Tuesday, February 19, 2008

When did they add a lawyer to the flight crew?

Bombing missions over Iraq and Afghanistan have become so high tech and sophisticated now that every mission is vetted by a lawyer for compliance with international law.
Feb. 15, 2008 | UNDISCLOSED LOCATION, THE MIDDLE EAST -- The cavernous control room used by the U.S. Air Force to manage the air wars in Iraq and Afghanistan looks exactly how you'd expect it to look in a Hollywood movie. The lights are low. Around 50 camouflage-clad men and women lean forward in their chairs, staring intently at rows of computer screens glowing with multicolored graphs and fluctuating displays. They sometimes glance up from the banks of computer monitors to gaze at a sweeping panel of large television screens mounted on the front wall. Two massive, side-by-side screens in the center display digital maps of Iraq and Afghanistan. Swarms of U.S. aircraft above the war zones are represented by green labels that move about each map, gravitating toward wherever U.S. troops are fighting on the ground, in case they need backup.

To the left and right of those large maps are four smaller screens. Each is about 5 feet wide, displaying remarkably clear live footage from cameras mounted on the Air Force's un-manned Predator drones that buzz incessantly above Iraq and Afghanistan. The Predator drones, however, are not filming a raging firefight, or a bridge about to be strafed from the air.

They are stalking prey.

You see a man, walking through a shrub-dotted, dusty field. A small dog wanders behind him. Another screen shows a group of individuals, standing huddled together on a city street, looking like they could be chatting about a ballgame. A third Predator tracks a figure getting into a car, following as the car snakes through traffic. Yet another screen stays fixated on a single squat house surrounded by what looks like a low cement wall, as if someone is about to emerge from the front door.

The scenes look misleadingly pedestrian. The miniature people on the screens do not know they are being watched. "We are looking for individual people," Lt. Col. Walt Manwill says, as he stares up at the massive screens. "Especially when you are killing people, you want to make sure you do it right." Manwill, a blockish former pilot whose call sign is Fridge, is a chief of combat operations here, on what the Air Force simply calls "the floor." He handles one of three eight-hour shifts in a job that runs 24 hours a day.

Targeters here show me recent footage of two men on the ground in Iraq. The two men, far below the Predator drone's gaze, appear to be setting up a mortar on a city street. They are in the shadow of a building just feet away. Suddenly, the two men explode. Everything around the men, including the buildings, looks unharmed. But when the dust clears, the two men are wiped away. A small bomb, tailor-made for hunting single individuals, has done the job.

An Air Force colonel describes these operations to me as "getting Bubba." This has become a key component of the air wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and the Air Force has developed it into a science. Air Force officials say the operations are highly effective in targeting enemies of the United States, while minimizing civilian casualties in the war zones. But some experts on international law note that the U.S. has flown into legally murky territory, akin to the Israelis' controversial practice of "targeted killings" in battling Islamic militants.

Is there any sense in acknowledging something as law that has no coercive force behind it to enforce compliance? If international law is so sacrosanct, why aren't more nations willing to provide military forces to enforce it? A four year old child can figure out that the only rules that count are those that bring punishment in their breach, but the highly educated and cultured mandarins of the UN can't understand this most basic fact of human psychology. To the extent that there is a defacto international law, it is represented by US foreign policy. We are the law, by default of every other nation on Earth.

I see one problem with this new method of fighting insurgent wars with high-tech networked systems for command and control, and that is the daily burn rate. We have costly F16 and F18 fighters wearing out in daily sorties serving as nothing more than glorified bomb trucks. If you allocated the costs out over the dozen or so Bubbas that we kill every month, the cost per Bubba would be astronomical. Since we generally achieve air superiority within hours of the start of an engagement, we need to plan our air assets for extended low threat roles like loitering on station with a mixture of ordinance. Cheap, reliable UCAVs would be perfect for this role. Overwhelming technological superiority won't do the job if it bankrupts the treasury before the bad guys are willing to give up.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

The burn rate argument was used in Vietnam. I forget the numbers, but it was proposed to offer communists the amount it would cost to kill 'em.

