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Axe in Iraq (and Elsewhere)

Peacekeepers Safeguard Timorese Election

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

Australian and New Zealand troops deployed to East Timor, a tiny, impoverished country adjacent to Indonesia, patrolled around the clock to ensure peace and quiet for Mondays presidential election.
Around 1,100 Australian and 150 New Zealand soldiers work alongside 1,500 U.N. police from more than 20 countries and native security forces to suppress gangs, quell political violence and hunt down a rebel army led by former police officer Major Alfredo Reinado.


Biometrics Track Bad Guys

Friday, February 23rd, 2007


Northrop Grumman is developing a biometric intelligence system to help U.S. troops keep tabs on suspected terrorists and insurgents. The system, which identifies people by their fingerprints, iris patterns or other biological metrics, is meant to meet a need identified by U.S. forces in Iraq.

On February 5, 2006, soldiers from the Texas-based 4th Infantry Division, deployed to north-central Iraq since the previous fall, sortied from their base to set up checkpoints outside the town of Balad. The town was so bad that the Iraqi army had sent one of its crack Kurdish units, normally based in the peaceful north of the country, into an outpost downtown. But snipers had kept the Kurdish troops from even leaving the base. Balad was desperately in need of some spring cleaning.

But standing at their checkpoint on a road outside Balad, the soldiers realized they lacked the necessary tools. Army intelligence had provided them with a list including names, descriptions and in some cases outdated photos of known bad guys. The soldiers carried fuzzy color copies of the list in their pockets and compared every passerby to the descriptions. But the photos too grainy and the descriptions too vague: pretty much every Iraqi man has a moustache, black hair and brown eyes. As for names? Besides sharing a small number of popular surnames, Iraqis have a habit of tacking their fathers and grandfathers name onto their own or even going by nicknames that dont match their photo IDs at all, assuming they even have photo IDs. There was just no way for the American soldiers to reliably know if they had happened to ensnare a bad guy in their net. And on that February afternoon, they returned to base empty-handed and frustrated.

Stinging from failures like those in Balad last year, in January the Army gave Los Angeles-based defense firm Northrop Grumman $20 million to develop a biometric solution. The idea, says Northrop Grumman vice president Larry Schneider, is to ingest disparate sources of military information worldwide, to establish a central repository that can be queried. So if someone shows up at one place and says his name is one thing, then shows up somewhere else saying his name is another thing, that can be identified and can be passed back to tactical land forces.

Soldiers might register detainees biometrics using a portable scanner. That info, combined with a brief history of the suspect, would be fed into a central database back in the States and analyzed by algorithms endlessly searching for connections between suspects. If, during a future operation, the soldiers happen across any of the same suspects as before, the system would alert them. Over time, the system might accumulate enough data on suspects movements to begin drawing conclusions about behavior patterns, allowing intelligence agents to predict suspects activities and, if necessary, thwart them.

People talk about how were disadvantaged in asymmetric warfare, Schneider says, using the militarys favorite term for big industrial armies fighting elusive, low-tech insurgents and terrorists. Biometrics, he adds, are an example of how our technology advantages us.

– David Axe

Navy Grows Land Forces

Friday, February 16th, 2007

With the Army and Marine Corps stretched to breaking in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Navy is scrambling for ways to contribute more to inland fights. One result is a new river boat squadron, second of its type, stood up two weeks ago. Riverine Squadron Two and its sister, Ron One, are part of Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, which gathers all the Navy’s coastal and land forces under one banner and adds brand new capabilities.

NECC — based alongside patrol boats (pics!) and amphibious ships at Little Creek, Virginia — includes construction battalions, logistics troops, harbor patrol units, ordnance disposal teams and the new riverine squadrons, and is the subject of a story in the current issue of Defense Technology International.

“It was definitely the ongoing war that created the idea,” says Captain Robert McKenna, NECC’s 44-year-old training officer. “We realized that the Army and Marine Corps were nearing capacity and that there was more to be done. We were looking for ways for the Navy to contribute more. Then we started looking out and said, the Navy really is contributing. And the sailors contributing the most in theater are the ones wearing this uniform.”

He gestures to his green and brown fatigues, the same ones worn by the Navy’s 16,000 Seabees, 3,000 port cargo handlers and hundreds of Explosive Ordnance Disposal experts — all of whom have been busy abroad in recent years. “They had no type command that took care of their Title X functions: training, equipping, manning.”

“We saw a need to put them into a coherent structure and better equip them,” adds NECC commander Rear Admiral Donald Bullard, 55. “And then, all of the sudden, we began to look at other capabilities” including Navy civil affairs and riverine.

