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The Rap on The Lack of MRAPs

Posted by Bob Kohm on July 10, 2009

CNN reports this morning that IED bombings have increased by 1000% in Afghanistan over the past month, a shocking number but perhaps not a shocking development given the likely migration of skilled bomb makers from the Iraq front of the war to the Afghan one. The use of improved IEDs employing shaped charges and molten jets to defeat armored vehicles seems to confirm this suspicion.

With the recent introduction of thousands of Marines to the theater and the southern offensive which is being undertaken by the Corps, hits against extremely vulnerable Hummvees are on the rise. The Hummvee was a Cold War design, made to shuttle officers and equipment around the conventional battlefields of Central Europe, not the guerilla deserts and mountains of this war. It’s manifest deficiencies for this type of war were made crystal in the midstage of the Iraq Campaign, with the rush to deploy MRAPs (Mine Resistant, Ambush Proof) heavy vehicles¬† as replacement for the Hummvees that were getting blown away with alarming regularity.

So, why have the Marines deployed without sufficient MRAPs even with the certain knowledge that Hummvees are a death trap for the Marines using them? The standard line echoes Donald Rumsfeld’s line about fighting with the force you have rather than the one you want– we needed the Corps in there now and they, as they always do, met that call and deployed light. The real truth, though, is a bit more complex.

The first element is that MRAPs are wildly expensive relative to the mission that they are designed to carry out– light hauling, command mobility, patrol, and reconnaissance. The Hummvee did that job at less than $200,000 per copy (albeit, not well…); the average MRAP’s tag is well north of $1,000,000. Given the huge fleet of these “light” wheeled vehicles an army needs– they’re literally the commuter cars of the force– that is running into very serious money. Complicating that is the rush to design, build and deploy these monsters– the production infrastructure is still being built up and production capacity dialed in; it is hoped that by December we can crank out 1000 of these things per month, but right now we’re looking at a number closer to 50 per month. They’re also a bitch to move around– they’re heavy, big, and unwieldly; you can move many fewer on a standard transport than you could Hummvees.

That doesn’t bring us to the biggest problem of MRAPs in Afghanistan, though– the fact is that they don’t work well there in the craggy, mountainous terrain that they’ll have to handle. As I mentioned, these things are hulks with poor visibility. Imagine driving a Hummer H1 along, say, the Pacific Coast Highway– it’s a twisty narrow road, high on a cliff and your vehicle is extremely wide and has crappy visibility. Sound like fun? Now make the road narrower by two thirds, put it much higher on a cliff, make your visibility much worse and add bombs, RPGs, and other infantry nastiness to the mix. MRAPs are both necessary for operations in Afghanistan and a nightmare for operations in Afghanistan.

Financially, logistically, and strategically we are not at a point where we can simply redesign vehicles for every theater of operations we operate in; the sad fact is that to fight in Afghanistan we’re going to have to accept a higher level of casualties from IED until we can find a better way to deal with the IED threat.

Posted in Afghanistan, American History, terrorism, Warfare | 1 Comment »

Now Where Did I Leave That Nerve Gas…?

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 10, 2009

It would be comical if it weren’t so terrifying– after a year of the Air Force misplacing, mis-shipping, and basically mishandling nuclear weapons to the point that generals are getting fired and entire command structures are being redone, the Deseret News (Salt Lake City) disclosed on Sunday that–oopsies!– the Army may or may not have had a slight accounting discrepancy with the amount of nerve gas it’s storing for destruction at the Deseret Chemical Depot in Utah.

Any sensible military would’ve put half of the USAF command structure in front of firing squads this year, but as it turns out that would violate OSHA or some such regulation. In America, instead, we’re forced to retire to lucrative positions with defense contractors the dopes who send nuclear detonators to Taiwan and watch planes under their command fly around the US with “We thought they were test dummies but– oopsies!– were actual strategic weapons” bolted to the wings of their aircraft.

