Streetwise Professor

October 19, 2014

Further My Last

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 12:26 pm

Following up on yesterday’s Victory Disease post, here are a couple of articles that reinforce my basic conclusion. The Bronk piece in CNN is particularly complementary in its discussion of ISIS’s error in switching tactics, and the Telegraph article provides very current information and detail about how just accurate and devastating US airpower can be. ¬†And lest you think I am a victim of confirmation bias, I did look for contrary information, and couldn’t find anything from independent sources.

The Bronk article reinforces something I was thinking the other day. T. E. Lawrence and other British officers assigned to the Arab rebels during WWI despaired of making them conventional soldiers. Lawrence, per his telling in the grips of dysentery-induced delirium, conceived that their genius was as irregulars who utilized mobility to carry out a war of hit and run attacks on a relatively immobile Turkish army of dodgy morale. Keegan’s History of Warfare states that this form of warfare was the Arab way going back to the times of Mohammed. For the Arabs, there was no dishonor in retreat. Hit weaker forces at a vulnerable point, don’t engage in standup fights, and run when a superior force appears. Keegan draws on V. D. Hanson’s work to argue that the standup, face-to-face fight is a peculiarly Western way of war deriving from the Greeks.

ISIS is most formidable when it fights in the traditional Arab way. (Chechens were also historically guerrillas and raiders.) It does its opponents a favor when it fights the Western way. But it appears that Victory Disease has deluded its leaders into believing that they can ape a conventional Western army and win. That delusion could be a great favor.


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  1. A propos, sort of, can I recommend to you this book?

    If you are at all interested in what makes people fight, cower, run away, etc., it is a potting of many decades of research into this theme, by someone who has been both a soldier and a psychologist. It is a fun read, covering the significance of things like weaponry, leadership, and personal aversion both to getting killed and killing. Here, for example, in excerpt which shows the lengths some WW2 soldiers were prepared to travel to in order to disassociate themselves from what their weaponry did:

    I read the Telegraph piece with interest, because it seems to show ISIL particularly exposed to weapon push – the tendency to fall apart in the face of the enemy’s prestige weapon – and to loss of compulsion (the tendency to fight only when a leader is there to shoot you if you don’t). Both are discussed in the book.

    It then becomes possible to understand Little Big Horn, Isandhlwana / Rorke’s Drift and Kobane as what happens to a militarily brittle force when quite small variances are introduced into the tactical mix.

    Comment by Green as Grass — October 20, 2014 @ 2:47 am

  2. @Green-Looks interesting. I’ll get it and give it a read.

    IMO ISIS’s easy victories made it overconfident, and deluded them into thinking that fighting the Americans’ prestige weapon was the same as fighting Iraqi regulars. There is a high fantasy component to their thinking. They forgot Moshe Dyan’s (perhaps apocryphal) response to the question of what explained his military success: “Fighting Arabs.”

    I note that the only Iraqi force that gave the US problems in 2003 was the Fedayeen, which fought in typical Arab irregular fashion. The regulars either ran or were killed in place while hardly inflicting a casualty.

    Little Big Horn and Isandhlwana are interesting cases. The variance is important. I don’t know as much about the latter battle, but I am quite familiar with the former. Custer’s plan was predicated on an assumption derived from experience: Indians would not stand and fight, so it was necessary to take measures to cut off their flight. He sent Reno to drive them, and he looped around to block their route of retreat. He did not understand the size of the force he was confronting, and when the Sioux and Cheyenne went against form and fought, and when Reno committed a major tactical blunder, the brittle force he had shattered. So like you say, once confronted with a situation outside of its expectation and narrow experience, Custer’s command disintegrated.

    One of the remarkable things about the modern US military is its ability to adapt, and fairly quickly, to a wide variety of tactical and operational challenges. Forces like ISIS think that since they’re good at something, they are invincible at everything. Bad mistake. Hopefully we will make them pay dearly for it.

    This is another example of the OODA loop in action, methinks.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 20, 2014 @ 10:04 am

  3. Re: VD among ISIS. I wonder how much ISIS’s command structure plays into it. ISIS has some good field commanders, like this guy:

    But there are also lots of hacks and incompetents running around, like any other organization. We don’t know what the dynamic is for how ISIS allocates resources (one of the big problems for the Japanese was how completely dysfunctional their government was, leading to the Army and Navy coming up with competing idiotic plans that were bound to fail in the long run anyway, with no one to play mediator). So it might just be the dysfunctional C2 system of ISIS at work (which would also be a symptom of VD, to be fair-it’s not a binary process).

    Additionally, since ISIS seems to know we aren’t dedicated a lot of effort to the problem, it might well be worth it for ISSI to look like they are concentrating on Kobane to draw off our support so as to increase their gains in other areas (most notably in Iraq). These guys are smart and know how to use our media (and it’s love of shiny stories that gets teh clickz) and our bleeding hearts against us. Of course, it’s also possible I’m giving them way too much credit.

