For Your Eyes Only Military News

Syria: Waiting For The Turk To Decide

May 28, 2012: The Syrian government is having an increasingly hard time maintaining the façade of affluence and normalcy for its core supporters. Most of these people live in Damascus and Aleppo, but these two cities are the scene of more and more rebel attacks, anti-government demonstrators and Islamic terror bombings. This has not been good for morale, and a growing number of Assad supporters (at least those most likely to face retaliation) are planning their escapes.

Eleven Lebanese Shia, kidnapped by Sunni gunmen in Syria last week, are being held for ransom. The rebels want to get the Syrian government to release imprisoned Syrian rebels. The Lebanese were returning from a pilgrimage to Iran.

Hezbollah announced that it does not have, and never has had, gunmen in Syria. But numerous known Hezbollah men have been seen in Syria during the last year, some openly helping Syrian security forces fight rebels. Hezbollah has lied before, and is apparently reacting to the anti-Syrian government attitude in Lebanon. Hezbollah and the Assads have been allies for decades, and that history is hurting the Hezbollah image in Lebanon.

The UN believes that the 271 observers they have in Syria are reducing violence. Soon all 300 observers will be there, but some UN members want even more.  Syrian rebels are again calling for foreign air support, preferably an operation similar to the NATO one in Libya last year. NATO has again refused. NATO air support depends on what NATO member Turkey wants to do. As the strongest Moslem military power in the area, and the former imperial ruler of Syria (until 1918), the Turks have to take the lead here. At the moment the Turks are reluctant to take the heat from the Moslem world for leading a NATO intervention. Arabs do not remember the centuries of Turk rule with much fondness. Turkey is trying to rebuild its reputation and influence in the Arab world, and sees that effort damaged if Turk troops (or aircraft) are once more seen killing Arabs.

Nearly 13,000 have died since the protests began 14 months ago. Since the UN ceasefire officially went into effect April 12, at least 1,500 have died. The Assad dictatorship is getting weaker, but slowly. Iran stands ready to provide at least a billion dollars a month in cash to help the government import weapons, food and other supplies for its supporters. Russia and Iran continue to send weapons despite blockades. While major suppliers of food and other goods will no longer ship to Syria, smugglers and less scrupulous suppliers will, for an additional fee.  Even in rebel controlled areas, there is growing hunger and privation because the economy is stalled and in chaos. Moreover, the government troops can still take control of roads, blocking easy access to rebel controlled towns and villages. While some believe the Assads can’t last beyond the end of the year, others feel that Iranian and Russian support make it possible for Assad to last longer, unless the Turks make a military move. As has been the case for over six hundred years, the fate of Syria will be decided by Turkish troops.

The Syrian rebels continue to be hobbled by religious, ethnic and political differences. For decades, the Assads exploited these differences to suppress the opposition, and Iran has sent media and security experts to help the Assads to keep doing that even though the opposition is more united than it has ever been before.

The Iranian experts have their work cut out for them, because even members of the Alawite community are now supporting the rebels. These Alawites point out that for decades dissent (from whatever the Assads wanted) was not tolerated and that the Alawites have much to gain from the overthrow of the Assads. With this kind of talks, the Assads are reminded that they cannot even trust their Alawite brethren.

The FSA (Free Syrian Army) has bases in Turkey and Lebanon. FSA also has more weapons and equipment (especially radios and satellite phones, as well night vision gear) to distribute but there are still organizational and trust problems. While most FSA members served in the Syrian military, a growing number of young volunteers did not. These guys require some training otherwise they will quickly get killed. The factionalism (usually because of religion or politics) makes it difficult to know who you can trust or rely on. It’s like herding cats only these felines have assault rifles, short tempers and divided loyalties.

A growing FSA problem is the increased presence of al Qaeda (and similar organizations) in Syria. These guys are on a Mission from God and not inclined to take orders, or even advice, from the FSA. Moreover, the FSA (or at least most members) want a democracy, while al Qaeda wants a religious dictatorship.

May 27, 2012: In Iran, a military official bragged that Iranian soldiers in Syria were helping to limit the number of civilians Syrian troops were killing.

In Damascus, police conducted several raids in pro-rebel neighborhoods, after a bomber went off in a popular restaurant.

Kuwait warned its citizens to stay away from Syria, where increasing violence made it very dangerous for foreign visitors.

