Special Operations: Opportunity Backfires

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November 12, 2016: American commandos (mainly Delta Force and SEALs) in Iraq and Syria are complaining that their British counterparts are increasingly hampered by restrictive ROE (Rules of Engagement) that prevent the SAS or SBS operators from undertaking missions where there is risk that might result in lawsuits for real or imaginary war crimes. This sort of thing usually doesn’t happen with commandos but despite ample recent and historical evidence that these charges are usually baseless or false the British troops have to turn down a lot of joint operations they have long carried out with American and other foreign special operations troops. This problem was created by Iraqis exploiting the British legal system with the help of British media seeking headlines and British politicians seeking votes. It was only in the last few years that evidence was uncovered about how extensive these scams are. But that has not changed British attitudes or, more importantly, government policy.

These scams would have continued longer had there not been so much intelligence collecting innovation (especially biometrics and analysis software) in Iraq and Afghanistan that had the side effect of uncovering details of refugee scams developed in the country the refugees came from and then attempted in Europe where many were given refuge. For example a 2014 British government investigation into claims that British troops tortured and murdered Iraqis concluded that the claims were false in 57 cases and all these accusations were basically scams to obtain money via the British courts. The investigation took years and cost over $40 million.

The Iraq plaintiffs were suing in British courts for cash compensation for the alleged murders and lesser crimes. The investigation could not find any evidence to back up the claims of the Iraqis, but did find ample evidence that the Iraqis were lying deliberately, frequently and with expert guidance. All this is nothing new, although it was a bold move to take this scam to Britain. Eventually public opinion and the political climate will change and British commandos will be allowed to do their work. But in the meantime the British operators will be missed.

While British commandos have to worry about getting sued or prosecuted, MI6 (British secret service) operatives have a degree of legal cover for its operations that are exceptional. Under the Intelligence Services Act of 1994, MI6 officers have immunity from prosecution for crimes committed outside Great Britain. The Criminal Justice Bill of 1998 made it illegal for any organization in Great Britain to conspire to commit offenses abroad, but Crown agents have immunity. Which means, in effect, that yes, Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service really is licensed to kill. Another advantage of MI6 is that they have a number of SAS commandos trained to work with MI6 and are always available for any MI6 needs. This commando organization is called Increment and is used for assassinations, sabotage or other dangerous jobs (like arresting war criminals in the Balkans.) In addition, every station chief has a direct line to SAS headquarters and a good working relationship with the commandos. These days if British commandos want to do what they were trained for they have to hope for a call from MI6.

Meanwhile American commandos are increasingly burdened with a uniquely American curse; growing use of micromanagement. This sort of thing was first seen during the Vietnam War when advances in communications allowed someone in Washington to speak directly with commanders in combat. Tech kept improving and despite veterans pointing out that micromanagement was counterproductive and got U.S. troops killed, the practice returned and reached new heights during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. This has caused major headaches for another generation of battlefield commanders. Yet one key factor in the return of micromanagement could be found in the American military itself.

This goes back to 2004 when the U.S. Department of Defense decided to provide the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) with a real time combat command capability. This meant that the JCS, led by its chairman, now had a combat command center in the Pentagon where they could use satellite communications to directly observe, and sometimes control, combat forces anywhere on the planet. Now all these senior officers had learned, early on in their military training, the importance of giving subordinates their mission and leaving those junior commanders to figure out a way to do it. But now, with a generation of senior commanders with no experience of being micromanaged platoon leaders in Vietnam, the insidious and crippling micromanagement disease crept back into the White House and Pentagon. Field commanders were being second guessed by nervous superiors half way around the world. These same superiors were now calling in lawyers to help them make the right (for the guy in Washington) decision while the troops were under fire and waiting for permission to proceed. It wasn't always this way.

It was only in the past century that a government gained the ability to exercise any control at all over armed forces far from the capital. This was first done with the introduction of overland and undersea telegraph lines in the 19th century and world-wide radio broadcasting equipment early in the 20th century. Before that an admiral or general was sent off with orders to accomplish a mission and pretty much allowed to get it done as they saw fit. The generals and admirals rather liked this approach, as their job was hard enough without a bunch of politicians looking over their shoulder and second guessing their every decision. Even with the radio messages from back home, the combat commanders were still left to sort things out on their own. The radio was used mainly to report progress, or lack of it, not ask permission for every move.

But by the 1960s it was possible to patch through a telephone call from the White House to an infantry battalion commander deep in the Vietnamese bush. And it wasn't just the dreaded phone call from the president you had to worry about. The beleaguered battalion commander might have brigade, division, and corps commanders circling overhead in helicopters, all of them observing and offering advice or giving orders. This "micromanagement" was much disliked by the guys on the ground, trying to run a battle they were right in the middle of.

After Vietnam the Department of Defense tried to deal with this problem by establishing regional commands to cover the entire planet and then appoint four star generals or admirals to command all American forces in that region if there were a war (the rest of the time they would keep an eye on things and get ready for any possible war). These commanders in chief (or CINCs as they are still called, unofficially) were sometimes guilty of micromanagement, although all experienced combat commanders recognized that it was best to leave the commanders of the fighting units alone. This was the lesson of history. Micromanagement was bad but it persisted. Why?

Blame it on the media. Just as military communications had improved so had the ability of the media to get the story back to their audience (of voters, pundits, and unfriendly politicians). In the past the commander on the spot might do things that did not look good in the media but it took so long to get the story back that the operation was over by the time it did. If the battle was won many sins would be forgiven. That no longer works. Communications now allow reporters to deliver color commentary while a battle is going on. The president, the ultimate (by law and in fact) commander in chief, is held responsible for whatever the troops do. It is not possible, politically, to wait for the combat commanders to finish their job before the president, or his aides, issues new orders.

Examples of micromanagement were abundant in the recent Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Washington often had to be consulted before sensitive attacks were made (like having a Predator UAV launch a Hellfire missile at some guy on the ground who might be Osama bin Laden rather than just some tall Afghan with a beard, a new SUV, and a commanding manner). The JCS Command Post was an attempt to deal with this problem. The JCS and the Secretary of Defense are the president's senior, and most frequent, military advisors. Ultimately, the buck stops with the JCS. So by plugging the JCS into a world-wide command system, politically sensitive decisions can be resolved quickly (in minutes, or at least in less than an hour). The more frequent contact between the president, the Secretary of Defense, and the JSC with combat commanders might build up a degree of trust that would enable sensitive decisions to be made more quickly. This would happen, in a best case situation, because the JCS Command Post had developed confidence in the judgment of the commanders out there. But in politics everything is seen as either helping or hurting reelection prospects.

Micromanagement originally appeared because the technology was there to make it possible. New technology keeps showing up, making more mischief, or benefits, possible. As always, it's up to the people using the technology to make useful things happen rather than screw them up. All this is another example and unintended consequences, when something new is available and when it is used unexpected bad things result. It takes a while for people to sort out the cause and effect and even longer to decide on a cure. Meanwhile the problem continues to fester and create a corrupt atmosphere.

 


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