Friday, August 29, 2014

But Who Will Fight Them?

Time to decide what you're going to do
Serious question: Does anybody, from the Kremlin to Kiev to Brussels to Washington think for a moment that Western military forces will intervene in Eastern Ukraine against the Russian advance? Obviously, with all the talk of sanctions, Ukraine is on its own in the battle for Donetsk. But what if the Russians advance to Odessa in the west, and/or Baku in the east? Will NATO join the battle then?

The question of what Putin's motivations are in Ukraine has been uppermost. It seems irrational to give up so much, to accept so much geopolitical and economic risk for so little gain. There was a kind of historical logic to the annexation of Crimea, but the continued escalation in Eastern Ukraine appears to be events spinning out of control

But maybe that's the wrong way to think about it. The whole Ukraine story-arc began with the Maidan protests, when their Russian puppet government rejected a perfectly benign trade agreement with the EU and attempted to commit the nation to the Russian orbit. The people rebelled, the  Yanukovych government collapsed and the die was cast. So if you're Vladimir Putin, what you want to prevent is Eastern and Central European nations, your 'near abroad', from pursuing closer relations with the West, particularly with the NATO alliance. And the most effective tool he has to accomplish that goal is fear. And in order to establish that kind of geopolitical intimidation, he has to make certain that leaders in all the Capitals of Europe understand that NATO and the West will not act militarily to check Russian aggression.

When you think about it from this strategic direction, the aggression in Eastern Ukraine isn't about accruing territory or access, or even about convincing Kiev that a cozy relationship with Brussels or Washington comes with risks. It's about demonstrating that Russian aggression will go unchallenged in Eastern and Central Europe. If those nations cease to believe in the NATO umbrella, if they realize that the West won't fight and the Russians will, then they will behave accordingly, and the risk that they will spin further out of Moscow's orbit will be foreclosed.

As a thought experiment (although it's being openly discussed in Europe), suppose Russia deployed a small (sub 100kt) nuclear weapon against a town in Eastern Poland or Romania. Just one bomb, complete silence, business as usual other than that, no elevated strategic force readiness, no threatening posture to the US or Europe. Would the US or NATO launch a retaliatory nuclear strike against Russia? That would guarantee a larger nuclear war. To do nothing would limit the damage to that single town in Poland. The more time that went by without retaliation, the less likely retalliation would become. Sure, there would be hysterical global outrage, there would be massive economic sanctions, but the Kremlin would have proven once and for all that they were not constrained by NATO's presence, indeed, that NATO was all talk and the smart political play would be to stay tightly aligned with Moscow.

It's hard to be certain of anything - Putin could decide to cut his losses and back down at any moment. But I'm becoming increasingly convinced that the goal is to establish at a visceral level the NATO nations utter unwillingness to commit to all-out war against a powerful adversary like Russia. At the end of the day, that might be a good thing - nations deciding that in the nuclear weapons era major-power conflicts might not be worth engaging in.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

ISIS in Syria - No Good Options

Chillin' in Aleppo
Western nations, the US and the UN have been discussing, debating and arguing intervention in the Syrian civil war for a couple years now. Recently, critics of administration policy including Hillary Clinton have made the claim that an early intervention by US forces would have prevented the rise of ISIS. From a political and tactical standpoint that is utter nonsense, but as it takes a hypothetical position that cannot be refuted it is an effective line of attack against the Obama White House. There was no way that external military intervention could have possibly served to make conditions better, and even if you postulate an invasion and to take Damascus and topple the Assad government, that would not have done anything to end the fighting.

Then came last year's horrific Sarin gas attacks on Ghouta, and President Obama determined he would use American naval and air power to 'punish' al-Assad while also giving the rebels an edge in firepower.  Political considerations caused Obama to toss the decision to Congress, and they determined that the US should not intervene militarily. At the time, I thought that there ought to be a universal consensus against the use of chemical weapons, and that any and every release should carry a heavy cost inflicted by the Western military powers. As it turned out, the Russians negotiated an agreement under which Syria surrendered their chemical weapons stocks. While I am highly suspicious that al-Assad's weapons team held back some supplies and precursors - in the chaos of civil war, effective inspections and documentation are impossible - the general framework of the deal serves at least as effectively as a deterrent to the use of chemical weapons as a few days of air strikes.

