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Ukraine–objective creep

I have written recently about the strategic objectives in Ukraine.  At that point the choices were to win or not to win and the Biden administration was seeking a negotiated settlement with some form of appeasement of Russia.  Subsequently, I wrote about a movement within NATO and later the US away from purely defensive weapons towards offensive or more multi-purposed weapons. Given, Ukrainian successes and Russian losses the NATO and US goals seem to be evolving more in recent days.

Secretary of Defense Austin told reporters and his NATO colleagues after a visit to Ukraine that: “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” He went on to highlight that: “So it has already lost a lot of military capability. And a lot of its troops, quite frankly. And we want to see them not have the capability to very quickly reproduce that capability.”   This is a significant change in objectives and is supported by the change in weapon deliveries.

The Russian response to Secretary Austin has been more nuclear weapon rattling.  Previously, the Biden administration was scared by the Russian potential to escalate to de-escalate by the use of nuclear weapons.  Something changed. One can only guess/assume that there have been assurances from inside the Russian military that the escalation option is “under control.” 

NATO seems much more emboldened.  Talks about Sweden and Finland joining the alliance continue unabated.  Ukraine joining NATO is again being suggested.  One of the interesting arguments is that as Ukraine gains more NATO weapons and gets weaned off of Russian/Soviet weapons the compatibility suggests to the Ukrainian Minister of Defense that his country is moving in that direction.

I find the argument that using Ukrainian surrogates with western weapons to weaken Russia has some moralistic problems.  What bothers me is that what do we say to the Ukrainians if the strategy fails?  Sorry?  Realistically, it seems that the strategic goal is potentially leading to NATO active involvement to ensure that the threat posed by Russian aggression is eliminated for something approaching a decade.  Is the next strategic objective creep going to require NATO forces on the ground and in the air to achieve the desired Russian neutering? This seems to me to be obvious.

There are a lot of implications and dangers if such a strategy is successful.  I am reminded of the idea of a ”peace dividend”.  This was supposed to be benefit from the end of the cold war.  However, arguing against cutting the defense budget Senator from Kansas Nancy Landon Kassebaum suggested that the benefit of the end of the cold war was peace.  She argued in a presentation to the Army War College[i] that the cold war provided some stability and predictability to international relations.  Given the increasingly bellicose actions of the Chinese one can argue that a peace in Europe benefit would be more than negated by increased Chinese expansion.

The issue of Russian escalation has to remain in defense planners’ minds.  The best way to preclude such escalation is to prepare for it and to demonstrate the willingness and capability to defend against such an attack and to respond in kind.  Mutual assured destruction and the prevention of nuclear exchanges because of it seems to continue to be applicable. 

As the battles continue and the outcomes ebb and flow, we will remain vigilant and report the next twist in this on-going struggle for Ukraine.


[i] I was her escort officer and greatly enjoyed our conversations before and after her presentation.

Ukraine: Offensive versus defensive weapons

Yesterday (Ukraine: To win or not to win) I wrote that the Biden administration and the Zalensky administration in Ukraine had different objectives / goals in the conflict with Russia.  The prime Biden administration goal was escalation avoidance and a negotiated solution where Ukraine gave up some territory.  Ukraine’s objective, following tactical success against the Russians around Kyiv and in most urban areas assaulted by the Russians, is winning back all of its lost terrain.  In that article I mentioned the anti-ship missiles that the Brits had provided Ukraine and suggested that these reflected a possible split in NATO over objectives.  This begs the question of offensive versus defensive weapons.  Do the weapons supplied suggest an objective to be sought by the use of those weapons?

A short story.  In 1970, while a graduate student at UCLA, my faculty advisor gave me academic credit for writing a paper under the auspices of the RAND Corporation, where he was an adjunct contributor.  I was allowed to do this paper because I had a security clearance at the time.  The question was what type of weapons the US should provide Israel after the 1967 war?   The Israelis were seeking additional F-4 fighters.  In my short 10 page or so paper I concluded that it would be much more stabilizing if the US would provide M 109 155 howitzers rather than the jets.  The howitzers only had an 18-kilometer range and were critical for defense but could not conduct deep offensive operations, except in the case of artillery raids and other unique tactical maneuvers.  Conversely, the fighters could range over most of the critical parts of the middle-east and conduct offensive attacks.  To add stability to the region I supported the howitzers over the fighters.  This was the first time I ever thought about offensive versus defensive weapons.

As a ground maneuver force commander I considered all of my weapons systems as suited for either offensive or defensive operations.  The Russians have a formula that they apply for determining whether they have sufficient combat power for an operation.  It is called correlation of forces.  Different types of weapons systems against different types of foes provide, when cumulated and compared, a ratio that the Russians use to determine whether more forces are needed.  For example, for a main attack they needed a numerical superiority of 8:1. In the US we were taught that an attacking force should have an advantage of about 3:1.  In short, the advantage went to the defender in terms of the amount of forces required.  The defender has the advantage of prepared positions, mine fields and other obstacles, etc. 