Presumably, they would prefer to turn capitalist, the market rate was so high.

February 19, 2008 8:19 PM  
Blogger lonbud said...

Two comments:

1) Precisely because we are the de facto law and set the bar for behavior in the foreign policy arena, the US should be held to the highest standards of ethical and moral behavior, showing in our prosecution of the necessity to use force from time to time the utmost respect for fairness and human rights.

2) The economic idiocy and spendthrift nonchalance of the Bush administration's approach to the problem of terrorism are points I and others have long raised as worthy of attention.

I've been amazed the past eight years at self-identified conservatives' insistence on standing by this president despite his total abrogation of nearly every theoretical principle underpinning conservative philosophy.

February 20, 2008 8:37 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

well, I'm not a conservative, so abrogating conservative principles doesn't set off any flashing lights for me.

I fault him for appeasing Islam.

My only moral principle in war is, don't lose

February 20, 2008 8:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the US should be held to the highest standards of ethical and moral behavior

It is so held, principally by itself. Name me one other large power, past or present that even comes close. Don't even dream of mentioning Sweden, lonbud, although I will be charmed if you want to wax poetically about Canada's virtues. I won't be fooled, though.

As to Bush, I gave up arguing with Bush Derangement Syndrome long ago, especially the toxic American strain. I know you are absolutely convinced he is a dangerous fundamentalist and stupid to boot, qualities that aren't easy to square with shrewd Machiavellian dishonesty and amoralism. For that you need to be much brighter.

February 20, 2008 10:31 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


... the US should be held to the highest standards of ethical and moral behavior, showing in our prosecution of the necessity to use force from time to time the utmost respect for fairness and human rights.

If I was to made Head Dude What's In Charge for a day, the first thing I would do is ban passive voice. It is a pox upon the language, and creates critical thinking antibodies.

Should be held by whom?

What really counts here is one of the most important principles of war: economy of force.

I doubt there is an instance where commanders assiduously applying economy of force, without regard to anything as shot through with squishiness as international law, would lead to morally offensive results.

The US military's ability to apply economy of force is incredible, and getting better all the time.

Notwithstanding some international law "experts" engaging in specious bloviating.


We have costly F16 and F18 fighters wearing out in daily sorties serving as nothing more than glorified bomb trucks.

Those airplanes are going to get flown anyway. Oddly, because there is no high-g maneuvering, these sorties put less wear on the aircraft than peacetime training missions, which would nearly always include at least a couple air - air engagements.

Also, while we could design and build bomb trucks that would have the performance to both carry a significant payload and provide standoff (which requires altitude), what you would end up with would be about the size of an F-16 or F-18, cost a bunch of money to acquire, and leave you with a bunch of fighters flying training missions.

In other words, there is no such thing as a reliable UCAV with sufficient performance that is also cheap.

If you allocated the costs out over the dozen or so Bubbas that we kill every month, the cost per Bubba would be astronomical.

If that was the only payoff, it wouldn't be worth doing.

It isn't, though. al Hadji is engaging in asymmetric warfare. Unfortunately for al Hadji, our ability to, without detection, observe and attack (with little or no collateral damage) so constrains his operations that he is forced to rely on means -- suicide bombs and IEDs -- that, because of their collateral damage, seriously risk being counterproductive.

About the only thing left in al Hadji's arsenal is the American Left.

February 20, 2008 11:08 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


To judge from this article, it looks like bomb truck is one of the roles that the Air Force has in mind for their UCAV program.

Also, while we could design and build bomb trucks that would have the performance to both carry a significant payload and provide standoff (which requires altitude), what you would end up with would be about the size of an F-16 or F-18, cost a bunch of money to acquire, and leave you with a bunch of fighters flying training missions.