So now we have ISIS, and the clamoring that 'WE MUST DO SOMETHING' is louder than ever. But even as we're bombing the Jihadists in support of the Kurds and Iraqi forces, and even as we may at any moment find ourselves flying cover for Iranian armor in Northern Iraq, the demands that the US attack ISIS strongholds in Syria are reaching a crescendo. But one cannot help but wonder what it is these war-thirsty white Americans really want. Bashir al-Assad has murdered over a hundred thousand of his citizens in a desperate, no-holds-barred attempt to hold on to his dynastic power. In support of his regime is the disciplined, battle hardened cadres of Hezbollah. Arrayed against his brutal dictatorship is ISIS, along with al-Nusra, al-Quaeda and a few dozen other smaller rebel groups, from secular democratic types to communists.

Would our military goal be to defeat EVERY faction? Because that's not only not possible, it would indicate a particularly poor operational plan. So rather we would need to choose a faction to support. But if that faction was too weak, then the Assad loyalists or the ISIS jihadists would topple them. So the question of what the west wants to accomplish in Syria, and what the west CAN accomplish in Syria is tantamount. Until it can be answered satisfactorily, the west has no business intervening in the civil war.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Hyping the Threat - But to What End?

Not the best way to win international respect
It started out controversial, sure, but defensible. Use American air power to help the embattled Peshmerga hold the perimeter south of Irbil against the relentless ISIS advance. And as long as we were there, provide cover along with desperately-needed supplies to the helpless Yazidis, trapped on Mt. Sinjar, threatened by starvation and thirst on one hand, and murderous religious fanatics on the other. As the Kurdish resistance stiffened and the Yazidis were led to refugee camps inside Iraqi Kurdistan, the US shifted their fires north and provided air support for the Iraqi special forces units, allowing them to re-take at least most of the strategic Mosul Dam.

At that point everyone just kind of paused, looking around. Air power could eliminate strongpoints, tanks, artillery and vehicles. It could prevent massed infantry attacks in some cases. What it can not do - something universally acknowledged after Vietnam and Desert Storm - is take, or re-take, territory. You need ground forces to displace the enemy infantry and hold the ground against counter-attack. And one thing was absolutely certain - no significant US ground forces would be re-introduced into Iraq, at least as long as Barack Obama was the commander in chief.

Then, a video appeared on the internet depicting the savage murder of kidnapped photojournalist James Foley. After the initial shock and spittle-flecked outrage came the demands for war on the Islamic State. The playbook for unnecessary war is well-developed, and even in the years after it was used to drive the pointless and disastrous US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 it still works. The key is to hype the threat. Not just in any rational terms, but with such over-the-top rhetoric that it actually sounds silly and incoherent. Because if you want to frighten people, they can't be afraid that something bad might happen somewhere at some time. They have to be afraid something bad is going to happen to THEM, and soon. But this is the USA, with over 300 million people and the largest, most modern military force in the world. So you have to somehow convince the population that a few thousand 12th century religious fundamentalists with small arms halfway around the world is a threat to Ma and Pa Kettle in Little Rock, Arkansas.

So President Obama called them a "Cancer" that must be removed, Secretary of State Kerry said that ISIS "must be destroyed" and Secretary of Defense Hagel said ISIS is "beyond anything we've seen" and represents an "imminent threat to every interest we have." Meanwhile, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said ISIS "must eventually be destroyed", but that couldn't be done without fighting them not just in Iraq, but also in Syria.

