Category Archives: Tactics

One Small Step in the Right Direction

This week’s announcement that the naval variant of the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) aircraft is being cancelled and redesigned as a tanker is a small step in the right direction.  You can read the article here about the program’s change of direction “Carrier-based unmanned jet is DOD budget loser.”  The idea of unmanned fighter is long overdue to be consigned to the dustbin of history.  The design of such an airplane, while sounds like a winner, is actually one of the worst ideas in fighter aviation.  The idea that at some point in the future an unmanned fighter will rule the skies can only be fathomed by someone who understands nothing of fighter operations and air combat.

There are a number of problems that go in hand with having an unmanned fighter/bomber combat aircraft system (UCAS).  First and foremost, the pilot in the fighters of today is not just there to push buttons; rather he/she is there to use their creativity to adjust the initial battle plan to the situation in the air.  War, unlike what some may believe, is one of the most unpredictable events and only human mind can provide the creativity needed for victory.  That is, unless artificial intelligence is developed; in which case it could rival human creativity. But then, why would it fight for us?  I’ve mentioned this in my previous posts, that the idea that you can force a thinking machine to fight for you is ludicrous.   So assuming the UCAS would be a robot, not an AI, it would have a number of significant disadvantages over human fighter aircraft.

How would such a system find other enemy aircraft or ground targets?  In the real world, there are a number of issues that would limit its ability to do so including concealment camouflage and deception (CCD) and electronic counter measures (ECM).  In any combat scenario a robotic aircraft would have to figure out who and where the enemy was without having 100% of information available due to the fog of war, CCD, and ECM.  The same would apply to the unmanned bomber aircraft.  While it would be pretty easy to program it to fly to a point in space and release weapons on a set of coordinates, what happens if the target it was programed against is not there or it can’t find it.  It would have to adapt.  As such, it would need human touch and intuition.  That could be provided by long range datalink.  However, those could be jammed by an adaptive adversary, in which case the unmanned aircraft would have to rely on their programming to succeed.  And as mentioned before, no program can be more creative than a human, except possibly AI.

Air combat would be especially difficult for a robotic aircraft to handle.  What most people don’t understand is that air combat is not just aircraft shooting missiles at each other to see who gets hit first.  It is an art that has certain tactics which are adjusted by the pilots in unexpected and creative ways based on the changing combat situation.  This is only possible because of the inherent human creativity.  Such creativity cannot be programed into a robot.  As such, the fighter aircraft will always have a thinking pilot in it if we want to have the most lethal Air Force in the world.  Every air combat situation is different and impossible to model to a 100% certainty.

However, there is still a future for the unmanned aircraft in the armed forces.  Surveillance is one of the tasks it is ideally suited for.  Another is listed in the article mentioned in the first paragraph, air refueling.  Yet another place an unmanned airplane is a great fit is cargo transportation.  What do all of these tasks have in common?  They don’t required human creativity and ingenuity to succeed.  Even now the pilots flying these missions spend 99% of their time just monitoring the systems and the other 1% taking off and landing.  Really, when you think about it, all of the mundane and unchanging tasks can be automated with robots.  What can’t be replaced are those tasks requiring human mind to succeed and air combat is definitely one of those areas.  As such, it is good to see the Navy recognizing the limitations of the UCAS and transitioning the program in the direction where it could actually work, air refueling.  A step in the right direction.

Human Element

Taking a slight break this week from current events after reading this weeks’ Economist article Who’s Afraid of America?.  It was interesting reading since the article which is written from an accountant point of view, which is somewhat foreign to me.  How else do you describe something where the main point appears to be that technology is what wins wars, not people.  To which I would respond, innovations mean absolutely nothing without trained and motivated personnel to use them.

The technological trap is easy to understand, especially when the person analyzing potential for conflict is comfortable with numbers.  Unfortunately for the number crunchers the history is replete with examples of technologically inferior force defeating a technologically superior one.  One only has to look at the German victories in 1939 and 1941 against opponents who have not only outnumbered them but also had better equipment.  The German armored force had no equivalent of Soviet T-34 or KV-1 tanks and yet they routed the Soviet armored formations equipped with them.  From the recent US history the example of South Vietnam should stand out.  No amount of advanced US weaponry could make the South Vietnamese fight for the South Vietnamese regime.

The same holds true today.  The reason the US power is per-eminent is not because of its technological prowess, though that helps, but rather because of the people who operate that equipment.  Prior to invasion of Iraq in 2003, a simple number cruncher would assume during such invasion the US Air Force would lose a number of aircraft to the hundreds if Iraqi fighter jets.  The actual result however showed an Iraqi Air Force that was afraid to fly.  Why?  Because of the human element.   The Iraqis were scared and no matter the technology available to them through their fighter jets they did not want to put themselves in combat against the vastly better trained US forces.  Only robots could be programmed to takeoff and fight in that kind of situation.

