Monday, July 16, 2012

Tollkeepers and Prac Apps

In the most recent issue of Infinity Journal, retired Marine Lieutenant General Paul van Riper, of Millenium Challenge fame, wrote an excellent article on the foundation of strategic thinking. In the article, he brings up Hew Strachan’s appropriate critique of the operational level of war: that it sets up a “firewall” of sorts between the political considerations that pervade strategy and the tactics that must support that strategy.

Regrettably, introduction of the operational level of war did not bring about the desired results. Rather than center attention on operational art, too many officers focused on mundane issues like what types of units were to deal with the operational and tactical levels, and the creation of new and more complicated planning techniques based on formal analyses. Noted historian Hew Strachan sees an even more pernicious fault with the so-called ‘operational level’ of war, that is, it “occupies a politics-free zone” where military officers are able to concentrate on maneuver while ignoring strategy and policy.

This is probably a very valid criticism of the operational level of war and, by extension, operational art. (See this SSI publication for more on problems with the operational level and operational art.) But this problem is not just a result of the original formulation or understanding of the concept on the part of the Army, but also of our execution of the idea. And every Marine has experienced this poor execution.

Throughout the Marine Corps, instruction is augmented by practical application. From the NCO Academies up to Command Staff College, leaders are expected to practice planning a tactical action or operation, either as a staff or individuals. The problem is that the majority of practical exercises lack context. The enemy is “red” or the infamous, fictional “Centralians” that operate around TBS at Quantico. Even when the scenario is more involved, it may not be up to date. In one simulation I participated in, enemy units were still labeled as Soviet tank divisions. This was in 2006. When students complained about the outdated exercise, the simulated enemy units were renamed as insurgent tank divisions. Someday I will tell my grandkids or my local VFW about how I defeated the 347th Insurgent Tank Division, but for now we should strive for a little more realism. The best scenario I’ve ever seen was during the Joint Maritime Operations course at the Naval War College which I completed in 2011. My class was tasked with planning a joint operation to defend a real Pacific nation against a real Pacific nation, which caused us to examine the culture and geography of both nations in order to effectively complete the project. This kind of training does not need to be exclusive to high level schools. We can inject realism, context, and culture into our practical planning exercises; we just frequently choose not to do so.

Monday, July 9, 2012

AirSea Battle 2: AirSea Battler

Yesterday I was catching up on my reading when a single sentence in this recent blog post by Daniel Blumenthal at Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government blog caught my eye.
Concurrently, details of a new operational concept called Air Sea Battle were released, that despite protestations to the contrary, is more or less about how to defeat China in a conflict.
This sentence is both right and wrong. Despite protestations to the opposite, of course ASB is about beating China. Amongst our potential adversaries, China has the most capability to develop effective A2/AD systems and indeed, has already begun to do so. They also have the most motivation to do so because of their extensive Pacific coastline. If ASB is not about China, what good is it?

While ASB is, or should be, about China, it is certainly not about defeating China. The concept, if executed according to plan in some future Sino-American War, would do nothing of the sort. As I’ve written before, ASB intends for the Navy and the Air Force to go head-to-head, salvo-to-salvo, with Chinese A2/AD systems, win this gunfight, and then… something something. The something something part can only be one thing, the now much maligned “boots on the ground.” Part Two of ASB is landing troops on Chinese soil. This will include, but will not be limited to, amphibious landings. There’s no point in gaining access to a once denied area if not to use it.

In short, ASB is nothing more than preparation for Joint Forcible Entry operations. However, ASB assumes that the US will take on an A2/AD system directly a la Operation Overlord. I cited earlier that Operation Overlord was an A2/AD operation, and it was. But consider this. A2/AD capabilities were far less capable than they are today. Furthermore, Overlord was not even launched into the strongest shore defenses of Fortress Europe. After the Dieppe raid, Hitler ordered increased fortifications and defenses at major ports like Antwerp vice the beaches in between, assuming the allies would attack a major port again. In 1944, Normandy was not even the strongest of Nazi Germany’s shore defenses. In the Pacific, Iwo Jima was probably the most advanced defense Imperial Japan was able to mount on the most difficult terrain. In both cases, allied naval and aerial forces had almost complete air and sea superiority over the adversary. Both Normandy and Iwo Jima resulted in allied victories, but at great expense because they were direct offensives against prepared defenses ashore, exactly what ASB plans to do. Remember also that it was assumed, by the US Navy as late as 1943 and the US Army in 1944, that air and sea firepower would negate shore defenses. ASB is built around this same assumption, an assumption proven false sixty-nine years ago.

