Ready for What? … Loose Nucs, Scud Missiles, and the
Changing Nature of Conflict

September 26, 1998

Comment: #194

Discussion Thread:  #s 81, 87, 91, 93, 96, 100, 107, 111, 169


[1] Michael Grunwald, "U.S. Says Bin Laden Sought Nuclear Arms: Complaint Cites Alliance With Sudan, Iran," Washington Post September 26, 1998; Page A19

[2] Bill Gertz, "Operable missile seized in customs," The Washington Times, September 25, 1998

[3] Captain David Albanese, "Lessons Learned from Russo-Chechen War." (email received from 3rd party, date unknown) Attached.

One effect of the collapse of the Soviet Union was to neutralize the global organizing dynamics of the bi-polar US-Soviet rivalry. The politics of that rivalry had worked to mitigate a welter of nationalist, ethnic, religious, tribal, and criminal conflicts at local and regional levels in many parts of the world. Some of these conflicts (e.g., in Yugoslavia, the Middle East, and post-colonial Africa) have roots reaching back the collapse of Ottoman, Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian empires at the end of World War I or earlier.

These rivalries are now erupting around the world, as a variety of long-suppressed grievances, frustrations, and ambitions, coupled with a variety of growing contemporary pressures (like over-population, urbanization, environmental degradation, poverty, scarcity, near instantaneous global communications, the conflict between western materialism and non-western religious values, etc.) seek relief by aggressively probing into the soft mush of a confused post-cold war world.

No one knows where the emerging chaos of local and regional conflict is taking the world or how U.S. interests are related to many of these conflicts.

But the collapse of order and control in many of the regions in the former Soviet Union is clearly making the situation worse by unleashing a flood of illegal arms traffic, which is adding to the massive flow of legal arms traffic, spearheaded by the United States. In their recent book, "One Point Safe," Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, painted a terrifying portrait of how the collapse of authority and the social breakdown in the former states of the Soviet Union, particularly Russia, is making it easier for starving engineers and scientists, not to mention more traditional criminal elements, to steal fissile materials and even nuclear weapons for sale on the worldwide black market.

Reference #1 describes a specific example of these converging pressures. Michael Grunwald of the Washington Post reports how the transnational terrorist organization of Osama bin Ladin has been scouring the world for nuclear materials. One of his sources, Harvey Kushner, a Long Island University professor who studies terrorism, suggests bin Ladin is more of a symptom than a cause of the global terrorist threats. Kushner says the "good news is, they're making real progress in unraveling bin Laden's organization." But the bad news is that he says bin Ladin is "…becoming the public face of global terrorism, and he shouldn't be. They could get rid of bin Laden tomorrow and plenty of new bin Ladens would step up to take his place."

If you think writers like the Cockburns and scholars like Kushner are naively exaggerating or distorting the nature of the emerging threats facing the United States, Reference #2 to this message illustrates how easy it is for international terrorists or revolutionaries to get large weapons.

Bill Gertz of the Washington Times reports that U.S. customs agents in Los Angeles seized a Scud B missile, with a complete guidance system and transporter/erector. The only thing missing was the warhead. The customs agent, John Hensley, told Gertz an arms collector in Portola, California bought the missile and imported it via Port Hueneme, Calif., about 35 miles north of Los Angeles, under a license issued by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF). Apparently the license was based on falsified paperwork indicating the missile had been "demilitarized" in accordance with the BATF's import rules.

These two examples illustrate one of the biggest challenges facing the military-industrial-congressional complex. Our military must evolve the offensive and defensive capabilities needed to cope with the rise of Fourth Generation Warfare, where a variety of well-armed "state" and "non-state" actors are learning to effectively exploit (1) the weaknesses of hi-tech, fire-power intensive conventional military forces and (2) the openness of advanced democracies based on the rule of law.

Given the success of fourth generation tactics, it is hard to imagine why any adversary would ever repeat Iraq's mistake of massing heavy conventional forces in open, static defensive positions, where it is easy to separate friend from foe. One thing the entire world learned from the Gulf War is that the Americans will bomb the bejeezus out of you if you give them a target.

"Fourth Generation" combatants are learning other lessons as well. Reference #3 is a "Lessons Learned" essay on the Russian experience in Grozny. It shows how lightly armed, tribal irregulars defeated heavy conventional forces by sucking them into close quarters, irregular urban/suburban combat, where friendly, hostile, and neutral parties are intermingled.

