Tag Archives: ISIS

B-1s Continue to Prove Worth Over Iraq

By Patrick Megahan
Research Associate, Military Affairs
Foundation For Defense of Democracies

As the air war over northern Iraq expanded over the last week, Pentagon officials for first time acknowledged that land-based bombers have begun conducting strikes against the Islamic State, or ISIS, as it is formerly known. Though the specific bomber type was not named, B-1B Lancers are widely believed to be the bombers providing much needed air support to Kurdish forces who retook the Mosul Dam. The appearance of the B-1 in Iraq should come as no surprise, as its long-range, all-weather, day or night, and low- or high-altitude capabilities have made it one of the most heavily used strike aircraft in America’s air armada.

B-1s of the 7th Bomb Wing from Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas, had deployed to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar earlier this month. The 350 service members and their B-1s replaced members of the 28th Bomb Wing, which also flies the B-1, as part of a routine six-month rotation, which both units have shared since the opening of the Afghan War in late 2001. With the U.S. still in Afghanistan and now returning to Iraq, the 7th will take on a challenge that only long-range bombers like the B-1 can meet: be on call to support operations in two different theaters while still based in Qatar.

Despite this unique ability, the B-1 has repeatedly been the target of budget hawks. Most recently, it was named as potential collateral damage in the effort to save the A-10 ‘Warthog.’ But its current deployment and continued development demonstrate how profound a mistake it would have been to discontinue the B-1

Originally developed as a nuclear bomber at the height of the Cold War, the B-1 has been continually updated to adapt to ever-changing threats the U.S. faces abroad. The B-1A variant was designed to replace the cumbersome B-52 with an agile supersonic bomber that could penetrate Soviet airspace at low level and drop nuclear weapons. But before it could ever enter service, B-1 was cancelled by the Carter administration, which cited its price tag, while arguing that air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) fired from the B-52 could do the same job. Four years later, President Ronald Reagan touted the B-1 as an example of Carter’s weakness on defense and revived the plane as part of the Long Range Combat Aircraft (LRCA) program.

LRCA arose because of the belief that by 1990 the B-52, even with ALCMs, would be increasingly vulnerable to improving enemy air defense systems. The updated B-1B variant promised a faster, more versatile bomber to fill the B-52’s role while augmenting the capabilities of the B-2 stealth bomber, which, at that time, was secretly still in development.

The collapse of the Soviet Union raised new questions, however. Without a nuclear-armed adversary, there seemed to be no need for a fleet of aircraft to drop nuclear bombs on distant continents. But with the rise of new conflicts, a need for long-range conventional strike capability endured. Following multiple updates, both the B-1 and the aircraft it was meant to replace, the B-52, were adapted to carry multiple types of precision-guided bombs and standoff weapons. Plus, in accordance with the START treaty, the B-1 was altered so it could no longer serve as a nuclear bomber. This allowed it to avoid the political stigma of stationing a nuclear capable bomber overseas. (Imagine the uproar from parking nuclear bombers across the Persian Gulf from Iran.)

Aside from its less controversial presence, the B-1 has a number of other advantages over its B-2 and B-52 counterparts. Its internal payload capacity is the highest at 75,000 pounds, which is 5,000 more than the B-52 and 25,000 more than the B-2. Reaching Mach 1.2, it is the only supersonic heavy bomber the U.S. possesses. It is also the cheapest to fly at $63,000 per hour of flight, compared with $72,000 for the B-52 and $135,000 for the B-2. Furthermore, as a testament to its preference among U.S. commanders, from October 2001 to September 2012 the B-1 flew 10,940 combat sorties over Iraq and Afghanistan versus the B-52’s 2,891 and the B-2’s 69. In fact, the B-1 dropped 40 percent of the bomb tonnage in the first six months of the war in Afghanistan, and, by 2012, had released 60 percent of the weapons overall. Now, it is carrying out a similar mission in Iraq.

Moreover, if, for example, the United States were to find itself in conflict in Asia, shorter-range aircraft fighters stationed at bases in Japan and South Korea would be vulnerable on the ground to long-range missile strikes. While the B-1, with its longer-range and ability to carry 24 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSMs), could operate from far-off bases and beyond the limits of advanced air defense systems.

