Tag Archives: special forces

A Humane Bombing Campaign? the Baghuz Strike

In the last days of the battle against the Islamic State in Syria, when members of the once-fierce caliphate were cornered in a dirt field next to a town called Baghuz, a U.S. military drone circled high overhead, hunting for military targets. But it saw only a large crowd of women and children huddled against a river bank. Without warning, an American F-15E attack jet streaked across the drone’s high-definition field of vision and dropped a 500-pound bomb on the crowd, swallowing it in a shuddering blast. As the smoke cleared, a few people stumbled away in search of cover. Then a jet tracking them dropped one 2,000-pound bomb, then another, killing most of the survivors.

It was March 18, 2019. At the U.S. military’s busy Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, uniformed personnel watching the live drone footage looked on in stunned disbelief, according to one officer who was there. “Who dropped that?” a confused analyst typed on a secure chat system being used by those monitoring the drone, two people who reviewed the chat log recalled. Another responded, “We just dropped on 50 women and children.”

The Baghuz strike was one of the largest civilian casualty incidents of the war against the Islamic State, but it has never been publicly acknowledged by the U.S. military. The details, reported by the New York Times on November 13, 2021, show that the death toll was almost immediately apparent to military officials. A legal officer flagged the strike as a possible war crime that required an investigation. But at nearly every step, the military made moves that concealed the catastrophic strike. The death toll was downplayed. Reports were delayed, sanitized and classified. United States-led coalition forces bulldozed the blast site. And top leaders were not notified.

The Defense Department’s independent inspector general began an inquiry, but the report containing its findings was stalled and stripped of any mention of the strike. “Leadership just seemed so set on burying this. No one wanted anything to do with it,” said Gene Tate,  a former Navy officer who had worked for years as a civilian analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Counterterrorism Center before moving to the inspector general’s office….

The details of the strikes were pieced together by The New York Times over months from confidential documents and descriptions of classified reports, as well as interviews with personnel directly involved, and officials with top secret security clearances who discussed the incident on the condition that they not be named. The Times investigation found that the bombing had been called in by a classified American special operations unit, Task Force 9, which was in charge of ground operations in Syria. The task force operated in such secrecy that at times it did not inform even its own military partners of its actions. In the case of the Baghuz bombing, the American Air Force command in Qatar had no idea the strike was coming, an officer who served at the command center said.

The only assessment done immediately after the strike was performed by the same ground unit that ordered the strike. It determined that the bombing was lawful because it killed only a small number of civilians while targeting Islamic State fighters in an attempt to protect coalition forces, the command said. Therefore no formal war crime notification, criminal investigation or disciplinary action was warranted, it said, adding that the other deaths were accidental.

But the Air Force lawyer, Lt. Col. Dean W. Korsak, believed he had witnessed possible war crimes and repeatedly pressed his leadership and Air Force criminal investigators to act. When they did not, he alerted the Defense Department’s independent inspector general. Two years after the strike, seeing no evidence that the watchdog agency was taking action, Colonel Korsak emailed the Senate Armed Services Committee, telling its staff that he had top secret material to discuss and adding, “I’m putting myself at great risk of military retaliation for sending this.”..

The United States portrayed the air war against the Islamic State as the most precise and humane bombing campaign in its history. The military said every report of civilian casualties was investigated and the findings reported publicly, creating what the military called a model of accountability. The details suggest that while the military put strict rules in place to protect civilians, the Special Operations task force 9 repeatedly used other rules to skirt them. The military teams counting casualties rarely had the time, resources or incentive to do accurate work. And troops rarely faced repercussions when they caused civilian deaths.

On the ground, Task Force 9 coordinated offensives and airstrikes. The unit included soldiers from the 5th Special Forces Group and the Army’s elite commando team Delta Force, several officials said. Over time, some officials overseeing the air campaign began to believe that the task force was systematically circumventing the safeguards created to limit civilian deaths. The process was supposed to run through several checks and balances. Drones with high-definition cameras studied potential targets, sometimes for days or weeks. Analysts pored over intelligence data to differentiate combatants from civilians. And military lawyers were embedded with strike teams to ensure that targeting complied with the law of armed conflict.  But there was a quick and easy way to skip much of that oversight: claiming imminent danger….By late 2018, about 80 percent of all airstrikes Task Force 9 was calling in claimed self-defense, according to an Air Force officer who reviewed the strikes. The rules allowed U.S. troops and local allies to invoke it when facing not just direct enemy fire, but anyone displaying “hostile intent,”… Under that definition, something as mundane as a car driving miles from friendly forces could in some cases be targeted…..

