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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Operation Swarmer: What didn't happen 
Here's something a commenter wrote in response to this piece that I want to elevate to the main page, because it deserves a closer discussion:

How many insurgent attacks do you think that amount of ordnance represents? Doesn't look like a lot to me. 34 rifles with less than 100 rounds each, wow, color me unimpressed.

If it took 1500 guys to deny weapons and ammo for, say, 30 bad guys for a week or two, how impressed should we be? How hard is it for them to replace that lost equipment? From what I hear, AKs are a dime a dozen over there, and mortars and explosives aren't a lot harder to come by.


I don't want to say that Operation Swarmer was a screaming home run that knocked the insurgency out of the war. But I will defy anyone to show me anything that ever billed it as such. But the commenter's remarks are fundamentally dishonest. Unfortunately, the techniques - the sleight-of-hand devices exhibited by this anonymous commenter are all too prevalent in many circles.

By focusing exclusively on the "34 rifles with less than 100 rounds each," this commenter seeks to decoy his reader from the real and substantial progress made by this operation.

The rifles themselves, if they are AK 47s or variants, are not in short supply. Nearly every household in the country has one. Dragonov sniper rifles are a different story, though - and a few of them in the hands of well-trained snipers could possibly change the battlefield, at least for a time. I would assume, however, that if any Dragonovs were found, the press release would have mentioned them separately.

But the commenter fails to address a simple battlefield fact: The seizure of ten surface-to-air missiles, including four SA-14 guided missiles in one area, is by itself a significant find, and very possibly short-circuits an insurgent plan to win a huge political victory on the screens of America's television sets.

Anyone with a military memory spanning back 13 years will remember how the downing of two American military helicopters in Mogadishu near an urban stronghold precipitated the American withdrawal from an entire continent. These helicopters were downed at very low level with comparatively antique unguided RPG 7s.

The SA-14s are guided systems which can home in on a helicopter exhaust and destroy the craft and crew from a range of four-and-a-half kilometers.

Now, imagine the following scenario:

The insurgency identifies a coalition unit that uses helicopters for fire support, medical evacuation, and tactical reinforcement. Any of the three will do. They mass in company strength, detaching a squad with all four SA-14s and a couple of videocams perhaps a kilometer away in an apartment building with ready access to a rooftop.

The urban terrain they select helps them rule out a fixed-wing response, while ruling in the use of helicopters. They choose their ground carefully, and wait.

They wait for a squad-or-platoon sized coalition patrol element to wander into their kill zone so they can pin them down. But that's not the real objective. The real objective is to force a medevac flight or a provoke a helicopter airstrike. It will also probably provoke artillery fires as well, but the enemy doesn't care, because his anti-aircraft gunners are safe and sound a klick away, sitting like a venus flytrap, waiting for an unsuspecting fly. And this is where the real ambush is triggered: As soon as the helicopters come in to evacuate the wounded, or as soon as the gunships come in to strafe and rocket the Ali Baba line, the anti-air contingent is activated. With as many as ten anti-aircraft missiles - not RPGs, MISSILES -concentrated against a flight of two helicopters, the insurgency has an excellent chance of bringing them down.

And the cameramen will be at the ready to make sure the footage gets on the six-o-clock news.

At that point, the original ambush becomes secondary - it becomes a footrace to get to the scene of the downed helicopters - a race the Iraqi locals will have no problem winning. More footage for the six-o-clock news. The insurgents then form a ring around the helicopters, force the coalition to fight their way through to the helicopters, and draw as much blood as they can in the fight - and hopefully provoke the U.S. into destroying a city in the process.

Instant Mogadishu II.

Instant Tet.

All this can be effected with a few anti-air missiles and an element of real fighters at about company strength (+)

And if you don't think the insurgency is racking their brains to try to figure out a way to create exactly this scenario, you're off your rocker. This is Ali Baba's wet dream. And this would be precisely the scenario I would try to create if I were a commander on their side.

