Weird aspects about AFVs in the Syrian Civil War

1) Low intensity

The war has been going on, but tank losses are below 2 tanks per day. This is a very low rate of losses in my opinion. Other Middle East Wars (the conventional ones) have seen hundreds of tanks destroyed. It seems that the civil war is mostly in a standstill, with regime forces having difficulty amassing strength for local superiority that suffices for offensive actions. This seems to be first and foremost about personnel affairs, particularly motivations.

2) Tanks on overwatch / surveillance duty

Several videos show tanks getting hit by guided missiles while they are motionless on overwatch duty, hatches closed and not moving the turret.
This seems to be a generally underappreciated role of tanks. The first German post-WW2 firefight involved a check point where a Leopard 2 tank was standing, but entirely unmanned. Doctrine and training had not stressed the necessity to have at least one man in the turret at all times for security.
I think it was Ralph Zumbro who wrote about the employment of tanks in Vietnam and recounted how a single tank oversaw and dominated a valley. The main security challenge were the nights; supposedly the random occasional shooting of nearby bushes with a 40 mm gun sufficed to deter any attempts to sneak up to the tank with a satchel charge or RPG-2/B-40.

source: FM 17-98
The ideal overwatch would likely be a turret down position with the ability to move up to a hull down position in seconds. meanwhile, only turret roof-mounted (if not mast-mounted) sensors would be used for all-round search. Maybe these sensors could even be in constant rotation with automated detection of suspicious things or movements. Detached unattended ground senors around the tank could help, with their readings displayed on the tank's screens. So a combination of great (prepared) position and technical equipment for the surveillance mission could achieve a lot.

Of course, being attentive at all times and backing up into a turret down position in time would help a lot as well.

Instead, many comments on the tanks hit (and some of them destroyed) appeared to pay undue attention to turret all-round passive protection (armour).

3) Tracked self-propelled artillery and mortars

The import of 2S9 self-propelled (tracked) mortars made me wonder "why?!?". What's the point? 

The armour is barely bulletproof against rifle calibres (good 7.62x51 NATO might penetrate at 100 m), so that's no vehicle for line of sight support fires except at ranges where doing NLOS support fires with an observer who has LOS in shouting distance would work as well.

There is no need to shoot & scoot in indirect fires for want of rebel counterfires to regime arty and mortars (unless they're in line of sight, of course), so a towed 120 mm mortar would work just as well.

The mobility of a tracked platform is actually quite crappy for mobile operations around the roads through rather arid areas. A wheeled vehicle - particularly new commercial vehicles which can be expected to be fine for the next 30,000 -50,000 km) would be much more mobile.

Finally, Russian AFFVs are not known for having fantastic air conditioning.

So why do they import 2S9 self-propelled tracked mortars instead of importing cheap 120 mm towed mortars and employ them with a pair of Toyota Hilux with a 0.5 ton box trailer?

The vehicles aren't new (hence likely worn out a lot), and one might think that Russia simply dump unnecessary old matériel into Syria, but that doesn't address the maintenance and thus readiness issues of an old tracked platform used in a role where pickups suffice. The 2S9's above-average range (for a 120 mm mortar weapon) is no good reason either. Normal 120 mm mortar ranges suffice in that conflict; arty can deal with anything that's farther out.

It's weird. They have very little ability to afford imports, but they waste money on hardly suitable equipment.



Self discipline and light weight

I have argued a bit in favour of light weight equipment lately, which goes back to a need for high dismounted mobility for survivability which goes back to quick lethal indirect fires which go back to digitised artillery fire control with quick positionfinding which is really a problem because counterfires to arty have become really difficult because of deployment of individual shoot & scoot SPGs instead of batteries because of eased accurate navigation and of course there's the general improvement of accuracy due to said navigation improvements which eliminates the ranging shots so arty fires can proceed with lethal fires with first shot, and autoloaders improved MRSI so you need fewer SPGs for extremely lethal surprise fires ... it's a long rad tail of innovations and their higher order effects. In the end, my conclusion is that infantry needs to relocate by much more than 100 m within 2 minutes (at most 4 minutes) of being detected in order to survive.
Yet infantrymen aren't going to crawl & run by 200-500 m every few minutes or so if burdened by an average of about 30 kg and up to about 37 kg of equipment. That's not what humans do, period.