May 25, 2012: In Homs, security forces killed over 100 civilians, and there were plenty of witnesses with cameras. Turkey and the UN were quick to condemn the Syrian government. Turkey is calling on the international community to ensure that the Syrian officials responsible are punished. Russia used its Security Council veto to prevent the UN from making an official condemnation of Syria. In the meantime, Syria insisted that its troops had nothing to do with any killings in Homs. But the Syrians have lied so often about stuff like this, and then exposed as liars by video and witnesses (and sometimes UN observers) that few believe these denials.

YEMEN: Al Qaeda Falls Back

May 28, 2012:  For the last week, intense fighting against al Qaeda (foreigners and local tribal supporters) in the south has continued. The southern Abyan province has been a center of al Qaeda (and allied Islamic radical groups) activity for years. The army concentrated 20,000 troops in Abyan for this operation, along with nearly 10,000 tribal allies. The army received assistance from American UAVs (most of them armed with missiles) and the air force.

Troops have pushed al Qaeda out of Zinjibar, the provincial capital, in the last few days. There have been several hundred casualties a day most days in Abyan for most of May. Two-thirds of the dead have been Islamic radicals and their tribal allies.  Most of the remainder were soldiers or pro-government tribesmen.

In response to losses in Abyan, al Qaeda has unleashed their remaining suicide bombers in attacks that are supposed to break the will of the government forces. That has not worked, as the attacks simply make the soldiers more eager to get some payback. Most of the casualties are al Qaeda, with the rest split between soldiers and civilians (caught in the crossfire, or a terror attack).

The local al Qaeda ally is Ansar al Sharia, and their partnership with foreign Islamic terrorists gave rise to tribal militias opposing religious rule in Yemen. Over 5,000 tribal gunmen have joined with the army in the fight against the Islamic radical forces (which number less than 10,000, most of them local tribesmen). While religious differences are frequently invoked, most of the fighting in the south is over tribal politics. The national government is a coalition of tribal leaders, and the uprising last year, that eventually drove president Saleh out of power after three decades running the country, was mainly about Saleh not taking care of the more powerful tribes. The new government is redistributing the goodies, and that has brought out tribal militias to help with the fight against al Qaeda.

The prospect of al Qaeda and its allies being wiped out soon has persuaded foreign donors to pledge over $4 billion to help rebuild Yemen. That is a long-shot, because the new tribal coalition running the country is as corrupt as the old one.

May 26, 2012: Troops forced al Qaeda fighters back from long held positions in the southern city of Zinjibar.

May 25, 2012:  In the north, a suicide car bomb killed 13 Shia tribesmen. Al Qaeda is a Sunni organization, and Sunni religious conservatives tend to see Shia as heretics, subject to execution. In Yemen, the northern Shia tribes are also seen as allies of Iran, a largely Shia, and Indo-European, nation that has long been the enemy of the Arabs.

May 22, 2012:  U.S. warships came to the port of Hodeida to evacuate American personnel who had been training Yemeni coast guardsmen. Two days ago al Qaeda gunmen attacked the Americans, killing one of them.

May 21, 2012:  In the capital, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest and killed over a hundred soldiers who were practicing for a parade. The bomber was later revealed as a secret al Qaeda supporter who joined the army in order to spy and, if need be, carry out an attack like this. The bomber had actually been convicted of terrorism connections in 2007, but had managed to evade prison and join the army.

In the south, troops and tribal militiamen pushed al Qaeda gunmen out of the town of Jaar, a large town in Abyan province.

May 20, 2012: U.S. military trainers (civilian, ex-military, contractors) were attacked in the port of Hodeida, where the Americans were helping to train

Yemeni coast guardsmen. One American was killed in the attack.

WHO WINS:  FATA Falls To Pakistani Troops

May 28, 2012: Pakistan has declared victory in its three year battle for control of the tribal territories along the Afghan border. But the Pakistanis admit that their victory is only 90 percent complete, as the Taliban and other Islamic terror groups are still in control of North Waziristan and parts of adjacent South Waziristan. Pakistan also admits that it leaves the Taliban and other terror groups alone in North Waziristan, as well as providing another sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban in Baluchistan (just across the border from Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where most of the Afghan Taliban, and the word’s heroin supply comes from). This is in Southwest Pakistan (Baluchistan), an area where the Pakistani Taliban and Islamic terrorists do not otherwise operate.

