Monthly Archives: September 2014

Sunni Arabs against ISIS?

No real groundbreaking developments today with regards to ISIS.  According to the news there are 40 or so countries that are now part of coalition against ISIS.  Looking at the actual statements by some of those countries the number of countries willing to take real meaningful action is much smaller.  It is revealing that the Arab nations that are supposedly willing to carryout kinetic actions do not identify themselves.

Par for the course the US reporters continue accepting without question statements such as this one from Jordan: “The U.S. will have to take the lead in providing military strikes.”  Apparently Jordan does not see ISIS as a threat to its existence.  If it did it would use its air and ground forces to reduce that threat.  Maybe the Jordanians are planning to bury their fighter aircraft, as Iraq did in 2003, if ISIS ever comes across the border from Syria and Iraq.  They are obviously not willing to do anything useful with them.  These actions once again showcase the lack of willingness of Sunni Arab nations to take care of their own problems.

At some point the US foreign policy and military decision-makers have to realize that the Sunni Arab “training wheels” of American support will have to come off and those countries have to learn how to take care of their own security.  Of course chances of that in the current climate are slim to none.  The US will continue to mow grass and destroy the latest iteration of Sunni terrorist group, only to see another one rise up in its place.  The so called Arab allies are no more than window dressing, without any real contribution to the fight.  As evidenced by even their lack of public commitment.  In fact it would be interesting to see if the individual donations from the Arab countries to ISIS exceed what the governments of those countries are willing to use to combat ISIS.

Ukraine – Russia

Another interesting article in The Economist, though somewhat lacking in analysis.  It is titled A Brief Intermission.  A good article, but what it lacks is just the final analysis of how the conflict will play out.  As the article point out the: Many questions remain, however: not least, whether Ukraine will manage to regain control over its eastern border with Russia, a decisive factor in assessing if the pro-Russian insurgency can ever be pacified. This is an excellent point which needs to be addressed further.

Based on previous Russian actions it is clear that the Russians will not abide by the international rules governing conduct among countries at peace.  The invasions of both Crimea and Eastern Ukraine demonstrate the lack of Russian concern for the international norms and rule of law.  The only way Ukraine will be able to suppress the Russian instigated insurgency is to win militarily.  Now, there are a lot of analysts out there saying that cannot be done.  I think otherwise.  It will require a tremendous effort on the part of the Ukrainian state and armed forces, but it can be done.  The history is full of examples of a smaller army/state, defeating a larger enemy.

Unless Russian political landscape changes dramatically, force is the only option available for Ukraine, or it should be prepared to give in to Russian demands.  Unless Russia changes course Ukraine will have to fight to force Russia to deal with the consequences of its actions (Russian military casualties, destroyed equipment, economic shortage, etc.).  Russia will respond to nothing else.  The recent history shows Russia can be defeated as it was during the first Chechen War.

The Ukrainian effort will require conventional army formations capable of maneuver warfare and combined arms operations.  It is achievable.  The Ukrainian army has thousands of tanks, APCs, and artillery pieces.  It now has to recreate itself as a competent force while engaged in combat.  It has been done before, as the Soviet Red Army reorganized itself during WWII after initial defeats.  The only way Ukraine will be able to secure its border is if it is ready to answer Russian cross-border artillery fire with its own.  Only then will Russia truly realize the consequences of its involvement.

Confronting ISIS

As a fairly regular reader of The Economist I’m fascinated by the lack of the critical analysis by their journalists when discussing the threat posed by ISIS.  The most recent article goes into detail as to what the supposed solution is, while at the same time completely ignoring ISIS origins.  The article is under the tag Confronting Islamic State.

What the article completely ignores is the link between how the ISIS came to power and what the proposed actions against them should be.  There is no compare and contrast in the discussion of how everything ISIS possess in terms of equipment and ammunition has been captured by them.  ISIS would have no ammunition if their opponents actually fought until ammunition ran out.  There is no discussion that the terrorist organization did not have a massive training and equipment program as Iraqi military did.  That distinction is important as the magazine lays out solutions such as: “security-force assistance teams”, each with about 10-20 soldiers, need to be deployed with Iraqi battalions for a year or so.”  Really?  Where are the ISIS assistance teams?  How is it they are capable of conducting multi-country operations, while US trained Iraqi army could not take Falluja after eight months of trying?

The question is important because it goes to the root of the matter.  Giving Iraqi and Syrian rebels arms and ammunition will mean that it will end up in terrorist hands.  They will just abandon them as the Iraqi army did in Mosul.  Think of the irony of US bombs destroying US built Humvees.  Not only did we pay to build the them, we are now paying to destroy them.