If all of our aircraft have to be able to serve in high threat environments, then I agree that the cost would approximate what would be needed for f-16 type multi-role aircraft, minus the human-related costs. But why not design some craft specifically for low threat, long duration missions like we are in now in Iraq and Afghanistan. How about a very low tech, unmanned blimp? Just park one of these at 60,000 feet above an area of operations with 100,000 lbs of multi-purpose smart-bombs. You could even tether it to the ground, eliminating the need to give it power and navigational capabilities. All it needs to be able to do is release the right munition on command and adjust it's altitude.

February 20, 2008 5:41 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I'd have to do the math, which I don't have the brains for at this point, so my comments will be a little notional.

There are two problems to solve, area and standoff. They are somewhat related, but not entirely.

Standoff is a function of total energy -- potential plus kinetic. A blimp at 60,000 feet has twice the potential energy of an F-16 at 30,000. Unfortunately, the blimp's velocity is zero, where as the F-16 will be moving at something over 700 feet per second. Since kinetic energy directly related to the square of velocity, a weapon dropped from an F-16 will have far greater range than one dropped from a blimp.

Area is related to standoff range, in that the area a single blimp can cover is smaller than that of an F-16. Additionally, a blimp has something of a Maginot aspect: it is very nearly a fixed asset.

All of which sounds like there is no good case for a blimp. Which, in fact, was my notion going in.

However, if one wanted to cover, say, Fallujah, or Baghdad, then weapon range or mobility are completely unnecessary.

So, for those cases, I award you full points for solid out-of-the-box thinking.

February 20, 2008 10:08 PM  
Blogger Duck said...


For a free-fall bomb, won't the initial kinetic energy of its velocity be dissipated by friction within a matter of a half a minute or so? Once it acheives its terminal velocity?

As for the Maginot aspect, we're talking about a semi-pacified area away from borders with hostile actors like Iran. Also, being cheap and unmanned, we could stand to sacrifice ten blimps for every one f-16 we might lose. At 60,000 feet, it isn't going to fall prey to Stingers or RPGs.

February 21, 2008 5:23 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Well, that depends somewhat on the mass of the weapon. Picture in your mind WW-II movies showing bombs (typically 250 pounds each) falling out of the bomb bay of a B-17.

From the airplane's point of view, they appear to fall straight down.

The weapons have high density (ie, high mass / volume) and have fairly low drag. So, as a first approximation, the range of a free fall weapon released in level flight is equal to the aircraft's velocity in fps multiplied by the time of flight in seconds. The time of flight is essentially the same as that for an object dropped from that altitude from a standing start.

For example, the GBU-15 has a standoff range of 5-15 miles (click on bottom image in middle column). Given the high density and slick aerodynamics, a small weapon will go essentially the same distance.

Aircraft launched weapons are typically released between 30,000 feet (F-16) and 40,000 feet (B-52). So a weapon dropped from a blimp at 60,000 feet would have reached terminal velocity by the time it fell 20,000 feet. However, that velocity is all vertical. Converting any of that to a horizontal vector would require "gee-ing" up the lift surfaces, which are very, very heavily loaded (ie, low area to weight ratio).

That means any significant vector change comes at the cost of drag. Lots of drag. For example, the F-111 was the most heavily wing loaded fighter ever, at about 150 lbs of airplane per square foot of wing. A level 7G turn caused so much induced drag that the airplane would lose 50 knots per second.

In full afterburner.

IIRC, free fall PGMs exceed 300 lbs per square foot of lifting surface.

Aggravating the problem for a blimp dropped weapon is that getting horizontal velocity means going against God's-g. In contrast, roughly half the maneuvering for an aircraft dropped weapon is with God's-g, which actually unloads the lift surfaces.

So, what does all this blather boil down to?

Hazarding an informed guess, I doubt a blimp dropped weapon could achieve a deviation from the vertical of more than 45 degrees. Taking that as instantaneous, a very generous assumption, that means a single blimp would be able to cover a circle with a radius of 7 miles.