The comments to my utterances about lightweight equipment - here and through other channels - have often shown one typical answer, paraphrased it was
'but I have this pet toy that I'd like to be used, and those few more kilograms are totally OK, don't make much of a difference in themselves'.

That's exactly how one gets overburdened infantry that instinctively gives up on high agility, high mobility tactics.

The challenge is not to develop lightweight equipment. The challenge is to resist adding weight. Any weight. There is a famous and ingenious Bundeswehr cutlery set that I personally use for camping - it weighs 205 grams. I point at a titanium cutlery set instead. The 40 gram type, not the 42 gram type. Because weight.

One has to do this across the board, muster self-discipline at all times. Forget the Pareto analysis (optimising the biggest items  that make up 80% of the weight, for supposedly optimising the rest isn't worth the effort). I think we're at a time where infantry has to be lightly equipped first and foremost, in order to have the necessary agility (better freedom of movement by more choice of feasible routes) and mobility. Infantry doctrine should emphasize
  1. stealth (fieldcraft, to avoid detection most of the time and particularly in the approach)
  2. agility & mobility + smoke (all for breaking contact in time)
  3. burst small arms firepower at up to 300 m distance for up to 2 minutes duration (not necessarily a "mad minute", but rather surprise salvoes; hit & (over)run)
  4. ability to call for support fires quickly and accurately under ECM influence (primarily brigade-level artillery)
This would be largely the same for mechanised infantry, though with an additional emphasis on the ability to call for/direct line of sight fire support by the tanks.
_ _ _ _ _

All of this is to some degree already part of infantry doctrines, just as assault on trenches was not unknown prior to the First World War. The change that I advocate is about focus; it's about what to favour when you have to make a trade-off. I favour the four points above, and much falls aside for this
  1. long range small arms fires (past 300 m), including medium/universal 7.62 mm machineguns and the fashionable DMRs
  2. anti-MBT firepower in an infantry squad at all times (instead, merely issue anti-MBT equipment when there's an anti-MBT mission)
  3. bulletproofing against rifle calibre carbine's bullets
  4. cartridge provisioning for undisciplined fires, mad minutes, psychological relief shots or extended suppressive fires etc.
  5. storage space on the chest; big silhouettes are incompatible with stealth
I did over the years change (gradually) on some points
  1. no more advocacy of the always fashionable intermediate cartridge for dismounted troops (though I still favour something like .338 for mounted use instead of 7.62 and .50cal)
  2. largely gave up on light frag protection for legs and arms
  3. largely gave up on infantry anti-MBT munitions, which I considered as self-evident because that's the mainstream if not consensus thinking
  4. gave up on some pet items of my own because they were too heavy to advocate for

So I did some mental sacrifices myself in pursuit of self-discipline and focus.

Now the question is whether any major Western army will actually revise its infantry doctrine (the field manuals still look largely as in the 80's, save for additions about GPS, peacekeeping missions,  wars of occupation and such) and then consequently change its ways of equipping, organising, training and handling infantry small units.

The alternative is in my opinion that they would get a terribly bloody nose in the next peer conflict and would need to improvise such changes on the quick, with what's left of the infantry NCO force in order to train raw recruits in the new ways.

The (paraphrased) 'find the enemy, fix him from behind cover, wait till fire support kills the enemy' approach of one-sided clashes of Western resources-rich forces with bare bones paramiliary opposition sure did not force such changes on us. It forced such changes on them. Have you seen any insurgents with 28 kg of equipment carried lately? I kid you not - such heavily burdened insurgents weren't uncommon in earlier centuries.