Ironically the article from the Economist argues specifically for that.  As if a robot could ever be equal to a human.  An artificial intelligence might be, but that point is moot, as I argued before why would a thinking AI fight for us?  Which leaves us with robots.  Arguing for a stealthy robot is a true numbers game.  One paper it looks fantastic.  Take out the pilot and program a stealthy airplane to go fly a mission.

Let’s say for the sake of the argument that this actually happens and the stealthy robot takes off on a mission.  Stealth by its nature allows the robot to deny the enemy the first step of the OODA loop, observe.   If it works that’s great.  But what happens if the enemy is able to detect and engage the future stealth aircraft as the Bosnians did the F-117 stealth fighter in 1999.  Now it comes down to the rest of the loop.  As I previously argued, if a robot is forced into combat against human opponent, it will lose.  Ingenuity and creativity, is why conflict will forever remain a human endeavor.  There is simply no series of programs that can operate be as ingenious as a human being, unless you count AI as mentioned previously.

Even if we assume that at some time in the future the Chinese or similar near-peer adversary is able to develop a similar level of technological parity, US training and motivation is what will win the day.  In a hypothetical engagement between 100 evenly matched US and Chinese fighters the score is not going to be 50-50, but rather 100-0.  Just because the number on the paper look evenly matched does not make it so in real life.

The true military crisis facing the US military is the ability to grow and retain well trained, motivated, critical thinking personnel.  Without them, no amount of stealth can overcome such deficiencies.  The US should replace aging equipment, but it should do so with the human element in mind.  The much maligned F-35, once the kinks are worked out, could one day ensure the continued US dominance in the world.  Guaranteeing the 100-0 score in any future hypothetical conflict and it will do so specifically because of the human in the cockpit.  We can only hope the Chinese will put all of their eggs into robotic basket.  While technology does have a role in a conflict, its job is to allow the human to complete the OODA loop faster than the adversary.  On its own, no technology however advanced could out think a human in the dynamic and chaotic environment of war.


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.

2014 Recap, 2015 Predictions

As 2014 fades away into history it is good to reflect on this year’s strategic and tactical successes and failures.  Throughout the year there were a multitude of crises which no one could have predicted in their entirety, which involved the use of American instruments of power.  The overarching theme of our engagements in the world this year can be characterized by the saying: two steps forward, one step back.  Our national foreign policy apparatus is slowly moving in the right direction, but here and there we are still distracted by the conflicts that have no realistic possibility of major impact to our way of life at the expense of the ones that do.

Tactically we reigned supreme.  Any time US combat forces have been involved in operations around the world, whether in Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan we have been tactically successful.  The OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) premise remains true.  Especially with regards to Air Power employment our adversaries can not even Observe out intentions.  Which leads to complete battlefield dominance on our part.  We on the other hand can run the OODA loop at our place and time of choosing.  The past four months of airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria with no US losses clearly showcases our tactical success.  The strategic effects are a different story, but no one can deny the US military is tactically supreme, at least against low tech opponents.  Whether that same tactical prowess can be carried over to a conflict with a near peer adversary is unknown, but for now the tactical missions assigned to the US armed forces can be accomplished with little difficulty.

Strategically on the other hand we are still having trouble finding the right strategy for each crisis we encounter.  There have been some good steps we have taken this year and some not so well thought out.  The good this year, was our response to the developments in Ukraine.  The economic sanctions against Russia were exactly what our response should have been.  Ukrainians are a nation of 45 million people and they can, if they have the will to do so, fight off Russian aggression.  The US sanctions by themselves would not accomplish much quickly but they are useful in weakening the Russian president in the long term.  The Russian economic free fall of the past few weeks only highlights the success of the sanctions regime.  Given the fact that no one now is calling Putin’s moves strategically brilliant is a clearest indication that the strategy for dealing with Russia is the right one.  Hopefully next time around the people that were proclaiming Putin’s genius will be ignored with regards to the foreign policy strategy discussions.

With regards to Iraq and Syria.  Here is where the bad strategic decision making is evident.  Our current strategy of air strikes without any long-term planning for viable political solution is self-defeating.  Pouring our resources into the area to support the local forces is not the answer.  The Islamic State has established itself over the past few years without any help or foreign support, the Iraqis should be able to do so to.  ISIL were able to come from nothing and now control parts of Syria and Iraq.  The reason they are able to do so is Sunni Arab desire for power, lost after Saddam’s defeat.