The aftermath of that approach was plain to see. A number of Syrian towns, including the regional capital, Raqqa, were reduced to little more than rubble. Human rights organizations reported that the coalition caused thousands of civilian deaths during the war. Hundreds of military assessment reports examined by The Times show the task force was implicated in nearly one in five coalition civilian casualty incidents in the region…Publicly, the coalition insisted the numbers were much lower. Privately, it became overwhelmed by the volume of civilian casualty claims reported by locals, humanitarian groups and the news media, and a backlog of civilian casualty assessment reports sat unexamined for months, two people who compiled the reports said…..

Excerpts from How the U.S. Hid an Airstrike That Killed Dozens of Civilians in Syria, NY Times, Nov. 13, 2021

Overly Militarized Military: United States

Gray zone security challenges…that fall between the traditional war and peace duality, are characterized by ambiguity about the nature of the conflict, opacity of the parties involved, or uncertainty about the relevant policy and legal frameworks….

The U.S. already possesses the right mix of tools to prevail in the gray zone, but it must think, organize and act differently. Gray zone challenges are not new. Monikers such as irregular warfare, low-intensity conflict, asymmetric warfare, military operations other than war and small wars were employed to describe this phenomenon in the past. …

America spends roughly $600 billion every year on defense, and it is the dominant global power by every objective measure. Yet state and non-state actors (e.g., Russia and Daesh) are increasingly undeterred from acting in ways inimical to the global common good.
State actors like Russia and China reasonably believe we will not use nuclear or conventional military force to thwart their ambitions if they craft their aggressive actions to avoid clear-cut military triggers. Despite their inherent ambiguity, the United States should not be  frustrated by gray zone challenges. Rather, we should aim to achieve favorable outcomes by taking some practical steps to improve our ability to address them.

Our responses to gray zone challenges display several clear deficiencies. As separate U.S. government agencies strive to achieve their individual organizational goals, they seldom act in integrated ways to support wider government objectives….We also need to grow our non-military capabilities. Our gray zone actions are often overly militarized because the Department of Defense has the most capability and resources, and thus is often the default U.S. government answer…. Our counter-Daesh campaign is a perfect example. Thousands of airstrikes helped to check their rapid expansion, but the decisive effort against them will require discrediting their narrative and connecting the people to legitimate governing structures — areas where DoD should not have primacy.

Root Causes: Prudent strategies recognize root causes and address them. Daesh, for example, is merely symptomatic of the much larger problems of massive populations of disaffected Sunnis estranged from legitimate governance and a breakdown in the social order across much of Africa and the Middle East, which will worsen in coming years by economic and demographic trends. Daesh is also a prime example of gray zone challenges, since the legal and policy framework of how to attack a proto-state is highly ambiguous. Coalition aircraft started bombing Daesh in August of 2014, although the authorization for use of military force is still under debate a year later, highlighting the confusion on how to proceed.

[Develop and Nurture Surrogates to Fight China]

For example, China is both antagonistically asserting its questionable claims to specific islands  and atolls in the South China Sea while simultaneously expanding its import of raw materials from Africa. Instead of confronting China in the South China Sea directly, surrogates could, theoretically, be used to hold China’s African interests at risk in order to compel a more  favorable outcome of South China Sea disputes. Thus, the point of action (e.g., Africa) might be far removed from the point of effect (e.g., Asia), but the intent would be to alter the decision-making calculus regardless of geography. To be credible, such an approach requires  prep work every bit as important as the infrastructure behind our nuclear and conventional capabilities. Capable and trustworthy surrogates are the result of years of purposeful relationship nurturing,and the vast majority of the work should take place pre-crisis….

Changing our vocabulary could help yield better decisions in the gray zone. Adopting a business vocabulary and a “SWOT” model (strength, weakness, opportunity and threat) would open other opportunities not available in military decision-making models. Similar to the way businesses decide how to allocate capital, we would necessarily distinguish between opportunities and threats and have at least an estimate of our expected return on investment. Talking and thinking differently about national security in the gray zone would help us measure the oft-ignored opportunity costs and come up with some metric, however imperfect initially, to measure our expected return on investment for defense dollars.