However, in the defense there are opportunities for offensive operations to exploit observed weaknesses in the enemy’s deployments.  Such limited objective raids or other forms of attack can disrupt his formations and his time tables and buy time for other exploitations or to strengthen the defenses.  One would hope that it this form of attacks that the Ukrainians have in mind so as to defeat small parts of the Russian force, one small piece at a time.  They have already sunk a Russian cruiser (the Muskov) in the port of Mariupol with an anti-ship missile.  Does denying the Russians the use of the port weaken the Russian’s supply lines?

The Ukrainians have what military tacticians would call interior lines. Interior lines is a strategy of warfare that is based on the concept that lines of movement, communication, and supply within an area are shorter than those on the outside. Using the strategy of interior lines, a surrounded force can more easily supply, communicate, and move its forces around, and can mount a series of surprise attacks on the forces encircling it. If the Ukrainians can use their movement advantages to mass their forces for attacks to attrit and divide the Russian forces they may be able to “win” by making it so that the Russians cannot achieve any opportunities to inflict serious damage on the Ukrainian forces. 

Large World War II types of tank battles as envisaged in yesterday’s paper by Ukrainian sources are most likely not to the Ukrainians advantage until the Russians have been greatly attrited, if at all. No matter what form of operations the Ukrainians choose to engage in they will need armored vehicles—tanks and personnel carriers.  Attack helicopters would be a definite plus if they have trained pilots. 

Clausewitz argues that the superiority of the defense may leave both sides with no incentive to attack and thus ‘tame the elementary impetuosity of war.’ However, he also argues that it is the offensive force which can win.  This is the exact position that the Ukrainians find themselves in.  They need to avoid massing their forces to avoid the massive fire power advantage that the Russians have and choose their offensive opportunities.

The recent addition of helicopters to the US provided equipment may not be an indicator of a change in the US posture.  The news also showed a battalion of M109 howitzers (18 tubes and associated command and control and supply vehicles) on trains reportedly headed for Ukraine.  These weapons are no more offensive than defensive, as noted earlier.  But could indicate a slight modification of the US objective.  Time will tell.

An addition by a NATO member of offensive capable fighter aircraft could be a definitive indicator of a change in NATO’s goals and objectives.

Ukraine:  To win or not to win

Presently there is a significant and important difference between the Biden administration’s objective / desired outcome of the war in Ukraine and that of Ukraine’s President Zalensky.

The president’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told CNN recently that: “We will continue to take every step we possibly can to help the Ukrainians succeed on the battlefield and to improve their position at the negotiating table and to make the Russians pay also through increasing costs of sanctions for what they are doing to the people of Ukraine.”  Is this another way of saying to the Russians and the Ukrainians:  Russia you can keep what you’ve conquered and Ukraine you should give up the areas the Russians have conquered?

Ukrainian President Zalensky’s frustration was apparent in a recent speech when he asked: “What is NATO doing?  Is it being run by Russia?  What are they waiting for?”  He said Ukraine needs “tanks, planes, antiaircraft defense and anti-ship missiles.  Our allies have these resources, but the prefer to allow them to collect dust in their warehouses.”

Since he made these remarks, the British have announced that they are providing 100 armored vehicles and anti-ship missiles.  Does this indicate a split in NATO’s desired outcome of this conflict? 

When the Russians invaded Ukraine most of NATO, probably led by the US, has expressed this overarching fear of escalation and the use of nuclear weapons.  NATO, and the Biden administration, has feared that escalation would be the Russian way of disengaging if it was losing.  Published Russian nuclear doctrine does discuss escalation to deescalate.  In other words, Russia would use tactical / theater nuclear weapons to create conditions favorable for it to withdraw its forces and terminate a conflict.  The Russians would use nuclear weapons, declare victory and withdraw from the conflict if they were losing.  This after thought in the Russian doctrine has scared the alliance.  (I wrote about this a year ago.  Most analysts called this doctrine both foolish and irresponsible.)

Zalensky and the Ukrainians want to win and recover ALL of their lost terrain.  Obviously, the Biden administration does not see Russia surrendering the Crimea which it stole during the Obama years.  But the anti-ship missiles that are going to be provided by the Brits might suggest a much different objective for the Ukrainians.  (This is the first hint of an alliance difference on objectives.)

With the Russians trying to secure lands on the eastern border and the southern Crimean parts of the Ukraine the nature of the warfare could change.  The terrain is much more open and conducive to armored/mechanized warfare.  Additionally, the new commander of the Russian forces is known as “the butcher of Syria.”  Just his appointment is designed to “scare” NATO that the brutality will increase in the Russian occupied or sought parts of the country.  “The battle for Donbas will remind you of the Second World War, with its large operations, maneuvers, involvement of thousands of tanks, armored vehicles, planes, artillery,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said following a meeting of NATO foreign ministers last week. 

Without the aid that he is seeking it may be difficult for Zalensky’s forces to win such a set of battles. However, I am more optimistic about Ukraine’s chances than I was two months ago.  The Russian ground forces that we are seeing in Ukraine are nothing like the force that I trained to fight for 25 years of my Army career. Logistically and tactically, they don’t seem to be able to conduct sophisticated ground combat operations.  Some time back I suggested that one of the outcomes of this war would be the Russian creation of a national training center on the US model at Fort Irwin.  The need for this is becoming more apparent every day.