Our major strategic mistake in Iraq is our continued attachment to the idea of unified Iraq.  As mentioned in previous posts unified Iraq is an idea whose time is no longer viable.  The differences between Shiite and Sunni can no longer be papered over.  The best thing we can do for Iraq is to divide into three different states.  It is highly unlikely that the Sunni Arabs and Kurds will accept the continued Shiites Arab domination in Iraq.  Therefore no matter how much we would like the Iraq of 1990s and not coming back.  The Shiite dominated Iraqi army and militias will not be able to peacefully subdue the Sunni areas of Iraq under Islamic State control.  While there is no doubt we will weaken or ultimately destroy the Islamic State, another organization will take its place to fight for Sunni interests.

With regards to Syria.  The story there is the same. Our air strikes can and will degrade or destroy the Islamic State however something similar to it will rise up and its place.  Until the Sunni Arabs accept their defeat or modify their political goals, all our actions will do is achieve tactical success without strategic impact.  Combined together Iraq and Syria demonstrate a continued lack of strategic vision with regards to the Sunni Arab fundamentalist problem.  A much better strategic goal would have been to let the Iraqis handle their own problems while pushing for the separation of Iraq into three viable states the Shiite Arab, the Sunni Arab, and Kurd.  Similarly in Syria we should have pushed for the division of Syria into Sunni and Allawite/Christians states.  To pretend that in either country the old borders can hold, is to delude ourselves and set an unachievable strategic goal.

In Afghanistan our strategic goals need adjustment.  Our continued support for the current government of Afghanistan is not achieving our desired strategic results.  Given the current political situation there, it is clear that the local elites do not view the situation there as critical.  The delay in forming the government only underscores the fact that we seem to care more about Afghanistan then they do.  Our support should have been withdrawn until the Afghans showed that they actually wanted to fight for and govern their own country.  The U.S. presence there only enables the current Afghan elites and to enrich themselves at our expense.  Until that ends well matter how tactically successful our strategic objectives will not be accomplished. To compare, the Taliban did not have a massive influx of money and trainers to create a viable combat organization.  Unlike our Afghan partners they actually seem to have the will to fight.

Therefore 2014 ends on a somewhat positive note.  We are slowly learning how to use a strategy commensurate with a problem we’re facing.  The example of Ukraine should be clear in our minds as a proportional response to a specific problem base on achievable goals.  The Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan examples on the other hand showcase our continued lack of understanding of how to accomplish our desired strategic goals.  Unfortunately in that area we still mistake tactical success for strategic achievement.  No matter how many bombs you drop or troops you train if the initial strategy is unachievable with success will be impossible to come by.   And so two steps forward, one backwards.

Quick glance at 2015. While it is impossible to predict what will happen in future some trends are clear. Russia will continue its downward spiral. It is unclear at this time if this will lead to any political change in that country, but it does make it more painful for Mr. Putin to continue on the present foreign policy course. The Ukraine conflict itself will be solved by Ukrainians.  If they are smart and the use their time wisely they could create enough combat units to provide military solution to the problem of Russian aggression in 2015. Specifically if they had a number of fully combat capable combat fighter/bomber squadrons those could truly prove decisive in combating the Russian incursions.

In the Middle East our current strategy will no doubt bring tactical success.  What will not change is the fact that strategically we will still be facing a Sunni fundamentalist group under a different name.  The name might change from ISIL to something else, but the results will remain the same.  The Iraqi army could possibly take back some of the land occupied by ISIL but it is highly unlikely that they could do so in the face of Sunni resistance across all Sunni areas.  As bad as ISIL is, it does represent the response of the Sunni Arabs in both Syria and Iraq to the lack of their political power.  It is a given that another organization will take ISIL’s place to promote Sunni Arab goals. The best thing we can do in 2015 is to set up both Syria and Iraq for a peaceful breakup.  Only then, separated into individual nation-states can the inhabitants of those two countries build a viable future.

Our greatest danger in 2015 however lies in the South China Sea.  It is there that our next conflict against a near peer adversary has the highest potential to begin.  The consolidation of power by Xi in China will continue.  Combined with the current nationalist Chinese rhetoric this could lead to a series of escalating provocations over South China Sea to which we would have no choice but to respond.  The threat of this conflict means our forces cannot be spread thin fighting in conflicts where we aren’t achieving our strategic objectives.  The South China Sea has the greatest potential to be a threat to our way of life.  Low probability, but extremely high impact event of US/China confrontation has the greatest chance to start there.  The right strategy in other parts of the world is what would allow us to successfully contain this possible conflict and why we can no longer afford in 2015 the “tactics first” strategy in the Middle East.




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.