Riverine forces in nimble, heavily-armed boats played a huge role in the Vietnam War, but were run down after the evacuation of that country as the Navy shifted focus on deterring the Soviet Navy. In Iraq, a country crisscrossed by large rivers, canals and marshes, the U.S. and British militaries (pictured) found themselves chasing down waterborne smugglers and insurgents in jerry-rigged engineer boats until specialized forces could be reconstituted.


U.N. Bulks Up to Protect Lebanon

Thursday, February 8th, 2007

Defense Tech’s David Axe was in Lebanon in December, reporting on the U.N. force there. His story has been embargoed. Until now …

The weird thing about Beirut is all the bullet holes in buildings, road signs and overpasses. Its not the bullet-riddled stuff, per se, thats so strange, but the contrast with all the shiny new stuff. Fifteen years after the end of a decades-long and bloody civil war, Beirut is booming. This despite the interruption of last summers war with Israel.

rocco_rapuno_axe.jpgAir raids during that conflict knocked out power, felled bridges, took out the airport for a couple months and blew the top off the lighthouse on the beach near the Jnah neighborhood. Some parts of the Shiite southern suburbs took a beating, but Beirut proper escaped mostly unscathed. No, most of the war damage in Beirut is left over from the civil war and testifies to the scale of the destruction in that conflict.

On December 14th near downtown Beirut, Im in a battered silver BMW with my chummy fixer Hasham, a former police detective who has, in retirement, exploited his connections to become the citys go-to man for international media. This guy knows everybody. Traffic is heavy this morning Everybody going to work, Hasham says and in the gridlock he waves to friends in nearby cars and passes notes through his rolled-down window. He greets hotel bellhops, government bureaucrats, passing policemen and street-corner baristas in the uniquely Lebanese mixture of English, French and Arabic.

Hasham says the war with Israel was like cold water on Lebanons hot tourism industry. In the year before the war, millions of tourists passed their holidays in Beirut and the picturesque south. Now the stream of tourists is just a trickle, and hotels are so desperate for lodgers that theyre giving away upgrades like candy. Still, this little slump is nothing like the prolonged misery of the old days. Most of the recent war damage has been repaired, international investment is flowing in, people are working and Hasham is quietly optimistic.

Even the mass demonstrations and occasional rioting by hundreds of thousands of super-religious Shiites and their Christian allies dont get Hasham, a secular Sunni, too worked up nor does the prospect of a second round with Israel. The pro-Hez demonstrations peaked in December with nearly a million people in downtown Beirut, all demanding that Iran-backed Hezbollah have more power in government. The crowds are smaller and usually quieter now. Even so, American pundits are calling the protests a harbinger of a violent coup. Hasham just shrugs. Since 1973 we had shit, he says. But even at the height of the civil war, he got up every day and went to work with the polices counter-drug department. He got shot three times but kept on going.

There are a lot people both Lebanese and foreigners working on behalf of this storied little country, doing their best to make sure all those scars of war remain just that: fading signs of old wounds. Western and regional investment is pouring in. And 10,000 heavily-armed U.N. peacekeepers in the south swear theyre doing their best to keep the peace. Thats the subject of a news feature in the February issue of DTI:

Since the summer war, UNIFIL has added 8,000 soldiers and sailors to its original contingent of 3,000, and has quietly integrated artillery, heavy tanks, tank destroyers and patrol boats to its main body of light infantry, medics and engineers, while also boosting daily patrols from just a handful to around 200. The result, in the final days of 2006, is a new UNIFIL, one with an apparent growing will to fightand the means to do so.

Check out my Lebanon pics here. And go on patrol with the UN below:

David Axe, cross-posted at War Is Boring

Iraqi Air Force’s New Wings

Thursday, January 11th, 2007

All the attention is on the army and police, right now. But Iraq’s tiny air force is about to get a bit bigger, C4ISR Journal reports:

Working through the U.S. Air Force, Iraqs nascent defense ministry has ordered six new Raytheon King Air 350 twin turboprop aircraft and related support services in a firm-fixed-price contract valued at $132 million. Disclosed by the Defense Department, the deal includes five King Air 350 Extended Range aircraft equipped for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, and a single King Air 350 earmarked for the light transport role. Support equipment, spare and repair parts, training and technical data are included in the sales package.

The new planes will be operated, in part, by 70 Squadron based at Basra Air Station. In October, U.S. Air Force advisor Lieutenant Colonel Kelly Latimer showed me the squadron’s modest fleet of single-engine Seeker and CH-2000 patrol planes, which she said could be outrun by cars. The King Airs are faster, can carry more surveillance gear and have longer legs but are still simple and robust enough for the Iraqi Air Force to keep flying.
$1 billion in arms sales to the Iraqi government, including the King Airs, helped the United States achieve record arms sales in 2006, as my boss Sharon Weinberger reported recently in Aviation Week:

[One] factor driving the bottom line is Iraq. Its sovereign government is now able to buy equipment directly from the U.S. [Jeffrey] Kohler, [director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency] says Iraq is allocating about $1 billion a year out of its own budget to purchase defense equipment–and about $800 million has gone for U.S. equipment this year alone. With Iraq expecting to allocate $1 billion annually to arms purchases, such large buys from the U.S. could grow.