The B-1 could also play an important maritime role armed with the Navy’s forthcoming Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM). Paired with unmanned aircraft operating close to enemy shores, commanders will be able to direct LRASMs fired from B-1s to sink advancing warships without having to put pilots in danger. Additionally, this will complement the Navy’s own efforts over a wide battle-space, like the Pacific, providing a rapid strike capability where a limited number of friendly ships may not be able to cover.

Arguably, the one quality the B-1 does not have which critics claim will be vital in this kind of high-end conflict is stealth. But expanding evidence suggests modern stealth may soon be negated in a conflict with a sophisticated adversary.

Had the latest defense appropriation bill canned the B-1, much of this capability would have been lost until the next-generation bomber came online. Which, given that the Pentagon only just released the request for proposals and that the procurement process today is extremely sluggish, the next bomber will likely not be available for nearly a decade.

The Kurds at Mosul Dam are surely glad this did not happen.

Fluid Alliances and Unexpected Consequences: Philippine UNDOF Crisis

RP-UNDOFThe recent crisis faced by Philippine Peacekeepers in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) highlights the fluid dynamics in alliances and the unexpected consequences that have precipitated in the wake of the Syrian Civil War.

On the morning of August 28th, approximately 75 Philippine Army troops of the 7th Contingent to UNDOF were surrounded by militant forces, some later identified as Al-Nusra Front fighters, and were ordered to surrender their arms. The Anti-Government Fighters focused their siege against strategic UN positions including Al-Quinaytirah,  the only crossing over the Golan Heights. The situation was exacerbated by the earlier capture of approximately 44 UN soldiers from Fiji manning posts on the Northern sector of the ceasefire zone. The rebels attacking the Philippine positions initially sent an English-speaking Fiji soldier to relay their surrender demands.

The peacekeepers, split into two units spread across the Filipino sector of responsibility, both refused the call to disarm. A fire-fight later ensued at their positions in Ar-Ruwayhinah, located in the southern portion of the Heights.  Despite being armed with only rifles and squad weapons, the Philippine unit was highly experienced – most of the UNDOF contingent belong to the 80th Infantry Battalion – which came fresh off anti-communist combat operations in Mindoro and run through a preparatory workup before deploying in the Golan. The militants arrived in technicals armed with anti-aircraft guns and besieged UNDOF Oupost 68 for several hours before being driven off. At one point, the rebel pick-up trucks started ramming the outpost gate to overrun the defenders and subjected the troops to mortar fire.

Some of the encircled troopers were eventually relieved and withdrawn to more secure positions by a combined Irish-Filipino Mobile Reaction Force equipped with armored personnel carriers from Camp Faroar on the Syrian side of the Heights. Outpost 68 was able to walk out on their own terms after a lull in the fighting and re-consolidated at Mission HQ in  Camp Ziouani near the Israeli border. What was notable is that the Al-Assad Syrian Army fired artillery rounds during the Outpost 68 firefight to help suppress the rebel assault. This may be a result of back-channel discussions stemming from then Philippine Secretary of National Defense Gilberto Teodoro’s mission to Damascus as early as 2009, when the Manila started contributing troops to the UN mission. But equally likely is the well-established “Cooperation and Coordination” aspect of UNDOF with the warring parties, which was finely-honed when the Mission was first established in the mid-1970s.  UNDOF Command closely communicates at an operational level with both Israeli Defense Force and Assad’s Syrian Army through liaisons. Additionally, this is a strong indicator that the Assad regime is not as unstable as the popular media narrative would indicate. The ability to quickly and effectively deliver indirect fire into the Area of Separation speaks to the existence of intact and professional Syrian Army elements despite the widespread Civil War.

This is not the first time Philippine forces in UNDOF have been under fire. In 2011, approximately 21 troopers and civilian workers were taken hostage but later freed without incident, and another soldier wounded by shellfire during the same year.

The assistance of the Syrian Government during this crisis is in direct contrast to current Western foreign policy, which seeks the unconditional removal of Assad’s regime. Collectively, all the stakeholders in the localized area of the Golan recognize the greater threat that the more militant spectrum of the Syrian rebellion represents, and can cooperate when necessary to achieve the common goal of maintaining stability within the area.