If the Iraqi army and Syrian rebels need ammo and equipment they can take them from ISIS fighters and if they can’t, then they don’t deserve to win.  ISIS did not have billions of dollars in support and equipment delivered.  Everything they have is the equipment they captured.  Until the Iraqi and Syrian groups fighting ISIS have the will to face ISIS in battle, without US support, nothing we can do will provide more than a temporary band-aid for this problem.  Given how quickly ISIS rose in capability, there is no reason to think their opponents can’t do the same, if they have the will to do so.  But that does take guts and willingness to fight, which it seems is in a pretty short supply among ISIS Muslim opponents.


ISIS miscalculations

The recent murder of British national by ISIS highlights something I mentioned in one of the previous posts.  The intent of the murder directed at US allies is to reduce their willingness to participate in a campaign against ISIS.  Examining these actions of the terrorist organization it looks as if they have fallen into the old trap of underestimating their adversary.   For some unfathomable reason they believe that the western world is full of cowards, who will refuse to fight because their citizens have been murdered.

Despite all the wars fought by the western nations in the last century and the first decade of this century it is fascinating to see that some people in the world perceive us as unwilling to fight.  You would think the past decades would disabuse them of that notion.  But I guess it is hard to give the “infidels” any credit, despite the evidence to the contrary.  Al-Qaeda in Iraq went the same way with public executions in 2005 and 2006, and all it got in return was its destruction.

With that in mind the natural reaction to the actions taken by ISIS, which we see now starting to play out, is to demand revenge.  As Al-Qaeda discovered to its dismay, killing more than 3000 Americans did not bring US disengagement, but rather more US military involvement.  This effort led to dismantling of Al-Qaeda infrastructure in Afghanistan and to the current weak state of that group.  It is currently reduced to just trying to maintain its influence in the global Jihad movement.  The recent announcement of their expansion into India is laughable and nothing more than a last ditch effort to remain relevant.

ISIS will experience the same.  Contrary to their perception, the murders of western citizens will only inflame the desire for revenge among the those nations.  Whatever miniscule positive effects on terrorist propaganda those murders bring, it will be a long term strategic failure for the organization.  In the end it only insures that the last sound most of ISIS members will ever hear is the click-click of the GBU-38 fins making final corrections just prior to impact.


The OODA Loop

OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) Loop is the foundational concept which provides insight into successful conduct of all levels of war.  It was discovered and described by United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd.  He had the brilliance of mind to take something such as war which has been treated previously as an art and quantify it.  Throughout history the human kind has been using OODA loop without realizing that they were doing it.  All of the successful principles of war rely on the OODA.  The best way to describe it would be as follows.  Before Boyd’s OODA Loop all discussions of successful conduct of warfare would describe the effects of different principles of war without truly understanding why they were successful.  As an example throughout history it is an accepted principle of war to attack the adversary’s flank in order to defeat them.  It seems to make sense instinctively but why it truly works is the reason OODA loop is so important. With in-depth understanding of the OODA Loop one can see why that tactical maneuver is successful.

The discussion that follows is my interpretation of John Boyd’s Loop.  All the credit is his.  The OODA Loop itself consists of four different steps. Those steps being Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act.  The loop itself represents human decision process preset during conflict.  The same processes are also present in everyday activities such as sports, business, and etc.  However, for the purposes of this discussion the OODA loop will be limited to warfare.

The loop runs as follows.  First, the person observes something happening.  Once the person observes the event, he/she then orients what the event is.  That is, recognizes what the occurrence is.  Then, once the observer recognizes the event the next part is to decide what to about it.  After the decision is made the last part is the actually act.  After the act is done the loop returns back to Observe to see if the action was successful.  This is what is would look like Observe -> Orient -> Decide -> Act -> Observe and so on in perpetuity until the task is accomplished.  The key to the loop is that any break in chain will lead to task failure.  In addition someone whose ability to close the OODA loop is faster will prevail over someone whose OODA loop is slow.


Observe is the first and key step.  Without observation it is impossible to run the rest of the loop. Think of two boxers in a ring and one of them has a blindfold on.  How well do you think he would perform without being able to observe his opponent?  Observation could be something as simple as using your eyes to something as complicated as satellite surveillance.  It can be visual, electronic, radar, or something yet to be invented.  Understanding the need to observe first and observe correctly is important in that it should guide the training of the armed forces responsible for observations.

