digitalglobe-syria-imageGiven all the talk in recent days about whether America should impose a No Fly Zone in Syria, I thought readers would find this presentation by the folks at the Institute for the Study of War a useful guide to what is possible and might work. Just click on the link below.

I’m sure Sen. John McCain’s staff will find this interesting. Feel free to dissect the assumptions and recommendations offered here. The more of us who chime in on this one, the mroe chances we have of influencing the White House and Pentagon planners and, thus, of getting it right.

For those who may not be familiar with the Institute for the Study of War, where the briefing author works, these folks pushed hard for the surge in Afghanistan. The institute is home to a number of the best military analysts outside of the Pentagon. Their unique focus on the actual business of waging war gives them a certain edge.


  • Hammer6

    Interesting analysis. Shows there are options other than all (NFZ) -or-nothing (current strategy) that appear to carry limited risk. The focus on clarity on the problems to solve is most important, connecting operations to strategy. Up to this point, most commentary seems to focus on the need to “do something”.

    • Colin Clark

      Agreed. We don’t usually delve deeply into op planning, but given the strategic effects of such an operation I thought this might be useful.
      Colin Clark, Editor, AOL Defense

  • Don Bacon

    the folks at the Institute for the Study of War

    The “folks” are neocon Kimberly Kagan and friends.

  • PolicyWonk

    Given the analysis, and from reading reports from other sources that the chemical weapons depots have been since reshuffled, ground operations seem like an incredibly bad idea. With Iraq – the administration and its supporters claimed to know that there were WMD’s and we knew where they were – only to find *nothing*.

    And then there’s the determination of what the state of the AA capabilities are that is also somewhat troubling. The ISW seems to think they’re broken down and mostly ineffective for anything other than short range, where other analysis I seen says these systems remain highly viable (if not “sophisticated”) and dangerous.

    As pointed out by one of the other posters here, a number of people at the ISW are the same bunch that helped formulate some very bad decision making in the recent past. Hence, I’d have to take some of their recommendations with a bucket of salt.

    And while some of these “remedies” or strategies might be militarily possible, there is a notable absence of political considerations, unintended consequences, or costs (these were notably absent w/r/t the invasion of Iraq, as well). IMO, If any operations are to be made, they should involve a majority contingent of arab nations, and have the full support of the UN.

  • Lop_Eared_Galoot

    Well, they got it wrong from the first page. Nothing new.

    Rotary Wing activities are limited by the operating footprint of the aircraft (actually much larger spotting factor than fixed wings as well as a much narrower operating radii in terms of distance from gas and spares) as well as the need to associate with logistics delivery/dissemination points fairly closely to maintain useful payload fractions. Absolute air supremacy is NOT required when MQ-9 or RQ-170 (or even AHMs as ADADs/Acoustics networks, if we have any) can simply tag targets over wide areas for rapid kill via onboard or holding orbit BGM-109.strikes.

    All you have to do is create a locii which draws the helos in for medevac, vertrep or fire support and then walk them back. Since there are undoubtedly secondary targets suitable for cruise should -nothing- happen, you don’t necessarily waste shots by preemptively launching and you can remain functionally stood off from any air defense while SAR mapping aimpoints for handoff rather than coming down to low altitude for Hellfire work from RPA.

    Suppressing airpower on the ground is, if not a waste of time then certainly an uncertain and prolonged process apt to severe embarrassments of over assumption. Keitel thought he destroyed the RAF in 1940 about four or five times and was constantly embarrassed to find them still in the game. More recently, we tried it in 1998 only to discover that 19 of 21 MiG-21s in Serbia’s ‘destroyed’ Air Force flying out from ultra hardened shelter complexes back north, the day after the cease fire.

    OTOH, if you shoot someone down in the sky, often enough, you incite ‘Mosquito Fever’ as fear of flight. If nobody is near HAS or dispersal revetments when decoys or old jets get hit, your success in killing them is material rather than psychological as an indication that you are not a ‘direct threat’ to the pilots and your targeting competencies are actually fairly low.

    Shrug, I’m sure we can spare the Hellfires or GBUs if people want to play wackamole games as Shelter Plinking but there is a significant edge to the ‘let them come’ attitude which pits AA-2/6/10/11 against late model AIM-120C. Don’t let fear of a few MiG-23/25/29 predefine your vision of what has to be done.

    The Arabs fear us because they know we are very good at what we do, in the skies.

    This mindset needs to be reinforced at all times, not least because it generates the operational opportunities by which to justify further actions to further ‘suppress X after continued Syrian attacks on UN forces maintaining the NFZ’.

    Always humiliate the opponent into fighting on your terms rather than going to him, always defeat the opponent in such a way as to raise self-doubts in his mind as to the survivability of his cause as self. And finally, always-always seek conditions where you can BLAME the other guy for his own actions. As Sun Tzu said: Strategy without Tactics is the long road to victory, Tactics without Strategy is the certain journey to defeat. And Strategy is first and foremost a deceptive action that looks to assault your enemy’s _motives for fighting_.

    You cannot set up ‘NFZ by corridor assignment’. First off, the securing of air supremacy is functionally about liberating ground forces to freely maneuver and not an act unto itself. Open ended NFZ maintenance without a Strategy for exploiting your freedom of operations into a ground victory is just One Long, Slow, Bleed.

    And ground forces cannot stay in neat little boxes and remain effective. They can’t. They have to F2T2EA kill chain the enemy and where YOU, in your jet, are the ‘Engage-Assess’ element, when they hound-cry that they have treed the enemy, you WILL go help them kill it. Or again, it air dominance is pointless and your ability to end what you start is limited to giving up or counting on a bunch of amateur idiots to do it without you. See ‘The Northern Alliance without Green Beret JTACs’ as what that is going to look like..