The dynamics of individual Peacekeeping Missions are also subject to the aspects of operational realities and unexpected consequences on the ground.

In the Outpost 68 firefight, the Anti-Government fighters were reportedly adamant about the Philippine troops surrendering their weapons before acceding to a cease-fire, as a matter of honor. It is likely that the rebels also saw this as a means of expanding their Table of Equipment.   Equally on the same point, as well as for more practical reasons, the Philippine troops refused to turn over their weapons, most of which was newly issued and the latest in terms of ordnance available to the country’s Armed Forces. The firefight may have been inevitable from a tactical viewpoint, but the supposed demand by UNDOF Mission Commander Lt. General Iqbal Singha of India that the Filipinos surrender to ensure the Fijians’ safety by “stacking arms” prompted a call for investigation by Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Gregorio Catapang Jr. If the allegations have merit, it would be highly ironic given the UNDOF I-C’s very comments to the contingent during the October 2013 UN Day Parade that “Your job is to carry out your peacekeeping tasks and my job is to ensure your security.”

The back-channel discussions between SND Teodoro and the Assad government reflects multi-polar realpolitik. While the Philippines is generally seen as a supporter and beneficiary of US strategy and foreign policy in the Pacific, there is a small wealth of political capital that the Asian nation can use in other regions, where Filipinos are seen as a highly reliable source of skilled and unskilled labor, and generally not viewed as an enabler or facilitator of an increasingly divisive and unclear U.S. diplomatic approach.  Leveraging such capital at the right time and the right crisis can result in short-term gains without materially compromising key allies’ existing relationships nor overtly undermining their initiatives.

Another long-standing issue of concern is the inadequate force-protection capabilities of the peacekeepers themselves. In 2013, Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario met with UN officials to air concerns regarding relative troop strength in the Heights and to ensure that the necessary equipment for the “protection and defense of Filipino troops and other UNDOF” were procured by October of that year. The dilemma of adequately arming peacekeepers is well-known and understood, but given the circumstances of the raging Civil War, it is likely that the UN forces will continue to encounter more violent and zealous factions involved in  the turmoil, and must make sound decisions regarding practical limits of the  “Minimum Use of Force” directive.  A larger consideration must be made to enhancing force-protection measures while remaining true to the “peacekeeping” charter. This particular crisis pointed to several shortcomings; such as weapons inadequate to the higher threat level, better intelligence and monitoring of movement within the Area of Separation and a consistent Rules of Engagement  (one unit fought, the other did not) as well as contingency and scenario planning (one unit was relieved, the other had to egress independently  with no support). Otherwise the UN Peacekeeping Force will only perpetuate and not prevent conflicts, as blue-helmets are taken hostage for their political value and their equipment seized to further malicious actor goals.

As a corollary, there’s something to be said about gauging the quality of forces a nation contributes to UN Security Missions. Had it been a less experienced Philippine unit in place than the already-blooded 80th Infantry Battalion, the outcome might have been very different.  It is undoubtedly helpful that the troops had already “seen the elephant” in counter-insurgency operations when the militants started firing.

As a direct result of the deteriorating conditions in the Syrian Civil War, the Philippine Government has announced a complete withdrawal of forces until further notice to both the UNDOF and the UNMIL mission in Liberia, the latter due to the increased health risk of the Ebola outbreak. The Philippines had been contributing personnel to both missions since 2009 and 2003 respectively, and was the nation-in-command for UNDOF in 2012. This doesn’t bode well for many UN security missions – if nations start to withdraw because the global organization cannot effectively manage the numerous efforts underway (at last count 17 Missions world-wide and involving over 100,000 personnel), the spread of a regional crisis progressively engulfing larger portions of the globe could become a grim reality.

Juramentado is the pseudonym for Armando J. Heredia, a civilian observer of naval affairs. He is an IT Risk and Information Security practitioner, with a background in the defense and financial services industries. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, any particular nation’s government or related agency.

