Heart of Empire — March 18, 2015, 1:51 pm

War by Remote

How armchair generals pretend they’re on the front lines.

To hear our government talk, all is going well with Operation Inherent Resolve, the war against the Islamic State. “Today, we have heard from the secretary that the strategy is sound, the strategy is working,” said a senior military official following Defense Secretary Carter’s recent conclave of three- and four-star generals in Kuwait. Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced the elimination of “fifty percent” of the enemy’s top command and the recapture of 270 square miles from the Islamic State. Finally, it might seem, years of bloody experience are paying off, and we have learned how to fight a flexible, loosely organized enemy and win. 

Unfortunately, news from the front line suggests otherwise. “The level of centralized execution, bureaucracy, and politics is staggering,” reported an embittered A-10 combat pilot in an email that has gone viral in the defense community. “In most cases, unless a general officer can look at a video picture from a [drone] over a satellite link, I cannot get authority to engage. . . . The institutional fear of making a mistake, that has crept into the central mindset of the military leadership, is endemic.” As a result, he recounts recently spending hours watching “a couple hundred small tanker trucks lined up at an oilfield in ISIS-held northeast Syria”—which he could easily have destroyed in minutes—“go unfettered.”

[Correspondence]
UNNECESSARY BUFFERING

From an A-10 combat pilot’s email discussing his frustrations with the fact that top-level approval is required to strike Islamic State targets. UAVs, or unmanned air vehicles, are drones.

I‘ve never been more frustrated in my career. After thirteen years of the mind-numbing low intensity conflict in Afghanistan, I’ve never seen the knife more dull. All the hard lessons learned in Vietnam, and fixed during the first Gulf War, have been unlearned again. The level of centralized execution, bureaucracy, and politics is staggering. I basically do not have any decision-making authority in my cockpit. It sucks. In most cases, unless a general officer can look at a video picture from a UAV, over a satellite link, I cannot get authority to engage. I’ve spent many hours staring through a targeting pod screen in my own cockpit, watching ISIS shitheads perpetrate their acts until my eyes bleed, without being able to do anything about it. The institutional fear of making a mistake that has crept into the central mindset of the military leadership is endemic. We have not taken the fight to these guys. We haven’t targeted their centers of gravity in Raqqa. All the roads between Syria and Iraq are still intact with trucks flowing freely. The other night I watched a couple hundred small tanker trucks lined up at an oilfield in ISIS-held northeast Syria, presumably filling up with with oil traded on the black market, go unfettered. It’s not uncommon to wait several hours overhead a suspected target for someone to make a decision to engage or not. It feels like we are simply using the constructs build up in Afghanistan, which was a very limited fight, in the same way here against ISIS, which is a much more sophisticated and numerically greater foe. It’s embarrassing.

As I describe in my book Kill Chain, the urge for top-down control is not new. In Vietnam, American infantry fighting in the jungle were routinely overseen by ascending tiers of command helicopters. The lowest might bear the battalion commander, then the brigade commander, and above him higher ranks still, all, as one pilot later recalled, trying to “fight vicariously through that frightened twenty-five-year-old down there beneath the tree canopy.” Stories circulated of entire units hiding from such interfering supervision.

The advent of drones relaying live video around the world changed things, for the worse. Now, four-star generals and even more exalted officials can play platoon leader, thanks to live, if blurry, video streaming in from unmanned vehicles half a world away. On the first night of the War in Afghanistan, for example, the two-star general commanding air operations, the four-star general in command of the entire war, the secretary of defense, and the president of the United States were all focused on a drone video of a Toyota Corolla driving in Kandahar that might or might not have contained Taliban leader Mullah Omar. By the time someone was permitted to strike the vehicle with a Hellfire missile it was parked and empty. 

Earlier, during the 1999 Kosovo War, NATO commander Wesley Clark would spend hours engrossed in the drone-video feed streaming on a monitor in his office. His close-up view of the battlefield could impel him to make tactical interventions. “Hey Mike,” he reportedly said in a call to General Michael Short, commander of the allied air fleets, “when are you going to do something about those two Serb tanks sitting at the end of that bridge?”

By the time the Afghan war was properly underway, commanders felt free to direct entire battles, overriding officers on the spot, as was the case with Operation Anaconda in March 2002, during which special-forces commanders based in the Persian Gulf, a thousand miles away, insisted on directing a desperate mountaintop battle, relying on blurry pictures from a Predator drone. Seven Americans died. 

Soon, no command headquarters was complete without “Kill TV,” big plasma screens relaying shots of lethal drone strikes and other actions. The defining image of the Obama Administration may well be that shot of the commander in chief and his national-security staff taking the afternoon off to watch drone-fed video of the raid to kill Osama bin Laden.