The Chechens showed that real-world combatants do not need multi-million dollar computer simulations to figure to how to evolve effective new ways of fighting traditionally armed and trained adversaries. The Palestinians are another example. They achieved more with the Intifada and rocks, backed up by Hamas, Hizbollah & CNN, than Arab armies were able to achieve in four conventional wars with Israel. Mohammed Farah Aideed drove the US out of Somalia, in part, because he figured out how to win the information war (without invoking a hi-tech revolution in military affairs). Heavy Russian ground forces, reinforced by overwhelming airpower, were defeated by tribal irregulars in Afghanistan. Ominously, recent experience has shown that state and not-state sponsored terrorists may be figuring out the tactics and strategies needed to achieve policy goals, a case in point being the truck bomb that drove the U.S. out of Beirut.

Which brings us back to Osama bin Ladin. He says in his fatwas that he wants Americans to leave Saudi Arabia. What if he is using modern telecommunications and financial networks to emulate the strategy used by Lawrence of Arabia? That is, what if he is trying to be "… an influence, a thing invulnerable, intangible, without front or back, drifting about like a gas? Armies were like plants, immobile as a whole, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. The Arabs might be a vapor, blowing where they listed." [Seven Pillars of Wisdom].

Perhaps truck bombs in Beirut, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, and Tanzania are a modern variation of a Lawrencian vapor attack. One of their effects is certainly similar: Like the Turks, Americans are now isolating themselves behind the high walls of fortresses, a condition that is bound to play into the terrorists hands by magnifying the 'alien' specter of an American presence among the local populace.

Notwithstanding these ominous military developments, the dinosaurs in the military-industrial-congressional complex are gearing up to use the readiness crisis to perpetuate the more comfortable cold-war status quo. They want to throw more money at the broken, cold-war inspired, unaffordable defense program that created the readiness crisis in the first place. They want to throw money at a Pentagon that freely admits its accounting system can not meet the minimum standard of constitutional accountability [see Comment # 169]. They want to throw money a modernization program designed to fight vanished visions of past threats a near-term need to re-fight two nearly simultaneous versions of the Iraq War in Southwest Asia and East Asia, and a long term need counter the emergence of another undefined conventionally armed superpower (or a peer or near peer competitor in today's antiseptic lexicon).

It is time to tell the Pentagon to think before it spends.

All thinking should be based on facts. Job 1, therefore, is to clean up the bookkeeping system, so we have a reliable base of factual information for making hard decisions. After this NECESSARY condition has been met, planners in the military services and the Offices of the Secretary of Defense and Joint Chiefs of Staff could identify the hard decisions in accordance with the true nature of the opportunity costs they face, not some repeat of the front-loaded apparition that downplays the future consequence of the current program.

A proposal outlining how this approach for adapting our forces to the changing environment might be accomplished can be found in last section of my report describing the limitations of the Quadrennial Defense Review, which recent events stuffed into the dustbin of history, as I predicted, when I submitted this report to the Director of Program Analysis and Evaluation in June of 1997.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, the following material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference #3

[Source: Captain David Albanese forwards comments regarding Lessons Learned by the Russian Army in Grozny.]

The Russian Army learned many lessons from its experience in Grozny.

These include:

(1) You need to culturally orient your forces so that you don't end up being your own worst enemy simply out of cultural ignorance. Many times Russian soldiers made serious cultural errors in dealing with the Chechen civilians. Once insulted or mistreated, they became active fighters or supported the active fighters. Russians admit they underestimated the effect of religion on the conflict.

(2) You need some way of sorting out the combatants from the non-combatants. The days of uniforms and organized units is over. The Russians were forced to resort to searching the pockets of civilians for military equipment and to sniffing them for the smell of gunpowder and gun oil. Pretty crude. Trained sniffer dogs were used, but were not always effective. Nevertheless, dogs are probably the best way to determine if a person has been using explosives or firing a weapon recently.

(3) The psychological impact of high intensity urban combat is so intense that you should maintain a large reserve that will allow you to rotate units in and out of combat. If you do this, you can preserve a unit for a fairly long time. If you don't, once it gets used up, it can't be rebuilt.

(4) Training and discipline are paramount. You can accomplish nothing without them. You may need to do the training in the combat zone. Discipline must be demanded. Once it begins to slip, the results are disastrous.

(5) The Russians were surprised and embarrassed at the degree to which the Chechens exploited the use of cell phones, Motorola radios, improvised TV stations, light video cameras, and the Internet to win the information war. The Russians admitted that they lost control of the information coming out of Grozny early in the operation and never regained it.

(6) The proliferation of rocket propelled grenade launchers surprised them, as well as the diversity of uses to which they were put. RPGs were shot at everything that moved. They were fired at high angle over low buildings and from around buildings with little or no attempt made to aim. They were sometimes fired in very disciplined volleys and were the weapon of choice for the Chechens, along with the sniper rifle. Not only were the Russians faced with well-trained, well equipped Chechen military snipers, there were also large numbers of designated marksmen who were very good shots using standard military rifles. These were very hard to deal with and usually required massive fire power to overcome.