Look. All this rhetoric matters. It matters because you can't say ISIS is the greatest threat we've faced and then do nothing. ISIS is really not a threat to anyone but the Iraqi government as currently structured. It's true that many of their fighters carry western passports, and will be a threat to launch small scale terrorist attacks against the US and Europe for years to come. But that isn't a new threat, and it isn't "beyond anything we've seen". Another attack on the scale of 9/11 is essentially impossible, and it has been and remains trivial to launch a truck bomb attack on the scale of Oklahoma City from within the US. But ISIS IS the big dog in the Arab desert from Aleppo in Syria to Mosul and south to Samara in Iraq. There is no military force that has both the ability and the willingness to launch the sort of large-scale ground campaign that would be required to push them back. So if the American political leadership is going to take the position that ISIS represents an existential threat to the US then they are going to have to deploy at least one, and probably two divisions into both Iraq and Syria to carry out their threats to destroy the organization.

And here's the problem. The wars in Syria and Iraq are based in tribal and sectarian hatreds that go back many years, and are a small proxy conflict for the same hatreds in the larger region. The regional players are Saudi Arabia and Iran, and if the US is going to participate in those wars, at some point she's going to have to choose sides. And ISIS is Sunni, supported by American Allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar, while embattled Iraq is Shiite, supported by American adversary Iran. And in Syria, ISIS is fighting to topple brutal authoritarian (and Shiite) Bashir al-Assad. Taking sides won't be particularly easy or straightforward in any case.

At this point I can't predict whether President Obama is going to put American combat troops on the ground to fight ISIS. I especially can't predict whether Congress would support such a measure, in a case where Republican lust for war will be countered by their political strategy of 100% obstruction. But if the American leadership keeps spouting over the top fear-mongering rhetoric about ISIS and the threat they pose, they will find themselves in a corner with no way out but to launch another unnecessary middle-eastern war.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Unholy Trinity

Watching ISIS irregular forces effortlessly roll up 30,000 square miles of territory in Iraq and Syria in a matter of weeks has seemed shocking.  How does what is essentially a guerrilla militia force take on not one but two well-equipped professional armies along with an unknown number of opposition militias and win victory after victory?

The main thing to know is that these are not the kinds of battles we're used to seeing from here in the US. There is no technology, very little in the way of decisive air power, and an extremely small number of heavy weapons.  These are the ultimate in small-unit infantry battles, all about using maneuver to locate a weak point and bring massed fires to bear on that point.  It's about avoiding head on fights unless you have overwhelming numerical and firepower advantages, and rather working flanks, enveloping and bypassing positions of strength and cutting them off from resupply.

A successful guerrilla or insurgent army needs very little in the way of equipment. It fights and moves on funding and ideology, demanding incredible service and sacrifice from its members. In the end this is a throwback to the combat of a century ago, before armor and air power and massed artillery changed the nature of warfare. This is people with guns and courage fighting it out at short range in desperate firefights and long sieges.

And over the years, third-world insurgencies and militias have perfected the mix of weapons they issue their infantry troops. You might think these fighters are under-equipped, but these are the weapons that are re-drawing the map on two continents. I often think of them as the unholy trinity.


Too bad they didn't make more of these
This is the ultimate peasant infantry rifle. Simple, reliable and effective, it is said that an experienced Sergeant can make an illiterate farmer proficient with the AK in one day of training. The AK-47 was the original mass-production assault rifle, modeled on the German StG-44. (As a reminder, an assault rifle is any automatic rifle with a detachable magazine chambered in an intermediate cartridge. It is the cartridge that makes it an assault rifle, not any specific characteristic of the rifle itself.) The original AK-47 was chambered in the Soviet 7.65x39 .30 caliber cartridge. The updated version, the AK-74 followed the rest of the world in chambering for a .22 caliber cartridge, in this case the Russian 5.45x39.

With this lighter round, 30 round magazines and the capability of full automatic fire, a squad of infantry equipped with AKs can bring a truly awesome level of firepower to bear at short ranges. This storm of lead from a dozen or more AKs is nearly impossible to stand against, and often results in an advance by the attackers. These rifles are very forgiving in damp or dusty environments, can go thousands of rounds without cleaning, and are therefore ideal for local irregular forces with minimal training. The AK makes up in reliable firepower what it lacks in accuracy, range and knockdown power. But as we are about to see, it is only one of the weapons that make these forces so effective in this kind of fighting.