    And there is another element to this and that is the psychological reaction at home. From Lemay’s Feed & Coal to ‘offlimits’ refusals to engage SA-2 sites as they were found, in or near urban areas of North Vietnam, as soon as you accept geographic channelization as restrictions upon airpower (turning it into just another ground force), the enemy develops work arounds. Or starts to snipe. _Very Bad Idea_.

    Because the first piloted jet you lose is the one where Americans start to suffer their own defeatist pragmatism as: “Well, you don’t intend to win and so this guy or gal is strung out to dry because you are just making a spectacle over nothing. If it was SOMETHING to fight for, you would have a solid plan for taking the war to the enemy and defeating him!”

    The reality here is that there are undoubtedly MPRI or similar outfits on the ground already, most likely paid for by CIA front companies. If there are not, someone at Langley needs to be fired. If there are, then meeting those on-scene commander’s needs with discretionary force is what this is all about because these people are likely supplying the rebels through cross border logistics routes into Lebanon (which is why Syria is bombing the crap out of these ‘refugee camps’), similar to what the Vietnamese did along the HCMT.

    The Syrians have gotten tired of this free lunch system as border sanctuaries and so are executing their own little Ia Shau/Ia Drang campaign to cut the poor, mercifully intended, ‘Red Cross only’, threat off at the knees. Since the Syrian army appears to be a lot more professional than the bandits from the Balkans or the Iraqis/Afghans, the PMF backed units are losing their shirt. Until and unless you acknowledge that, at least tacitly, by emphasizing the need for REAL combat power as an honest leveraging of remaining rebel abilities to turn the tide and achieve decisive mission oriented, COG kills on the Syrian ability to continue as a government as much as an armed force, you will never deal with this situation with the seriousness it warrants to keep things from degrading to a pointless exercise in power projection for no Objective driven, decisive, reason (where Objective and AImpoint are different things, the Objective should be to remove Syria’s present leadership from power, the aimpoints should be split to isolate combat force structures from mutual support and then kill them, individually, while minimizing exposure to WMD).

    Auftragstaktik people.

    Command Push is deciding you want to WIN this thing.

    Mission Pull is getting in there and letting the dictates of the situation help you shape the battlefield until you have a clearly exploitable axis of advance that you can drive a stake into the heart of the enemy with.

    At minimum own-force exposure to chemical and/or mechanized ambush.

    Have a purpose. Not just an ability.

  • TDog

    The “need” to “do something’ seems to be what sums up American foreign policy these days. We no longer do what is necessary or even advantageous, we do anything that will keep us busy. With Syria, the article notes that we risk losing our credibility if we sit on the sidelines and do nothing.

    I think what the author meant to say was that this is a chance, albeit an incredibly slim and risky one, to regain what little credibility we had in the Middle East in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan. You’ll pardon me for being cynical, but taking a gamble is an incredibly stupid way to try to regain our leading position anywhere, much less a region that has already proven to be beyond our ability to mold through force.

    The major problems we face in Syria are either Assad remains or he goes.

    If he stays, we have a regime in place that will only grow more hostile given the efforts we made to help the rebels. If he goes, Syria in all likelihood gets replaced by either a Balkanized rabble of competing and violent fiefdoms or it gets taken over by a Taliban-esque regime. Regardless of how it goes, the winner will have an arsenal of chemical weapons in their possession.

    So what we have to ask ourselves is do we want stability in the region or do we want to have Assad removed at any cost? Stability calls for one of two things: leaving Assad in place or leaving Assad in place. Some claim that by arming the “right” rebels, we will be able to influence and shape any post-Assad regime in Syria. This conveniently ignores a few factors.

    One, by arming rebels, there is no guarantee these arms will not be used contrary to our wishes or interests or that the rebels we arm will remain friendly. Even if the groups we arm remain steadfastly loyal to us, there is no guarantee that a democratic Syria will vote their way. Syrians may very well vote in an Islamist party with the sordid chants calling for the destruction of the US.

    Two: Other rebels receive weapons too and there is no guarantee that our rebels will come out on top in the inevitable post-Assad fighting that will erupt. Given the increasingly sectarian nature of the Syrian civil war, we need to make sure that not only do our guys have the gear, but that they also have sufficient training and support and leadership to prevail. Our support of Chiang Kai-Shek during the Chinese Civil War should serve as a stark reminder that giving people a lot of weapons does not equal victory.

    Should Assad be removed from power, we have to answer the question, “What are we willing to do about it?” Talk is cheap in the US and we often have politicians, pundits, and “experts” expounding upon the “need to do something”, but we often forget that it’s ridiculously easy to spend other people’s money… or materiel or lives.

    In the aftermath of an Assad regime fall, it would take manpower, money, and time to stabilize the country. If we skimp on any of these three elements, chaos and radicalization are likely to occur. There are no substitutes for any of these and we have to be willing and able to lose lives, spend money (and a lot of it), and stick around for a lot longer than we’d like. I know a lot of folks are saying we should let the Syrians do it themselves, but if we’re going to continue playing this game of nation-building, there is simply no way we can do it by proxy. If we do, Syria will become someone else’s proxy, not ours.

    Syria represents a problem that our current spate of half measures has only made more complicated. Had we engaged more fully a lot earlier, it would not have dragged on for two years. If we had steered completely clear of it, Assad would likely have prevailed by now. But in dithering our way forward through this mess, we have turned a spontaneous, albeit long-smouldering, demonstration into a sectarian quagmire, rendering the time for easy answers obsolete.