Downed helicopters destroyed the United States on an entire continent. Desert One helped to destroy a president. And politically, this operation it would cause renewed calls for an American pullout from Iraq in the United States, when what really happened is that the six-o'clock news got played like a cheap harmonica.

You couldn't do it with just one or two missiles. You wouldn't want to concentrate a company and commit to a battle unless you had a pretty good chance of binging down a couple of helicopters. You would want to be able to concentrate your anti-aircraft missiles in the hands of your best troopers to have a good chance of bringing down not one, but TWO U.S. helicopters. And that's the difference between a defeat and a disaster. That would be the makings of a real battlefield defeat.

Unlike AK-47s, the anti-aircraft missiles are not exactly commonplace on the Iraqi battlefield. They are a rarity. And they are very expensive for the insurgency to come up with. The fact that ten of them were concentrated in one area tells me that Ali Baba was up to something, and pretty much rules out the prossibility that it was just a tribal cache.

Operation Swarmer removed that ambush from the realm of possibility, turned tens of hundreds of thousands of dollars the insurgency had to spend to get those missiles into ashes - and very possibly removed from existence the company with which they wanted to execute the ambush.

The mortar rounds, likewise, are deadly IEDs - in some ways more dangerous than a 155 IED, because they are much more easily concealed, stored, and quickly emplaced - often in a "daisy chain" all along a few hundred meters of road.

It's easy enough to put a mortar round out in an obvious place to cause a convoy to stop, and then blow the rest of the daisy chain up and take out much of a platoon - and giving the Moojies another significant victory for the six-o-clock news.

Operation Swarmer took out more than three hundred mortar rounds, or eliminated from the battlefield the possibility of some ten to thirty of those ambushes.

This is discounting the very real, though intangible, institutional benefits that the Iraqi Army gained by being involved in the operation.

But the commenter can't see any of this. The commenter, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, focuses on -- on what? On a few small arms and a few dozen magazines of ammunition.

Man, I'd hate to be married to this person.

Splash, out

Jason

Comments:
Jason,

Pretty much my thoughts, except imagine the downing of a fixed-wing aircraft? Imagine a C-130, C-5, C-17 being shot down (even worse, one loaded with troops going home)? Or one of our fighter aircraft providing CAS? The media would have a field day showing the footage of the strike, crash site, bodies (or, captured pilots). Major propaganda victory.

It's difficult to shoot down a fixed-wing with RPGs, but with MANPADs, especially a volley of them as you describe...I really don't even want to think about it.
 
I don't see why those were "fundamentally dishonest" questions. You, Bill Roggio, and CENTCOM all represented that list of captured weapons as the major outcome of Swarmer. Why then is it "dishonest" to ask exactly what those weapons mean, in terms of military capability to the enemy? Why is it dishonest to ask someone like you to relate input to output - i.e. what did our 1500 men achieve? How do we know the operation succeeded? Why is "weapons captured" even the right metric? If it is the right metric, how do we know that capturing a given number of weapons represents a "significant win"?

In short, it is not enough just to tell me we captured X tons of weapons and ammo, you also have to tell me what that means to the enemy - what did we deny him the ability to do? If we captured X tons, great, but how many tons does the insurgency use every month?

In fact, what is "dishonest" is presenting metrics in a vacuum, not asking for context with which to understand these metrics.

The seizure of ten surface-to-air missiles, including four SA-14 guided missiles in one area, is by itself a significant find

But you see, civilian ignoramuses like me don't necessarily know that this is true. What we need is context. How many SA-14s have been captured in Iraq in the past year? How many have been fired at us in the past year? Capturing four SA-14s is awesome if this weapon is scarce (e.g. only four usually get fired at us in a month) but less awesome if this weapon is commonplace (e.g. more than four usually get fired at us every day). Such context is exactly what I asked you to provide when I asked my "dishonest" questions.

Unlike AK-47s, the anti-aircraft missiles are not exactly commonplace on the Iraqi battlefield. They are a rarity. And they are very expensive for the insurgency to come up with. The fact that ten of them were concentrated in one area tells me that Ali Baba was up to something, and pretty much rules out the prossibility that it was just a tribal cache.