What a natural A2/AD system might look like. 
There is another option, of course. Don’t take on the enemy defense directly. Think Anzio or Inchon. There were significant A2/AD challenges on the shores of both WWII Italy and North Korea. Salerno proved that in Italy and many of the alternative landing sites in North Korea had been mined by NK forces. The best response in both cases was to not go where the enemy had emplaced A2/AD defenses. Anzio, if not an unmitigated operational success, was virtually unopposed and Inchon, better exploited, collapsed the entire North Korean war effort. Think I'm off base going so far back to gain insight about these types of operations? The latest desultory defense of the concept, in Armed Forces Journal, does so as well, defining all Japanese naval and air forces during World War II as A2/AD systems.
Modern amphibious assault planners know that, while it sometimes may be necessary to take on shore defenses head on, it should be the last resort. We can never assume that we will have air and naval superiority offshore, especially in light of China’s naval buildup. Furthermore, naval ships are far more vulnerable to shore based missiles than in the past. The increased A2/AD threat is real, after all. Joint Forcible Entry and its rebranded offspring AirSea Battle should strive to achieve an Inchon vice a Normandy.

This guy knew how to exploit access, with photo ops. 
In the recent past, direct offensive actions against A2/AD systems, straight into the teeth of the defense if you will, may have worked but were extremely costly. Even if you successfully overcome A2/AD, you need enough survivors and firepower to then, you know, wage warfare inland. ASB wishes away this requirement, so much so that the two services who know a thing or two about land warfare were not even included in its formulation. The other option, a Liddell-Hart-esque indirect approach, is absent from the concept. (See this issue of Infinity Journal for just such an approach by T.X. Hammes) Those who say ASB is about beating China are wrong because ASB only plans a tactical victory over Chinese shore defenses, which may or may not lead to operational access, which may or may not be operationally exploited, which may or may not have strategic effects. Oh by the way, someone will figure out war termination after all our hopes come true as they always do. ASB can offer no victory over China, at best it gives us a framework for D+1. ASB gives you all this, or less, in the most expensive manner possible. Blood and treasure accepted. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Get Over It! We Are Not All Created Equal

By Capt Katie Petronio

Originally posted in the July 2012 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette. We reposted the article here so that our readers have yet another venue to weigh in on this hot topic.

