The Lawyers' War
It was hailed as a great success–more evidence that ISIS is being contained and destroyed, as President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and other administration officials have insisted.
Barely a week ago, in the first major U.S. airstrike since the Paris terror attacks, USAF A-10s and an AC-130 gunship decimated a convoy of 100 ISIS tanker trucks in Syria, a move aimed at cutting off the terror’s group primary funding source–oil sold illegally on the energy black market. As DoD Buzz reported:
“In the first wave of U.S. airstrikes since the Paris attacks, A-10 Thunderbolt ground attack aircraft and AC-130 gunships raked a convoy of more than 100 ISIS oil tanker trucks in Syria in a stepped-up effort to cut off a main source of terror funding, the Pentagon said Monday …
The oil convoy attack and the carrier deployment signaled the U.S. intent to intensify airstrikes while increasing efforts to share intelligence with allies in the aftermath of the Paris carnage last Friday that killed at least 129, but President Obama insisted that there would be no fundamental changes in strategy …
‘ISIL is stealing oil from the people of Iraq and Syria’ at a rate estimated by the Treasury Department at $1 million daily, [Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis] said. By hitting ISIS-controlled oil facilities and distribution networks, ‘We’re disrupting a significant source of funding’ for terror activities, he said.”
A few days later, the real truth emerged, and as a certain, former NFL quarterback might say, it ain’t pretty.
For starters, it was revealed that we avoided targeting ISIS tank trucks until last week. The reason? Someone in the Obama Administration decided the truck drivers are civilians and therefore, not combatants. Never mind the trucks were hauling oil for terrorists, an enterprise that earns ISIS an estimated $3 million a day selling oil. There is also the very likely possibility that the drivers are being paid by ISIS (at a minimum), and some of them are probably members of the group. Hardly a bunch of innocents.
Yet, in its determination to avoid civilian casualties at all costs, Team Obama actually sent a warning to the drivers before the first bombs fell. As Bridget Johnson at PJM reported, the U.S. dropped leaflets before the attack, giving drivers almost an hour to abandon their vehicles:
“In Al-Bukamal, we destroyed 116 tanker trucks, which we believe will reduce ISIL’s ability to transport its stolen oil products,” [Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve] Warren said. “This is our first strike against tanker trucks, and to minimize risks to civilians, we conducted a leaflet drop prior to the strike. We did a show of force, by — we had aircraft essentially buzz the trucks at low altitude.”
The leaflets, which fluttered to the ground about 45 minutes before the strikes, simply said: “Get out of your trucks now, and run away from them. Warning: airstrikes are coming. Oil trucks will be destroyed. Get away from your oil trucks immediately. Do not risk your life.”
“We combine these leaflet drops with very low altitude passes of some of our attack aviation, which sends a very powerful message,” the colonel added.
He said the decision to drop warnings came after they “assessed that these trucks, while although they are being used for operations that support ISIL, the truck drivers, themselves, probably not members of ISIL; they’re probably just civilians.”
Just like those Syrian refugees pose no security threat to the countries taking them in.
To be fair, the U.S. has always tried to avoid collateral damage and civilian casualties. But the “air campaign” that’s unfolded in the skies over Syria and Iraq reflects that policy taken to an illogical extreme. About the time the Pentagon was declaring victory over those abandoned tanker trucks, the Washington Free Beacon revealed another troubling fact: administration officials block up to75% of all strikes against ISIS because of concerns about hitting civilians. California Congressman Ed Royce, Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, said the policy aided the terror group’s march across Iraq and Syria over the past year.
Quite a change from World War II, when heavy bombers from the Army Air Corps’ 8th and 15th Air Forces pounded industrial targets in Nazi-occupied Europe on an almost-daily basis. There was no effort to hit the plants when the workers were off-duty, and no rain of leaflets telling them to flee their posts ahead of a planned attack. Then as now, enemy factories, communications networks, and transportation systems were viewed as legitimate targets. But somewhere along the way, we decided that civilians supporting the enemy effort should be spared.
Ironically, we’ve been down this path before. Back in the mid-90s, your humble correspondent was an aircrew member, assigned to an Air Force battle management squadron. We supported the NATO/U.N. mission in Bosnia from its earliest days; our job was to coordinate air support for peacekeeping troops on the ground. More often that not, it was an exercise in frustration. Local bad guys–Serb, Croats and Muslims–would sometimes open fire at allied troops on the ground. That would bring a call for air support.
Here’s how the system was supposed to work: the Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) taking fire–or attached to the unit under attack–would radio a request for close air support to our aircraft. We would relay the request to NATO’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Vicenza, Italy, which was in charge of the air campaign. At that point, the CAOC was supposed to approve the request, and we would direct available air assets to support the unit under fire.
But remember, the U.N. had its thumb in the Bosnia mission as well. Beyond the CAOC, the support request was then routed to the senior United Nations official in Zagreb, Croatia, then on to New York. Once approved by some grandee at U.N. Headquarters, the request made its way back down the chain, through Zagreb, back to the CAOC, on to the airborne C2 element and finally to the A-10s, F-16s, Harriers, F/A-18s or whatever asset was assigned to support the folks on the ground.