While encouraging the illusion of control at the top, Kill TV prevents actual combatants who are fighting for their lives from reacting to shifts in the battle. That necessarily anonymous pilot further complains in his email, “I basically do not have any decision making authority in my cockpit.” In 2012, two A-10 pilots ordered to bomb a supposedly Taliban-infested farmhouse in eastern Afghanistan reported they could see with their own eyes that the house held only a peaceful family. The screens falsely reported a different story to higher commanders, who were eager to strike, and so a family of seven, including five children, were obliterated by several tons of high explosives from a B-1 bomber. (The A-10 Pilots, as I reported in the February 2014 issue of Harper’s, refused to bomb.) 

Senior leaders should by definition be taking a wider view of battle rather than being caught up in some fast-moving but comparatively local firefight. Bush and Rumsfeld should have been thinking about what kind morass they were getting into instead of watching Toyotas on a dusty road. Obama and his people should have been pondering the fact that years of “high-value targeting” had never seemed to solve anyone’s problem.

War is too important to be left to generals watching TV.


Andrew Cockburn, Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of Kill Chain, The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (Henry Holt).

Share
Single Page

More from Andrew Cockburn:

From the November 2018 issue

Blood Money

Taxpayers pick up the tab for police brutality

Conversation October 30, 2018, 2:40 pm

So Goes Hodeida, So Goes Yemen

The Saudi-led coalition continues its brutal holding pattern of airstrikes, even in the face of the worst famine in one hundred years

From the August 2018 issue

How to Start a Nuclear War

The increasingly direct road to ruin

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2018

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
Article
Rebirth of a Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Donald Trump’s presidency signals a profound but inchoate realignment of American politics. On the one hand, his administration may represent the consolidation of minority control by a Republican-dominated Senate under the leadership of a president who came to office after losing the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots. Such an imbalance of power could lead to a second civil war—indeed, the nation’s first and only great fraternal conflagration was sparked off in part for precisely this reason. On the other hand, Trump’s reign may be merely an interregnum, in which the old white power structure of the Republican Party is dying and a new oppositional coalition struggles to be born.

Illustration by Taylor Callery (detail)
Article
Blood Money·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Over the past three years, the city of South Tucson, Arizona, a largely Latino enclave nestled inside metropolitan Tucson, came close to abolishing its fire and police departments. It did sell off the library and cut back fire-truck crews from four to three people—whereupon two thirds of the fire department quit—and slashed the police force to just sixteen employees. “We’re a small city, just one square mile, surrounded by a larger city,” the finance director, Lourdes Aguirre, explained to me. “We have small-town dollars and big-city problems.”

Illustration by John Ritter (detail)
Article
The Tragedy of Ted Cruz·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When I saw Ted Cruz speak, in early August, it was at Underwood’s Cafeteria in Brownwood. He was on a weeklong swing through rural central Texas, hitting small towns and military bases that ensured him friendly, if not always entirely enthusiastic, crowds. In Brownwood, some in the audience of two hundred were still nibbling on peach cobbler as Cruz began with an anecdote about his win in a charity basketball game against ABC’s late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. They rewarded him with smug chuckles when he pointed out that “Hollywood celebrities” would be hurting over the defeat “for the next fifty years.” His pitch for votes was still an off-the-rack Tea Party platform, complete with warnings about the menace of creeping progressivism, delivered at a slightly mechanical pace but with lots of punch. The woman next to me remarked, “This is the fire in the gut! Like he had the first time!” referring to Cruz’s successful long-shot run in the 2011 Texas Republican Senate primary. And it’s true—the speech was exactly like one Cruz would have delivered in 2011, right down to one specific detail: he never mentioned Donald Trump by name.

Cruz recited almost verbatim the same things Trump lists as the administration’s accomplishments: the new tax legislation, reduced African-American unemployment, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. But, in a mirror image of those in the #Resistance who refuse to ennoble Trump with the title “president,” Cruz only called him that.

Photograph of Ted Cruz © Ben Helton (detail)
Article
Wrong Object·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

H

e is a nondescript man.

I’d never used that adjective about a client. Not until this one. My seventeenth. He’d requested an evening time and came Tuesdays at six-thirty. For months he didn’t tell me what he did.

The first session I said what I often said to begin: How can I help you?

I still think of what I do as a helping profession. And I liked the way the phrase echoed down my years; in my first job I’d been a salesgirl at a department store counter.

I want to work on my marriage, he said. I’m the problem.

His complaint was familiar. But I preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer.

It’s me, he said. My wife is a thoroughly good person.

Yawn, I thought, but said, Tell me more.

I don’t feel what I should for her.

What do you feel?

Photograph © Joseph S. Giacalone (detail)

Average life span, in years, of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon:

25

Researchers in California succeeded in teaching genetically engineered E. coli bacteria to communicate using a new chemical “language”; the research aims at turning cells into tiny robots.

Theresa May’s Brexit proposal was rejected; Trump suggested raking to prevent forest fires; Jair Bolsonaro insulted Cuban doctors working in Brazil

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today