Cost should be a significant up front consideration. For example, we famously refused to provide a cost estimate for Operation Iraqi Freedom, other than to know that $200 billion was ar too high. Assuming we established $200 billion as the top end to “invest” in
Iraq, it would at least force us to review our actions and evaluate our return on investment as we blew through initial estimates on our way to spending in excess of $2 trillion.

Excerpts from the Gray Zone, Special Warfare, Oct-Dec. 2015, Volume 28, Issue 4

Kill Without Leaving Fingerpints: Iraq War

The Iraq war was, in part, a proxy battle between the US and Iran….By early 2007, some US intelligence estimates held that as many as 150 Iranian operatives were in Iraq. Many were member of the Quds Force, the covert arm of Iran’s Shi’ite theocracy. Their mission was to coordinate the violent campaign being waged against US forces by Iraq’s Shi’ite militias.“It was 100 percent, ‘Are you willing to kill Americans and are you willing to coordinate attacks?’ ” said an officer who studied the Quds Force’s approach closely. “ ‘If the answer is “yes,” here’s arms, here’s money.’ ”

The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) set up a new task force, named Task Force 17.Its mandate was simple: go after “anything that Iran is doing to aid in the destabilization of Iraq,” said a Task Force 17 officer…But political restrictions hobbled Task Force 17, particularly as the US lowered its profile in Iraq. The country’s Shi’ite-dominated government, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, wasn’t happy with any attacks that targeted Iran operatives or their Iraqi proxies.  But for a small number of Shi’ite targets, JSOC found a way around the political restrictions by killing its enemies without leaving any US fingerprints.  The command did this using a device called the “Xbox.”

Developed jointly by Delta Force and SEAL Team 6, the Xbox was a bomb designed to look and behave exactly like one made by Iraqi insurgents, using materials typically found in locally made improvised explosive devices…[The Xbox] was made by the Delta and Team 6 explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) personnel… After capturing some IEDs intact on the Afghan and Iraqi battlefields, the EOD troops set about taking them apart.  It wasn’t long before they realized they could build them as well..  At first, the officer said, JSOC’s bomb makers used components typically found in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater: “Chinese circuits and Pakistani parts . . . and explosives from old Soviet munitions, et cetera.”  The intent was to create a device that if it were sent to the FBI’s Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center in Quantico, Va., the Bureau’s experts would mistakenly trace the bomb back to a particular terrorist bomb maker because of certain supposedly telltale signature elements of the design that JSOC’s explosive ordnance disposal gurus had managed to re-create.

But the Xbox was different from regular IEDs in several ways… First, unlike many IEDs, such as those detonated by vehicles running over pressure plates, it had to be command detonated, meaning an operator somewhere was watching the target and then pressing a button. Another design requirement was that the Xbox device had to be extremely stable, to avoid the sort of premature explosions that often kill terrorists.

JSOC wanted to use the device to kill individuals, rather than crowds…JSOC used reconnaissance operators, who are typically some of Delta’s most experienced, because getting the device into position, by placing it in the target’s vehicle, for example, was “a lot of work,” he said. It usually involved surveillance of the target for days on end, understanding his pattern of life — his daily routines — so that the operators could predict when they would be able to gain access to his vehicle unobserved….[A] senior Team 6 source, who questioned the morality of using the device [said]: “[It’s] a great tool, but as many of us have said — hey, we’re no different than the enemy if we’re just blowing people up with booby traps.”

Excerpted from Sean Naylor “Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command” (2015)

How to Manipulate People in War

“We have, in my view, exquisite capabilities to kill people,” said Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland. “We need exquisite capabilities to manipulate them.”  Psychological subtlety and the US military don’t always go hand-in-hand. Worldwide, we’ve become better known for drone strikes and Special Operations raids to kill High Value Targets. But that wasn’t enough for the last 13 years of war, according to a RAND study …“We’ve built a great apparatus for terrorism and to some degree we’ve got to be careful that doesn’t create blind spots,” Cleveland said… during a panel discussion at RAND. “There’s a cottage industry that’s built up around it [counter-terrorism]. You run the risk of basically taking on an entrenched infrastructure” whenever you try to broaden the focus killing and capturing the bad guys, he said, but we have to try.