The Marine Corps Times recently published a handful of articles in regard to opening Infantry Officer Course (IOC) to females and the possibility of integrating women into the infantry community. In mid-April the Commandant directed the “integration” of the first wave of female officers into IOC this summer following completion of The Basic School (TBS). This action may or may not pave the way for female Marines to serve in the infantry as the results remain to be seen. However, before the Marine Corps moves forward with this concept, should we not ask the hard questions and gain opinions of combat-experienced Marines (male and female alike) as to the purpose, the impact, and the gains from such a move? As a combat-experienced Marine officer, and a female, I am here to tell you that we are not all created equal, and attempting to place females in the infantry will not improve the Marine Corps as the Nation’s force-in-readiness or improve our national security. 
As a company grade 1302 combat engineer officer with 5 years of active service and two combat deployments, one to Iraq and the other to Afghanistan, I was able to participate in and lead numerous combat operations. In Iraq as the II MEF Director, Lioness Program, I served as a subject matter expert for II MEF, assisting regimental and battalion commanders on ways to integrate female Marines into combat operations. I primarily focused on expanding the mission of the Lioness Program from searching females to engaging local nationals and information gathering, broadening the ways females were being used in a wide variety of combat operations from census patrols to raids. In Afghanistan I deployed as a 1302 and led a combat engineer platoon in direct support of Regimental Combat Team 8, specifically operating out of the Upper Sangin Valley. My platoon operated for months at a time, constructing patrol bases (PBs) in support of 3d Battalion, 5th Marines; 1st Battalion, 5th Marines; 2d Reconnaissance Battalion; and 3d Battalion, 4th Marines. This combat experience, in particular, compelled me to raise concern over the direction and overall reasoning behind opening the 03XX field.
Who is driving this agenda? I am not personally hearing female Marines, enlisted or officer, pounding on the doors of Congress claiming that their inability to serve in the infantry violates their right to equality. Shockingly, this isn’t even a congressional agenda. This issue is being pushed by several groups, one of which is a small committee of civilians appointed by the Secretary of Defense called the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service (DACOWITS). Their mission is to advise the Department of Defense (DoD) on recommendations, as well as matters of policy, pertaining to the well-being of women in the Armed Services from recruiting to employment. Members are selected based on their prior military experience or experience with women’s workforce issues. I certainly applaud and appreciate DACOWITS’ mission; however, as it pertains to the issue of women in the infantry, it’s very surprising to see that none of the committee members are on active duty or have any recent combat or relevant operational experience relating to the issue they are attempting to change. I say this because, at the end of the day, it’s the active duty servicemember who will ultimately deal with the results of their initiatives, not those on the outside looking in. As of now, the Marine Corps hasn’t been directed to integrate, but perhaps the Corps is anticipating the inevitable—DoD pressuring the Corps to comply with DACOWITS’ agenda as the Army has already “rogered up” to full integration. Regardless of what the Army decides to do, it’s critical to emphasize that we are not the Army; our operational speed and tempo, along with our overall mission as the Nation’s amphibious force-in-readiness, are fundamentally different than that of our sister Service. By no means is this distinction intended as disrespectful to our incredible Army. My main point is simply to state that the Marine Corps and the Army are different; even if the Army ultimately does fully integrate all military occupational fields, that doesn’t mean the Corps should follow suit.
I understand that there are female servicemembers who have proven themselves to be physically, mentally, and morally capable of leading and executing combat-type operations; as a result, some of these Marines may feel qualified for the chance of taking on the role of 0302. In the end, my main concern is not whether women are capable of conducting combat operations, as we have already proven that we can hold our own in some very difficult combat situations; instead, my main concern is a question of longevity. Can women endure the physical and physiological rigors of sustained combat operations, and are we willing to accept the attrition and medical issues that go along with integration?
As a young lieutenant, I fit the mold of a female who would have had a shot at completing IOC, and I am sure there was a time in my life where I would have volunteered to be an infantryman. I was a star ice hockey player at Bowdoin College, a small elite college in Maine, with a major in government and law. At 5 feet 3 inches I was squatting 200 pounds and benching 145 pounds when I graduated in 2007. I completed Officer Candidates School (OCS) ranked 4 of 52 candidates, graduated 48 of 261 from TBS, and finished second at MOS school. I also repeatedly scored far above average in all female-based physical fitness tests (for example, earning a 292 out of 300 on the Marine physical fitness test). Five years later, I am physically not the woman I once was and my views have greatly changed on the possibility of women having successful long careers while serving in the infantry. I can say from firsthand experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, and not just emotion, that we haven’t even begun to analyze and comprehend the gender-specific medical issues and overall physical toll continuous combat operations will have on females.
I was a motivated, resilient second lieutenant when I deployed to Iraq for 10 months, traveling across the Marine area of operations (AO) and participating in numerous combat operations. Yet, due to the excessive amount of time I spent in full combat load, I was diagnosed with a severe case of restless leg syndrome. My spine had compressed on nerves in my lower back causing neuropathy which compounded the symptoms of restless leg syndrome. While this injury has certainly not been enjoyable, Iraq was a pleasant experience compared to the experiences I endured during my deployment to Afghanistan. At the beginning of my tour in Helmand Province, I was physically capable of conducting combat operations for weeks at a time, remaining in my gear for days if necessary and averaging 16-hour days of engineering operations in the heart of Sangin, one of the most kinetic and challenging AOs in the country. There were numerous occasions where I was sent to a grid coordinate and told to build a PB from the ground up, serving not only as the mission commander but also the base commander until the occupants (infantry units) arrived 5 days later. In most of these situations, I had a sergeant as my assistant commander, and the remainder of my platoon consisted of young, motivated NCOs. I was the senior Marine making the final decisions on construction concerns, along with 24-hour base defense and leading 30 Marines at any given time. The physical strain of enduring combat operations and the stress of being responsible for the lives and well-being of such a young group in an extremely kinetic environment were compounded by lack of sleep, which ultimately took a physical toll on my body that I couldn’t have foreseen.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The American Dream: Immigrants & America

President Obama’s recent announcement giving the children of illegal immigrants the opportunity to work and the reaction of the GOP made me step back and think “what makes someone an American?” Is it an accident of birth? Having a special skill? Or is it an attitude?

Immigration didn’t use to be a political issue; people were accepted or denied on their merits. In those human waves of immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island were my grandparents, who came to the New World for a chance for a better life.

My maternal grandmother was Mary Inez Ryan, from Ireland’s County Limerick, and we grew up listening to her stories of leprechauns and wailing banshees. She married Joseph Mendell, whose German father had changed their name from Mendel upon arrival here. My dad’s parents were also immigrants, with Louis Ljubon from Budapest marrying Bavaria’s Aloysia Woelfl. Both families settled in northern New Jersey, struggled through the Depression, and then both my mom and dad enlisted in the Marines in WW2. Afterwards they were part of the first G.I. Bill class at Montclair State Teachers College and worked hard to give us kids a better life and more opportunities.

