Institutionally, the military services have never forgotten the crippling constraints imposed upon the conduct of the air war in Vietnam:
Target lists were reviewed at the White House in the informal atmosphere of the Tuesday lunch, attended principally by President Johnson, his press secretary, the Secretaries of State and Defense, and the President’s special assistant for national security affairs. (Although the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is by law the senior military adviser to the President and General Earle G. Wheeler was one of the few military men Johnson liked, Wheeler attended an average of three Tuesday luncheons per quarter during the course of Rolling Thunder.) After dining, the target list for the coming week was discussed. Each proposed target had been reduced to a single sheet of paper and categorized on four bases (as revised by ASD/ISA): the military advantage for striking the target; the risk to U.S. aircraft and pilots; estimated civilian casualties; and danger to third-country nationals. Each luncheon attendee individually graded each target on the basis of his appraisal of the four standards. Their grades were then combined and averaged. President Johnson reviewed the averaged grades, then personally selected the targets for attack. Parameters of attack were determined. These included the number of aircraft authorized for strike of the target, date/time of attack, routes of ingress or egress, weapons authorized or prohibited, and restrike authority.
Today, a letter from an anonymous USAF A-10 pilot is making the rounds of current and former fighter jocks. What the letter writer says about the “lessons learned in Vietnam” is close to the heart of any military aviator; in the wake of that disastrous war generations of mid-level officers and tacticians … with the help of a few leaders willing to risk their careers … fought to improve combat effectiveness by decentralizing control and delegating decision-making to those closest to the action. And we got there. Desert Storm was the high point. Now, it appears, we’re sliding back to the bad old days. Here’s the letter:
The squadron is doing fine. Everybody is happy to be here and we are doing some good work. The A-10s are holding up well and the technology we have have on the jets now (targeting pods, GPS guided bombs, Laser Guided bombs, Laser guided missiles, tactical data link, satellite comms), and of course the gun, make the A-10 ideal for this conflict. We are killing off as many ISIS as we can, mostly in ones and twos, working with the hand we are dealt. I’ve never been more convinced in my career that we are facing an enemy that needs to be eradicated.
With that being said…I’ve never been more frustrated in my career. After 13 years of the mind-numbing low intensity conflict in Afghanistan, I’ve never seen the knife more dull. All the hard lessons learned in Vietnam, and fixed during the first Gulf War, have been unlearned again. The level of centralized execution, bureaucracy, and politics is staggering. I basically do not have any decision making authority in my cockpit. It sucks. In most cases, unless a general officer can look at a video picture from a UAV, over a satellite link, I cannot get authority to engage. I’ve spent many hours, staring through a targeting pod screen in my own cockpit, watching ISIS shitheads perpetrate their acts until my eyes bleed, without being able to do anything about it. The institutional fear of making a mistake, that has crept into the central mindset of the military leadership, is endemic. We have not taken the fight to these guys. We haven’t targeted their centers of gravity in Raqqa. All the roads between Syria and Iraq are still intact with trucks flowing freely. The other night I watched a couple hundred small tanker trucks lined up at an oilfield in ISIS-held northeast Syria, presumably filling up with with oil traded on the black market, go unfettered. It’s not uncommon to wait several hours overhead a suspected target for someone to make a decision to engage or not. It feels like we are simply using the constructs built up in Afghanistan, which was a very limited fight, in the same way here against ISIS, which is a much more sophisticated and numerically greater foe. It’s embarrassing.
Be assured that the Hawg drivers are doing their best.
Another military blogger read the letter and wrote about its implications. Here’s part of what he had to say:
We did this well in Operation Desert Storm. Decisions were made at the tactical level – targets were hit when discovered. We also designated areas in which pilots were free to engage targets as they appeared. One of the tactics was to delineate “kill boxes” in which no friendly forces were present. Anything that appeared to be military was engaged – it had a devastating effect on the Iraqis.
We have regressed. I am not sure why, but we seem to be operating in a zero-defect environment. That is political-speak for not killing any innocent people in the conduct of military operations.
How much of this institutional aversion to risk and collateral damage comes directly from President Obama I cannot say, but surely the SecDef, service chiefs, and JCS follow his lead and do his bidding.
Generals and admirals are notorious careerists. In my day you could say the same of nine out of ten colonels. It’s probably worse today. If it surprises you to hear an A-10 pilot say he can’t engage a target until a general officer, safely hunkered down in a command post hundreds or even thousands of miles away, authorizes the attack, it shouldn’t … decision-making authority, these days, has crept back up to the very top level of command.
Well, hello, Vietnam … we meet again! I wonder how long it’ll be before President Obama and Secretary of Defense Carter convene a Tuesday luncheon.
© 2015, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.