“I don’t think we understand completely the fight we’re in,” Cleveland said. …In the US, though, “we’re horrible at ‘influence operations,’” said Cleveland. The US approach is “fractured” among multiple specialties and organizations, he said. Some key elements are in Cleveland’s USASOC — civil affairs, for example, and Military Information Support Operations (MISO), formerly known as psychological operations — while others lie entirely outside — such as cyber and electronic warfare.

To the extent US forces address psychology, propaganda, and politics at all, we tend to do it as an afterthought. “We routinely write a plan for kinetic action, and buried in there is the information operations annex,” said William Wechsler, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for special operations and combating terrorism. “Many times, it should be the opposite…. When you’re dealing with these types of adversaries [e.g. ISIL], that is often the decisive line of operations.”

That’s just one example of how the US ties its own hands with organizations, processes, even laws — indeed, an entire national security culture — designed for a very different kind of warfare. All warfare is a clash of wills, Clausewitz famously said, but Americans tend to fixate on technology and targets, not winning — or intimidating — hearts and minds….” Even when unconditional surrender is the goal, victory always means convincing the enemy to stop fighting….

Likewise, local partners are rarely reliable allies, but they aren’t the enemy either. Commanders need to understand the good, bad, and ugly of partners who may be corrupt, inept, or grinding their own political axes on the heads of rival ethnic groups. US intelligence, however, is still geared to figuring out “the enemy,” defined as a clear-cut foe. “…Where combat advisors are allowed, their roles must be negotiated between the host government and the US country by country, case by case, and there are usually strict restrictions — often imposed by American political leaders fearful of putting US troops in harm’s way.  “Putting people on the ground to do this kind of work is inherently more risky than flying an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and dropping a Hellfire, but we have to learn how to accept that risk, because this at the end of the day is much more often the decisive line of operation,” said Wechsler….

“We are shooting behind the target in almost every case,” said Hix, because we have to grind through our methodical, outdated planning process while adversaries innovate. A new Joint Concept does away with the traditional “Phase 0″ through “Phase 5″ system, which conceives the world in terms of before, during, and after major conflicts, Hix told me after the panel. In the new world disorder, “we need those resources and authorities in what we consider to be ‘peace,”” he said. If you don’t have them, he warned, “your enemy’s playing chess while you’re playing checkers.”

By SYDNEY J. FREEDBERG JR., Killing Is Not Enough: Special Operators, Breaking Defense, Dec. 16, 2014

The Super Military Helicopter: VTOL-X

From the DARPA website:

The versatility of helicopters and other vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft make them ideal for a host of military operations. Currently, only helicopters can maneuver in tight areas, land in unprepared areas, move in all directions, and hover in midair while holding a position. This versatility often VTOL aircraft the right aerial platform for transporting troops, surveillance operations, special operations and search-and-rescue missions.

Compared to fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters are slower-leaving them more vulnerable to damage from enemy weapons. Special operations that rely on lightning-quick strikes and medical units that transport patients to care facilities need enhanced speed to shorten mission times, increase mission range, reduce the number of refueling events and, most important, reduce exposure to the adversary.

By their very design, rotary-wing aircraft that take off and land vertically have a disadvantage achieving speeds comparable to fixed-wing aircraft.,,,”For the past 50 years, we have seen jets go higher and faster while VTOL aircraft speeds have flat-lined and designs have become increasingly complex,” said Ashish Bagai, DARPA program manager. “To overcome this problem, DARPA has launched the VTOL X-Plane program to challenge industry and innovative engineers to concurrently push the envelope in four areas: speed, hover efficiency, cruise efficiency and useful load capacity.”  “We have not made this easy,” he continued. “Strapping rockets onto the back of a helicopter is not the type of approach we’re looking for…This time, rather than tweaking past designs, we are looking for true cross-pollinations of designs and technologies from the fixed-wing and rotary-wing worlds.

Excerpt from DARPA EXPERIMENTAL AIRCRAFT PROGRAM TO DEVELOP THE NEXT GENERATION OF VERTICAL FLIGHT, February 25, 2013

See also https://www.fbo.gov/