Wednesday, April 28, 2010


"If you load a mudfoot down with a lot of gadgets he has to watch somebody a lot more simply equipped - say with a stone axe - will sneak up and bash his head in while he is trying to read a Vernier." - Robert Heinlein

Resistance is futile!

The government and media have long since convinced us all of the omnipotence of technology. Why they can read your underwear label from space via satellite, and one single quick glance at a mountain range with a helicopter FLIR will located each and every warm body present, from field mice on up, and separate them by genus and species. Light infantry, freedom fighters, militia, guerrillas or whatever are all totally helpless before such technological wonders, and will be immediately and mercilessly crushed like bugs.

Electronic intelligence and the high-tech sub systems which gather that information are indeed impressive and something to be treated with the greatest degree of respect. But no man-made system is perfect. Even the most gee of the gee-whiz government toys have their weaknesses.

Don’t believe it? Let’s examine a few instances where the omnipotent Eye-in-the Sky failed miserably.

In 2002 in Afghanistan, U.S. forces were focused on the Shahi Kot Valley in the mountains of Paktia Province because human intelligence on the ground between Special Forces and local Afghanis indicated a gathering of Taliban and Al-Qaeda there.

“At night, when these groups [Taliban] heard a Predator or AC-130 coming, they pulled a blanket over themselves to disappear from the night-vision screen. They used low tech to defeat high tech.”

The full might of America’s high-tech electronic intelligence gathering assets swung into action and was directed for several weeks on a 10 kilometer by 10 kilometer square box of the objective area. Spy satellites directed their attention with Multi-Spectral Scanners, radar, GIS, and whatever the hell other secret acronym intensive systems they possess onto the area from space. Signals intelligence intercepted, triangulated, and monitored every word the Taliban and Al-Qaeda spoke on their radios or cell phones. Predator drones combed the area night and day with Multi-spectral Targeting Systems that included color nose cameras, a variable aperture day-TV camera, and a variable aperture infrared (FLIR) camera. AC-130 Spectre gunships prowled by night, using 360-degree All-Light Level TV, Infrared Detection systems, lasers, radar, and crewmen with image intensification NVD (Night Vision Devices).

One of many sensor banks inside an AC-130 being monitored by one of its 13-member crew.

Combining all these high-tech sources, the chairborne intelligence wonks confidently prophesied that the enemy consisted of only 150, no more than 200, fighters. They possessed no heavy weapons, only small arms and, at best, heavy machine guns. The handful of Taliban, the Whiz Kids said, were mostly located on the valley floor in the small villages; only a single anti-aircraft position with a 12.7mm DShK machine gun had been located in the mountains above the towns by the electronic toys.

Conditions turned out to be quite different when American troops air assaulted into the midst of the area and Afghan troops mounted a ground offensive. It turned out the enemy had at least a thousand fighters. The civilians had already pretty much left the villages, and the Taliban forces were located mostly in the mountains instead. “No heavy weapons” turned out to include numerous vehicles, mortars up to 120-mm, various recoilless rifles, and several 122 mm D-30 howitzers and a larger 152 mm piece. The air assaults received a blistering welcome from small arms, RPG’s and heavy mortar fire.

“No heavy weapons.” Unless you picky bastards consider a Soviet-built D-20 152mm howitzer capable of firing a 96-pound projectile to a range of 17,400 meters "heavy".

Approaching stealthily by night to be in position for a dawn overland attack, part of the friendly Afghan ground forces, accompanied by Special Forces operators, were accidentally attacked and blasted by an American AC-130 gunship despite radio calls and infrared recognition devices. The remnants of this Afghani force were met by intense fire of all kinds from the Taliban when they attacked in the morning, suffered numerous casualties, and eventually withdrew.

One Special Forces team infiltrating through the mountains on foot gathered more real-time intelligence on enemy numbers and positions with the Mark I Human Eyeball than all the eyes-in-the-sky technology combined had. They almost immediately found another DShK anti-aircraft position that electronic intelligence had missed. It was hardly hidden, with a tent heated by a woodstove right beside it and a bright blue vinyl tarp protecting the machine gun itself. The position directly overlooked one of the air assault landing zones and would have brutally chewed up the flaring, landing choppers. Air Force fighter-bombers could not hit the position; the SF Team had to stalk and take out the heavy machine gun and its crew and guards by themselves on foot (in between clearing jams on their M4’s, of course).

When a team of Navy SEALs in an MH-47 Chinook helicopter attempted to land on Takur Ghar ridge, on which the all-seeing, all-knowing electronic eyes-in-the-sky had just detected nothing, they instead found numerous Taliban fighters with another DShK .51-caliber heavy machine gun, RPG’s, small arms, and a prepared bunker and slit trenches, all of whom engaged them at point-blank range. They landed almost literally right on top of them. Later, an Army Ranger reaction force that came in as reinforcements was never informed of the situation, landed in the middle of the hot LZ, and was also taken under heavy fire. The majority of American casualties and helicopter shoot-downs came from this one isolated corner of the battle.

