May 04 2012

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The American Way to War

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Terrorists - We're Coming for You

The US withdrawal from Iraq, and our advancing disengagement from Afghanistan, crossed the one year anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death this week.  And while there has been abundant and justified praise for our men and women in uniform, the lack of WWII-esque victories in South Asia over a very long decade, has obscured how well the American military has performed – above all adapted – to conflicts that no one could have foreseen on September 10th, 2001.

This is not new.

American business, indeed the US government, could learn something from our military organization, which encourages initiative, documents, analyzes and adapts from mistakes, and above all, demands responsibility and accountability.

It is an organization designed to succeed.

Consider that at the end of 1941, with the most of the US Pacific fleet at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, and with Japanese forces on the move in Indo-China, the Philippines and  Indonesia, it appeared that the Japanese were unbeatable. They had superior equipment (the “Zero” fighter), more aircraft carriers and seemingly fanatical soldiers who fought ruthlessly in a harsh jungle environment, marching without pause with what by Western standards would be considered meager provisions.

The enemy was tough, disciplined and effective.

But the US military adapted.

A battleship-centric navy quickly evolved into the largest aircraft carrier fleet in the world.

After recovering and repairing a crashed Zero fighter, the US used the lessons of the Zero to design and built squadrons of new, high performance fighters and bombers that were more than a match for their Japanese counterparts. The US Navy invented the fleet supply chain so that ships could stay at sea for months without having to return to port. They built new, special purpose ships – the escort carrier and the destroyer escort.

On the ground, the US Marines demonstrated a toughness and tenacity that exceeded the legends told about the Japanese Army. Amphibious landings were refined and new equipment (Amtraks) and tactics were put in service. In less than four years, the air and naval forces had pushed Japan back nearly 5,000 miles to their home islands.

In that push, the enemy became more desperate. Airplanes as missiles did not debut on September 11th, but in 1944 when the kamakazi were used for the first time against US ships at Leyte Gulf. The US Navy improvised to this new kind of warfare by creating concentric rings of defensive ships around the all important aircraft carriers, which could literally throw up  a wall of anti-aircraft fire, bringing down an a majority – but not all of the kamakazi aircraft.

In sum, WWII was a victory of American production and courage. But it could not have been achieved without innovation, new technology and exacting leadership, capable of adapting to the situation on the ground.

The same is true in the conflicts of the last decade.

After 9-11, the key question was how to fight a war against a non-state organization in hiding, dressed in civilian clothes, that made no distinction between combatants and non-combatants. In identifying Afghanistan as the base of Al Qaeda, the question was how to get sufficient forces to the land-locked country to properly engage and defeat the terrorists.

The initial US strategy was as innovative as it was novel.

Special Forces and CIA operatives – occasionally on horseback -, coordinating with Afghan Northern Alliance ground forces, called in air strikes against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. In a month, the Taliban and Al Qaeda were driven from Kabul. By mid December, ten weeks after the start of hostilities, the last Taliban enclave in Kandahar fell.

In the realm of more conventional combat, US forces performed superbly in Iraq. Starting in Kuwait, the US Army and Marines moved 360 miles to capture Baghdad in just 21 days; the fastest US military advance since George Patton ran across northern France in 1944.

But conventional and near conventional operations did not answer the larger question of how to disrupt, delay and destroy terrorist cells, grouped in small units in remote areas. The asymmetrical danger to US forces abroad, indeed to the US homeland, that just a few of these cells represented, radically changed the nature of how the US would wage war on terrorist entities.

There were of course the ongoing efforts by intelligence agencies to identify personnel, plans and locations. Efforts by Treasury to disrupt terror financing.

But the most effective weapon against terrorists was one that most Americans were unfamiliar with in the aftermath of September 11th – aerial drones.

The first use of a Predator drone as a weapon occurred in Afghanistan in 2001. It was a CIA mission, and the operation had been highly classified, as this was a relatively new capability.

This new dimension to warfare grew rapidly with the deployment of more sophisticated drones that could be used for surveillance and attack. As intelligence gathering platforms and tools to root out terrorists, the drone program added a potent new capability to the US arsenal, specifically tailored for the enemy it hunted.

Instead of attacks that put American lives at risk, that required large, high explosives to guarantee effectiveness that would entail collateral damage and civilian deaths, the drone program allowed for highly specific targeting of suspected terrorists, with the flexibility to attack at places where there would be the most limited collateral impact.

Since the drones flew high, were compact and quiet, there was almost no defense against them.

Over the course of a decade, the expanded drone program, coupled with the ability to generate real-time intelligence and the availability of highly trained and experienced Special Forces, became elements of the most potent fighting force in the world.

That became obvious in the bin Laden operation.

US intelligence was able to locate bin Laden within the 870,000 square miles of land mass that comprises Afghanistan/Pakistan combined.

US Special Forces were able to penetrate Pakistani airspace unseen, fly to a compound that was a little more than half an acre in size, located less than a mile from the Pakistani military academy. Within forty minutes, and despite losing a helicopter, the team engaged fighters, found and killed bin Laden, and withdrew without causing any damage beyond the the bin Laden compound.

It was the most precise, targeted operation since US intelligence had broken the Japanese naval code and determined the flight plan of Admiral Yamamoto – allowing US fighters to shoot down his plane in 1943.

 But the similarity ends there as in the case of bin Laden, it was an operation that was orders of magnitude more complex, logistically and politically.

There is something both satisfying and appropriate that bin Laden’s death did not come at the end of missile launch from miles away; instantaneous and antiseptic. Bin Laden believed that America was weak and easily beaten. He had little regard for the US penchant to fire missiles from far away to attack enemies, unwilling to risk lives in pursuit of national goals.

So what must have been going through bin Laden’s mind in his final moments as he realized that his nemesis had found him, and had come to get him in person, in the form of US Navy SEALs.

As Pearl Harbor led to Tokyo Bay, so September 11th led to May 2nd, nearly a decade later.

In both cases, the US military improvised, learned and adapted; becoming a far more lethal adversary as a result. In the process, it upheld long-standing traditions and high ideals. Indeed, is the courage, resourcefulness and sheer determination of our military and intelligence forces today that give pause to any would be terrorist or enemy.

You can run, but you cannot hide.

Our profound debt of gratitude for such selfless and able service to our nation should be constantly recognized and honored.



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