PKM Machine Gun

Allah's gonna have a whole lot of sorting 'em out to do

Essentially, the squad level infantry machine gun was perfected in 1942 by the Germans with the MG-42. Powerful, belt fed, high rate of fire, easy maintenance, fast barrel changes, light and portable, the MG-42 basically checked every box. So when former tank Sergeant and brilliant weapons designer Mikhail Kalashnikov set out to build a full-power machine gun based on his AK's action, he knew where to start. He chambered it in the powerful Mosin-Nagant 7.65x54R rifle cartridge, and built it to have a rate of fire of about 800 rounds per minute. The gun and integral bipod weighed less than 20 pounds and additional barrels and ammunition could be distributed among members of the squad.

The PKM gives a small unit the ability to lay down a base of fire out to 1500 meters without waiting for heavy crew-served weapons to be brought to the front. Pushing this kind of firepower down to the squad level was innovative in WWII - the Germans were big believers in this doctrine, but even the US with the BAR and the UK with the Bren began to adopt it - but it is now SOP among armies all over the world. But it's even more critical for these third-world militias and irregular fighters. They aren't going to get much in the way of heavy weapons or indirect fire support, so they'll need the ability to put heavy fire on specific targets while the other units maneuver to close or to break contact.

That's two thirds of the unholy trinity. Equip your guerilla forces with one rifle, one machine gun, and just a couple different standardized ammunition types. Logistics and training are simplified, and in any relatively numerically even battle the insurgents should have a quantitative edge in downrange firepower.

Rocket Propelled Grenade Launcher (RPG)

You want me to do WHAT?
Getting lots of lead downrange is important, but what about when these irregular forces need to defeat a vehicle or a bunker, or breach a building or a wall?  These forces don't have heavy weapons or for that matter a good way to transport gear beyond carrying it. This is truly the 'grunt infantry', where each fighter must carry their own clothing, food, water, first aid kit, weapons and ammunition plus equipment and ammunition for the Company is distributed among the individual fighters. So if you want to have the equivalent of a tank or an artillery piece, you need it in some kind of man-portable  form factor. Enter those innovative Soviets, and the RPG-7.

In essence, the RPG is a hollow tube with a trigger unit and a sighting device. The business end is a 4 kilogram grenade-on-a-stick. When fired, a small gunpowder charge pushes the grenade out of the tube whereupon the rocket motor fires for about 10 seconds, boosting the grenade to a velocity of about 375 feet per second. It can be fired accurately at ranges inside 200 meters and is effective out past 500 meters. There is virtually no felt recoil.

This is another classically Soviet cheap, simple, reliable, portable and powerful weapon. Added to the AKs and the PKMs, the RPG gives that same squad of insurgents the ability to knock out vehicles, to eliminated bunkers and strongpoints and to breach walls and doors. In addition to their own gear, the other members of the squad carry a couple belts for the PKM or a couple rounds for the RPG.

And that's the Unholy Trinity. In a combat environment without the luxuries of a modern 21st century military - particularly air and armor - this is the weapons loadout your well equipped Jihadi army carries into battle. And with the right tactics, under the right conditions, it is all they need to win.

Bonus Jihadi Weapon System - The Technical

Looks like we got us a convoy
But often these insurgent and guerrilla groups do have access to vehicles and heavier weapons. In 1991 in Somalia NGOs were legally prevented from bringing in private security contractors, they instead hired local bodyguards under what were euphemistically termed "Technical Assistance Grants". These tended to be militias, who used the wealth to acquire pickup trucks ( the Toyota Hilux was by far the most popular) and mount a machine gun in the back. Soon these improvised fighting vehicles came to be known as Technicals.

Today the Technical has evolved to fill many niches. They carry troops and supplies, they protect the leaders and warlords of the movement or militia, and they carry the wounded to aid stations. But most of all they are fighting vehicles, serving in the role that would have been filled by cavalry a hundred years ago.  They can move quickly off-road, getting behind enemy positions and blasting them with massive firepower. Lacking armor, they are vulnerable to any opposing heavy weapons, but the advantage they provide in highly mobile firepower is unmatched.

