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Yearly Archives: 2017
On January 21 2018 we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Battle for Khe Sanh Village and the beginning of the 77 day siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base. In coming weeks I will be writing more about this battle that was the turning point in the Vietnam War—in spite of what Burns and crew said in their not so accurate 7 volume minisery about the War in Vietnam.
Is a new cold war on the horizon?
I have recently been reading the Dagger Brigade posts (2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, which the author once commanded) as it moves around Eastern Europe training with allies as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve—a program to demonstrate NATO resolve to deter the Russians for dramatic attacks and conquest of its previous kingdom (satellite countries).
Atlantic Resolve and other NATO activities in Eastern Europe and the pledged increase in force capabilities seem to assume a conventional force attack by the Russians. This approach is called into question by current Russian activities.
Russia is aggressively building up its nuclear forces and is expected to deploy a total force of 8,000 warheads by 2026 along while modernizing its deep underground bunkers, according to reports citing Pentagon officials.
The Russian force build up implies several aspects of its view of future warfare. The 8,000 warheads will include both large strategic warheads and thousands of new low-yield and very low-yield warheads. These will circumvent arms treaty limits. Russia’s new doctrine is one of using nuclear arms early in any conflict.
This new doctrine as it evolves seems to combine the use of low and very low yield nuclear weapons in conjunction with attacks by tactical ground forces. Simultaneous it seeks to maintain strategic deterrence by having a modernized mobile strategic arsenal. The mobility of the strategic forces enhances their survivability. Part of this deterrence effort includes fortification of underground facilities for command and control during such a nuclear conflict.
The United States and NATO are watching this alarming expansion as to determine if Russia is preparing to break out of current nuclear forces constraints under arms treaties, including the 2010 New START and 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaties. Russia has already violated the INF accord by testing an illegal ground-launched cruise missile.
This Russian nuclear arms buildup is among the activities being studied by the ongoing Pentagon major review of US nuclear forces called the Nuclear Posture Review. The conclusions of the review are expected to be disclosed early next year—possibly coinciding with state of the union address by the president: He is on the record as saying: “I want modernization and rehabilitation… It’s got to be in tip top shape,”
The current posture review reverses the views of the Obama administration which called for reducing the role of nuclear weapons and the size of the arsenal. The cut back in nuclear forces by Obama was based on assessments—now considered false by many officials—that nuclear threats posed by Russia and other states had been lowered significantly, and that Moscow and Washington were no longer considered enemies.
The Obama administration based its strategic nuclear deterrence and warfare policies on the incorrect and outdated assumption that the prospects of US.-Russia military confrontation had been reduced sharply. However many have noted that since 2010 Russia, China, and North Korea have been engaged in steadily building up their forces with new nuclear arms and delivery systems, while Iran remains an outlier that many experts believe will eventually decide to build a nuclear arsenal. The Obama administration did not react to this changing strategic situation.
The Pentagon’s new posture review is based in part on a reversal of the outdated Obama-era assessment. Most likely it will include:
- Recognition of an increased global nuclear threat
- Recommendations on increasing the US nuclear force modernization—warheads and delivery vehicles
- A recommendation to revise US and NATO warfighting doctrine, tactics and techniques.
To many this may result in a modernized version of the Reagan era capability gap and a cry for almost drastic efforts to close the gap. This will be a major fight for resources that President Trump could lose based upon liberal intransigence and an unwillingness to accept the threat. Will the US and NATO react in time and with appropriate responses?
Is NATO’s Atlantic Resolve soon to be an inappropriate activity when the Russian nuclear threat is considered? OR can it or should it be modified to include the artillery battalion in the deployed brigade combat teams (BCTs) have nuclear warheads available? Should the deployed artillery battalions train for the conduct of nuclear operations? Should the ground forces train for operations in a nuclear environment? Should additional nuclear capable systems be deployed with the BCTs? These are all questions that NATO and the US need to consider as the efforts to deter Russian aggression continue.
Is the cold war returning?
Coup and counter coup in Saudi Arabia
Recent events in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) are confusing to some and of concern to others. The conservative monarchy has been upended by its new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (known to the media as MbS).
