Failure of Strategy and Tactics – ISIL/Ukraine

Two areas different topics of discussion today.  The first are the continuing operations against ISIL and the second deals with continued fighting in Ukraine.   Neither conflict is truly of a major strategic importance to the United States, but both do continue to provide valuable examples of failure of both strategy and tactics.  The first one directly reflects on our current strategy, while the Ukrainian conflict is a good reminder of how not to run a military if you want success.

The operations against ISIL continue as before, despite the increased media attention following the death of the captured Jordanian pilot.  While there has been a lot of attention given to the number of sorties and targets struck by the Jordanian Air Force, the outcome remains fundamentally unchanged.  Killing a few extra militants does not in itself accomplish any of the strategic goals to destroy and degrade ISIL.  Especially, considering that since the air campaign started an estimated 20,000 foreign fighter joined ISIL ranks, while at best we have eliminated 6,000 of their fighters.  With those numbers even a third grader can see that ISIL has a net positive influx of 14,000 fighters.  Which once again demonstrates the folly of body counts, which we should have remembered from Vietnam.  It seems our military leaders still can’t seem to understand that just because you killed a number of enemy combatants that by itself does not directly address the root cause of the conflict.  Just as our soldiers die in battle and we continue to fight, so will the militants.

The root cause of ISIL strength is its support in the Sunni Arab Muslim community and killing a few of their fighters out of the population of millions doesn’t really accomplish much strategically.  We would be much better served if we let the Sunnis and Shias and others in that region to work out their problems on their own.  Failing that we would be better served by actually going after the root causes of Sunni Extremism if that’s our goal.  While what we are actually doing the is worst possible of all courses of actions.  Bombing ISIL areas will not accomplish what we set out to achieve, because given the Sunni Muslim support even if we succeed in destroying ISIL some other organization will take its place to carry on the torch of Sunni Muslim grievances.  The failure to craft and adhere to the strategy that will actually bring about desired results will produce nothing but strategic failure.  Our best bet is to just leave that region alone for them to figure out their own path forward.

In Ukraine the example of tactical failure is a bit harder to see but it is visible nonetheless.  The renewed fighting near Donetsk and Mariupol provide a glimpse into the current state of Ukrainian Armed Forces.  The setbacks around Donetsk airport and Debaltseve demonstrate that accountability for performance is still absent in the Ukrainian Armed Forces.   It is understandable that last fall both ground and air forces had a steep learning curve to master after years of neglect, but by now President Poroshenko has to expect better from the military officers in charge of operations.  Losing both the airport and the losses around Debaltseve should be another wake up call that business as usual cannot continue.  If the commanding officers do not perform in combat they have to be relieved and replaced with others.  Both incompetent and unlucky have to be removed.  If Ukraine is to have any chance of battlefield victory then the Armed Force have to be held to a high standard of performance both good and bad.

As Israel demonstrated in the Middle East wars, numbers are not everything.  Well led and motivated troops can overcome a numerically and technologically superior adversary.  As during the French Revolution, if the Ukrainian Army is to succeed, then every Ukrainian private’s knapsack should potentially have a Marshal’s baton in it.  What that really means that success on the field of battle should be rewarded with promotion and failure with removal from command.  If that kind of culture accountability is in place, then and only then could the Ukrainian Armed Force can start to actually succeed tactically.  Mr. Poroshenko had a good start in relieving the previous Minister of Defense, now the same mentality has to be propagated down the chain of command.

The United States military has not applied that kind of accountability since World War II.  Luckily for us the conflicts we were involved in since then did not fundamentally threaten our way of life and therefore we could allow the incompetent leaders to evade responsibility for incompetence.  As our latest experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan show, battlefield failure is rewarded with promotion.  Unless someone knows of a single general officer that has been relieved of command for performance in either Iraq or Afghanistan.  What we can take away from Ukrainian situation is that, if there is not a system and culture of competence in place to identify and reward or punish based on battlefield performance, then the chance of success against a peer adversary is non-existent.  While at this time we can afford not rely on battlefield performance as a discriminator, in the future we might not be so lucky.   Allowing tactically or even operationally incompetent leaders in charge will only lead to failure.

Both conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine provide spot on examples of failures in strategy and tactics.  The first one we actually have control of and should change our strategy to accomplish our goals.  The second one is not our fight, but does provide interesting observations of an Armed Force in transition.  It remains to be seen if the Ukrainian Armed Forces can actually reform themselves under pressure and if not if we can learn from their mistakes.