Saturday, January 23, 2016

Firebase Occupation: Strategy and Counter-Strategy

by Bill White

In modern military occupations by major powers, the occupying power has often adopted a firebase strategy, in which the occupying power establishes bases throughout a nation and deploys from them response forces designed to supplement the law enforcement operations of a puppet civil authority. The key to this strategy is mobility, the ability to enter hostile territory quickly, conduct an “arrest” or assassination, and then withdraw to the bases safely, often before enemy forces can respond. No real attempt is made to win the loyalty of the hostile occupied population, and the enemy usually alternates civil governments claiming legitimate governance of the occupied territory. This strategy and these occupiers have never been successful. However, the lack of success has not deterred the strategy’s deployment.

Historical Perspective

 The firebase strategy was first deployed during the American effort in Vietnam. It was used during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, during the American operation in Mogadishu, and during the American occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. What enabled this strategy was the development of helicopters, which allow small special forces units to deploy repidly and withdraw into and from hostile territory. The necessity of securing the territory itself no longer exists. Operations can be conducted anywhere helicopters can fly.
Air superiority is an obvious prerequisite for these operations, and in each case this tactic has been deployed against insurgent forces with no appreciable air power. In post-SovietAfghanistan and Mogadishu, the development of effective air defenses in the form of Stinger missiles or modified RPGs led to the failure of the strategy. Today in Syria the so-called moderate rebels, before the destruction by of their side by ISIS, demanded MANPAD missiles for the same reason. Without some way to counter occupation helicopters, insurgent forces are generally helpless against this strategy. While the occupier may not be able to soothe the seething population, when their intelligence networks operate properly they are able to degrade the insurgent forces almost indefinitely through pinpoint strikes. Generally targeting insurgent command and control, top leadership and “the bench” are degraded until the insurgents cannot function.

Similarly, without unlimited helicopter support occupational operations are doomed to failure. Rapid reactions by convoy are some totally ineffective in urban areas, where antitank weapons and IEDs can be deployed at close range and where urban geography constrains the movement of larger vehicles. And in open areas, further from bases, ground troops cannot reach targets with the same stealth and speed. Helicopters are also expensive, and the loss of such vehicles greatly increases the cost of occupation, accelerating bankruptcy of the occupying power and eventual insurgent victory.

The Typical Operation

Helicopters launched from fire bases intend to either capture or kill targets. Both types of operations were seen in Somalia.

In a typical kill operation American helicopters attacked a meeting of the Somali National Alliance to avenge SNA attacks on the oddly-named “peace keepers.” Approximately 100 senior persons had gathered in a mansion to discuss a cease-fire proposal, which the Americans then treacherously targeted in an attempt to murder them all. American helicopters simply peppered the meeting with TOW missiles. There were no American casualties. Today, this kind of mission has been largely turned over to drones.

Helicopters are still needed for the insertion and extraction of ground troops. The Black Hawk Down incident on October 3, 1991 is a model of this type of operation. Here, the United States intended to and in fact did capture to senior SNA leaders meeting in the building in downtown Mogadishu. Three types of helicopters were deployed. Observation helicopters entered the area first and coordinated reconnaissance; they continued this function throughout the mission. Two attack helicopters were deployed to provide fire support, and six armed transport helicopters were used to deploy troops. The mission had certain peculiarities. It involves both Ranger and Delta forces who maintained separate command elements. But typically, the overall command element remains airborne and in radio contact with the ground commanders.

In this attack, the Delta force assaulted the building used for the meeting in the manner of a police SWAT team first. Moments after, Rangers were deployed at the four main intersections at the corner of the block the building was on to establish the perimeter. The convoy under a separate ground commander and comprised of mixed Delta, Ranger and Seal forces, was deployed to extract the assault element and the prisoners. A reserve force remained in the air to rescue any downed helicopters. In the case of a Novorossiya–style uprising, such assaults would be deployed to recover captured government buildings and other strong points. Moving quickly enough, such response would stop an uprising in its tracks. The only reason Kiev did not respond this way is because it lacks helicopters and a professional military. In an uprising, say, within the territorial bounds of the United States, both military and many law enforcement agencies have the capacity to mount this kind of response; witness the police helicopter response to the 1981 MOVE uprising in Philadelphia.

 The key to this kind of operation is speed. The attack is designed to be over before a defense can be launched. “Shock and awe” overwhelms the strongest point defenders before they realize that defense is needed; the forces are withdrawn before enemy can mount a counter-attack.  

Part of this is coordination. In Mogadishu, helicopters were flown constantly over the city so they were no longer a novelty and the presence of helicopters was not considered a prelude to attack. The assault element dropped within the strong point’s perimeter. The total air time from the firebase was three minutes; no alarm was raised, and the SNA neither posted sentries outside the meeting place nor possessed sophisticated communication. Radio signals city wide were jammed.