The scary thing isn’t just that those events happened, it is the reason why they have happened– crappy training and discipline. The two great separators between the US military and all others have traditionally been level of training and sophistication of weaponry. The US spends more money training its enlisted and especially officers than any other military in the world. For that investment, we theoretically get a force that can be trusted to think for itself, to carry out complex orders using sophisticated systems, and generally not to trod upon its own penis with combat boots. Guess what we’ve been stepping on of late? Lax standards and under-trained staff officers have been the proximate cause of all of the Air Force’s strategic weapons blunders this year; reviews have found QA checklists unchecked, officers who have no clue what is in the procedural manuals for handling nuclear weapons that they’ve allegedly been drilled on, weapons handlers who can’t tell a detonator from helicopter batteries. We’ve spent years pumping money into the Russian military to secure their arsenal and agonizing over the possibility of them misplacing a few nukes; anybody taken a look at Minot AFB or, I don’t know, under the carpet at the O club at Barksdale?

Lapses in training as it pertains to nuclear materials are a huge fear we have with Pakistan; it is unthinkable that it should be occurring within the US force structure. One has to wonder if the suddenly crappy training being given to our nuclear weaponeers isn’t the result of the financial pressure being exerted on DOD by the ongoing wars. Clearly strategic nuclear weapons are not the priority that they were in the darkest days of the Reagan-Evil Empire era’ s it possible that the USAF is pulling training dollars and competency out of the strategic arsenal in favor of spending with direct application to this war? It seems a reasonable assumption, especially given the unconscionable screw-ups going on. One more little gift from Mr. Bush’s war that keeps on giving even after the mission is accomplished, I suppose.

Now we see that the Blue Boys aren’t the only ones who can’t be trusted with a WMD– the Army may or may not know how many tons of deadly nerve agents they have or have destroyed or have shipped to god knows where. The United States went out of the chemical warfare business in 1985 when the Congress voted to destroy all stockpiles of US chemical warfare agents. Nearly a quarter century later we’re still in the process of doing so as the things are damnably hard to safely dispose of, requiring highly specialized incinerators. We still have stockpiles of artillery shells, bombs, rockets, spray tanks, storage tanks, mines, and the like mainly sitting out in the Utah desert at Deseret, at a handful of other sites in the nation (eight, according to GlobalSecurity.org), and offshore on Johsnston Atoll in the South Pacific… at least as far as the Army knows.¬†

We now know that the Army doesn’t actually know for sure– oopsies!– just how much nerve agent it has destroyed at Deseret or indeed how much they ever had or were supposed to have. They are putting the blame on accounting problems and tell us that they are “reasonably sure” they’ve gotten everything destroyed that they were supposed tot destroy by this point and know how much is left. Are you reasonably assured by that?¬†

Here in DC a few years back we had a bit of first hand experience with this issue– it seems that during the World War One era chemical weapons research was conducted in what is now the Spring Hill neighborhood of the city and on what is now the campus of American University. Due to some accounting errors and forgetfulness, nobody realized that when Spring Hill and AU were built that there were not only buried storage pits of toxins under the sites but also the odd unexploded mustard gas shell or six hundred. Nobody realized this until, in December of 2000, someone noticed that kids were getting sick at an AU childcare facility. Soil samples revealed huge levels of arsenic, which led to some digging and then an odd metallic clink when a shovel hit an artillery shell–oopsies!– still full of gas, which led to half the neighborhood being dug up and a boatload of munitions and toxins cleared. At least we know that what’s going on at Deseret isn’t a new problem, I suppose.

We are the kings of sanctimony when it comes to responsible stewardship of WMDs, which we absolutely should be– the things are a wee bit dangerous. Lax disciplinary standards and poor training are antithetical to the lowest infantryman in our system; that they seem to have become prevalent amongst the highest security areas of our military structure is unacceptable.

To have this emerge now, of all times, with Dick Cheney still predicting nuclear and chemical attacks against out cities… well, it does make you wonder just how sloppy we’ve been, doesn’t it?

Posted in Nuclear Weapons, terrorism, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

What Didn’t Happen on 9-25

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 2, 2009

With the change in Administration we’ve heard an awful lot about what George W. Bush’s sole saving grace is supposed to be: that America was not attacked again for the seven years following 9-11. I’m still left to wonder why.

If we posit that the 9-11 attacks were a sophisticated and complex operation requiring the coordination of scores of attackers, logisticians and money movers then we similarly must posit that al Qaeda was, at least at that time, a sophisticated and complex organization capable of organizing the strikes.