The Middle East and democracy

I was a lazy blogger this month so far, but for today I found a lazy method of blogging: I pull an excerpt from an e-mail conversation and simply publish it, mostly unmodified:

The Vietnam War was a tricky issue. On the one hand it may have been necessary to make a great stand against export of Bolshevism somewhere even after it was done in Korea, but on the other hand one confused a war of national unification with a step towards Bolshevist world revolution. The errors made in Africa and Latin America were similar; all-too often the real motives were ignored in favour of the simple "they're communists!" explanation (though this ultimately failed to defend apartheid in Rhodesia and South Africa).
We're doing this again. All this attention on radical Islam in regard to daesh is bollocks.
The real conflict in Syria and Iraq is a different one. They have group loyalties that are more powerful than ideologies. Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and Kurds vote for their groups' parties, not for left-right parties. This leads to predictable subjugation / foreign rule of majority factions over minority factions. The Sunni Arabs may get a perfect Western style democracy and they will still feel foreign-ruled because Shiites and Kurds rule over them. There's again and again a rallying of Sunni Arabs in Iraq towards Sunni paramilitary efforts - which end up trending towards radical Islamic policies because radicals tend to dominate over moderates in civil wars.
The old answer was to have tyrannies that oppress one major faction, but these regimes crumbled.
The new answer should be proportional governance as it worked in Lebanon until war was imported to Lebanon after the PLO was kicked out of Jordan. Proportional rule like head of state is always a Shiite, head of government is always a Sunni, head of parliament is always a Kurd et cetera - and then promote programmatic ideological parties that transcend ethnic/religious factions.
They need no Western style democracy; they need old school Levant republicanism. The conflicts will cook up again and again (or be suppressed by tyrannic regimes) until they get proportional republicanism.
Now what do Europeans stare at instead? They freak out about some group of asswipes who pretend to follow the word of their imaginary friend and are world record aspirants in regard to making enemies.
"Islamofascism", the new "Communism".



A possible AEW survivability solution

I did repeatedly write about the survivability issue of airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft such as AWACS, Hawkeye or Erieye.

They seem fine on paper with their greater than 300 km radar range, but supersonic sprinting fighters and low observable fighters can get into a distance from where long range air-to-air missiles have a good chance of hitting those few precious radar aircraft. The Russians (and rumoured also the Chinese) have developed dedicated long range AAMs for AEW killing. Soon-to-be exported Meteor missiles have a good range as well.
Very long range surface-to-air missiles (such as S-400's 40N6 or the USN's SM-6) can threaten and thus keep at a long distance such aircraft as well. The same problem applies to radar aircraft such as J-STARS and ASTOR.

There is an option to address these issues prior to 2025 (though not really for naval aviation), but it's very expensive:

You could take the biggest supersonic low observable aircraft in the Western arsenal, the B-1B bomber, and use it as the platform instead of commercial aircraft, some slow turboprop-driven naval aircraft or even slower helicopters.

Four (very expensive) F135 engines would give it a 38% increase in thrust over the original F101 engines. This, possibly in combination with variable air inlets would regain a Mach 2 capability, and more importantly it would likely give the platform a supercruise capability. The optimisation for low altitude operation such as the tiny canards would be removed, and the airframe would be reverted to a high altitude high speed design, albeit while retaining low radar observability.

The B-1B was designed to have a low radar cross section, particularly up front.
correct exact figures and RCS from sides etc. are not publicly known, of course
This could likely be improved a bit with radar stealth advances of the past about 35 years without prohibitive LO optimisation costs.

Conformal radars for 360° AEW functionality could be added, particularly based on the IAI EL/W-2085. The B-1B is easily large enough to incorporate these, likely with little effect on aerodynamics and with a tolerable effect on RCS.