Three years ago Pakistan went to war with the Pakistani Taliban, and some other terror groups who were making attacks against the Pakistani government. This was mainly a matter of self-defense.  The core of Taliban power in Pakistan was (and is) in a region called FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas). This small (27,220 square kilometers) and thinly (3.1 million) populated region has long been the lawless Wild West for Pakistan. The “tribal territories” are actually much larger (extending all along the Afghan border, and part of the Indian frontier as well), but FATA is where most of the action is. FATA not only includes North and South Waziristan (Taliban Central), but also the Khyber Pass (the main road into Afghanistan.)

In 2009, there were nearly 4,000 incidents of terrorist violence in FATA, leaving over 5,000 people dead. Over the next three years the pattern of violence (and eventually the death rate) changed. There are fewer low level (often resulting in no deaths) terrorism actions, and more battles, with high body counts. By last year, the violence had greatly declined in FATA, as the Taliban retreated to North Waziristan.

All this violence is fairly recent. Back in 2005, there were only 285 terrorism related deaths in FATA. But then it began growing, as the Afghan Taliban, flush with drug money, began building up their bases, and allies, in FATA. Terrorists got another boost in 2008, when al Qaeda, fleeing defeat in Iraq, moved men and money to FATA. This led to more Islamic terrorism throughout Pakistan, and a backlash. That involved the first ever army invasion of FATA and some of the other tribal territories. FATA was the hardest hit, and over 150,000 troops, and thousands of police and paramilitaries swarmed over the region, using helicopter gunships, artillery and smart bombs to kill rebellious tribesmen. The kill ratio was very unfavorable for the tribes, with over ten tribesmen killed for every soldier or policeman slain.

The tribal leadership has noticed this shift in power. For thousands of years, the Pushtun tribes were supreme in their mountain strongholds, and often able to invade and plunder the more populous lowlands. But now that equation has shifted, and the more astute tribal leaders are making peace, and helping the army get rid of local troublemakers. These are usually Islamic radicals, who have become very unpopular in FATA. There have always been young guys with guns and bad attitudes wandering around the hills. But now you have louts like this with a sense of spiritual superiority as well. As if being poor and illiterate were not bad enough, now you have some self-righteous maniac telling you to shut off the music and videos. The Taliban and al Qaeda won’t be missed, and remain in North Waziristan, if anyone wants a living reminder of the bad old days.


May 28, 2012: For the last six years India, South Korea, the United States and a number of other countries have been pressuring Google to “do something” about its “Google Earth” service. The security organizations in these countries are alarmed at the ease with which Google Earth enables any user to quickly get a satellite photo of just about any area on the planet. This capability is nothing new as it’s been available from commercial photo satellite firms for over a decade. But what has changed with the Google offering, is that the company gathers together the largest collection of satellite photos ever, and makes them very easy to get at, by anyone with Internet access. This is what worries counter-terrorism officials. Islamic terrorists are long on fanaticism, but short on practical skills. Anything that makes it easier for an Islamic terrorist to plan attacks, the more likely that attacks will be put together and carried out.

In Iraq and Afghanistan the United States found the enemy using Google Earth to get a better idea of what potential targets (military or civilian) looked like from above. At the same time, troops were often using Google Earth to plan their own operations. South Korea fears that poverty stricken, but heavily armed, North Korea, could use Google Earth to more effectively plan military operations against them. Then again, few North Koreans have access to the Internet, and the Google Earth views of the mansions and special facilities for the North Korean elite have been very embarrassing for the northern leadership. At the same time, North Koreans have been getting hold of cell phones (illegal in most of North Korea) and using cell towers along the Chinese border to get information into, and out of, North Korea.
India is still vexed that the Pakistani Islamic terrorists who attacked Mumbai (and killed or wounded hundreds of people) in 2009, used Google Earth to plan the attack, and cell phones to keep in touch with each other, and their boss back in Pakistan.

Many countries have managed to persuade the satellite photo providers to lower the resolution of images showing sensitive areas. But this is a tedious process, does not include the many civilian targets terrorists prefer and many security officials would like Google Earth and its growing number of competitors would to just go away. But it won’t, it’s too popular among the many users who are not terrorists, spies or common criminals. Same deal with cell phones and email.

All this is another example of how change, seemingly for the better, often has a downside. Google Earth is very useful to a lot of people. By making all this satellite photography easily available to anyone, you also make it available to those who are up to no good. The same can be said for the telegraph (invented 170 years ago), the telephone (140 years ago), radio (110 years ago), and personal computers (40 years ago.) You’ve got to take the good with the bad.

Google Earth, and similar services are not going away because they make security, intelligence and counter-terrorism officials nervous.