An entry-level Technical might mount a PKM, but they more commonly carry much heavier guns.  The 12.7mm Russian DShK, an equivalent to the US .50 caliber M-2 is most common, but you will also see KPM 14.5mm and even 2A14 23mm anti-aircraft guns.

If you think about a Company sized attack by militias armed like this and supported by three or four Technicals, you get a sense of the speed and violence an attack like these can deliver, and you can begin to understand why ISIS has been so successful.  The training, courage, will and leadership it takes to get a unit to hold the line against that kind of assault at close range is rare in that part of the world, and until you find enough troops with the commitment to stand fast, ISIS holds a substantial tactical advantage.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Field Guide to Defending the Indefensible

Israel kills a few more of those pesky
human shields. That'll teach 'em
One of the most fascinating lesson of the latest Gaza bloodletting is the convolutions defenders of the Netanyahu policies must go through in order to attempt to justify what clearly amounts to industrial scale murder for domestic political purposes. Nobody wants to sound like a monster, and to make matters more complex, many American Jews are politically liberal. Now, while many of them are once again appalled and heartbroken by the actions of the Israeli government, there is a fair constituency who are willing to attempt to justify the slaughter. As a result, a few talking points, a set of standardized tropes if you will, has emerged. They are largely based on half truths or incomplete analysis, and the hope is that you won't notice the parts left out. Let's take a look at a few of them, shall we?

Israel has a right to self-defense.

Here we have one of the classic canards of the half-truth variety. Yes, Israel, like ALL nations, has a right to self defense. In no way can that somehow be construed to mean that internationally accepted laws of warfare do not apply. If, in the course of acting in self defense, a nation commits war crimes or crimes against humanity, they are still war crimes and crimes against humanity. Civilized nations are expected to conduct military operations that are proportional and that do not rise to the level of murder.

In the case of Gaza, it's even more egregious, because the attacks from Gaza do not represent a significant threat to Israel, so patiently and carefully determining when, how and to what extent to respond is well withing Israel's purview.  There is no real urgency, no need to unleash massive destruction to prevent some kind of impending invasion or apocalypse, so the fact that Israel is choosing to kill and maim all these innocent civilians is prima facie evidence that this is nothing but collective punishment.

It's also instructive to remember the world's reaction to the French resistance after the fall of France in 1940. They were terrorists under any modern definition - bombing, ambushing, assassinating both occupation forces and suspected collaborators. But there was an understanding in the past that if you were going to invade and occupy a nation by force, the people of that nation had every right to resist that occupation. People have aspirations to live their lives in the way they choose under their national leadership, and if you take that away from them by force, it doesn't really matter who the 'good guys' are, they have every right to fight the occupying army, and that army is ultimately responsible for that fighting because they have chosen to be the occupiers. 

Hamas has committed to the destruction of Israel - It's in their charter.

This is, of course, absolutely true. The document was written in 1988 when Hamas considered itself the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine. And while there are questions about how accurately this position reflects that of the more modern, political Hamas organization (In 2010 Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal stated that the Charter is "a piece of history and no longer relevant, but cannot be changed for internal reasons"), defenders of Israel's actions are absolutely correct in pointing out that this is still the basis for Hamas' founding document.

But the next question one must ask is "so what". If a group of people get together and write a manifesto that includes huge, impossible aspirational goals, how seriously should those goals be taken? Hamas as an organization has sworn to eliminate Israel and replace it with an Islamic Palestine, but since they obviously are utterly incapable of accomplishing this goal why does it matter?  It's words on a piece of paper, backed up by pathetic home-made 122mm rockets without guidance systems. It's a tantrum and a reaction to their own generations of oppression and mistreatment. It is, frankly, prima facie meaningless. It comes up only to serve as a justification for the excessive, brutal massacres of Palestinian citizens - you often hear Netanyahu apologists state outright that "they voted for Hamas, so they are combatants". I'll let you make your own judgement on the human and democratic values reflected by that statement.

The Palestinians in Gaza are using human shields.

The long version of the response to this justification is here.