- - - - -

The outcome would be an AEW(&C) aircraft type that could radiate, which might attract missile attacks, but frequently the emissions would cease (and another aircraft 100+ km away would radiate instead). This may break the engagement sequence because missiles with 200+ km range would need mid-course updates by datalink to find their target, particularly if it's capable of moving at supersonic speed and can only be detected by the small missile radar at short ranges because of a small RCS. The AEW aircraft would not only rapidly get away from its last triangulated position (including reducing the no escape range of the threat missiles); it would also break contact unless the opposing forces have a good sensor close enough. And this "close enough" would be much more close than with current platforms.

Essentially, this might make an AEW kill as difficult (or easy - who knows?) as it was in the 1980's again.

The costs would be extreme:
A modification of existing airframes would likely make little sense due to the substantial airframe modifications and the fact that B-1Bs are worn after 30+ years of training including low altitude training.
  • A small production run of few dozen aircraft would require to set up a production line anew, with full fixed costs. Digital plans and coding for computer-controlled shaping would need to be done.
  • The F135 engines alone would cost in excess of USD 50 million per aircraft, likely USD 60 million per aircraft if a few spare engines are purchased to improve readiness rates.
  • The redesign for Mach 2 would cost a lot and take years.
  • The systems integration and likely upgrade of the EL/W-2085 radar systems would cost a lot.
  • Add a premium on all costs and the program duration because the U.S. DoD would do it, not Israel.
Keep in mind that a single comparably simple E-767 AEW&C aircraft costs a staggering approx. USD 400 million. A B-1B  and EL/W-2085 based solution could easily cost twice as much, if not a billion in program costs/copy. Even worse; the tactic described above requires two aircraft to be on station at any time for continuous observation.
A production of 60 AEW and 20 standoff ground surveillance radar aircraft could cost nearly a hundred billion $, and the operating expenses would be regrettably high as well.

In the end, it might be worth it if it succeeds in boosting AEW survivability and thus in making AEW relevant in defensive high end air warfare, though. I doubt it would help much in regard to offensive air warfare.

An alternative would be to use a rather low-flying AEW helicopter with a much more modest range, but the ability to dive & land when a missile threat is detected or suspected. This is what the French HORIZON program (long range ground surveillance radar) did. This may be the way to go for naval forces unless tethered solutions happen to work well.



Political action for direct democracy in Germany

In case any of the few Germans among my audience (we're down to less than 15%) are interested: Here are links to the pro-direct democracy initiative Mehr Demokratie e.V., including its current petition:

The British f***ed up with their Brexit vote (direct democracy) adventure, giving proponents of direct democracy a hard time. Well, actually the irrationality of people does so, for the Americans f***ed up with Trump through their representative democracy. It's thus obvious even by anecdotal evidence that representative democracy doesn't protect against f*** ups. I suppose that many people won't see that and will instead fall for the logical fallacy of demanding perfection from a reform proposal instead of demanding a net improvement only.

Mehr Demokratie e.V. has developed a bill with legal assistance that's actually very moderate. Essentially 100,000 signatures would force the parliament to consider a bill and if said bill is rejected (I suppose that would always happen, since even a certain amount of modification would be a rejection) a million signatures would suffice to force a plebiscite with lawmaking power.

I wish for a lot more, but this would be a decent improvement.




NATO throughout the times (my interpretation)

The NATO as originally founded was meant as a defensive alliance against Soviet power, no doubt. It also served as a delineation of the Western bloc, and signaled that no overthrowing of any government by a communist insurgency would be tolerated within this alliance (everyone still remembered the Greek Civil War).

Western European designs for defence cooperation have in part been superseded and in part been given up once NATO with inclusion of the United States of America was founded in early 1949.

NATO assumed an additional role for some Western European governments once the Federal Republic of Germany joined; it was a harness to make Western Germany useful, and at the same time somewhat controlled while partially giving up its occupation.

NATO became the medium for the U.S. government for hegemony in Western and Southern Europe, and the French government reacted with a withdrawal from NATO's military institutions (France always remained a treaty member and thus a NATO ally).

This state of affairs lasted for decades till the end of the Cold War.