Sometimes observation disparity is clearly obvious.  The drones over Afghanistan and Iraq  observe the enemy with ease.  While on the other hand the enemy does not come close to having the same capability.  However on the ground the roles are reversed.  The enemy observes US forces at will, while the US forces have trouble doing the same.  They can’t tell by looking at a civilian if he is an insurgent or not.  While the armored vehicles and uniforms of US and coalition forces make observation of their actions easy.  In a major war between near competitors the means of observation could be close in capability.  Therefore the side that can observe and prevent the enemy from observing its actions through as many means as possible will be able to run a faster loop and create conditions for success.


Orient is the second step in the loop.  Orient is nothing more than understanding of what the observation is.  There are a number of ways this can happen.  The least probable is that the observer will intuitively understand what they observe.  Think of someone who has a natural talent, such as a hall of fame professional quarterback.  To say the least it is highly unlikely that the armed forces of any nation will consist only of such individuals.  Just like no pro football team has a roster with just hall of fame players.

Rather it is training which allow for someone to build the ‘muscle memory’ to respond to any situation.  Such training must be realistic and thorough.  The most important part of the learning will take place during the after action debriefing.  This must be conducted to get to the root cause of success or failure with no white washing.  The feelings of the participants should not be considered in the search for root cause of why something did not go as planned.  Depending on cultural influences that last step could be impossible for some cultures, where saving face takes precedence over figuring out what went wrong.

Training cannot be overemphasized.  Just giving someone a weapon does not make them a soldier.  Training is what makes that person with a gun or an airplane an effective soldier or fighter pilot.  Training is not conducted for its own sake, but rather to build that memory of observed problems and solutions.  This memory then can be used to orient correctly when a similar problem is observed during combat.


The next step in the OODA loop is Decide.  Decide by itself is a straight forward concept.  The true challenge comes in insuring the decisions are delegated to the lowest possible level of command.  What this means is that in the high intensity of combat operations the force that can react quickly to the changing situation and respond will achieve its objectives.  The way US Air Force describes it is: centralized control, decentralized execution.

The most effective decisions can and do occur at the lowest level of command.  It is transferable across all services.  The culture that promotes individual initiative has to be established and trained to.  The German auftragtaktik or mission command is a prime example of this low level decision making.  It involves the commander setting the mission objectives and letting the subordinates execute the mission. The commander uses specific objective, without using specific directions on how to achieve those objectives.  Therefore, the lowest level commander is the one making the decisions in real time and in response to changing conditions that he/she observes.

This low level decision making, when compared to the adversary whose decision making is restricted to higher echelons of command, is the key to getting inside of the adversary’s OODA loop.  This is the reason professional non-commissioned officers are always mentioned as the keystone of any successful military organization.  There is nothing surprising there, as the NCOs that can make decisions at their level allow for a faster organizational OODA loop and by extension a successful mission accomplishment.

No decision can be perfect; however as long as one is made quickly and in accordance with mission objectives in mind the loop is continued.


The act portion is the final part of the OODA loop.  Once a decision has been made the next step is to act.  This part consists of both the physical ability to act and the mental willingness to act.

The physical ability to act is straight forward.  One either can or cannot act against the adversary.  The insurgents in Afghanistan can hear there are coalition fighter aircraft flying overhead.  However, lacking any credible air defense, there is nothing they can do to prevent coalition from employing air power.  In a major combat operations there a similar examples.  An infantryman with a rifle can do nothing against a tank.  An armored division without air defenses cannot defend itself against adversary air assets.  A coast guard cutter cannot engage a guided missile cruiser.

The other part of the act comes from mental ability to do so.  The ability to act is inherent in mission command as mentioned previously.  As the decision making and authority to act is delegated to the lowest level the OODA loop is accelerated.  The organizational structure has to be set up so that the mental ability to act is nurtured and rewarded.

Those leaders who can and do act without constant supervision should be promoted, while those who cannot should not.  It does not mean they can’t serve, just that can’t serve as combat commanders.  This is a two way street.  If the higher echelon leaders do not allow the lower levels of command to act in accordance with mission command, then the top level commander has to be removed from command.  What such micromanaging leaders do is slow down the OODA loop and therefore risk mission failure against an opponent that does not do so and can react faster.

Unfortunately since WWII the US military has been reluctant to remove high level combat leaders from command, despite their failures.  Think General Franks and the failure to plan for post combat ops in Iraq or the US officers responsible for building the Iraqi army.  All were probably promoted despite the fact that the army fell apart during first major combat against ISIS.  The US would be better served if someone was held accountable for those failures.


Combined together the OODA loop is an exceptional way to describe why an operation at any level of war can succeed.  The simplicity of Boyd’s loop and its ease of application is truly nothing short of amazing.  Any operator or leader should try to understand and internalize the loop to guide them in the execution of their mission, whether it is a squad level combat patrol or or multi-corps major combat operation.