuals would have stood out from the crowd if they had been scouting out the area before the attack.

Pending the receipt of that further information I mentioned above, my money right now is on a the attack being the work of indigenous South Asians (Pakistani and/or Indian Muslims) who have been in contact with Al Qaeda. That contact may have taken any of several forms, but it is entirely possible that no more than one or two members of the responsible group, if that many, has had any direct, personal contact with Al Qaeda or its agents.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Not Quite “The Thunderer” – But Still a Timely Noise

When I first began seriously reading about military topics, beyond the usual war stories, battle histories, and biographies of the great commanders, I realized that a number of the authors I was reading either were or had been military correspondents for The New York Times. These included names like Drew Middleton, Hanson Baldwin, Leslie Gelb, and later David Halberstam. Their books, while not reflecting a unified theory of war and warfare or even a single arc of the political spectrum, helped me to think about warfare as a more complex phenomenon and to examine the disparate elements of how we go to war and how we make war.

Nevertheless, like many Americans, I have not in recent years looked to The New York Times for advice or useful insights on military matters, preferring the ‘professional’ presses which actually cater to the career military and civilian military intellectuals (many of which you will find referenced elsewhere alongside by blog). So it was with both surprise and great interest that I read the lead editorial in The New York Times Sunday edition of November 16 – “A Military for a Dangerous World.”

The timing of the editorial is clearly inspired by the global urge to give the President-elect the best advice we can offer (and I’m guilty too, having previously offered my two cents). The editorial hits every one of the points that would be evident to and understood by anyone who has been closely following our ongoing wars since 2001 and the toll that these have taken on our military.

The Times endorsed the increase in our ground forces by the 65,000 Army and 27,000 Marine troops now being raised. This will allow the U.S. greater opportunity to rebuild and to retrain units (both in the regular Army and Marines as well as the National Guard and Marine and Army Reserves) overstretched by repeated deployments in theatre.

The Army and Marines in particular, but the other services as well, need to institute training programs that will maintain U.S. dominance in conventional warfare but will also preserve the hard-earned lessons of irregular and counterinsurgency warfare. The irony to me of the recent emphasis on “asymmetric warfare” has been that virtually all warfare is “asymmetric” in that one always tries to pit one’s strength against the enemy’s weakness. The reality is that given U.S. dominance in conventional warfare our potential foes will continue to look for ways to exploit the weaknesses that they can identify (both in our forces and in the political will that commits those forces to combat). We need to prepare our forces accordingly so that they can respond flexibly and effectively. This includes increasing the Navy’s ability to fight in coastal waters as well as in the deep blue sea so beloved of the carrier and submarine admirals.

Mobility has been a critically important principle of war since the days when everybody walked (or rode an animal that usually walked) to the battlefield. Modern warfare (roughly since the 16th Century) has repeatedly demonstrated the importance of “getting there firstest with the mostest” (Bedford-Forrest) and that “Speed is essential. Haste harmful.” (Alexander Vassilyevich Suvorov). However, in today’s world, mobility means airlift (and logistics means sealift). Today, all of our ‘lift’ capability is in need of attention as much of the existing equipment (aircraft and shipping) is worn and possibly inadequate to the challenges of fighting not one but two conflicts on the opposite side of the world. It would probably astonish the average American to learn just how much use has been made by U.S. and Allied forces of the Soviet-designed Antonov 124 cargo jets flying under charter.

As the editorial points out, carrying out these necessary measures will not be cheap but part of the cost can be made up by spending wisely on capabilities that are really relevant to the conflicts we anticipate. For The New York Times, this raises questions about the F-22 and the national missile defense system. I am not convinced about the unnecessary nature of the F-22. Air superiority over Iraq and Afghanistan has not been in question and the observation, reconnaissance, and close support missions there can be better flown by other aircraft. This does not mean that we won’t need to fight for air superiority in some future clash with a different adversary. Continuing research on missile defense is clearly warranted, though the rush to deploy a complete system now can certainly be questioned.

The hope that money can be saved through reform of the DoD procurement system is a longstanding one, though I am skeptical that any of the previous reform efforts resulted in measurable financial savings. What any new reform effort has to achieve is to make the process more transparent while not burdening it with requirements that draw time and money away from the process itself while failing to create that transparency.

The Obama administration and the American public will be faced with many hard decisions to be made on these kinds of military issues. Whatever is to come, however, can only be improved by contributions such as this editorial from a platform like The New York Times. I look forward to it.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Sampling of Verse for Armistice Day

The Heroes

In that Valhalla where the heroes go
A careful sentinel paced to and fro
Before the gate, burnt black with battle smoke,
Whose echoes to the tread of armed men woke,
And up the fiery stairs whose steps are spears
Came the pale heroes of the bloodstained years.

There were lean Caesars from the glory fields
With heart that only to a sword-thrust yields;
And there were Generals decked in pride of rank,
Red scabbard swinging from the wary flank;
And slender youths, who were the sons of kings,
And barons with their sixteen quarterings.
And while the nobles went with haughty air
The courteous sentinel questioned: “Who goes there?”
And as each came, full lustily he cried
His string of titles, ere he passed inside…
And presently there was a little man,
A silent mover in the regal van.
His hand still grasped his rifle, and his eyes’
Seemed blinded with the light from Paradise…
His was a humble guise, a modest air—
The sentinel held him sharply: “Who goes there?”