It was obvious that the old Soviet threat was gone by late 1991. This posed a huge challenge, for without the unifying bogeyman there was a risk that the European great powers and Americans would drift towards adversarial instead of cooperative stances. Western Europe and the U.S. could have become rivals or enemies instead of staying allied.
NATO thus became in part a bond - similar to a marriage vow - that was meant to keep Western/Southern Europe on the one hand and the U.S. on the other hand on friendly, cooperative terms - allied.

This required NATO to serve a more obvious purpose, though. A purpose that could be communicated (nobody wanted to talk of the risk of transatlantic hostility). Ideally, such an obvious purpose would require frequent cooperation and permanent institutions. Such a purpose was found by developing the idea that NATO wasn't only meant to defend itself, but also to provide for its security by stabilising and pacifying its periphery, its neighborhoods. This led to the multinational military actions in and over Bosnia and the Kosovo (Air) War. There were but two non-former Yugoslavian country that could have claimed that its sovereignty was at risk because of the wars in Yugoslavia: Austria (airspace violations) and Albania. Neither were NATO members. Still, every statesman in NATO seemed to pretend with a straight face that intervention in the neighborhood was actually about our security as well.

There was a parallel development in Eastern Europe. Countries that had gained freedom from Soviet dominance if not independence after generations or centuries of being incorporated into Russian Empires and Soviet Union joined NATO to protect themselves against Russia. Western Europe liked this, since pushing the frontier to the East made the distance to the Russian mainland very comfortable. Germany had been front nation throughout the Cold War and just about every WW3 scenario saw it nuked over and over. Now, after the NATO expansion, all of Russia but the Kaliningrad exclave seems very, very distant. The new NATO members saw this attitude and many of them (all three Baltic countries, Poland and Czech Republic maybe the most) sought close ties to the U.S. in addition to the treaty membership. They weren't terribly irritated by the obvious American disinterest in Eastern Europe and Russia throughout the GWB administration. They did to some degree refuse the idea that they should become obvious auxiliary forces providers, but they did pay a price to the U.S. for the feeling that the U.S: would be indebted in return: This price was participation in "small wars" (Poland in Iraq, several countries in Afghanistan) and the orientation of a substantial part of their armed forces towards such small wars rather than direct deterrence and defence in Eastern Europe. Much of the needed equipment was bought, but some equipment was also acquired through American military aid.

This state of affairs seems to have changed gradually from the South Ossetia War to the Crimea occupation. Calls for more seriousness in NATO about deterrence and defence in Eastern Europe (including finally creating contingency plans for defence) grew to public proportions (also in Norway) and by 2015 it's finally widely acknowledged that NATO is a defensive alliance - in Europe. Nobody really knows that Trump thinks about it.

There are nevertheless still remnants of the doctrine that NATO is a club for interventions, not the least because of the article V activation in regard to Afghanistan. This act was not really the intent of the Americans, but an effort to do once more something together for bonding and an effort to make the invasion of Afghanistan more acceptable at for the voters at home. The Taliban switched to guerilla warfare real quick and gave up overt political control of most of Afghanistan, so the supposed collective self-defence quickly assumed the shape of an occupation of Afghanistan. Never before had any alliance considered it to be self-defence to go after the hosts of an aggressor even after said hosts lost control of their country. But this wasn't about self-defence; it was about bonding for the cooperation-minded Europeans and it was about not yielding to brown Muslims for the Americans, which liked to receive so many auxiliary troops for Afghanistan while they were mostly busy occupying Iraq which they had attacked without any having any real self-defence excuse.

So now NATO is again a bloc facing the Russians, it may sooner or later be drawn into a U.S.-PRC conflict in one way or another and it's burdened by the remnants of a "bonding by intervention" doctrine. European statesmen are still very cooperation-minded, but the U.S. president seems utterly incapable of cooperation (neither understanding the concept nor how to exploit the European pursuit of cooperation), at least in regard to democratic countries. 
NATO is as of now mostly a European alliance, with the U.S. being a member in name due to inertia, not because of intact cooperation and will to cooperate at the level of its president.