See, NOW you are telling me something! This is exactly what the original post did not tell me, and why I asked my "dishonest" questions.

I would ask the same types of questions with respect to the rockets and the mortar rounds:
- how many IED attacks did we most likely prevent with this operation? and how many typically occur in a given week?
- how many mortar attacks typically occur in Iraq? do the bad guys expend 350 rounds in a week? a month? a day? how can we know that 350 rounds is "a lot" without this type of information?

But the commenter can't see any of this. The commenter, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, focuses on -- on what? On a few small arms and a few dozen magazines of ammunition.

Sigh. I focused on the small arms for the sake of brevity, but I guess I should have gone down the list and asked you about every single item.
 
But the commenter fails to address a simple battlefield fact: The seizure of ten surface-to-air missiles, including four SA-14 guided missiles in one area, is by itself a significant find, and very possibly short-circuits an insurgent plan to win a huge political victory on the screens of America's television sets.

Funny I had a different reaction to that fact. the finding of so many sophisticated weapons all in one out of the way spot told me that there must be a lot of these thing now in country and that we could expect to see lots of these things used against MNF targets in the coming months. If I only had a few of these things I would not hide all of them in the same spot,
 
Maybe it's just me but am always reading these storys and am starting to think it's more than I want to know. (not really) If we can just give our boys a quiet and free hand to kick ass witout a bias media editorializing everything they do and calling it reporting things would ne much better for all involved. Sometimes I think supportting our boys is as much for our benifit and concience. Our boys would do their professional best even if we did not know they were over there.
 
Yeah, I was wondering about the dispersal question, too. But in reading the article, I couldn't say whether the anti-aircraft missiles were all found in one cache, or whether they were, in fact, distributed in separate caches around the area of operations.

So I did deliberately use the term "area" rather than "spot."

I don't recall a single SA-14 being found in Ramadi during my tenure there, though I could be wrong. Certainly it wasn't more than a few during the ten months plus my battalion operated there, which should speak to their relative scarcity, at least during 03-early 04.
 
- There were a handful of sniper rifles of various brands captured, but only a handful of the weapons mentioned were sniper rifles.

- It's rare to find an SA-14 or SA-7. Maybe two or three a month in the whole of the country.

- While I was there, during Operation Swarmer, there were several US deaths on the same day in the same province, but outside the Swarmer area. One soldier was killed in the city of Samarra (not part of the operation) and two soldiers were killed by rockets on an American FOB, also outside the Swarmer operation area.

- There were several other successful operations conducted after Swarmer started that captured or otherwise interdicted insurgent/terrorist activities in areas outside the Swarmer AO. One example is the search of a soccer field that yielded a Russian Air Defense machine gun and plenty of other ordnance.

- Conclusions: Swarmer definitely dented but didn't break the bad guys by removing materials for up to several hundred IEDs (enemy's deadliest tactic), several sniper rifles, and shoulder fired air defense weapons systems. It is possible - even probable - that we also gathered intelligence either in the form of documents or human intelligence not mentioned in public releases (nor should it be). Swarmer caused the bad guys to scatter like cockroaches from the kitchen light (their own propaganda braggs how they ran from the AO without being caught), which may have exposed them to detection that resulted in the other successful operations outside the Swarmer AO. All that aside, the training value of conducting a large-scale air assault operation without a single friendly or neutral casualty represents a huge step forward for the Iraqi units involved - something Jason has pointed out in previous posts.
 
Consider this a trackback to your this post. I've quoted much of you at http://smoothingplane.blogspot.com/2006/04/some-contextual-examples.html
Thank you. Nice shootin' pardner.
 
I think it is interesting that after "Swarmer" ended the military decided that attacked convoys would now stand and fight. Before then they were to shoot and run-- I assume to avoid the scenario you outlined. Now they seem willing to risk an SA missile attack on the supporting helicopters. Maybe because it is no longer such a great risk?

Lloyd, Wauwatosa
 
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