Terrorists, Tyrants, and Tobacco: How the Illicit Cigarette Trade Fuels Instability in the Middle East

This article is part of our “Border Control Week”

The sea is the circulatory system of the world economy, through which the economic blood of trade, ideas, and information flows.  At odds with this healthy economic lifeblood are the pathogens of theft, corruption, and illicit trafficking.  In addition to patently illegal contraband, such as narcotics and weapons, numerous illicit goods move through the maritime transportation system, avoiding taxes and undermining legitimate trade.  Tobacco is one of the most commonly smuggled illicit goods around the world.  The commodity moves in multiple directions, sometimes both to and from the same countries, making it challenging to understand the traffic flow.  Specifically, the distribution of substandard, untaxed cigarettes through the Eastern Mediterranean involves a complex criminal network of producers, smugglers, and dealers and benefits nefarious actors across the Levant.

Turkish Coast Guard Offshore Patrol Vessel SG-701 Dost (image courtesy Turkish Coast Guard Command)
Turkish Coast Guard Offshore Patrol Vessel SG-701 Dost (image courtesy Turkish Coast Guard Command)

These substandard cigarettes are often cheaply made in Eastern Europe, circumventing European Union safety regulations.  Brands such Prestige and Victory are packed aboard container ships in Bulgaria which move through the Black Sea, then into the Aegean via the Bosporus Strait.  From there, some of the contraband shipments make their way to Syria, while others continue down to the Red Sea and around to the Persian Gulf.  The Gulf-bound cigarettes likely continue into Iraq and Turkey.  In the Eastern Med, many are offloaded at the Syrian port of Latakia.  The cigarette distribution network in Western Syria is controlled by and benefits the Assad family while bypassing various international sanctions against the authoritarian regime.

Upon arrival from sea at the port of Latakia, cigarettes move through a series of storage warehouses and distribution points from Assad-controlled coastal regions of western Syria into transshipment points near the Turkish border that are sometimes controlled by smugglers aligned with the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL).  The cheap cigarettes are sold at a premium price in Syria and also smuggled across several border points into Southern Turkey. In a typical display of jihadist hypocrisy, ISIL has publicly burned shipments of cigarettes to enforce Sharia while continuing to profit from their smuggling into Turkey.  The product and profit not only support ISIL and their organized crime network, but other Al-Qaeda affiliates and foreign fighters drawn to the region.  The illicit tobacco trade is an instrumental part of their funding portfolio, which also includes weapons trafficking, and sale of stolen oil.

Disrupting a trade that crosses multiple sea and land borders (some of which are in war-torn countries) is challenging to say the least.  Law enforcement and military organizations are incentivized to ignore or take action against illicit smuggling networks for various reasons.  Clearly, customs officials in more than one jurisdiction are complicit in looking the other way or even facilitating these illegal cigarette shipments that contribute to instability in the Middle East.  On the other hand, one of the more active maritime law enforcement authorities in combating the illicit tobacco trade is Turkey’s Coast Guard.  In 2013, the organization seized 177,420 packs of cigarettes, down from over half a million in 2012.  The organization’s deployments in the Bosphorus Strait and along the Eastern Mediterranean coastline place it in a strategic position to combat shipments moving towards Syria.

Contraband cigarettes seized in August 2014 at Thessaloniki. (image courtesy of Hellenic Coast Guard).
Contraband cigarettes seized in August 2014 at Thessaloniki. (image courtesy of Hellenic Coast Guard).

Another regional player with a demonstrated a propensity to disrupt the illicit tobacco trade is the Hellenic Coast Guard.  The agency recently arrested two smugglers and seized a container full of nearly nine million contraband cigarettes at the port of Thessaloniki.  Interdicting a cargo ship at sea to find a contraband cargo in one or more specific containers is extremely difficult from a tactical perspective and often unsuccessful.  But intelligence sharing can assist in narrowing down the search and aiding in the removal of suspect containers as the ships make port while not disrupting the flow of legal cargo.  Additional cooperation between intelligence services, private companies, and maritime law enforcement will erode the illicit cigarette trade, and reduce the profits supporting the region’s bad actors.

Chris Rawley is a Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve with experience in maritime interdiction and counter-smuggling at the tactical and operational levels.   The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Defense or any of its agencies.