But the short version is that my use of human shields does not compel you to open fire. Especially when you claim that my plan is to get you to fire on civilians, why would you then do what you claim is exactly what I want you to do? Remember, human shields are not hostages. Nothing is at stake in the case of human shields until the attacker opens fire. If the attacker stands down, the civilians don't die. So to blame the Palestinians for their own deaths when the Israeli army exercised the utterly unnecessary option to fire on them despite the presence of the so-called human shields is a pretty sick, inhuman position to hold. And in a place like the Gaza Strip, where 2 million people live in a 139 square mile urban prison, it's - well, it's a war crime.

What would YOU do? 

Ahh. This is the topper, the mike-drop, the smugly delivered end-the-argument piece de resistance, the question they don't believe has any other answer. Which always leaves me a bit befuddled. Whether the justification for the violence is the incoming rocket fire or the infiltration tunnels or whatever else they might use, the pretense that massive bombing and shelling of entire cities is the ONLY possible response, even the only possible military response, is stupid and ludicrous at best, and blatantly dishonest at worst. What would I do? I could go after the rockets, which pose no strategic threat and virtually no tactical threat to Israel with radars to pinpoint their launch sites and helicopter borne commandos to capture the hardware and its operators.  And the tunnels are not a threat unless they provided access to Israel itself, so I could deal with them with seismic mapping technology and mining explosives to collapse them all from the Israeli side of the border without killing a single person.

But the more important question is what WOULDN'T I do? I wouldn't bomb civilians, I wouldn't shell schools and hospitals, I wouldn't use much ordinance at all, in fact. But most of all I wouldn't imprison the Palestinian population and treat them like animals. I'd give them human rights, and human dignity. I'd give them hope, a way to make a living, a way to feed and educate their children and a way to get medical care. I'd let them fish their own waters freely.  I'd let them travel throughout the region, and especially to the West Bank. I'd let them import goods and export manufactured goods. I'd give NGOs unfettered access to bring in funds and food and medicine. I'd take all the caps off fuel and energy and food and building material imports, both from Israel and abroad.  It's a funny thing about people. When they're fighting you, it's for a reason. Take away that reason, and they immediately lose interest in fighting. People want to live their lives, raise their families, have some happiness and hope and human value. If Netanyahu REALLY wanted the rockets to stop and the fighting to end, he could make it so tomorrow. The fact that he doesn't, won't even discuss it, is proof positive that he's using the violence as a political tool to distract the people from his atrocious right-wing 'governance'.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Other Bomb

What happens when Plutonium equal to half
the mass of a penny fissions
We hear a great deal about the events of August 6th, 1945. The bombing of Hiroshima, the Enola Gay, Colonel Paul Tibbets, along with an endless discussion of President Truman's decision-making process. So this year I thought I'd kind of overlook the anniversary of August 6th, and instead think about that day three days later and the events over Nagasaki.

Nagasaki wasn't the primary target. The target planners were very interested in assessing the actual destructive capabilities of the atomic bomb, so they would only be used on previously un-bombed cities, in order to see how they performed against an entirely intact infrastructure. The primary target that day was Kokura, a historical city in the far southern end of Japan, just two hundred kilometers from the South Korean coast. But when the B-29 Bock's Car arrived over Kokura, early on the morning of August 9th, the city was obscured by clouds and smoke drifting from a major firebomb raid on Yahata the previous day. Having orders to drop the bomb using visual sighting methods rather than radar, the crew eventually decided to switch to the secondary target, the industrial port city of Nagasaki.

At 11:00 am the clouds cleared and the bombardier on Bocks Car, Captain Kermit Beahan, was able to visually sight the racetrack, which he used as his aiming point. The bomb detonated at 1650 feet, 3 kilometers northwest of the intended target, with a blast yield equivalent to 21,000 tons of TNT. The temperature at the blast center was over 7,000° Fahrenheit and the explosion generated winds in excess of 600 MPH. This bomb was somewhat more powerful than the one that was used over Hiroshima, but because the terrain was rolling hills, much of Nagasaki proper was protected from the blast effects and there was significantly less damage. For perspective, only about a gram of the approximately 6 kilogram Plutonium core actually fissioned before the heat of the explosion vaporized the bomb components.