But I digress.  Since the beginning of the cold war in the later 1940s the US and then NATO has sought ways to defeat the Soviet Union.  This finally happened with the fall of the Soviet empire in 1990.  It has been replaced by the Russian Federation, which under the leadership of Vladimir Putin has sought to reestablish the Soviet Union.  The sad shape of the Russian ground forces provides a strategic opportunity that it is almost impossible to ignore.  ‘Almost impossible” because this is what the Biden administration is trying to do—ignore the reality that the Russian ground forces could be destroyed.  The destruction of the Russian ground forces would provide at least 10 years for the west to seek to modernize Russia into the country that optimists thought would result from the fall of the Soviet Union.  To create this opportunity the Ukrainian people and their armed forces must be given the wherewithal to do more than negotiate some form of cease fire.  They must defeat the Russians on the battlefield that is Ukraine, in short, they must WIN.

Will NATO seize this strategic opportunity?  If so, it will have to pull the US with it.  Ukraine has the initiative can it be exploited? To reduce NATO’s fear of the Russians escalating it must put its own nuclear forces at an increased level of readiness so as to signal Russia that deterrence is still the name of the nuclear game.

Seizing the initiative in Ukraine and the world

Since the coming holocaust in Ukraine began about 10 days ago the Russians have had the initiative.  It was given to them by the Biden administration and NATO.  No sanctions, unless they invade.  Oil to flow. Gradual imposition of sanctions after the invasion. Military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine after large parts of the country have been destroyed.  Fear that a no-fly zone might cause World War III.

The Russians have exploited this NATO fear of WW III.  They agreed to a humanitarian corridor and then strafed refugees fleeing Ukraine in that corridor.  And the US and NATO did nothing.  The US and NATO continued negotiations with Iran on nuclear material enrichment with reportedly the excess uranium from the agreement going to Russia.  Are we serious?  I will refrain from critiquing whatever the arrangement is going to be, but believe right now we should cease and desist.  We should act as if Russia is upsetting the world order, which it is.

Throughout my education and service as an officer in the Army our national strategy was the containment of the Soviet Union.  I trained a cavalry platoon, a tank battalion, a cavalry squadron and an armored brigade to repel and defeat the Soviet hordes along the east-west German border.  The night the wall came down and the Soviet Union started to implode I was at the National Training Center preparing for the 2d BDE, 1st Infantry Division to attack a Soviet style defense.  I had studied and trained to fight the Soviets for over 25 years.  The strategy of containment had finally caused the desired effect.

At the start of the Cold War in 1947 the US and eventually a large part of the western world adopted what was called the containment strategy.  The essence of the containment strategy was that if the west would contain Soviet expansionism that eventually the USSR would fall from inside.  The containment strategy was initiated by a Foreign Service officer, George F. Kennan. In 1946, while he was Chargé d’Affaires in Moscow, Kennan sent an 8,000-word telegram to the State Department—the now-famous “long telegram”—on the aggressive nature of Stalin’s foreign policy. Kennan, writing as “Mr. X,” published an outline of his philosophy in the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs in 1947. His conclusion was that “the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” To that end, he called for countering “Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world” through the “adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.” Such a policy, Kennan predicted, would “promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” Containment provided a conceptual framework for a series of successful initiatives undertaken from 1947 to 1950 to blunt Soviet expansion. The framework of US and NATO strategy was in place for the next 40+ years.

It took a long time and a lot of resources and lives to contain the Soviet Union, but eventually it fell in 1990—43 years after the first containment thinking.  The result was a new world order with many Eastern and South European countries gaining their freedom.  Counter-initiatives to each  Soviet attempt at expansion were generally successful.

With the invasion of Ukraine what is the emerging new world order to look like?  Will it continue to have western nations who are afraid of their shadows or will there be leaders emerge who have sufficient vision to see that they must act now?  The Ukrainians will continue to resist the Russians and the Russians will seek to starve them while they are encapsulated in the destroyed cities of Ukraine.

Let me suggest two actions that might help stop this holocaust in Ukraine and send a strong message to Russia that its ambitious behavior will be met and contained.

  • First, NATO should create a humanitarian no fly zone in Western Ukraine.  In this zone refugees would be free to escape the ravages of the Russian war effort and humanitarian supplies could freely flow to Ukraine.  Military supplies could also move in this no-fly area.  NATO could easily enforce such an area by the positioning of air defense assets along the Polish and Romanian borders.  Air defense aircraft could meet and escort any Russian aircraft that entered the zone out of it.  If necessary, they could be shot down.  Many fear that this would be the beginning of WW III.  Just the opposite should be the case.  NATO would be showing resolve and its humanitarian side.  Russia would violate this at its own risk.  The initiative would have been seized by NATO.
  • Secondly, NATO should seriously consider all of its interactions with Russia.  Most importantly would be the importation of Russian energy and secondly such absurd aberrations as the talks with Iran.  The US could easily become the energy source for Europe.  US liquid natural gas would also be much cleaner than what Europe gets from Russia.  Having denied Russia, the income from energy along with the sanctions it would again be contained except for its relations with China.  Iran would continue to be contained, sorta.