There were no gauds tacked to that simple name,
But every naked blade leapt out like flame,
And every blue-blood warrior bowed his head—
“I am a Belgian,” this was all he said.
Men’s cheering echoed thro’ the battle ‘s Hell
“Pass in, mon brave,” said that wise sentinel.

M. Forrest
Brisbane, Queensland

At the Movies

They swing across the screen in brave array,
Long British columns grinding the dark grass.
Twelve months ago the marched into the gray
Of battle; yet again behold them pass!

One lifts his dusty cap; his hair is bright’
I meet his eyes, eager and young and gold.
The picture quivers into ghostly white;
Then I remember, and my heart grows cold!

Florence Ripley Mastin
(Teacher of English Literature, Brooklyn, New York)

The Connaught Rangers

I saw the Connaught Rangers when they were passing by.
On a spring day, a good day, with gold rifts in the sky.
Themselves were marching steadily along the Liffey quay.
An’ I see the young proud look of them as it was to-day!
The bright lads, the right lads, I have them in my mind,
With the green flags on their bayonets all fluttering in the wind!

A last look at old Ireland, a last good-bye maybe,
Then the gray sea, the wide sea, my grief upon the sea!
And when will they come home, says I, when will they see once more
The dear blue hills of Wicklow and Wexford’s dim gray shore?
The brave lads of Ireland, no better lads you’ll find,
With the green flags on their bayonets all fluttering in the wind!

Three years have passed since that spring day, sad years for them and me.
Green graves there are in Serbia and in Gallipoli.
And many who went by that day along the muddy street
Will never hear the roadway ring to their triumphant feet.
But when they march before Him, God’s welcome will be kind,
And the green flags on their bayonets will flutter in the wind.

Winifred M. Letts

(Winifred M. Letts served in 1915 as a V.A.D. nurse in Manchester Base Hospital, at Command Depot Camps at Manchester and Alnwick, and an Orthopedic Hospital in Blackrock, Dublin. The Connaught Rangers would be disbanded on July 31, 1922 in the wake of the regiment’s 1920 mutiny in India after news reached them of the brutal actions of Britain’s Special Auxiliaries – “the Black and Tans” - in Ireland.)

The Last Post

The bugler sent a call of high romance—
Lights out! Lights out!—to the deserted square:
On the thin brazen notes he threw a prayer.
God, if it’s this for me next time in France
Spare me the phantom bugle as I lie
Dead in the gas and smoke and roar of guns,
Dead in a row with the other shattered ones,
Lying so stiff and still under the sky—
Jolly young Fusiliers, too good to die.
The music ceased, and the red sunset flare
Was blood about his head as he stood there.

Robert Graves
(Captain, Royal Welsh Fusiliers, serving in France for 18 months including the battles of Loos and the Somme)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The More Things Change, the More They Remain the Same -

As is now clear to everyone, this year’s Presidential election has produced unprecedented change in America. There is no question that it is an important change, but I was glad to see that the President-elect and the people around him appear to understand the immensity of the challenge now facing them. They are reportedly already talking about how this new team must act quickly but not hastily. After all, there remain divisions within the country. Their words brought to mind one of my favorite aphorisms borrowed from the Russian general Alexander Suvorov – “Speed is essential, haste harmful.”

In a moment of irony, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s cold reaction to the U.S. election made clear one of the reasons for this new administration to want to move with speed. It appeared as if Russia, out of all the nations of the world, remains determined to play the game of international relations by the old rules. The reality is that many of these old rules remain in place and it is imperative that Americans and particularly the new Obama Administration recognize this fact. However important and significant Obama’s election is much of the world around us remains the same.

We don’t know much about how the President-elect will actually lead and govern the country. As a recovering American apparatchik who voted for Obama, I am still anxious about his apparent lack of knowledge of how the U.S. government works and where the buttons and levers are. The best news is that unlike the current resident of the White House, Obama clearly is an intelligent thoughtful man capable of changing his mind when information is brought to him that compels such a response. Also, by the mere fact of his election he has changed the domestic political equation to greatly reduce (note that I do no say eliminate) race from our domestic debate – and abroad his election has revalidated the previously widely held and sometimes rather romantic view that America is truly a nation of hope and opportunity – Too bad Ronald Reagan isn’t alive to offer some benediction on the event as I think he would recognize it.

Our greatest hope must be that Obama doesn’t squander the good feelings, that he acts on his intention and his demonstrated ability to bring people together, and creates an administration that will not swing to the extremes. This includes the requirement that he really extends a hand and lends an ear to the Republicans in Congress while the Democratic leadership on the Hill avoid the past excesses committed by both parties on the Hill. The challenge for the Republicans as they work to rebuild their party – or find a new political home – is to decide what principles they represent and how to work with the Obama administration in a way that reflects and embodies those principles instead of projecting an image of their party as the ultimate ugly guest at the ball.

That’s the best I can do for you this morning. After all, it’s all speculation now. President-elect Barack Obama actually has to start doing things before we can really be sure that we know who he is and what his election means.