The 32-year-old prince, acting under the auspices of his father, King Salman, has been busy since replacing his uncle in June of 2017 as crown prince, Domestically, he has launched a radical transformation of the kingdom by making sweeping arrests of dissidents, Islamists, and even members of the royal family. He has even given women the right to drive.
His upheaval would not have been possible without upsetting the balance of power arrangements which have maintained stability in the kingdom. KSA was built on balances of power with balances of power the National Guard, lead by the previous crown prince was located in and around Riyadh. Conversely the Army is located on the periphery of the country and oriented outward. The army and the national guard are basically the same size. The air defense forces are separate from the air force. The Mutaween (also called the Islamic Secret Police) offset the secret police. There were also coalitions within the royal family, however their conflicts rarely came to light until the current coup or counter coup by MbS.
In 2015 MbS was appointed by his father as Minister of Defense. On April 22, of this year Prince Fahd Bin Turki was promoted to Lieutenant General (LTG) and appointed commander of the Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF). LTG Fahd had once been the commander of the Saudi Special Forces. This is one of MbS’s steps to upset the balance of power. He selected LTG Fahd and I am sure cemented his loyalty. LTG Fahd also comes from a different wing of the royal family thus securing additional loyalty within the family.
Next he had the commander of the National Guard placed under arrest along with the Commander of the Royal Saudi Naval Forces. He assumed control of the ministry of the interior. In another move to upset the balance he had the role of the Mudaween dialed back extensively.
He also assumed control of the economic planning agency. He has pushed the sale of Saudi ARAMCO, the Saudi Oil Company, suggesting that it would bring several trillion dollars if placed on the open market. He is also pushing for decreased dependence on oil as a source of income for the kingdom.
Finally, he arrested numerous princes and other financial leaders on grounds of corruption and froze their assets, thus potentially recouping many billions of dollars if their gains are found to be the results of corruption. It is interesting to note that the royals who are imprisoned in the Ritz Hotel in downtown Riyadh are guarded by Saudi Special Forces on the outer perimeter. On the inside it has been reported that the security is provided by contractors who would be loyal to whoever was paying the bill. (Another example of the balances of power being upset)
On the international front he launched a blockade against its neighbor Qatar, tightened the ongoing siege on Yemen, threatened to torpedo the fragile government in Lebanon, and sought to shore up a coalition against archrival Iran, which leads the Shia sect of Islam. On Sunday, he chaired the first-ever meeting of the Saudi-led Islamic Military Coalition of 41 Muslim countries where the group declared a global war on terrorism.
Some have suggested that : “He is dragging the country — with Western critics kicking and screaming — into the 21st century.”
In many ways MbS may be seeking to fulfill a longstanding Saudi dream of leading the Arab world, and has sought to rebuild strong ties with the Trump administration, with over $7 billion worth of precision munitions having been purchased recently.
Any domestic forces that might have been arrayed against MbS are now weak, with most of his rivals held in luxury prisons, keeping a low profile, or under house arrest. Civil society is fragmented after decades of repression and cooptation. Saudi Arabia has always been politically restrictive, and could yet become even more so under MbS. However because he could be the dominant figure in the lives of Saudi citizens for the next half century, no one wants to cross him.
If MbS becoming the crown prince was the coup, then the counter coup was the upset of the balance of power by either muting or gaining control of the balancers. Finally if there was a group of royals and financial leaders who were plotting a counter coup then the latest efforts might be called a counter counter coup.
The international activities of the next few months as MbS seeks to counter the growing influence of Iran will be important to watch.
Nuclear weapons and their employment–media deception
The media, amid rising nuclear tensions with North Korea and concern over the potential for war, has captured some unfortunate discussion by the Strategic Command (STRATCOM) commander. He reportedly said that he would resist President Trump if he ordered an “illegal” launch of nuclear weapons. What an illegal launch of nuclear weapons is was never clarified.
STRATCOM is the command that controls the strategic weapons commands of primarily the Navy (submarines and carrier based aircraft) and the Air Force (bombers and silo based missiles). It is STRATCOM that would issue the orders to the selected commands to employ selected weapons system against selected targets. These targets and systems are each accounted for in the Strategic Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP).
