Thursday, March 31, 2011

Can Khadaffi win? The mobile warfare approach, counterpunching, urban defence and other considerations

Postscript- August 2011:
Since the original post, Ghadaffi's forces have folded quickly, without much of a fight,  - a far cry from the hard-nosed NVA and VC regulars, and guerrilla auxiliaries that defeated the US in Vietnam. In the movie "Apocalypse Now" - Marlon Brando, playing the renegade Colonel Kurtz asserted that if only he had 10 divisions of NVA, he could more than hold his own and achieve victory in his war. Ghadaffi did not have such  hard-nosed men willing to fight, but they too, did not have hard-nosed leaders on the order of Vo Nguyen Giap, Pham van Dong or Ho Chi Minh. And so it goes.

PAVN: Masters of the art...

I shed no tears for Libyan dictator Muamar Ghadaffi. His regime has long been associated with terrorism, brutality and interference in the affairs of other African countries. Over the years, numerous African leaders have been opposed to him and his expansionist agenda. In the 1980s, he received his just desserts. His modern force of almost 20,000 troops, well equipped with fighter jets and bombers, tanks, artillery, etc was ignominiously routed by the lightly-armed tribal fighters of Chad. You could say he has a long, bloody history. But some on the web seem to think he can be deposed in a quickie 3 week campaign. I have seen almost a euphoria on certain military enthusiast websites, captivated by high tech smart bombs and Tomahawk missiles, usually predicting quick victory over the architect of Lockerbie. This post shows however that such euphoria is misguided. If resolute enough Ghadaffi can drag out his end game for a much longer time than the projected "shake and bake" victory.

Mobile warfare across a wide front can certainly help Khadaffi and his loyalist forces. One blog gives a good summary of Mao's mobile warfare approach as applying to the Libyan loyalist effort. See Colonel Ghadaffi goes Mao. But there is an additional element needed if the loyalists are to stay in business. Moammar's forces cannot simply fight mobile warfare all the time, because the Coalition may be putting additional Special Forces on the ground to more closely coordinate air strikes - forces that will have their own assets on call like attack helicopters. Despite the UN resolution which orders an arms embargo to Libya, the Coalition is already arming and organizing the rebels to serve as a proxy ground force, and supplying free logistical support, and flying artillery. The game will be Coalition proxies fingering loyalist targets, then pulling back and letting air power pound them, before moving forward to mop up.

The Colonel's loyalist forces will thus need to prepare for detailed urban warfare as well, using dense urban areas to provide shelter in defence. Resolute urban defense can stymie the coalition assault not only because of the risk of civilian casualties, but built-up areas, including multistory buildings will provide much needed defensive strongpoints, and pivots for counterattacks. Strong urban positions will also allow rebel attacks to be seen off.

Thus while mobile warfare might take precedence, urban defense will be needed as well. The two work together in integrated fashion.

The vigorous counterattacking style is still relevant

Six possible elements of combat and organization

With hard-hitting mobile counterattacks, smaller formations, wide-area defense in built-up civilian/urban areas, increased manpower, and resolution by Khadaffi, his sons, or hand-picked successors, it is possible that the Colonel can hold out a long time. He of course may decide to exit, but he has enough resources in place to fight on for quite a while, IF willing to pay the price. It could take regular Western ground forces to make any real headway if loyalists dig in for a long fight, and use effective methods. More effective rebel proxies are another option- if they begin to deploy heavy weapons like tanks and towed/self-propelled artillery, if supplemented by support teams of Western Special Forces troops and/or mercenaries directing air strikes at ground level, or helping to operate the heavy iron. Against this reconfiguration of foes, there are six elements to a possible"long march" strategy for Khadaffi:

1) Lighten heavy units: Khadaffi's forces were in the beginning too heavy, with long logistical tails for fuel, food and munitions, that made for easy air targets. There is some evidence that this shortcoming is being addressed. They need to be lightened further and become more self-sufficient. The rebels will try to pin them in place with peripheral engagements, then pull back and wait for Coalition planes to clean up. The Colonel needs to lighten and disperse his forces more and stay mobile. Heavy weapons like tanks need to be dispersed and concealed, and used for quick strikes. Task and raiding forces need to be formed - specific material, equipment and manpower packages depending on the mission. Ambush squads groups for example can be deployed to delay or even rout rebel advances on open ground. There is no need for lumbering companies or battalions to be exposed.