With so many immigrants come so many immigration stories…a few years ago in Afghanistan I met Tuan Pham, a Vietnamese refugee whose grandfather and father were killed by the Viet Cong. His mother and sister fled Vietnam as ‘boat people,’ and eventually got Pham out…now he’s Major Tuan Pham, USMC. While his is certainly a far more interesting family story than mine, it’s similar in that it started with folks looking for a better life, making their way to America, working hard, giving back, and helping build that which we call “The American Dream”.

Since 9/11 there have been some 55,000 immigrants who became Americans through their service in the Armed Forces. The ranks of the Marine Corps, for example, are filled with young men and women with fascinating accents who are “giving back” to their newly adopted country. Some of them “give back” a lot; Mexican-born Marine Sgt Rafael Peralta’s last act was to roll onto a grenade in Fallujah, sacrificing himself in order to save the lives of the Marines behind him. Then there’s Sgt Michael Strank, one of the five Marines who raised the flag on Iwo Jima. He was born Mychal Strenk, in Jarabenia, Czechoslovakia, and learned English in a tough Pennsylvania steel town. Strank was killed on Iwo, three days after that famous photograph was taken. Other countries should have immigrants like these two.

They’re the strength of this country, this blend of steel workers, farmers, and shopkeepers who arrived here with little more than an ill-fitting suit and a fierce determination to “do better.” They helped build America by learning the language, working hard, and in believing America to be a ‘melting pot’ and not a ‘mosaic,’ blended together and gave this country a mind-set that equated hard work with success.

And unlike the faux-patriotism espoused by those radio-ptariots who never served; they understood that patriotism was something that was to be practiced as opposed to harangued from the airwaves. On the morning after Pearl Harbor, both college boys and farm boys raced to enlist, and by 1945 America had 12 million men under arms.

Everyone volunteered; my ex-wife’s father forged his father’s name to the paperwork and joined the Army underage – he grew up quickly as he first fought in Italy and later in the Battle of the Bulge.

That’s real patriotism. Everyone pulled together for the common goal of protecting the American way of life that their parents and grandparents worked to offer them.

That’s what makes today’s immigration debate so frustrating. Most of the illegals quietly work hard, taking the dirty jobs that most American citizens refuse. Sure many of them arrive not speaking English, but neither did my Grandfather Ljubon or Mychal Strenk when they arrived. America is still a country of opportunities for those who want to work, and given the opportunity, look at how Sgt’s Strenk and Peralta have become a part of American history.

Maybe being an “American” is an attitude rather than an accident of birth. Since people today aren’t digging the Erie Canal or building the transcontinental railroad; today’s settlers are instead working in an Iowa meat-packing plant or cutting lawns in Bucks County, PA. Hard work never hurt anyone Grandpa Ljubon used to tell me; and as Grandpa’s Strenk, Peralta, and Pham surely told their boys; with hard work you can accomplish almost anything.

So raise a glass to our 236th birthday – with more hard work and immigrants like these, we’ll be celebrating 236 more.

Happy Independence Day.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Rajiv Chandrasekaran on the MAGTF in Afghanistan

This is an excerpt of a longer discussion posted at Small Wars Journal.  Please go there for the rest of the interview.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post has been one of the most important chroniclers of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  His "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," a searing tale about the dysfunction that wracked our efforts in Iraq, was a National Book Award finalist.  I was excited for his new work on Afghanistan, "Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan," however the thrust of the excerpts published last weekend in the Washington Post left me a bit skeptical.  Even a cynical Marine bristles at what seems to be an affront to the service and the thought that Marine efforts were squandered in Helmand created many emotions in Marines.  What is more, the idea that things would have been vastly different if we sent the Marines to Kandahar, not Helmand, did not square with my impression of the larger flaws in our campaign.  I am decidedly pessimistic about our ability to successfully prosecute small wars, as I have explained at FP's Af-Pak Channel, so my impression of this argument was that it was only a step above arguing over deck chair placement on the Titanic.
Nonetheless, when I was offered the opportunity to discuss these issues with Rajiv, I jumped at it.  I plowed through the book in one sitting late into the predawn hours of Saturday, recalling my graduate school days and found that "Little America" was an eminently readable, sensible, and balanced account.  Even if I remain more cynical than Rajiv does, this is no rosy pro-COIN missive.  Even the title parable underlines a skepticism about our past and our future in Afghanistan, as you will see below.  While the excerpts make it seem as if Chandrasekaran gives the Marines a black eye, he pulls no punches with anyone and many others, such as the Department of State and USAID, come off looking far worse.  In fact, his criticism of the decision of where to send the Marines is a reflection his respect for their tenacity and success in Helmand.