The Sino-Russian axis may survive for a limited period of time, but given the Chinese pragmatism one should expect China to decide fairly quickly that Russia has little to offer it besides energy and is not a wealthy market for its exports.  China would not want to be part of the contained world and would distance itself from Russia.

A new containment strategy that seeks to limit Russian adventurism across the globe should allow NATO and the west to seize and retain the initiative in its dealings with Russia.  Russian historians will remember the containment of the cold war and will be encouraged to advise their leaders that they should not repeat history.

There will be a period of uncertainty and confusion while the new reality settles in.  It is during this period that the West must “hang tough” because if there any seams that the Russians can see they will seek to exploit them.  These tumultuous times will be opposed by the globalists who seek to create a world without boundaries.  They will not appreciate their world view collapsing, but it has. Inherent in the adoption of such a far-reaching strategy is the emergence of leaders who are not wedded to the post-cold war way of doing things.  To save Ukrainian lives in the short term the no-fly zone and total isolation of Russia can be accomplished quickly.  As the elements of this new containment strategy become apparent the Russian re-evaluation will have its beginning.

Taking the initiative in Ukraine and across the globe will save lives and eventually make lives better for populations outside of Russia.  This new containment should have the same result and this cold war should only last for a limited period of time.  The Russian people have experienced a better life and will want it back. 

War crimes in Ukraine

The media has been full of images of apartment houses being attacked, burning buildings and destroyed vehicles.  We have been spared images of all of the murdered civilians in the streets of Ukraine. The Russian generals and President Putin have been accused of war crimes because of their attacks on Ukrainian civilians. 

war crime is a violation of the laws of war that gives rise to individual criminal responsibility for actions by the combatants, such as intentionally killing civilians or intentionally killing prisoners of war, torture, taking hostages, unnecessarily destroying civilian property, deception by perfidy, wartime sexual violence, pillaging, the conscription of children in the military, committing genocide or ethnic cleansing, the granting of no quarter despite surrender, and flouting the legal distinctions of proportionality and military necessity.

The prospects of deadly urban warfare against motivated Ukrainian partisans no doubt is the reason for the Russians having adopted the urban leveling strategy that is unfolding in front of our eyes.  Missiles, rockets, artillery and bombs are being used to demolish Ukrainian urban centers.  Clearly this is a set of war crimes.  We have not heard of the other types of war crimes, yet.  But before this conflict is over, we can expect there to be sexual violence, pillaging, and killing of prisoners.

There are reports that the war crimes tribunal has already sent investigators to Ukraine to begin their fact gathering.  There is no doubt that this will continue until the conflict is over.  Our experience with war crimes goes back to the end of World War II and the Nuremberg trials.  From the Nuremberg trials emerged the Nuremberg principles of law.  These were captured in the updated Geneva Conventions on the conduct of warfare. 

Alleging war crimes and trying the alleged villains are two much different things.  The search for the perpetrators of war crimes in Bosnia took years.  Adolph Eichmann escaped trial until the Israelis captured him in Argentina.  Trying Vladimir Putin or his generals would never happen until/unless Russia was to experience a coup of some kind and these individuals were to be turned over to the war crimes tribunal for incarceration until trial.  War crimes trials have only been possible when the perpetrators are from a defeated nation.  This means that the probability of Putin being tried for his war crimes are minuscule unless the coup mentioned above occurs.

The probability of reparations from Russia to rebuild Ukraine is also low.  The sale of the impounded Russian oligarch yachts and private aircraft may raise several billion dollars, but that will be far from sufficient to care for the surviving Ukrainians.  The wealth of Putin and his fellow war crimes perpetrators could assist in the rebuilding of Ukraine, but how do they appear in front of a tribunal without some form of coup?

Going back to how the destruction of Ukraine ends it would appear that absent a coup either Russia will capture at least Kyiv and that portion of the country east of the Dnieper River. 

Dnieper River runs from north to south through East-center Ukraine

Dividing the country along the Dnieper River would give the Russians control of the area where most of the damage has occurred.  Would this solve their hunger?  Probably not, but it appears that this is the best that the Russian military can achieve.  If this is how the current conflict ends it will only be a temporary cessation of hostilities.  There will be a continued insurgency in the east with a significant Russian casualty rate.  This casualty rate and the emasculated Russian economy my eventually lead to the coup that is necessary if the war criminals from the current conflict are ever to face the war crimes tribunal.  By the time that occurs there may be many more crimes and thus perpetrators in eastern Ukraine.

How does the Ukrainian crisis end?

As I sit here, I wonder how the Russian invasion of Ukraine will end.  This morning it is reported that Russian nuclear forces have been put on alert.  Other reports indicate that Russian forces have bogged down in their attempts to capture Ukraine.  Western countries are announcing arms deliveries to Ukraine.  Energy flows continue from Russia to Europe, in spite of western economic sanctions on Russian banks.  In this very confused situation one has to think about how this crisis ends.