Yet on 9-25 no bombs went off in subway cars or on buses.

al Qaeda was able to attain flight training within the United States for several hijackers. They were also able to coordinate an attack in Afghanistan two days before 9-11 to kill the leader of the Northern Alliance by infiltrating two fake photojournalists into his heavily guarded camp and killing him with a bomb concealed within a working minicam.

Yet on 9-25 no men with simple assault rifles attacked a shopping mall.

The African Embassy bombings were carried out simultaneously on August 7, 1998 in Kenya & Tanzania, using sophisticated explosives mounted in trucks. Although the bomb didn’t penetrate the Embassy perimeter in Dar es Salaam, the truck in Nairobi effectively destroyed the American embassy while the Dar es Salaam truck killed 11 and wounded 86.

Yet on 9-25 nobody staged an attack on a school. In 1999 two teenagers carried out a massacre in a school in Colorado. In 2007 a single student killed 32 at Virginia Tech.

In October of 2000, al Qaeda staged the attack on the USS Cole, blowing a 40 foot hole in an American warship and killing 17 American sailors.

Yet on 9-25 nobody staged an attack on an apartment building.

I’ve always been at a loss to understand what al Qaeda was thinking in the planning of the 9-11 attacks and in their aftermath. The twin attacks in New York and Washington were obviously large scale attacks made to demonstrate that the United States could be attacked and attacked in spectacular fashion. Think back to those dark days on September, 2001; remember how jumpy we all were and how fear had taken hold beneath the veneer of resolution and the layers of outrage that we all wore.

What would’ve happened if two weeks later, just as we all started to get back into our work-a-day routines, a series of low tech, simple operations had been carried out? A suicide bomber detonates himself on a Cleveland bus, as has happened so many times in Israel. A couple of days later a bomb goes off on a BART train in San Francisco. These aren’t sophisticated attacks; if you have the online skills to find this blog you also have the skills to find a site that will show you how to build a simple backpack bomb and carry out this attack. Suddenly going to work is something we fear.

A few days later two men with assault rifles or submachineguns walk up to a schoolyard at recess and mow down the students. The reload twice before the police arive and a hundred kids die. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had a more sophisticated plan requiring far greater logistical overhead. Now we’re afraid to send our kids to school.

A Saturday or two later a pair of gunmen walk into a mall and open up at the foodcourt during lunchtime. Maybe a third lobs a hand grenade or some simple IED into Macys. Now we’re afraid to shop or maybe even go anywhere that people congregate.

At three o’clock Sunday morning a truck bomb goes off after having crashed into the lobby of an apartment building. If Tim McVeigh and Timothy Nichols can pull it off with some diesel and some fertilizer, we can agree this isn’t something that takes much sophistication or planning– this isn’t Pearl Harbor we’re talking about. Now we’re afraid to sleep, and the country is paralyzed.

And none of these things happened in the weeks after 9-11. They aren’t the products of some great strategic mind, redolent of subtlety and deep thought. They don’t require massive transfers of money or logistic support. Highly trained operators– like men capable of piloting a commercial airliner– are not required. None of these attacks happened, despite the screaming obviousness of the logic that dictated them.

Attributing the failure of these attacks to happen obviously doesn’t go to American intelligence or law enforcement efforts– there is no reasonable way, even today, to prevent two or three guys with SMGs from walking into Roosevelt Field or Mall of America or Tyson’s Galleria or the elementary school down the street from your house. So, does this mean that al Qaeda either didn’t have the vision or the capability to pull off these attacks? Or did al Qaeda not have the desire to press their attack and shut down America?

I have my own theories about why al Qaeda didn’t reel in the fish after getting it to take the bait and after setting the hook, but the reality is that without bin Laden or al Zawahiri in custody and talking we are likely never going to know why our country literally dodged the bullet that any rational foe would’ve fired into us in the weeks following 9-11. The nightmare scenario was there for the taking, and was available at low cost and with no special effort made to pull the trigger. After the massive attacks of 9-11, every pinprick attack that could have come in the following weeks would have registered as sledgehammer blows. It didn’t materialize.

If we cannot answer why these attacks didn’t happen beyond saying that President Bush had no influence on them, should we really be crediting ex-President Bush with further spectacular attacks not happening? I don’t have a yes or no answer to that. Neither should history, despite what the George W. Bush Presidential Library will eventually be telling us.

Posted in American History, American Politics, Bush, Intelligence (and lack thereof), Islamists, terrorism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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