Originally, the U.N. approval was (supposedly) required for only the first CAS request; after that, the decision would be made within the military chain. Nice theory, but in practice, the U.N. didn’t want to relinquish control. So, for much of the Bosnia mission, any request for air support still had to go through the United Nations chain. On multiple occasions, fighters orbited overhead for more than 30 minutes while the request for CAS was considered. By the time approval was granted, the shooting had stopped and the local thugs faded back into the countryside.
One day, the bureaucratic nightmare became too much. The sector patrolled by troops from Denmark was around Tuzla, the same place where Hillary Clinton claimed she came under sniper fire. But unlike Mrs. Clinton, the Danes had been taking actual fire from the Serbs and were determined to neutralize the threat, once and for all. On October 25, 1994, the Danish TACP reported that elements of the Nordic battalion was moving into action against the Serbs. One of our controllers asked if they were requesting CAS.
No, the Danes told us. We’ll handle it.
That got a lot of attention in the back end of our airplane. The Danish TACP couldn’t clear NATO fighters onto the Serb position without approval up the chain. So, how did the plan to deal with the Serbs?
We got the answer in short order. Our crew capsule was equipped with a crude e-mail system that allowed us to communicate without using the intercom. ‘They’re bring up tanks” the controller team told us.
In the early days of the Bosnia mission, Denmark was the only country that sent tanks as part of its military contingent. Not light tanks or armored cars, but Leopard I main battle tanks. As I recall, the Danes sent three Leopards to deal with the problem. Along the way, they were engaged by a Russian-built T-55, operated by Serb forces. It was quickly knocked out, along with a recoilless rifle.
Once in position, the Danish tanks pounded the Serbian position. Officially, the Leopards fired a total of 21 rounds from their 105 mm main guns. But a few years later, I heard a different version of events during a presentation from U.S. Navy Admiral Leighton “Snuffy” Smith, who was commander of NATO forces in Bosnia in 1994.
According to Admiral Smith, one of the Leopards, commanded by a female tanker, expended all of its 105mm ammunition against the Serb position. Smith later met with the tank crews and asked the young officer why she had fired so many rounds during that engagement.
“Because,” she said, “that was all I had.”
An important lesson, worth remembering amid our current cluster in the Middle East. There are times when unwavering, over-whelming force is required, with the realization that bombs sometimes go astray and collateral damage occurs. It may be hard to transpose the lessons of a tactical engagement in Bosnia to an air campaign in Syria, but in warfare, it’s sometimes necessary to put the JAGs (and politicians) on a leash and relentlessly pound your enemy. Especially when you’re fighting savages who long for the good ol’ days of the 7th Century and understand nothing but the business end of a JDAM or SDB.
By the way, the Serbs stayed quiet around Tuzla for many weeks after that October engagement. Few lessons are as clear–or brutal–as a 105 round landing in your sniper’s nest.
We could do the same thing in the so-called caliphate. Level Raqqa and establish kill box ops throughout ISIS controlled territory. Destroy anything on the roads that looks like an oil tanker, and take out the well heads and support infrastructure as well. Such facilities have (reportedly) been added to the target list, but they went untouched for more than a year, giving ISIS millions to fund its operations around the globe.
Sadly, we’re still fighting the lawyers’ war, led by the barrister-in-chief. And we will pay a price for his folly.
The Pentagon has subsequently revealed that U.S. warplanes “ran out of ammunition” during the Syria engagement, allowing some of the tank trucks (and drivers) to escape. That explanation seems a little fishy, particularly when you consider that A-10s and an AC-130 gunship carried out the strike. Each A-10 carries over 1,000 rounds for its 30mm gun, which can make mincemeat of ground targets (including tank), and they have 12 wing hard points to carry munitions. The AC-130 carries roughly 100 rounds of 105 mm ammunition for its main gun; even more for the 25 or 40mm chain gun that is also mounted on the gunship.
Maybe a better question is how many aircraft actually participated in the raid. In recent months, the U.S. has maintained a single A-10 squadron in the region to support operations against ISIS, typically totaling 12-18 aircraft. Compare that to Desert Storm, when hundreds of A-10s were deployed to the Middle East, and unleashed against Saddam’s ground forces on a daily basis. We even established a FOB near the Kuwaiti border, to Hog drivers could land, debrief, refuel, rearm and get an intel update before re-joining the battle. It was a very efficient–and lethal–operation.
By comparison, descriptions of last week’s tank truck turkey shoot suggest that no more than 4 A-10s were employed, and they had to fly long distances just to reach the target area. AC-130s operate at night, and their tactics call for neutralizing a target in less than five minutes, to minimize exposure to the aircraft and crew. By the standards of Desert Storm and Allied Force, last week’s attack against ISIS oil trucks was little more than a token blow.