It has just been announced that Ukraine has agreed to send a delegation to the Belarus border for negotiations with Russia.  Will there be a cease fire while such negotiations occur?  Without a cease fire this offer by Russia could be seen as a false flag attempt to reduce Ukrainian resistance and the resupply coming from the west.  This negotiation could result in Ukraine agreeing to not seek membership in NATO in exchange for a Russian withdrawal and some form or reparations for the damage it has inflicted on Ukraine.  This is probably a globally desired outcome.

In spite of the possibility of negotiations continued belligerency must be considered as most likely.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine, if it has the internal strength to devote continued human and other resources to fight, will eventually overcome the Ukrainian resistance.  The Russian means of overcoming Ukrainian resistance will be to level everything as they did in Chechnya. But what will they have conquered?  Not a functioning country with on call leadership to rule it.  There will be numerous shortages to be dealt with because of their destruction during the conflict.  Major urban areas of Ukraine will have been destroyed.  Housing will be in rubble.  Russia will then have to turn to the west and appeal to its compassion to assis in rebuilding a neutral Ukraine. 

What if the internal strength and support is lost in Russia?  Is it possible for the Russian Army to conduct a coup? Is the current nuclear alert focused on preventing a coup?  It is highly unlikely that Putin will relinquish power willingly.  But with the sanctions starting to take effect, will the Oligarchs look and find a replacement?  If so, he most likely will come from the military so as to assure its support.  Putin may be offered an end of life in exile.  He would probably not accept such an offer and would therefore have to be executed.

Before this crisis, as we reported, Russia secured a back-channel method of ameliorating the impact of the sanctions imposed by the West—Chinese support.  There is reporting that it is Chinese pressure that pushed Russia into the negotiations that are scheduled to occur tomorrow. 

The relative incompetence on the Ukrainian battlefields of the Russian military shows that the threat to NATO is not as severe as it was during Cold War I.  But in the aftermath of this crisis Russia will learn the mistakes of its military training and look at the US model.  One should expect to see several national training centers emerge in different geographical areas of Russia.  In addition to the training at the centers there will be significant emphasis placed on the mobilization skills required to get to a battlefield.  Logistical support operations will be streamlined and modernized. This will result in a more competent Russian military during Cold War II.

Probably the biggest changes that will result from this crisis is the western dependence on Russian energy sources.  Europe will gradually relook its energy requirements.  Russian energy will have to compete with other sources of energy to include nuclear and natural gas from other parts of the world.  For OPEC this will be a huge opportunity for deliveries of liquid natural gas and distilled petroleum products.  For the United States this creates a market to fuel economic independence and funds to reduce national debt and fuel growth and prosperity.  This will require that the far-left climate change elements will have to understand the logic that clean energy, not no energy, is the solution to their climate concerns.  This understanding will most likely not emerge to execution during the current administration.  In spite of the Biden administration, American energy companies will move forward to position themselves to exploit the severe changes in energy policy that will come from the next administration.

As an interim conclusion there are three possible end states envisaged:

  1. A decimated Ukraine with the Russians trying to rule it by martial law.
  2. A negotiated agreement with Ukraine agreeing to refrain from seeking membership in NATO
  3. A coup in Russia resulting in new leadership that withdraws from the Ukraine

Time will tell what the outcome of this crisis will be.  This piece will be updated as events continues

Invasion of Ukraine I

Six weeks ago, I wrote a piece explaining my ambivalence on US policy towards a Russian invasion of Ukraine.  In that piece I said: “much of the US deterrence credibility has also been undermined by its energy policy.”  This reality has now come home to rest!  Russia is now conducting a “peace keeping” operation in the eastern Ukraine.  The US has done nothing to increase its credibility with respect to its energy policy.  This is fatal!

When the Biden administration first came into office it declared that global warming was one of the critical national security threats facing the country and the world.  In this one statement it signaled to Russia and maybe China that its center of gravity is energy.  This has been borne out by its policy:

  1. Reducing exploration in Alaska
  2. Stopping the keystone pipeline construction
  3. Asking OPEC to increase oil production to offset US reductions
  4. Now, several days ago, suspending exploration leases on federal land

We may see the administration try to reach an unfavorable nuclear agreement with Iran as a way of opening an oil source.  However, Iran has been able to sell black market oil to China and thus there is not much more oil there to reach the global market.

Americans are complaining about inflation and part of that complaint is the cost of fuel.  But nothing has been done to stop the rising costs of heating homes and operating vehicles on the highways.  The supply chain problems, of course, were compounded by over restriction of trucks in the ports of California. 

At the same time the US military is now seen as partly emasculated by wokeism and critical race theory.  This is problem that we warned against some time ago, but no one of consequence listened, or they just didn’t care.  It is hard for me to accept that our leaders don’t care about our military readiness, but……..

So, Russia has annexed part of the Ukraine and will now suffer through some sanctions.  What has gone mostly ignored in the main stream media that supports US weakness and all of the policies that are causing it is the agreement that Russia and China entered into just before the Olympics started.  This agreement constitutes part of Russia’s sanction avoidance channel.  Russia can shuttle goods and capital through China thereby greatly ameliorating the impact of sanctions. The other avoidance effort by Russia is the saving of significant cash, which sustain it for months.  Will this arrangement with China help limit China’s push towards annexing Taiwan?  We can hope.  But as my former boss and friend General (ret) Gordon Sullivan used to always say: “Hope is not a method.”  