The bomb that was used on Nagasaki, dubbed 'Fat Man', was of the Plutonium implosion type. This type of bomb was MUCH harder to design and build than the more basic 'gun type' fission device used in "Little Boy", the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. But it was much easier at that point for scientists to create weapons grade Plutonium 239 than it was to enrich Uranium to a purity that could be used in a bomb. In Fat Man, the Plutonium core would be compressed using a surrounding set of high explosive 'lenses' to the point where it would reach criticality and a fission reaction would begin.  The engineering difficulty was the explosives had to detonate perfectly simultaneously, or the uneven forces would blow the core apart before it reached critical mass. The design team simply wasn't sure the bomb would even work, so they decided a real-world test was necessary before they turned the Fat Man over to the Army for delivery on Japanese targets. So on July 16, 1945, an identical device they called 'The Gadget" was exploded in a remote New Mexico desert in a test dubbed "Trinity".

The interesting historical question continues to be how Truman came to decide to use the atomic bomb at all, and then, why he decided to use a second one. There were those who believed that the US should detonate the first atomic bomb in an unpopulated area as a humane demonstration of its power and destructiveness. But Truman felt the Japanese would have to be shocked into surrendering, and the August 6th mission to Hiroshima was set in motion. But why the second bombing, at least so soon after the first? It's true that the second bombing was originally scheduled for August 11, but Colonel Tibbets moved it up to the 9th when weather reports indicated a full week's bad weather was closing in over Southern Japan. But even so, why not give the Japanese several weeks to comprehend the death and destruction they faced before hitting them again?  My personal theory is that the second bombing wasn't intended to affect or influence the Japanese nearly as much as it was intended to affect and influence Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union, particularly with regards to the post-war power struggle over Eastern Europe and Germany.

Nuclear weapons have a complex legacy. On the one hand, the human race has lived in their shadow and the threat of civilizational destruction for generations. But on the other hand, that morning 69 years ago in the sky above Nagasaki still represents the last time one was used in anger. But the future is not written, and there's something close to a certainty that thermonuclear weapons will be used in a war before the end of humanity's reign. But the hope within the tragedy is that it will be a small, localized exchange. Nuclear nations have shifted to a 100KT range of weapons rather than five or ten MT "City Busters".  If India and Pakistan fire a dozen modern nukes, it's not the end of the world and a lesson is there to be learned, hard and toxic but not terminal.

The threat of nuclear annihilation has profoundly changed the way nation-states interact with one another. The presence of such powerful weapons put an end to the escalation of large-scale regional and global conflict that characterized the 19th and 20th centuries. It is no longer possible for powerful nations to deploy massive armies in wars that lay waste to continents. In the shadow of the atom, warfare has changed, diplomacy has changed, trade has changed and the world is likely a better place right up until the moment when it all melts away under five thousand mushroom clouds.  But for now, today, we remember the second, and final nuclear attack, the manifestation of applied technology and engineering prowess as remarkable as it was horrific.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Once More Into the Breach

Help the Peshmerga, Save the World
Annnnd, with that, American forces are once again in combat in Iraq. Unsurprisingly, there is much sturm und drang and gnashing of teeth over this development, but I'm quite a bit more sanguine than my fellow lefties.

First of all, my position on international humanitarian military intervention has been and remains consistent. When military forces armed with heavy weapons act to intentionally kill large numbers of civilians, it is the role of the so-called 'Civilized World' to bring superior firepower to bear to prevent the massacre and to deter any further intentional slaughters. War is bad enough, but events like Rwanda, Srebrenica and Misrata call for action. It's an imperfect solution, certainly, but far better than once again standing aside and shouting 'condemnations' as some third world strongman uses his air and artillery on cities full of helpless civilians.

Second, I'm not at all concerned about mission creep in this case. There's no way Obama is going to take the political heat for putting America back in an active combat role in Iraq beyond the small scale support for the Kurds against the ISIS madmen. Which could be problematic, because if it took a Ranger Batallion or a Marine Expeditionary Force to hold the line between Kurdistan and the Iraqi refugees and the marauding bands of 12th century sectarian murderers I'd be fine with that. And I'd still have no concerns about getting drawn back in to the larger Iraq conflict.