    Comment by Blackshoe — October 20, 2014 @ 10:59 am

  4. @Blackshoe. I’ve been following al-Shishani. (There are actually several ISIS fighters with that nom de guerre. It just means “The Chechen.” But Umar (or Omar) is the one that gets all the attention.)

    He has sort of a Rommel-like influence on his enemies. He is rumored to be wherever ISIS is advancing. For instance, he has been credited with being both in charge of the Anbar operations (as noted in the article you link) and also in combat against the Kurds both in Iraq and Syria. He has also been rumored to have been killed multiple times. (Caucasus warlords have more lives than cats, it seems. The Russians or Kadyrov are always claiming to have killed this leader or that, but they typically reappear only to be killed (allegedly!) again.) But it seems his role is more tactical and maybe operational, as opposed to strategic, but as you note, we know little about ISIS’s command structure.

    I also suspect that ISIS, or at least the Chechens in ISIS, engage in a good deal of deception. During the Chechen Wars, the Chechens were famous for running deception operations, including signals deception, e.g., radio transmission between non-existent units. So maybe the Chechens are spreading rumors about Omar’s whereabouts to deceive their opponents. This might be especially effective as a psychological tactic, given the Chechen’s incredible brutality (they are head choppers extraordinaire) and alleged fighting prowess.The thought that the Chechens are sharpening their swords over the next hill could have a powerful demoralizing effect on your average Iraqi conscript, or even pershmerga fighter.

    As for Kobane being a feint/economy of force operation, it would make sense to do that, but it seems that they are committing way to much of their strength for that. Maybe it started that way, but they became emotionally invested in it, or believed that they cannot allow even a perceived defeat so they are overcommitting to a secondary objective. Regardless, I hope they keep it up.

    It is also possible (like you say) that their command structure is pretty loose and the Syria guys and the Iraq guys are doing their own things according to (at best) a loose overall plan. Maybe (as you suggest) analogous to the Japanese Army focusing on China and the Navy focusing on the Pacific.

    Whatever their plan, if any, if we’re going to stick with air strikes alone, we need to pound them when they do concentrate.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 20, 2014 @ 11:58 am

  5. At Isandlwana, as at LBH, it was assumed that the natives wouldn’t fight, and further, that force actually needed to be dispersed in order to go look for them, rather than concentrated. So at Isandlwana the Zulus were gifted a win because they were able to concentrate four-fifths of their strength against one-ninth of the British, and destroy it.

    Interestingly though the Zulu attackers stopped attacking at Isandlwana when the rifle defense took too heavy a toll. This was an example of soldiers weighing the odds of what difference they can make by advancing, and deciding not to do so. Typically, attackers revisit this decision continuously, to the point where they are highly likely to stop and go to ground just as they are about to bust into the enemy’s position.

    So the Zulus were pinned down for an hour, but when the fire started to slacken due to lack of ammo (nobody could find the right screwdriver, supposedly) they advanced again. As the range shortened, defensive fire becomes less effective (loss of confidence by the defense plus aversion to killing, which is the likelier result of your shot as that shot gets easier). Hence the Zulus did not do the last-minute hesitation thing, and were soon in among an extended line of empty rifles, with superior numbers.

    It didn’t work at Rorke’s Drift because the position was fortified. What’s interesting there is the resulting very low casualty count. The defense fired 19,000 rounds at 3,000 Zulus and only killed 350, with maybe as many again wounded. That’s about 27 bullets fired per Zulu casualty. The Zulus for their part had at least 30:1 numerical superiority but inflicted only 2 dozen casualties. This was a 10-hour fight.

    ISIL / ISIS will run when confronted, no question, because they have no answer to air strikes. Attacking towns and raping the survivors is one thing but confront them with a threat they can’t counter and any soldier typically folds unless he can surrender.

    Comment by Green as Grass — October 21, 2014 @ 6:05 am

  6. @Green-Thanks for that illuminating description & analysis. Some clear similarities with LBH. In particular, the dispersion of force in order to find/cut off the quarry. (Custer dispatched Benteen on a wide excursion to search for Indians, and after sending Reno to attack the camp Custer swung around to what he thought was the other end, though the camp was so big he came up right to the middle of it.) Also the common belief that the enemy would run away.

    There’s definitely a collective action problem with attacking. The constant revisiting is partly due, and perhaps in large part due, to each individual conditioning his decision on what he thinks/sees the others will do: there are multiple equilibria here, and arguably the focal one is for everyone to hang back. And as you suggest, there is something of a free rider problem (“what difference can I, as an individual make? Might as well preserve myself.”)

    In the musket era, attacks in closed ranks, or in columns, were ways of addressing those collective action problems.

    All fascinating stuff.

    The 27:1 shots to hits ratio doesn’t surprise me. Similar results found in some Civil War battles.

    Thanks again.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — October 21, 2014 @ 8:29 am

  7. […] Compare that to what I wrote in December: […]

    Pingback by Streetwise Professor » ISIS May Be Heeding SWP’s Military Analysis, Unfortunately — January 30, 2015 @ 10:46 pm

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