2) Continually attack the rebels using small task forces that can get close, strike quickly then disperse, not massed formation with vulnerable logistics. The rebels should not be allowed time to consolidate, but attacked over a wide area. Their standard tactic will be to identify loyalist targets then pull back and call in Coalition airstrikes. Moammar's troops need to follow them closely, "hanging on the belt" like PAVN as noted above. In open desert terrain such tactics would be suicidal. But in built-up urban areas, they are more feasible. Loyalist troops must also counterattack wherever possible as swiftly as possible rather than massing for easy aerial decimation. Rommel's Infantry Attacks is another classic statement of this "counter-punching" approach. PAVN in Vietnam is more recent. "Hugging" tactics do not necessarily mean always rushing out to force the desired degree of proximity. 'Hugging" can also be achieved by patiently waiting in ambush.

Use small, mobile, agile task forces, infiltrating forward in civilian guise if needed, that can hit hard then disperse to reform. PAVN used the usual raiding parties and also sapper formations to do this, especially after Tet. Such smaller formations will be less vulnerable to airpower and create continual chaos in the ranks of the coalition proxies. The "hugging" tactics mentioned above will help reduce the effectiveness of US/European airpower. Continual attack does not mean stereotyped set pieces, or reckless commitments in the open field that draw crushing airpower, but a mix of flexible planned actions when the mix of advantages are right. It also means that the rebels will be constantly calling for Coalition "bailout" help, at the time and place of the loyalists' own choosing, tying up airpower in unimportant places. Small task forces, in civilian guise if needed will also be essential to hunting down Special Forces troops assisting the rebels. Such troops are a mortal danger to regime forces because of their capability of calling in air strikes and in training regime opponents. No sane military commander would let them operate unmolested. In Laos during the Vietnam War, PAVN did not play when such troops were in an area, and pulled out all the stops to neutralize or liquidate them.

NVA sapper at work.. smaller formations, hard hitting effect

3) Shelter in dense urban areas but use them as a maneuver base, not a static strong-point easily destroyed from the air. Embed deep in urban landscape, and always look to counterattack soon, when conditions are favorable: The Coalition proxies generally avoid combat in built up urban areas, preferring to "set up" air strikes. Nevertheless, to avoid the full brunt of that air power, the Colonel's troops will need to embed deep at times in strategic urban areas. Defenses in multistory and other civilian structures for example will be needed when gunships deploy, and will provide the necessary temporary shelter. Hardened bunkers and strong-points must also be constructed as needed. Once the opportunity presents itself, counterattack. If Coalition air strikes are heavy, again embed over a wide urban area in civilian structures to take advantage of their shelter while planning counterattacks. The urban base is a pivot, not a static point- a base for shifting men and material from to building, and built up area to built up area. Not all positions warrant the same investment of effort, and some positions may need to be abandoned as they become untenable, but they can always be re-infiltrated again as the pressure eases. Prioritization is obvious. It makes little sense to invest in a distant small town versus a medium sized city near or with an oil port.

4) Bait coalition aircraft into hazardous and/or time-consuming decoy attacks on constantly shifting, low value targets. In fighting airpower from the urban base, mobility and deception in defense will be essential. The Colonel's forces lack good anti-aircraft weapons in quantity-- like the man-portable SA-7 'Strela' that menaced so many gunships and helicopters in Vietnam, not to mention the heavier direct fire AA weapons. Still, any credible defense would not let the gunships operate unmolested. They need to be engaged with heavy small arms fire from a widely spaced variety of dug in urban positions, forcing them to fly higher, and buying time for additional tactical movement, such as the "hugging" tactics against enemy troops. This will reduce their effectiveness. In a properly layered AA defense, heavy weapons or missiles would take over at higher altitudes. Lacking these, the ground troops must pull another page from the PAVN book and set up up flak ambushes - baiting the aircraft close, concealing heavy machine guns and other assets until the very last minute, and until the bait is taken, blasting away full bore, and then relocating men and weapons to the next strongpoint to enhance survival. Infrared technology will foil some of these flak traps, and the armored A-10 'Warthog' jet will make for a short life for some defenders. But properly deployed over a wide area, they can bring some air assets down, or at the very least, decoy them on multiple wild goose chases. Over 1,800 US aircraft were lost in Vietnam combat. Over eighty (80%) of these combat losses were from heavy automatic weapons gunfire and AA cannon. Now you know why attack helicopters and A-10s, for all their gee-whiz technology, are so heavily armored. People on the ground are not playing.