The battle officially lasted from March 1 to March 18, 2001. The PBI (Poor Bloody Infantry) pulled the brass’ chestnuts out of the fire…again…through improvisations and day-long firefights. Aggressive attack helicopter pilots helped save the day for the ground pounders, but most of the Apaches were soon shot to pieces and had to withdraw from the fight. The latest greatest jet bombers with precision-guided munitions could not make up for the fact that military leaders had ordered the “low-tech” tube artillery that was badly needed left behind in the states since it wasn’t gee-whiz and high-tech enough.

Despite all the high technology gear and CAS aircraft stacking up waiting to deliver ordnance, there was considerable difficulty in actually taking out the Afghan fighters during Operation Anaconda. This excerpt comes from an official Army report, which makes it particularly damning considering how much they whitewash things:

“Moreover, enemy targets often were so well protected by the surrounding mountains and ridges that hitting them with strikes was difficult. Exact hits were often necessary, and even precision JDAMs sometimes were not able to achieve this accuracy. Even when exact hits were achieved, only a single small target—perhaps two or three enemy fighters manning a heavy machine gun—was normally destroyed. Hundreds of enemy fighters were deployed in the mountains and ridges, thus creating a very large number of small targets, each of which had to be attacked individually. A further complication was that enemy fighters often would scramble for the protection of caves when they sensed an impending air attack, only to re-emerge after the ordnance had been delivered. The process of rooting them out by air strikes thus was slow, frustrating, and time-consuming. Several days of intense air bombardment were needed before enemy fires began abating noticeably [emphasis added].”

General Tommy Franks tried to direct the action via satellite link from Florida, and other brass all up and down the convoluted “me too” chain of command also second-guessed the men on the ground. When all was said and done, the generals declared a brilliant victory and patted themselves on the back. They claimed an enemy body count of 500-1000 (I thought there were only 150?), and that friendly troops had recovered weapon caches and invaluable intelligence materials. Others, lower on the totem pole, who had been directly involved, noted that the air assault forces had been engaged in heavy combat from the moment they hit the ground and had never made it to their assigned blocking positions. With these escape routes left wide open, it is certain many insurgents egressed safely across the border to Pakistan.

Before Afghanistan, there was the completely unintelligible goal-less NATO air campaign in Kosovo. The bombing campaign lasted for 78 days. Aircraft from a dozen countries flew 11,000 strike missions and delivered 20,000 bombs and missiles. As always, the brass hats made extravagant claims of the enemy targets destroyed and the efficiency of air power and patted themselves on the back. Perhaps air force technology had reached a point where antiseptic surgical strikes from the sky would negate the need for ground troops altogether? Once NATO “peacekeepers” were on the ground and on site bomb damage assessments (BDA’s) were done, a different picture emerged.

“According to a suppressed Air Force report obtained by Newsweek, the number of targets verifiably destroyed was a tiny fraction of those claimed: 14 tanks, not 120; 18 armored personnel carriers, not 220; 20 artillery pieces, not 450. Out of 744 “confirmed” strikes by NATO pilots during the war, the Air Force investigators, who spent weeks combing Kosovo by helicopter and by foot, found evidence of just 58.”

How could this be possible against the might of several air forces and all the electronic intelligence available? Here are but a few of the techniques the Yugoslavs used to counter high tech with low tech.

*Yugoslav air defenses tracked U.S. stealth aircraft by using old Russian radars operating on long wavelengths. This, combined with the loss of stealth characteristics when the jets got wet or opened their bomb bays, made them shine on radar screens.

*Radars confused precision-guided HARM and ALARM missiles by reflecting their electromagnetic beams off heavy farm machinery, such as plows or old tractors placed around the sites. This cluttered the U.S. missiles' guidance systems, which were unable to pinpoint the emitters.

*Scout helicopters would land on flatbed trucks and rev their engines before being towed to camouflaged sites several hundred meters away. Heat-seeking missiles from NATO jets would then locate and go after the residual heat on the trucks.

*Yugoslav troops used cheap heat-emitting decoys such as small gas furnaces to simulate nonexistent positions on Kosovo mountainsides. B-52 bombers, employing advanced infrared sensors, repeatedly blasted the empty hills. The army drew up plans for covert placement of heat and microwave emitters on territory that NATO troops were expected to occupy in a ground war. This was intended to trick the B-52s into carpet-bombing their own forces. Dozens of dummy objectives, including fake bridges and airfields were constructed. Many of the decoy planes were so good that NATO claimed that the Yugoslav air force had been decimated. After the war, it turned out most of its planes had survived unscathed. Fake tanks were built using plastic sheeting, old tires, and logs. Of particular use were European milk cartons, which are metal-lined. These were flattened and used to build 2/3 scale model military vehicles. To mimic heat emissions, cans were filled with sand and fuel and set alight. Hundreds of these makeshift decoys were bombed, leading to wildly inflated destruction claims.

I wonder how many times this wood-and-canvas MiG-29 was bombed and destroyed?

*Bridges and other strategic targets were defended from missiles with laser-guidance systems by bonfires made of old tires and wet hay, which emit dense smoke filled with laser-reflecting particles.

*U.S. bombs equipped with GPS guidance proved vulnerable to old electronic jammers that blocked their links with satellites.