A lesson learned from this experience is that threats of sanctions don’t work.  Sanctions should be applied before the action and then withdrawn as a reward when aggressive actions are not taken.  What a way to learn this lesson again!

One can expect two possible outcomes:

  1. Continued aggression in Ukraine in phases until all of Ukraine is subjugated.  This will result in a Chechnian type resistance from the Ukrainian people that will result in significant Russian and Ukrainian casualties.
  2. Continually more painful sanctions imposed upon Russia and their domestic impact in the west.
  3. The beginning of a new cold war to contain Russian expansionism both in Ukraine and most likely in the Baltic states that are now members of NATO.

What must happen now?  Once eyes are diverted from Ukraine and movers and shakers in the US realize the terrible box we are in, then personnel changes and policy changes must follow.  Some of this will come from the 2022 elections.  Others will come from internal ruminations by the administration.  In the middle 1960s Bill Clinton was able to do a complete reorientation of his administration and exit the presidency with an almost 55% approval rating.  Can Jill Biden be convinced that this is what needs to happen?  Only time will tell.

As my readers can tell I am not optimistic about the near-term future for our beloved country.  But I have confidence in the American electorate to right this ship of state that is taking on water and to steam a new course back towards prosperity and global power.

Limited War and Rules of Engagement

Some time ago one of my readers asked that I write about how the rules of engagement (ROE) severely restricted US forces freedom of action and thus played a significant role in the resultant “loss” in Vietnam.  In this case ROE were linked to limited war. What is limited war you ask?

Limited war is where one side in a conflict decides to limit its application of military force for a whole series of reasons.  The Vietnam War really had two phases:

  1. The pre-1 April 1968 phase where the US was fighting to win though with significant limits on the application of force, and
  2. The post 1 April 1968 date where the goal was to achieve a negotiated agreement.  Initially this phase had even more restricted ROE, but after Nixon’s perception of North Vietnamese intransigence there was a significant loosening of the ROE—decreasing the limits on the use of military force.  But the goal was still a negotiated agreement.

The above raises several questions:

  • What were the initial limits and why were they imposed?
  • What is so significant about 31 March 1968?  What were the limits in the ROE?
  • What was Nixon’s relaxation of limits?

When the US began its escalation of the use of force in Vietnam in 1964/5 there were significant limits placed upon the forces.  Cambodia and Laos were off limits to conventional forces, as was North Vietnam.  The bombing of North Vietnam was severely limited as to the targets that could be engaged.  The whole theory of limited war was meeting a test.  A test that it failed, but more about that later.

These limits were imposed on US forces because of a fear that any expansion of the war would cause the Chinese to intervene. The memory of Korea was still keen in strategists’ minds.  There was also fear of a confrontation with the Soviet Union.  For these reasons there were severe limits placed upon US forces.

In late 1967 the North Vietnamese tested these limits with the extreme shelling and limited attacks across the DMZ in the vicinity of Cam Lo.   Unbeknownst to the Americans this was a test—a test to see if it would abide by its limits and not invade North Vietnam.  When the US did not invade the North Vietnamese were free to move several divisions west to come down the Ho Chi Minh trail and attack Khe Sanh.  Which they did.

What is so significant about 31 March 1968?  The evening of 31 March President Johnson announced his partial bombing halt as a means to entice the North Vietnamese into negotiations to end the war.  It was at this point that the war was “lost.”  As recounted elsewhere (Expendable Warriors) a proposed offensive military action into Laos was deemed to be politically unacceptable.  The war had been won on the ground in Vietnam but lost politically.  The US was unwilling to lift its limits and win the war on the ground and the North was not fighting with any limits.  Instead, increased limits were imposed on US forces.

North Vietnamese intransigence and an attempt to disengage US forces while not increasing the degree of loss lead to the Nixon Administration strategy of Vietnamization.  This was coupled with several expansions of the war—relaxation of the limits imposed on US forces.  First was the invasion of Cambodia as an attempt to destroy North Vietnamese Army (NVA) sanctuaries and to buy time for Vietnamization to take hold.

The second expansion was Lam Son 719A—the invasion of Laos in 1971 to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail.  For several reasons this Vietnamese attack with US support was a miserable failure.  The main reason probably being the loss of surprise—the NVA were waiting and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) got mauled.

The final escalation was the use of B-52s over Hanoi and Haiphong.  Previous bombing restraints/limits were relaxed and a massive bombing finally caused the North Vietnamese to agree to a settlement.  In hiding the overall loss Nixon/Kissinger called it “Peace with Honor”.  The POWs came home. 