(7) As expected, the Russians reiterated the need for large numbers of trained Infantrymen. They said that some tasks, such as conducting log pack operations, could only be conducted by Infantrymen, the logistical unit soldiers being hopelessly inept and falling easy prey to the Chechens.

(8) They found that boundaries between units were still tactical weak points, but that it wasn't just horizontal boundaries they had to worry about. In some cases, the Chechens held the third floor and above, while the Russians held the first two floors and sometimes the roof. If a unit holding the second floor evacuated parts of it without telling the unit on the ground floor, the Chechens would move troops in and attack the ground floor unit through the ceiling. Often this resulted in fratricide as the ground floor unit responded with uncontrolled fire through all of the ceilings, including the ones below that section of the building still occupied by Russians. Entire battles were fought through floors, ceilings, and walls without visual contact.

(9) Ambushes were common. Sometimes they actually had three tiers. Chechens would be underground, on the ground floor, and on the roof. Each group had a different task in the ambush.

(10) The most common response by the Chechens to the increasingly powerful Russian indirect and aerial firepower was hugging the Russian unit. If the hugging tactics caused the Russians to cease artillery and air fires, it became a man-to-man fight and the Chechens were well equipped to win it. If they didn't cease the supporting fires, the Russian units suffered just as much as the Chechen fighters did, sometimes even more, and the morale effect was much worse on the Russians.

(11) Both the physical and the mental health of the Russian units began to decline almost immediately upon initiation of high intensity combat. In less than a month, almost 20% of the Russian soldiers were suffering from viral hepatitis (very serious, very debilitating, slow recovery). Most had chronic diarrhea and upper respiratory infections that turned to pneumonia easily. This was blamed on the breakdown of logistical support that meant units had to drink contaminated water. Unit sanitary discipline broke down almost completely.

(12) According to a survey of over 1300 troops, about 72% had some sort of psychological disorder. Almost 75% had an exaggerated startle response. About 28% had what was described as neurotic reactions, and almost 10% had acute emotional reactions. The Russians recommended 2 psycho-physiologists, 1 psycho-pharmacologist, 1 psychiatrist, and 1 medical psychologist at each (US) Corps-sized unit. Although their experience in Afghanistan prepared them somewhat for the physical health problems, they were not prepared for this level of mental
health treatment. Many permanent combat stress casualties resulted from the soldiers not being provided proper immediate treatment.

(13) Chechens weren't afraid of tanks and BMPs. They assigned groups of RPG gunners to fire volleys at the lead and trail vehicles. Once they were destroyed, the others were picked off one-by-one. The Russian forces lost 20 of 26 tanks, 102 of 120 BMPs, and 6 of 6 ZSU-23s in the first three day's fighting. Chechens chose firing positions high enough or low enough to stay out of the fields of fire of tank and BMP weapons. Russian conscript Infantry simply refused to dismount and often died in their BMP without ever firing a shot. Russian elite Infantry did much better, but didn't coordinate well with armored vehicles initially.

(14) Chechens were brutish, especially with prisoners. (Some reports say the Russians were no better but most say the Chechens were the worse of the two sides) Whoever was at fault, the battle degenerated quickly to one of "No quarter asked, none given." Russian wounded and dead were hung upside down in windows of defended Chechen positions. Russians had to shoot at the bodies to engage the Chechens. Russian prisoners were decapitated and at night their heads were placed on stakes beside roads leading into the city, over which Russian replacements and reinforcements had to travel. Both Russian and Chechen dead were routinely booby-trapped.

(15) Russians were not surprised by the ferocity and brutality of the Chechens; they expected them to be "criminals and animal brutes", but they were surprised by the sophistication of the Chechen use of booby traps and mines. Chechens mined and booby trapped everything, showing excellent insight into the actions and reactions of the average Russian soldier. Mine and booby trap awareness was hard to maintain.

(16) Russians were satisfied with the combat performance of most of their Infantry weapons. T-72 tank was dead meat -- too vulnerable, too awkward, not agile, no visibility, poor weapons coverage at short ranges. Russians removed them from the battle. They were replaced by smaller numbers of older tanks and more self propelled artillery, more ADA weapons, and more BMPs. Precision guided weapons and UAVs were very useful. There was some need for non-lethal weapons, but mostly riot gas and tranquilizer gas, not stuff like sticky foam. The Russian equivalent of the M202 Flash flame projector and the Mk 19 grenade launcher were very useful weapons. Ultimately, a strong combined arms team and flexible command and control meant more than the individual weapons use.