Air Force General John Hyten, commander of the US Strategic Command (STRATCOM), reportedly told an audience at the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia, Canada that he had thought a lot about what to say if he received such an order.
“I think some people think we’re stupid,” Hyten reportedly said in response to a question about such a scenario. “We’re not stupid people. We think about these things a lot. When you have this responsibility, how do you not think about it?”
There are two issues about this story that are worrying:
- The media attempt to characterize the president as unstable and reckless has only the folk image that it is trying to create as a basis for such a portrayal. Such characterization when it involves nuclear weapons would be truly damning.
- Both the question and the answer do not do justice to the way that nuclear weapons would be employed.
As mentioned above, nuclear weapons are targeted based on the Strategic Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP). The SIOP is a master list of targets and these are allocated weapons and delivery systems for multiple different scenarios/contingencies/situations. A president cannot just tell the Secretary of Defense or a field commander to “nuc” a desired target. That is just not how the system works.
The SIOP has matured and changed since the beginning of the nuclear era in 1945. There are numerous personnel from each of the services involved in building and refining the SIOP on almost a continuous basis. Targets change, weapons system availability changes, and contingencies change making the process extremely dynamic and closely controlled and tightly held. When the president would order the execution of some part of the SIOP it would be based upon a situation and the best advice that he could get from both the intelligence and operational communities of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other agencies. It is not a unilateral decision done in the “dark’ as the question and answer would imply.
Unfortunately for the STRATCOM commander the details of the process of using nuclear weapons is highly classified and could not be part of his answer. If he was thinking he probably would have said something to the effect of implying reckless behavior on the part of the president is not something that it is useful to discuss. At this time if I was the Secretary of Defense or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff I would have a “chat” with General Hyten.
It is deplorable that the effort to demean President Trump has reached this level of reporting—the creating of false implications and news.
Niger Ambush—what do we know?
The details of the ambush of a Special Forces patrol that was ambushed in Nigeria 3 weeks ago are slowly emerging. The media is implying a cover-up in the tone of the reporting.
A cover-up is of course possible, but more likely there are operational secrets about such operations and the extent of operations in the region that Africa Command (AFRICOM) does not want to disclose in its fight against ISIS offshoots in Africa. (Readers should note that this type of re-emergence of ISIS was anticipated in my previous article about the destruction of ISIS)
What do we know?
- There are over 1000 troops from AFRICOM operating in Africa as part of an effort that began during the Obama administration to attack terrorist elements of many different stripes in Africa. These include ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Maghreb.
- After years of missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 3rd Special Forces Group, the unit to which the men were assigned, announced that it was returning its focus to Africa in 2015.
- About a dozen members of an Army Special Forces unit joined roughly 30 Nigerien soldiers on October 3 launched what was initially expected to be a routine reconnaissance mission.
- The American team leaders told their superiors in seeking approval for the mission that there was a “low risk” of hostile activity in the region close to the border between Niger and Mali.
- The patrol was a mounted patrol, which meant that it was travelling well defined routes. (This of course would make setting an ambush much easier.)
- They were attacked by about 50 militants while returning to base, and four Americans and four Nigeriens were killed. Two Americans were wounded, as were six Nigeriens.
- The troops waited almost an hour before they called for help, possibly thinking that they could handle the band that attacked them.
- There was a drone overhead within minutes of the call for assistance and French Mirage fighters 60 minutes after that, though the French could not engage because the two sides were so close to each other.
Speculation includes that they might have stopped in an ISIS friendly village for supplies and were delayed while the ambush was established. There is also speculation that they were seeking an ISIS leader.
The fact that it took an hour for them to call for help may have also been caused by communications problems. This is a problem if they did not anticipate such problems. It is also unlikely that they did not report initial contact, unless their communications were being jammed. Planning for such patrols should always include contingencies to deal with exactly what happened. Had they become too complacent because of a lack of contact on previous such patrols? One would not expect this, but until the final report is rendered we can only speculate.