In Vietnam we relearned the lessons of Korea.   When one side is fighting a limited war—limited in ways and means and the other side is fighting an unlimited war—applying all of the ways and means at its disposable to win the outcome is at best a draw.  Does or should the MacArthur dictum: “there is no substitute for victory” apply?  In the Gulf War we saw the limits replaced by the Powell Doctrine of “Over-whelming Force.”  However, there were limits in that conflict such that after several years the second Bush administration felt that it had to fight another war against Iraq—in short to do what the first Gulf War had prevented –the over throw of Saddam Hussein.

The first real example of limited war was Korea.  The border between China and North Korea and of course nuclear weapons were the limits in that “police action.”  MacArthur challenged both of those limits.  He pursued the North Koreans almost to the Yalu river (the border) and he threatened to seed the border with cobalt or other radioactive material so that the Chinese couldn’t cross the seeded areas.  MacArthur waws relieved, the US was forced back to virtually the initial DMZ and a stalemate occurred.  The idea of winning a “limited” war was severely challenged, but the lessons of Korea were not learned in Vietnam. 

In Afghanistan the limits were different, but they were there.  In order to not engage civilains with drone strikes military lawyers had to approve the strikes.  Osama bin Laden was in the cross hairs at Bora Bora, but escaped due to lawyers taking too much time.  So much for the efficacy of those limits.

To return to the original issue of ROEs and limited war it should be clear that at no time except when there is a nuclear threat will the United States not fight a “limited war.”  But the extent of those limitations will clearly have a potential impact on the outcome of the conflict.  Politicians and military strategists must decide before the conflict begins as to whether any limits being considered will prevent the achievement of the military objectives that have flowed from the political objectives of a conflict.

Given a potential confrontation over the Ukraine with Russia will both sides treat this confrontation as “limited”?  Will they both abide by the limits, especially if they are losing?  Some time ago I wrote about the Russians arguing that limited nuclear wars were possible and that escalation from a theater nuclear war to a global one is not necessarily automatic.  We have no historical examples to support the concept of limited nuclear war, which was first suggested 60+ years ago when the US had a near nuclear monopoly.  Of course this is no longer the case.

In short, do the ROE/limits on the conduct of military operations hinder/impede/prevent the achievement of the military and political objectives of the use of force?  Maybe the consideration of such limits will serve as a deterrent to conflict at all—if you can’t / won’t win why start?  One can only hope!

General Westmoreland and the Vietnam War Strategy

Returning to John Mason Glen’s opinion piece in the New York Times (“Was America Duped at Khe Sanh?”) We must also set the record straight about General Westmoreland and the strategy in Vietnam War.  Again Mr. Glen displays his lack of historical perspective by attributing the strategy of attrition in the Vietnam War to General Westmoreland’s analysis of the battle of the Ira Drang Valley. (The basis of the book and movie We Were Soldiers Once, Young and Brave.)

Glen correctly paints General Westmoreland as the perfect image of a soldier—World War II leader, Airborne Infantry leader, former Superintendent of West Point—with a very stiff soldierly look.  Westy, as he was called by cadets at West Point and soldiers in the field in Vietnam, was all that Glen describes.  One must also remember at this point in history the Airborne Mafia, as it was called, ruled the Army.  There was admiration for the Airborne coming out of World War II.  President Kennedy was enamored with the Special Forces (Green Berets) all of whom were airborne qualified. Glen attributes Westmoreland’s strategy to this background and does not attribute the country’s experience and successes to the strategy in Vietnam. 

When Westy was superintendent at West Point I was a cadet there studying military tactics and history.  Much of our studies revealed that the US military strategy grew out of Grant’s defeat of Lee in the Civil War.  The battles of the Wilderness in late 1864 and 1865 were battles of attrition.  The North had the wherewithal in terms of men and equipment to fight a war of attrition against the South.  This strategy succeeded. The lesson learned was that attrition warfare was a way to win.

The world wars in Europe and Asia were also wars of attrition where superior resources were able to win the day, over time.  When one couples the US military experience of success through attrition warfare with Robert McNamara’s “bean counting” revolution in the Pentagon one can understand how body count became the measure of success for the war in Vietnam.  If more bad guys were killed in an engagement than good guys then the good guys “won”.  This became the approach in Vietnam.

Given this view that attrition / body count would cause the enemy to stop fighting one can clearly understand the desire for a set piece firepower intensive battle to crush the North Vietnamese Army (NVA).  Khe Sanh offered this opportunity.  The hope was that the NVA would go for the bait that was the Khe Sanh Combat Base and provide a large number of targets to be attacked by superior fire power and destroyed.  For this strategy to succeed the bait could not be compromised by the NVA learning of the plan.  The close-holding of the intelligence that the NVA was going to attack Khe Sanh lead to my advisory team in Khe Sanh village being “expendable”.  We were part of the bait and could not be allowed to leak to our Vietnamese counterparts what was coming for fear that they in turn would leak it to the NVA.  The solution was to just not tell us what was about to occur.

Some of the readers of Expendable Warriors have commented on how critical we deal with General Westmoreland.  One former Chief of Staff of the Army refused to endorse the book because of this perspective.  I must admit that the after taste of being “expendable” may have colored my perspective.  However, I have learned the bigger lesson—strategic leaders must make strategic decisions based upon the bigger picture.  In this regard the small advisory team and mixed force of Vietnamese, Bru Montagnards and Marines may have truly been expendable.  Though we will probably never admit it.

The soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines did not lose the war in Vietnam the politicians and strategists did.  In April/May of 1968 the strategy had succeeded.  The NVA and Viet Cong had been defeated by all body count measures, but the political will to win was gone.  The concept of political will had not been considered by the strategists of the day.  It was not until Colonel Harry Summers published his book On Strategy; a Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War that Clausewitz’s dictums on political will were brought again into consideration by strategic thinkers.  Colonel Summers was part of the US Vietnam negotiating team and his discussion with a North Vietnamese counterpart is often quoted.  He told his counterpart: “we won every battle.” To which the North Vietnamese officer replied “But you lost the war.”

If one reads my writings on conflict termination, he will see Colonel Summers’ views used as a basis for defining what it means to win. Body count is also dismissed as the failed measure of success that it is.  

Ukraine Today–a strategic dilemma

Many have been asking me to write something on the Ukraine.  I have been holding off because I am of mixed minds on the Ukraine. 

The globalist in me wants to deter aggression on the international stage.  This means that the US should not only talk a good tough game but should act in consonance with what it says.  In other words, talk tough and carry a big stick.  This suggests the need to deploy forces for deterrent purposes.  However, should deterrence fail we would have no alternative but to then conduct military operations.

Unfortunately, the rest of the world sees our president as weak, indecisive and as a bully who will bluster and threaten, but in the end probably do nothing.  This perception increases the probability of deterrence failing and US troops then being caught up in a war that we don’t need.

The other problem is that much of the US deterrence credibility has also been undermined by its energy policy.  It has made itself dependent on Russian oil and encouraged the Russians to finish a pipeline to western Europe so that it could be more dependent on Russian energy.  (And one wonders why the Germans are dragging their feet in supporting the Ukraine.) Today’s communiques from Berlin indicate that Germany has accepted the US position of holding the unfinished pipeline hostage as a means of deterring Russia.  After agreeing to the Nord Stream II pipeline, it is difficult to believe today’s announcement.  We will see.

As a strategist I see us being drawn into the wrong fight at the wrong place and at the wrong time.  No matter what we do we will have limited credibility as many will see US actions on the Ukraine as a ‘wag the dog” activity to try and bolster the president’s standing.  In short, he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t with respect to Ukraine.  However, if he were to pivot, and admit that this isn’t our fight.  It is a European fight. And focus on China and work to prevent a Chinese – Russian alliance while reversing his position on China and energy, he could come out of this with the US in a much stronger position.

The Biden administration, inadvertently, has caused many of the European countries to take action in terms of military aid to the Ukraine and the forward repositioning of forces to at least prevent a conflict over the Ukraine to expand to NATO member states.  Given that one of Putin’s goals is to destroy NATO his actions have to date had the opposite effect.  With the energy policy reversal noted above Germany might feel less dependent upon Russia to survive the European winter and thus more willing to contribute to the alliance efforts in eastern Europe.  This is of course what Trump was seeking 4 years ago, but since it was a Trump position Biden’s political base, to the extent that there is one, will find such actions as impossible to accept—Trump policies on energy, China and for increased European efforts in support of European stability and peace—ugh!

This is why I am torn. The right policy is politically impossible for the Biden administration.  It has blocked itself into what for me is the wrong policy at the wrong time.  So, given this undesirable situation what should the administration do?  Demanding that Europe carry the weight in reinforcing Ukraine with logistics and war fighting units is a first step.  It is also critical that the US maintain nuclear deterrence in Europe as this is the biggest genie out there.  To do this will require forward deploying nuclear capable forces that can strike back at Russia. if necessary.  What “if necessary” means must remain vague and ambiguous enough that the Russians will not consider the first use of battlefield nuclear weapons.

The Russian demands of not allowing Ukraine to enter NATO and to withdraw support from the Baltic states and Poland are totally unacceptable and there is no ground for negotiation.  Negotiating another arms control limitation agreement for Europe might be possible, but will probably take years to negotiate.  The Intermediate Range weapons treaty took years,

To my friends who asked me to write about this instead of Khe Sanh I now ask them:  what does it mean to win in this situation?  This is the ultimate question that no one is writing about.  Let me posit some outcomes that might define winning:

  1. NATO remains united and acts as a coherent whole to deter Russian aggression
  2. Russia decides that its goal of repelling the US from Europe is presently unattainable through present means.
  3. Ground conflict is avoided or minimized around the borders of Ukraine
  4. European dependence on Russian energy is at least tempered and is always at risk so that Russia has to rethink its ability to hold the heating of European homes at risk.
  5. The US begins the needed rethinking of its strategic priorities and related policies—this may require a new administration.

These are win criteria that should have been thought of initially, but unfortunately NATO and the US gave the Russians the initiative many years ago in the Crimea and have never regained it. 

Ukraine is not a winning situation in the short term so unfortunately the best we can hope for is a stalemate—not a war.

(I have refrained from talking about President Biden’s talk last night with the Ukrainian president.  Some have characterized it a s a disaster, but who can believe CNN.)