AIR DEFENSE: The Software Patch Iran Wants To Kill

May 28, 2012: The U.S. Navy has completed work on a new version (3.6.1) of the software for its Aegis BMD (Ballistic Missile Defense) system. A year ago, 3.6.1 was successfully tested against an IRBM (Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile), similar to those used by Iran. The IRBM was launched from Kwajalein Atoll (in the Marshall Islands) towards a patch of ocean off the Hawaiian Island, 3,700 kilometers distant. Within eleven minutes of the IRBM lift off, a long range X-Band radar on Wake Island (north of Hawaii) spotted the incoming missile, passed the data to a U.S. destroyer off Hawaii, which calculated the flight path of the target and launched a SM-3 Block 1A missile, which destroyed the IRBM. This was a test of the land based Aegis system that will be built in Europe to protect against hostile IRBMs. That system won’t work without 3.6.1.

The Aegis software upgrade (3.6.1) enables Aegis to track and intercept IRBMs (ballistic missiles with a range of 3,000-5,500 kilometers) as well as quickly share data with other radars. There are numerous other improvements, some of them classified.

This was the 21st successful test of Aegis, which now has an 84 percent success rate in tests. There are other upgrades in the works. Also last year there was a 3.6.1 test with the new SM-3 Block 1B missile. This was mostly improvements in the final stage, or warhead capabilities. While the 1B missile was not a complete success, the 3.6.1 software did what it was supposed to do.

At the moment, Aegis anti-missile systems are hot. The U.S. government, encouraged by the high success rate of Aegis SM-3 tests has been expanding the number of SM-3 equipped ships. With 27 Aegis anti-missile equipped ships in service now, there are plans to have nearly twice as many in the next few years. Nine of these ships will be upgraded to 3.6.1 over the next three years.

Converting Aegis ships to fire anti-missile missiles costs about $12 million a ship, mainly for new software and a few new hardware items. The new 3.6.1 software upgrade costs $50 million. Even with the sharp cost growth, this is seen as a safe investment. To knock down ballistic missiles, an Aegis equipped ship uses two similar models of the U.S. Navy Standard anti-aircraft missile, in addition to a modified version of the Aegis radar system, tweaked to also track incoming ballistic missiles.

The basic anti-missile missile RIM-161A, also known as the Standard Missile 3 (or SM-3) has a range of over 500 kilometers and max altitude of over 200 kilometers. The Standard 3 is based on the anti-missile version of the Standard 2 (SM-2 Block IV). This SM-2 missile turned out to be effective against ballistic missile warheads that are closer to their target. One test saw a SM-2 Block IV missile destroy a warhead that was only 19 kilometers up. An SM-3 missile can destroy a warhead that is more than ten times higher. But the SM-3 is only good for anti-missile work, while the SM-2 Block IV can be used against both ballistic missiles and aircraft. The SM-2 Block IV also costs less than half what an SM-3 costs.

The SM-3 has four stages. The first two boost the interceptor out of the atmosphere. The third stage fires twice to boost the interceptor farther beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Prior to each motor firing it takes a GPS reading to correct course for approaching the target. The fourth stage is the 20 pound LEAP kill vehicle, which uses infrared sensors to close on the target and ram it. The Aegis system was designed to operate aboard warships (cruisers and destroyers that have been equipped with the special software that enables the AEGIS radar system to detect and track incoming ballistic missiles). There is also a land based version that Israel is interested in buying, and is basically the same one that would be installed in Europe.

LEADERSHIP:  The USN Can’t Keep Its Heads On Straight

May 28, 2012: The USN (U.S. Navy) has relieved (removed from their job) ten commanders so far this year. That’s the good news. The bad news is that last year the navy broke a record when it relieved 35 senior commanders. Worse yet, 27 of them were commanding or executive officers on ships. This was higher than the previous record year, 2003, when 23 were relieved. But at the current rate, 2012 is on track to surpass 2003, and possibly match last year.

Since the end of the Cold War in 1991 the U.S. Navy has been experiencing a larger number of warship captains and other senior naval commanders getting relieved. It’s currently over five percent of ship captains a year. At the end of the Cold War, in the late 1980s, the rate was about 3-4 percent a year. So why has the rate gone up? And why hasn’t the navy been able to do anything to reverse this two decade long trend?