Despite all this the operation, originally composed of 160 men give or take, suffered 18 dead and 72 wounded, a 56% casualty rate. 500 Somalis were killed and thousands injured but, most were non-combatants. Further, most combatants were independent actors – all male, children or home owners who picked up guns to defend their neighborhood, not part of the larger force. The SNA’s losses probably did not amount to 100 dead or 200 wounded, about a 3 to 1 casualty rate, nearly what is expected for an assault on a fortified position. (American body armor tends to reduce the ratio of killed to wounded, as do their superior medical facilities.) The question here is what did the Somalis do right?

Neutralizing The Firebase

There are several strategies one can use against the firebase strategy of occupation, but, none is as effective as denying the occupying force their air superiority. Since the 1980s, Islamic fighters from Afghanistan to Somalia to Syria have developed experience in improvised air defenses, and they have successfully used this information repeatedly to defeat superpower militaries. Without the ability to deploy rapid response teams by helicopter, occupiers are forced to resort to infantry tactics, often in urban environments, where they take casualties typical of such operations. These losses and their expense devastate and demoralize the occupiers.

In Afghanistan, prior to the U.S. decision to supply Stinger missiles, the mujahedin primarily used modified RPGs against Soviet helicopters. The rocket – propelled grenade is an explosive rocket with the triggering detonator in the nose cone, primarily designed to explode upon impact. Because it is very difficult to hit a moving helicopter, the mujahedin rewired the triggering device to operate on a timer [whether the timer had to be set manually or could be armed by the launch is not clear to me; I don’t know if the RPG has the latter capability – B.W.] This way, the RPG would explode whether it struck the helicopter or not. The mujahedin would then aim at the helicopter’s tail. At ranges of up to 1000 feet, this could take a helicopter down.

However it’s virtually impossible to hit a moving helicopter with an RPG. Helicopters fly by too fast and too high. Thus, the moment to strike a helicopter is when it is hovering and disgorging troops. To do this, a defensive posture was necessary. Initially the mujahedin deployed their improvised air defenses on rooftops. This was ineffective. Occupation helicopters would murder the men from literally a mile away. Instead, the insurgents learned to conceal AA men in an urban environment under camouflage. They allowed a helicopter to fly overhead, and then fired at the helicopter from behind from between its 5 o’clock and 7 o’clock position. This was often effective. The tail was exposed, and the helicopter was least able to respond and kill the shooters. This tactic downed two of the three helicopters lost by the Americans in Mogadishu.

Obviously more sophisticated missile systems are more effective. In Afghanistan, wire-guided missiles were originally given to insurgents. What was found was that a helicopter could usually kill the men guiding the missile before the missile could strike. But Stingers – or modern MANPADS – effectively grounded the Soviet helicopter fleet. In Ukraine, the deployment of Russian SAMs essentially denies the Kiev régime the skies. Stingers are effective up to 13,000 feet, while modern SAMS can shoot down planes at 35,000 feet or more.

Drones have also been suggested as an anti-aircraft device system. Essentially, drones armed with IEDs can be piloted up to helicopters and detonated remotely. The issue again is one of speed helicopters typically move much faster than civilian drones, thus they would have to be targeted while hovering, and thus particularly vulnerable.

It should also be noted that combat helicopters are made to withstand substantial damage. Light arms are unlikely to bring a helicopter down. They can disable a helicopter so that after landing it cannot return to flight. One American helicopter was lost this way in Mogadishu. But light arms are most effective against a helicopter’s crew. The issue, again, is one of leading a moving target and given the massive disproportion of power, a helicopter can easily murder someone shooting at it with a rifle.

Thus the best strategy for defense against firebase occupation is development of anti-helicopter tactics. Men who engage in such tactics should be expect high casualties. However once effectively countered, the firebase strategy falls apart.

Other effective counters to the firebase strategy involve denial of intelligence to the occupiers. To launch rapid assaults, the occupiers need good and current information. In Somalia, before Black Hawk Down, the Americans repeatedly embarrassed themselves by acting on bad intelligence. In one raid, for instance, they arrested nearly two dozen UN peacekeepers after mistaking them for Somali warlords. In another, they arrested a friendly general after being told that he was an SNA general. Thus denial of targeting information hampers firebase occupation.

Lastly, one can attack and overrun the firebases themselves. However, once an insurgent force has the power to destroy occupation strong points, it is often no longer the insurgency but the dominant force. Firebase occupation as a strategy presumes a great disproportion of relative strength between occupier and occupied.

One would be hard pressed to name a conflict in which the firebase–based occupation strategy succeeded. This approach is resource intensive and cannot be maintained indefinitely. Yet it remains the approach of choice for superpowers attempting to dominate a hostile population. To defeat this strategy, insurgents must increase its cost. In every case where an insurgency has matured to the point where it has developed an effective anti-helicopter tactics, the firebase strategy has quickly come apart. Relying on speed air superiority, and, intelligence, wine deprived of these advantages occupying superior powers have always cut their losses and run.



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