* Serb forces were able to deceive NATO's heat-seeking radars and missiles by placing large drums of liquid in the sunlight. After dark, as the liquid gave off its stored heat, it would divert missiles and radar away from nearby Serb troops and equipment.

* One such method was to build crude silhouettes of military vehicles, bridges, and even roads, which look like the real thing in satellite photos and radar images. The Serbs protected one bridge by building, 300 yards upstream, a fake bridge consisting of a basic frame of ropes and cables with polyethylene sheeting stretched over it. NATO pilots repeatedly bombed these decoys, believing each time that they had destroyed a military target.

* Another tactic used by the Serbs was to place damaged vehicles or equipment out in the open. Bombing the same pieces of equipment over and over again accounts for part of NATO's inaccurate estimates of Serb losses.

* NATO's early estimate of Serb casualties was also grossly inflated. Rather than five or ten thousand, NATO peacekeepers now estimate that less than 1,000 Serbs were killed in combat. It is widely believed that the figure would have been even lower had NATO not coordinated its attacks in the final weeks of the campaign with the Kosovo Liberation Army or KLA.

*Weapons that performed well in Afghanistan — Predator drones, Apache attack choppers and C-130 Hercules gunships — proved ineffective in Kosovo. Drones were easy targets for 1940s-era Hispano-Suisa anti-aircraft cannons, and C-130s and Apaches were considered too vulnerable to be deployed.

Out of the mountains and in the wide open desert during the first Gulf War, high-tech worked quite a bit better. But they only showed the very best smart bomb’s “War’s Funniest Home Videos” on TV. They never showed the misses.

For instance, on the opening day of Operation Desert Storm, the 101st Airmobile was to air assault the dug-in Iraqi 1st Battalion, 841st Infantry Brigade to seize a location for forward area refueling of the Army’s relatively short-legged helicopter fleet. The eye-in-the-sky technologies had failed to even find the Iraqi unit and its bunkers. When they were found, for six straight hours Apache and Cobra attack helicopters pounded them with dozens of Hellfire and TOW missiles, hundreds of 2.75-inch unguided rockets, and thousands of 20 and 30-mm cannon shells. Air Force A-10 Warthog ground attack planes added more 30-mm fire and dropped dumb and guided bombs.

When the smoke cleared and the 101st infantrymen arrived, almost all the Iraqis surrendered but, to the amazement of the Americans, when the Iraqis crawled out of their bunkers and dugouts, not a single Iraqi soldier had been killed by the hours aerial firepower.

Before that, it had been the Soviets’ turn in Afghanistan, where they made all the same mistakes American commanders too arrogant to learn from “inferior armies” had to make all over again for themselves.

Russian expert Lester W. Grau noted this aspect to just one of the Soviet-Afghan battles for the Caves of Zhawar:

"(September 4, 1985) The Mujahideen from Lezhi retreated south while a 20-man Mujahideen force blocked the Manay Kandow pass. The pass is dominated by a high peak which is capped with a thick rock slab. Under the slab was a natural cave which the Mujahideen improved. The cave could accommodate the 20 Mujahideen during artillery and air strikes. The Mujahideen also dug communications trenches so that they could quickly reoccupy their fighting positions once the firing stopped. The firing positions dominated the Tani plain and were well positioned to stop any infantry attack.

The DRA repeatedly attacked the pass but could make no headway. The infantry would attack, meet withering Mujahideen fire and stop. Then massed air and artillery would pound the area. The infantry would again try to attack, but would again be stopped immediately. The procedure would then repeat itself, but the DRA made no headway during its ten-day attack. After ten days, the DRA called in heavy Soviet airstrikes which continuously hit the mountain top. The thick rock slab began to sway and rock. The Mujahideen were afraid that the rock slab might shift and crush their cave, so they finally withdrew. It was 14 September 1985."

Before that was Vietnam, but I think you have the picture by now.

To quote Grau one last time, from his article Bashing the Laser Rangefinder With a Rock:

Combat in rugged terrain. The advantages of technology are limited in combat in heavy forests, jungles, mountains and swamps. Conventional weapons, field gear, communications equipment and transporters will often work less effectively or fail completely in rugged terrain. US experience in Vietnam and Burma demonstrated technology's limitations and showed that dismounted infantry, whether conventional or guerrilla, are the most effective combatants in difficult terrain.

Man, I love living in the mountains. Scouts out.


Anonymous said...


That's a great article. Thanks.

Unknown said...

Indeed, you have turned out another great article Bawb. Very good insights there.

Bawb said...

An e-mail I got about this post reminded me of something else.

Out here in the Rocky Mountain West, we search for forest fires all summer. We have satellite imagery. Fixed and rotary wing aircraft, some with IR, patrol constantly and Doppler radar maps of lightning strikes tell them where to look.

Fires, BTW, don't escape and evade. They don't deliberately use cover or concealment or terrain masking.

When TSHTF, in really bad fire years, they always re-man the old fire lookout towers with real live humans. Even without the towers, the overwhelming majority of fires are still spotted by the Mk I MOD 0 Human Eyeball.

Food for thought.