A final, related comment. It is always a sad day when we lose an American Service Man in combat against ISIS. It is even a worse day when the wife of one of the fallen chooses, along with her congress-lady, to make a political issue out of the death of a brave soldier. I am hard pressed to understand when the President called the wife to express his condolences as to why the congress-lady was present. I have made calls like the President did and consoled the families of fallen soldiers. It is one of the toughest tasks that I had to do in my 30 years of active duty. Trying to console and help the families of fallen soldiers is in the same category of not leaving a comrade on the battlefield—we take care of our own! I can only guess at my reaction if someone had treated my efforts like they treated the President’s, but it would not have been pretty!
We will follow up on this story as it continues to unfold.
The Caliphate is destroyed but ISIS lives
The last of the ISIS stronghold in /Syria and along the Syrian border with Iraq have fallen. The Caliphate is no more, but ISIS is not dead. Also the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are not over. In fact they may be just beginning.
With the fall of Raqqa, the titular capitol of the caliphate the ISIS dream of a caliphate stretching across the middle-east is ended, for now. ISIS can no longer sell oil and women. It can no longer collect taxes and impress youths into their militias. It no longer controls any major geographic areas in the middle-east. But the conditions that allowed ISIS to rise so quickly are still very much present. The Sunnis and the Shias are still antagonistic towards each other. The Kurds don’t trust either group or the Turks cannot stand the new US supported Kurdish militias that have emerged victorious in their efforts. The Free Syrians have captured areas from ISIS that the Syrians are going to want to have control of again. The Russians, Iran and Hezbollah are still supporting Syria. Iran, the US allies and others are still supporting Iraq. The US and the Turks are still supporting the Free Syrians.
Additionally, ISIS has now established roots in Afghanistan, Africa, and the Philippines to name a few places. Each of these ISIS affiliates will continue to wreak havoc where and when they can. The key for ISIS and its affiliates is to reestablish a source of resources now that its population and economic base is gone. It must continue to recruit from the Islamic refugees and victims of the violence in Syria and Iraq who have been scattered all over the globe. Continued recruitment is key because over time the existing followers will be found and dealt with. Rooting out the cells in both Syria and Iraq and the rest of the world will be a very difficult struggle but over time attrition of the existing ISIS follower will occur and ISIS will wither without recruits. It also needs resources. The need for resources suggests crimes of violence—kidnappings, bank robberies, drugs, human trafficking, etc.
Thus though the ground war is won against ISIS the celebration will be brief and meaningless unless the root distrust and poverty are not dealt with. This will be difficult because the cities like Mosul and Raqqa suffered severe damage. Homes must be rebuilt. Businesses must be reestablished. Social conflict must be minimized. A different type of war is thus necessary—one to prevent the re-emergence of ISIS, probably in some other name.
Superimpose these conditions with the multi-sided power seekers who believe they have won their pieces of the geographic pie. The two key non-governmental players here are the Kurds and the Free Syrians. The Kurds want their independence from Iraq and Iran (and Turkey?). The Free Syrians want to over throw Assad and claim all of Syria. This probably means renewed combat but by a different set of players. How will the outsiders react? Will the Russians and withdraw their support for Assad? Will the US withdraw its support from the Kurds and the Free Syrians? How will Iran try and gain control of Iraq in its own efforts to create a caliphate. These are all unanswered questions that must be answered quickly.
There have been four significant phases of Islamist militancy over the past 50 years. The first two—growing threat and threat local efforts occurred in the late 1970s through the 90s. These were in large part ignored until they threatened western interests. The third and the have combined great violence in Muslim-majority countries with a series of spectacular attacks in the west.
All four have followed a similar path– a slow, mostly unnoticed period of growth, a spectacular event or series of events that brought the new threat to western public attention, a phase of brutal conflict and sever casualties and then retreat to fight another day. We are now entering the fourth phase
However, a victory is a victory, and there are so few reasons for cheer these days. So nations should briefly celebrate the defeat of the Islamic State and its hateful so-called caliphate while keeping a watchful lookout for the next fight, which will be different but the same.
Vietnam War; Episode 7 The veneer of civilization and Episode 8 The History of the World
The two episodes are painful to watch because they show the unravelling of civil society in the United States as an exit is sought form Vietnam. Nixon was to call it “Peace with Honor.”