Which seems to make blimps a viable idea for point defense. No fewer than five would cover Baghdad. However, expanding the covered area starts ramping the number of blimps in a big way.

Which, in turn, means every tether point has to be defended -- cutting the wire is just as good as shooting it down.

That's why I think the only viable use would be persistent coverage of discreet small areas.

February 21, 2008 11:19 AM  
Blogger David said...

Nations fight wars with what they have to hand. For most nations, that's men. For us, it's stuff.

February 21, 2008 1:56 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Yeah, but stuff keeps letting us down.

We used a lot of stuff -- most amusingly, motion detectors disguised as scat -- to close the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but it didn't work.

If we'd had men to guard the abandoned ammo dumps in Iraq, then the roadside bomb offensive against us would have been much less. Then we wouldn't have needed so much stuff -- like Buffaloes -- which, when we really needed them, we didn't have.

It would be interesting to know just how much target acquisition -- which is the point of the exercise -- has improved as remote sensing has improved.

I doubt it's been linear.

February 22, 2008 8:41 AM  
Blogger joe shropshire said...

IIRC the active duty Army stood at around 720,000 the year I enlisted (in the Air Force.) All volunteers. You can have as big an army as ever you wish, Harry, so long as you are willing to enlist volunteers, and go their price.

February 22, 2008 9:55 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

It's more complicated than that.

Having infantry is expensive, although not always more expensive than not having infantry.

In a country with a permanent labor shortage, a big army is a drag on an expanding economy, so people who worship expanding economies tend to oppose big armies.

It's forgotten, but the reason the US went to a massive retaliation strategy was to economize on infantry in the early '50s.

The problem with that was that if you have a nuclear military, you can fight only nuclear wars.

Nobody ever thinks these things through.

February 23, 2008 11:05 AM  
Blogger Duck said...


This article explains why the army didn't economize on its infantry:

One reason for the ubiquity of chickenshit in the modern U.S. military is the excessively high proportion of officers to enlisted men. In most armies, there are about seven officers to 100 enlisted men, or an officer-to-enlisted ratio of 7 percent (as low as 5 percent in the German army of World War II). In the U.S. Army today, that ratio stands at more than 15 percent (19 percent by some calculations).

This very high proportion of officers resulted from a deliberate decision made after World War II regarding future Army mobilization. Post-war analysis revealed that it was actually easier for the Army to
raise new divisions from scratch using draftees, than it was to shake out National Guard divisions and bring them up to wartime standards (due to the prevalence at the time for state governors to use the Guard for patronage appointments, often of superannuated or incompetent officers, as well as the poor physical condition and training of Guard soldiers). Army planners believed that, if adequate officer cadres were available, the Army could actually mobilize faster by circumventing the National Guard and simply raising new divisions. Thus, in the wake of World War II, as the Army shrank back to its peacetime size, twice as many officers were retained on active service as were actually needed.

February 23, 2008 11:18 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I don't see how that contradicts my assertion that the Army was economizing on infantry.

Far-thinking people in 1945 saw that there would be less and less employment for unspecialized line officers.

This was my father's position. He was an Annapolis grad and wanted to make the Navy his career. He had spent the war as a line officer in a destroyer -- at one time an excellent starting point for a lifer.

By 1945, it was clear that the only future for real advancement was in aviation or subs. He tried and failed to get transferred to either one and resigned his commission.

The holdover officers from 1945 were no longer in the Army by the '70s. The high percentage of officers by that time can be attributed to the American habit of requiring aviators to be commissioned -- a change from the '30s and even from the '70s, when there were lots of warrant officer helo pilots.

The Army today has about as many pilots as the Air Force.

As we have heard much moaning about lately, the Army is having a very hard time finding enough company officers for its line infantry battalions.

That was the case when I was in
ROTC during the Vietnam war. The Army was not topheavy with infantry officers.

The reason misfits like Rusty Calley got their bars was that the Army was rock bottom out of junior infantry officers.

February 23, 2008 3:54 PM  

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