This battle is happening RIGHT NOW.  You ACT or once again you find you have done nothing and let horrific things - preventable horrific things - happen on your watch. This will be over by next week - either the Kurds will have a perimeter they can hold south of Erbil or they will have been overrun and the bloodletting will be well underway.

In the larger picture, outside of protecting the refugees and making certain there is a safe place for them to go, the US has no real interest in the IS Caliphate. This is ultimately a sectarian proxy war, with the Saudi/Wahabi led Sunnis seeking to eliminate the Persian/Iraqi led Shiites, and vice versa. There is no side, from al-Assad to Malicki to Khamenei to the House of Saud to the Egyptian Generals that the US should even consider supporting. The battle for supremacy in the Islamic world will grind on for years, and will get increasingly ugly as the real savagery comes out. All we can do is keep an eye on these Jihadi nutballs, especially the ones with US and European passports, and try to protect the people of the region from the worst of the hatred.

That will have to be enough.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Industry Day

July 29th was the long awaited "Industry Day" where the US military will brief interested potential bidders on its requirements for a new handgun to replace the aging and weary Beretta M9s currently in inventory. Up until the last decade, the military issue handgun has been something of an afterthought, important for Military Police and high-ranking officers in combat zones, but not considered an important component to the front-line combat troops.

All that changed, of course, when the primary mission of the US Military evolved from war to occupation.  American troops traveled around Iraq and Afghanistan in vehicles, often armored Bradleys and MRAPs, but mostly in Humvees, And when those vehicles were attacked, the soldiers found they had to get rounds downrange from inside a crowded vehicle. So instead of carrying a pistol an entire tour of duty without ever firing it in combat, soldiers would take their M9 and ten or twelve loaded magazines and push a real volume of fire downrange.

So it's perfectly reasonable that the M9 9mm pistols in inventory are at the end of their service life. It was adopted in the mid-eighties, and has seen action in three wars and uncounted deployments. But the Army is also concerned about the generally perceived 'lack of lethality' of the venerable 9 x 19 cartridge. This is actually hilarious, because the argument over the lethality and one-shot-stopping power of various popular handgun rounds has been the primary religious holy war in the handgun community for decades, the equivalent of Windows vs. Macintosh.

If not 9mm, then what? The obvious candidates are .40 S&W and .45 ACP. On the outside looking in are 10mm, .357 Sig and one of the modern PDW rounds like FN's 5.7mm.  The FBI originally adopted the 10mm as their issue sidearm, but had to back away as they discovered that the weight, blast and recoil from this powerful weapon made training and effective use extremely difficult for many smaller-in-stature agents. It was their testing of some downloaded 10mm varieties that led to the development of .40 S&W. The .357 SIG is probably the ideal solution, but the high-velocity bottleneck cartridge design is probably just too 'exotic' for adoption by the Army. .45 ACP is probably not going to have the velocity and downrange accuracy to meet the Army's broad requirements.

Essentially, that leaves the .40 S&W as the only current off-the-shelf cartridge that would meet the demand for increased lethality.  The problem that many law enforcement agencies that have adopted the wildly popular 'FortySmith' are encountering is that most of the handgun platforms they are using were designed for 9mm, and the additional pounding from the more powerful round has introduced reliability issues and shortened expected lifespans. So expect some specific language in the specs about strengthened frames, barrels and slides, along with design elements to reduce felt recoil.

So who's going to be the big winner? Glock and Heckler & Koch have very popular winning designs that can meet the anticipated requirements (with the exception of an old-fashioned demand for a 'positive safety'. Modern handguns tend to have no external safeties, so this demand would require a certain amount of re-tooling), but the Army took a lot of heat when it adopted the Beretta, a foreign product. Considering that in their recent (2010) competition, the ATF selected the Smith & Wesson M&P .40 over the Glock 17, I'd expect the Army to ultimately select that same handgun for their next generation service pistol.