The most painful thing for me was to revisit the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. The police riot and the protestor riots sickened me. I had just returned from Vietnam and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I actually called home and told my folks “that at least in Vietnam I was armed and knew who the enemy was.”
It was reactions like mine caused Richard Nixon to win the presidency, promising law and order at home and peace overseas. In Vietnam, the war went on and soldiers on all sides witnessed terrible savagery and unflinching courage. The episode is short on highlighting the courage and focuses on the ravages of war. The number of casualties shown and the extent of their wounds was greatly overplayed.
It is interesting that there is no mention of Jane Fonda in the vividly displayed anti-war activities. Hanoi Jane was actually a rallying image for the forces in Vietnam and the veterans. She is still mutually hated by most Vietnam veterans.
Episode 8 focuses on the plummeting morale of the troops in Vietnam. It also argues that the Vietnamese Armed Forces were corrupt, while trying to explain “Vietnamization”. Vietnamization was the strategy that allowed President Nixon to begin withdrawing American troops.
The episode paints the incursion into Cambodia as a strategic mistake because of the public debates the rectitude of the war. The My Lai massacre contributes to the renewal of the anti-war excesses.
Since the entire documentary is short of strategic explanations and long on adding to the history of moral outrage at the war it is not surprising that the invasions of Cambodia and Laos are not explained. Their purpose of course was to try and gain time for Vietnamization. It can be argued that in this regard they were a success. I say that while reminding the reader of two things:
- The invasion of Laos was a tactical defeat for RVN
- If the invasion had occurred in 1968, not 1971 the results would have been much different.
The final note that I would add to this discussion is how important Nixon made the return of the POWs. Their health and welfare was a rallying issue for most Americans. Their importance gave the North Vietnamese more leverage in the negotiations.
Part 6 “Things fall apart”
September 24, 2017
This episode covers the time period from January to July 1968.There are really two parts of the episode:
- The Tet Offensive in South Vietnam.
- The political turmoil in the United States linked to the war, the death of Martin Luthur King and to some extent the death of Bobby Kennedy.
The brutal battles of the Tet offensive occurred just two months after Gen. William Westmoreland had assured the press that the North Vietnamese are “unable to mount a major offensive,” The presentation argues that American forces were surprised by the scale and scope of a coordinated series of attacks. However, it also quotes several sources as saying that they saw something coming but had not pieced the information together.
The attacks on the eve of the Tet holiday in late January 1968, were intended to cause the ARVN to fall apart and the civilians to turn to support the communists, The surprise attacks on cities and military bases throughout the south, caused the VC and NVA to endure devastating losses but casted grave doubt on President Lyndon Johnson’s promise that there is “light at the end of the tunnel.” The focus is on the political loss of credibility.
It is interesting to hear President Johnson talk about the lies and misreporting of the main street press. Sound familiar? The press focus was on Saigon. The picture of the Police Chief executing a VC who had just kille3d a soldier and his wife and 4 children dominated the news coverage. (Of course the atrocities committed by the VC are never mentioned.) One of the VC survivors is quoted as saying that they paid a high price for that picture.
The brutality of the Communist Tet Offensive unfolds DAILY on television, increasing opposition to the war. The episode notes that Tet failed Although it fails from a military standpoint but it had a devastating effect on American opinion about Vietnam involvement. We see the entire comme3ntary from CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, known as “the most trusted man in America,” when he expresses his opinion that the war is hopelessly deadlock. “If I’ve lost Cronkite,” Johnson reportedly says, “I’ve lost middle America.”
What is missing from this entire episode is any discussion of the ‘agony of Khe Sanh”. Khe Sanh is treated as a secondary battle in comparison to the Tet offensive. I have heard this argument before and have tried to put it into perspective using the NVA’s own strategy in my book Expendable Warriors: The Battle of Khe Sanh and the Vietnam War.(Pages 135-136). .I spend over a page debunking the side show assertion of the episode. In the conclusion I question the side show assertion by noting that 5000 Marines, Soldier, ARN and Brou Montagnards tied down and ultimately destroyed 2 divisions that could have been used elsewhere. Secondly assert that victory at Khe Sanh or victory in the cities during Tet would have been victory. Finally, I debunk the assertion that Khe Sanh was a diversion by noting that over two divisions were drawn to the Northern Corps and thus were available to counter the attacks on Hue and Quang Tri. These forces did not get involved in Khe Sanh until after the destruction of the Tet offensive communist force and thus the diversion argument fails in the shadow of military reality.