Just as an infantry squad can pin down a much larger force with the proper defensive disposition, so too the gunships and helicopters can be pinned down for substantial periods on relatively low value targets. Million dollar gunships, A-10s and helicopters chasing 2-3 man teams armed with $70 rifles will have a positive diversionary effect for the loyalists over a wide area, though the 2-3 man cell may sometimes face a short-life span. In Vietnam, small groups of VC or NVA occupied large time, firepower and asset allocations, as helicopters, gunships, and air strikes "piled on" to eliminate a few men in an unimportant bunker, some of whom slipped away after all. And the loyalists will always have the option of melting away to reinfiltrate later at a more opportune time. While gunships are baited and tied up for hours clearing one city block of constantly shifting fighters, more important and more lethal strategic work can be done by loyalist forces elsewhere.

5) Blend with the masses, people's war style, refraining from counterattacks just for the sake of counterattacking. Withdraw if needed into ambushes or better tactical situations, or disperse to other urban shelter networks among the masses, and return as needed to counterpunch: Blending with the masses may seem shocking to some, but this is precisely what the rebels in Libya are doing to escape attack by regime troops. Does anyone think the Colonel's forces, likewise facing fierce attack (from the air), will angelically refrain from this option? Pious proclamations by Western leaders about "human shield tactics" also apply to their own favored rebel proxies, who are doing the exact same thing, although this is hardly pointed out by the mainstream media. The losers are civilians, as in any war.

Blending also goes hand in hand with withdrawing and returning. In Vietnam, ousting PAVN troops from one area often meant little. They bided their time and returned. A combined rebel/Coalition operation to take a town for example is not the end of the world. Defensive elements left behind can make life hazardous for Coalition ground proxies, and counterattacks by agile tasks forces can retake ground. It is not necessary for example to retake a city "officially" - just make it contested and untenable for the rebels, who will need to again call in Coalition airpower to start over from scratch with each setback. Counterattacks will depend on the tactical situation. Loyalist forces should not simply counterattack for its own sake. If for example, a street is under attack by C-130s, with nearby rebels waiting to mop up, prospects of a hugging counterattack must be weighed. If the rebels can be routed or engaged close so as to stymie air power with a fair chance of success, then loyalist forces would proceed. But if withdrawal through built-up civilian structures and rubble to another layer of urban defense is more feasible, then use this option. It may be also be better to lay low until gunships and helicopters depart while waiting in ambush for coalition proxies to emerge, before engaging them full bore. This will bring a return of air power, but the cycle can again be repeated, with opposing proxies making little overall headway despite air support on station. The picture thus is of a constantly shifting, see-saw pattern, a mix of deep defensive embedding, tactical withdrawals, counter-punches, and flexibility.

6) Seriously mobilize: Kadaffi also needs to bolster his manpower. Currently he is relying on (according to one source) about 10,000 faithful tribesmen as a core force, but this hardly seems enough. The mobile counter-attacks, wide area urban defense and enemies like C-130s will incur an increasing number of casualties. His 10,000 core fighters are backed by perhaps double that number of militia, but still more is needed. The Colonel needs to introduce conscription to create a manpower surge for the grim tasks ahead. Most of the lesser trained troops can be deployed in broad defense or extended range guerrilla activity, while the core regulars are husbanded for pivotal strong points or hard hitting counterattacks. Kadaffi also needs to mobilize whatever "fraternal assistance" he can get from other civilian nations, smuggling as much men and material as possible in under civilian guise. Just as Ho Chi Minh did not take the Americans at their word that they were exercising restraint and began total mobilization, Kadaffi too must undertake a serious mobilization of all available resources if he wants to stay in the field.