There appears to be a number of reasons for this, some of them new and unique, often having to do with the growth of political correctness. But most of the reliefs appear traceable to the performance rating system (where commanders evaluate their subordinates each year). Obviously, too many unqualified officers are getting promoted to commands they cannot handle.
Seeking a solution, the navy has queried commanders for new ideas for the evaluation system. One of the more interesting suggestions was to hold commanders responsible for their evaluations. Thus, when a commander was up for promotion one of the items considered would be the accuracy of their past evaluations. After all, the higher your rank, the more important it is for you to pick the right people for promotion. The navy has also looked at how corporations handle this evaluation process and discovered that it was common to poll subordinates for evaluations as well. The navy was aware that some commanders consult senior NCOs (chiefs) on evaluations. Chiefs have a lot of experience and see officers a bit differently than more senior officers.

Another problem was a major modification, in the 1990s, in which written comments on many aspects of an officer evaluation were changed to a 1-5 ranking system. The new method also forced raters to rank all their subordinates against each other. This was unfair to a bunch of high performing officers who happened to be serving together and being rated by the same commander.

Even more worrisome was the fact that only a small percentage of reliefs have to do with professional failings (a collision or serious accident, failing a major inspection, or just continued poor performance.) Most reliefs were, and still are, for adultery, drunkenness, or theft. Or, in one case, it was telling jokes that sailors enjoyed but some politicians and journalists didn’t.

With more women aboard warships there have been more reliefs for, as sailors like to put it, “zipper failure”, especially if it includes adultery. Typically, these reliefs include phrases pointing out that the disgraced officer, “acted in an unprofessional manner toward several crew members that was inappropriate, improper, and unduly familiar”. Such “familiarity” usually includes sex with subordinates and a captain who is having zipper control problems often has other shortcomings as well. Senior commanders traditionally act prudently and relieve a ship commander who demonstrates a pattern of minor problems and who they “lack confidence in”.
Most naval officers see the problem not of too many captains being relieved but of too many unqualified officers getting command of ships in the first place. Not every naval officer qualified for ship command gets one. The competition for ship commands is pretty intense, despite the fact that officers know that whatever goes wrong on the ship the captain is responsible.

It’s a hard slog for a new ensign (officer rank O-1) to make it to a ship command.  For every hundred ensigns entering service, only 11 of those ensigns will make it to O-6 (captain) and get a major seagoing command (cruiser, destroyer, squadron). Officers who do well commanding a ship will often get to do it two or three times before they retire after about 30 years of service.

With all this screening and winnowing why are more unqualified officers getting to command ships, and then getting relieved because they can’t hack it? Some point to the growing popularity of “mentoring” by senior officers (that smaller percentage that makes it to admiral). While the navy uses a board of officers to decide which officers get ship commands the enthusiastic recommendation of one or more admirals does count. Perhaps it counts too much. While the navy is still quick to relieve any ship commander that screws up (one naval “tradition” that should never be tampered with), up until that point it is prudent not to offend any admirals by implying that their judgment of “up and coming talent” is faulty. In the aftermath of these reliefs, it often becomes known that the relieved captain had a long record of problems. But because he was “blessed” by one or more admirals these infractions were overlooked. The golden boys tend to be very personable and, well, look good. The navy promotion system is organized to rise above such superficial characteristics but apparently the power, and misuse of mentoring, has increasingly corrupted the process.

And then there is the problem with the chiefs, history, and zero tolerance. Asking the chiefs (Chief Petty Officers, the senior NCOs who supervise the sailors) might provide some illumination about officer potential.

Unfortunately, over the last decade officers have been less inclined to ask their chiefs much. The “zero tolerance” atmosphere that has permeated the navy since the end of the Cold War has led officers to take direct control of supervisory duties the chiefs used to handle. The chiefs have lost a lot of their influence, responsibility, and power.

The problem is that, with “zero tolerance” one mistake can destroy a career. This was not the case in the past. Many of the outstanding admirals of World War II would have never survived in today’s navy. For example, Bill “Bull” Halsey ran his destroyer aground during World War I, but his career survived the incident. That is no longer is the case. It’s also well to remember that, once World War II began, there was a massive removal of peacetime commanders from ships. The peacetime evaluation system selected officers who were well qualified to command ships in peacetime but not in wartime. There was a similar pattern with admirals.
Another problem is that officers don’t spend as much time at sea, or in command, as in the past. A lot of time is spent going to school and away from the chiefs and sailors. For example, while the navy had more ships in the 1930s than it does today, there were fewer people in the navy. That’s because back then 80 percent of navy personnel were assigned to a ship and had plenty of time to learn how to keep it clean and operational. With that much less practical experience it’s understandable that more captains would prove unable to do the job.


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