On 31 March President Johnson stunneds the nation by announcing, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
I argue that it is at this point that the war in Vietnam was lost politically. Johnson had forgone a military victory. Interestingly on the next day, Major Paul Schwartz briefed Major General John Tolson, Commander of the forces that were about to relieve the Khe Sanh Combat base, about the 1st Cavalry Division’s next mission to attack the remnants of the NVA who had escaped Hue in the Aschau Valley about 40 kilometers or so south of Khe Sanh. Major Schwartz’s concept was to use the Corps sized force that was relieving Khe Sanh and continue west into Laos, turn south on the Ho Chi Minh trail and enter the Aschau valley from the west rather than the east. This would have done several things:.
- Achieved tactical and possibly strategic surprise
- Cut the Ho Chi Minh trail, and
- Used the 90 days of supply that were at Khe Sanh
Tolson interrupted the briefing by saying: “Didn’t you hear the President last night? What you are proposing is politically impossible.”
The war was to run on for 7 more years when it was virtually won at that point in history.
Vietnam: Part V “This is what we do” (July to December 1967)
This episode has three major thrusts.
The first focuses on American casualties in the Central Highlands and south of the DMZ that divided North and South Vietnam. The DMZ was part of the Paris accords of 1954 that ended the French Indochina war. There is also a discussion of enemy body count. The argument was that demographics argued that the North Vietnamese did not have the manpower to replace their losses.
I have also been a critic of body count as a measure of combat effectiveness and thus a measure that a side was “winning.” Body count does not measure will to endure. Many have argued that body count as measured in number of body bags was the US weakness that our opponents discerned coming out of the Vietnam War. Saddam Hussein, in an attempt to deter the US from restoring Kuwait in the first Gulf War, claimed that the US should prepare for many body bags. This weakness came from the weekly body count—US and opponents—that were released by the Military Assistance Command Vietnam.
The second thrust was that body count meant that the US was winning. This is juxtaposed against a belief that all relevant measurements showed that the US won the war before it started.
Third is a teaser for the upcoming episodes as Hanoi lays plans for a massive surprise offensive. What the episode does not reveal is that the fights around Con Thien and the DMZ were really a test by the NVA. The North Vietnamese leadership wanted to verify that the US would not invade North Vietnam. Once assured by the actions along the DMZ they were free to move more than 2 divisions towards Khe Sanh for January 21st attacks there.
If the authors of this series were really interested in a strategic analysis that above would be apparent.
Part IV: Resolve
September 20, 2017
This episode focuses on North Vietnamese troops and materiel stream down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into the south. The flow is uninterrupted by U.S. airpower over Laos.
Meanwhile ARVN struggles to “pacify the countryside.” By safeguarding the population in strategic hamlets, increasing the use of popular force units to guard villages and aggressive patrolling. This effort was of marginal effectiveness according to the documentary. This result may not be as negative as the series would have us believe. This will become much more evident a year or so later when ARVN and others do not join the VC during the Tet offensive.
The episode also includes the growing antiwar movement. The authors attribute this to college students who have avoided the draft. This draft avoidance is also allegedly a cause for the force being more and more populated with uneducated and lower intelligence personnel. This is truly a slap at those brave men and women who served.
As the need for more troops for Vietnam increased, draft rules were changing and this further fueled the anti-war movement.
Finally, the episode argues that the soldiers and Marines discover that the war they are being asked to fight in Vietnam is nothing like their fathers’ war—mostly World War II. As one of those soldiers whose father was killed in World War II, and who is a student of war. there was no illusion that the war I was fighting was like my father’s. However, during the siege of the Khe Sanh Combat Base. I sometimes likened my experience to the trench warfare of World War I.