End game

Ideally, civilians are better served if local ceasefires are negotiated. But exactly how "ceasefires" will be negotiated when the 'coalition' is egging on insurgents in the civil war, and providing them with massive air support to attack beggars the imagination. It seems a very curious way to be "protecting" civilians for "humanitarian" purposes, when you are arming one set of civilians and sending them forth to kill other civilians, or conduct attacks that will get other civilians killed. In Sirte for example, there are numerous civilians that support Kadaffi. do they count for "protection" or is it only the anointed proxies of the Euro/US mission? It is clear that rebel forces have attacked, and will continue to attack and/or coerce and intimidate fellow Libyans who do not share their goals. So how does this jibe with "humanitarian" intervention? It sounds more like intervention in another civil war with "the West" backing its chosen side. The "Coalition" claim to be concerned about "making Khadaffi stop attacking civilians" is laced with sheer hypocrisy, since the Coalition is arming one set of civilians to attack another set civilians in an internal civil war.

Supposed terrorist-fighting America supporting Islamist terrorists in Libya? Then there is the well documented presence of Al Qaeda and Islamists in rebel ranks. Ghadaffi
in earlier years actually put down revolts by such Islamists in Benghazi. Now here they are at it again, in the mix. Ghadaffi has a legitimate security interest in preventing the resurgence of such Islamists. And in Iraq, Libyans were the second most represented nationality attacking Americans, and the single most represented nationality who state a desire to be suicide bombers. So we have the contradictory picture of an American president who claims he is fighting Islamic terrorism, yet is supporting Islamists with free arms, training, supplies and air support, Islamists documented as American killers, and who would like nothing better than to continue to kill Americans elsewhere. Can anyone say confusion? I knew you could...

Plenty of weaknesses plus internal defection threats, but does this mean the Colonel will fold quickly? On the negative side, Kadaffi, lacks troops of PAVN's hard-nosed quality and organization, the flat desert terrain is working against him, he has little diplomatic support, relatively limited manpower, and he does not have fresh resources flowing in from generous outside allies. He is handicapped too in being forbidden from negotiating his own reform and concession package on the ground with his own people, by the Coalition. Already an old man, Moammar may find it all a bit too much and throw in the towel. In the short run he can hold off the Coalition and its ground proxies for years, assuming the proxies continue in their current weak state and his ruling clique does not buckle under pressure and defect or attempt an internal coup. Personally for Kadaffi, an extended horizon in the political sense may be problematic because all European and US prestige is on the line for his overthrow. And it would be feasible for defectors or an internal coup to split his forces and bring him down. So at some medium term or short-term point, he will exit. A mass murderer, and long-lived dictator, some may well say, good riddance. But it is by no means clear that the Euro/US coalition can force him
to go quickly. With patient tactics he can hang on a long time.

Hollow "victory" even if the Colonel leaves? 'Victory' can be gained in Obama's War on the Colonel's exit, or will it? The 'Coalition' may find victory a bitter taste. A Khadaffi exit may be merely an opening stage. A guerrilla insurgency as in Iraq may well develop, sucking the US into yet another costly Mid East venture. 'Humanitarian objectives" may be nothing of the sort as continued fighting in years to come causes a much larger number of civilian casualties than if the Colonel was allowed to put down his internal rebellion. And Al Qaeda will have gained fresh supplies, arms and manpower and a better base in Libya to attack Americans thanks to the "Coalition". Naturally, terrorists will be seeking revenge on Western targets too in the years to come, bringing fresh attacks to America and Europe. The Libyan intervention may well set off a chain of unpredictable and unpleasant events in the future. Some such as commentator Frank Gaffney, argues that it serves as a future template for the liquidation of Israel, with the Arab League and European Union engineering a "solution" to Middle East problems. Gaffney speculates all this happening under an Obama Administration- a highly dubious notion, but in 30-40 years, his scenario may be on target. Who knows? That though, is another story altogether.

BOTTOM LINE: based on prior performance, Libyan troops do not inspire confidence. They were routed in Chad by lightly armed tribal fighters despite possessing the only jet fighters, tanks and heavy artillery on the field of battle. This post summarizes elements that MIGHT be used to improve that performance. Whether it will come to pass remains unknown.

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