–David Axe

U.N.‘s High-Tech Rides, Low-Tech Intel

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007

The U.N. force in southern Lebanon ain’t what it used to be. In the wake of the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah, United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, has grown from a lightly armed body of observers to a mobile armored force with real teeth.
itpatrol.jpgThat transformation is the subject of my upcoming feature in Defense Technology International. For Military​.com I checked out the low-tech side of this high-tech force:

In stark contrast to Western armies operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, United Nations forces in southern Lebanon enjoy unqualified healthy relationships with native security forces and local residents. These facilitate intelligence-gathering and cooperation that boost the force’s effectiveness.
… On December 18, a two-vehicle patrol from [Italian Lt. Col. Ciccarelli] Giordano’s [cavalry] regiment descends from the regiment’s hilltop base near the town of Chama and heads down a seaside road. Periodically, it stops and soldiers hop out of the armored vehicles to stand on the side of the road, making themselves visible to passing motorists.
“They stay here to observe and to report every kind of situation,” says Lieutenant Livio Lombardi. “Sometimes [people] ask for us to intervene … in medical problems or in the presence of bombs [leftover from the summer war].”

–David Axe

Late Christmas Presents from the I.D.F.

Monday, January 1st, 2007

Cluster bombs, people. Hundreds of thousands of them.
iteod2.jpgIn the wake of the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah, southern Lebanon is pretty quiet. But every once in a while an explosion rolls over the region’s seaside cliffs and green hills, testimony to the ongoing cleanup of ordnance leftover from the conflict. This is the subject of my latest piece for The Washington Times:

Lt. Col. Ciccarelli Giordano, commander of an Italian army cavalry regiment that belongs to a battle group based on a hilltop near the Mediterranean coast, is philosophical about the dangerous ground his troops tread.
“You know what happens after war,” he said.
There are 11,000 troops — including 3,000 Italians — assigned to the U.N. force, up from 3,000 just six months ago. … The Italian contingent is drawn from forces recently withdrawn from Iraq.
The Italian battle group’s experiences in Iraq and in providing security for the 2004 Olympics in Athens have helped prepare it for the dangerous job of defusing or destroying unexploded munitions.

iteod.jpgItalian EOD teams are modeled after their British counterparts. The Italians train in the U.K. and use mostly British-made kit, including Wheelbarrow robots. They ride in Puma armored vehicles tailed by trucks and ambulances. They dress in your standard bomb suits. And they stay very, very busy.

“Yesterday we found a new cluster bomb-contaminated area,” bomb squad Capt. George Colombo said. Minutes later, a distant blast testified to another squad’s work.
The U.N. estimates there are between 700,000 and 1 million unexploded munitions in southern Lebanon, some left over from the 1978 Israeli invasion.
Less than 15,000 have been destroyed thus far, said French Lt. Col. Jerome Salle, a U.N. spokesman.

Most of the stories from my stint in Lebanon are still embargoed by my boss at DTI. Expect a flurry of posts in a few weeks.
–David Axe


Monday, December 18th, 2006

I knew it was going to be a bad day in Beirut when I got booted out of the breakfast buffet at the downtown Radisson.
I had been enjoying my hummus, green olives and nan with a pot of strong coffee when I made the mistake of putting down my fork so I could turn the page in the Patrick O’Brian novel I was reading. The waiter grabbed my plate without asking if I was done, and scurried off. I figured, hey, no problem, I can always get another plate. And besides, I still got my coffee. But then the waiter came back and took those too.
Now, I could’ve raised a fuss, but I was too tired to remember how to say, “stop,” in Arabic. (I remember now: “kiff.”) you see, I’m still on D.C. time so I couldn’t sleep the night before. I was nearly delirious. And, on the radio, they were playing a Christmas rendition of the Macarena. (don’t ask.)
Anyways, I had interviews — I’m on assignment here for Defense Technology International. So a couple hours later I hailed a cab and headed out. By 4 o’clock, I was done with my interviews, even more exhausted and, what’s more, starving. I needed some kebab bad. I tried to hail a cab but they were all full. I walked down a street, hailing cabs all the while, until I came to an army checkpoint. A soldier asked me, in Arabic, where I was going. I replied in french and we had a rather muddled conversation that resulted in him pointing back the way I had come and gesturing with his rifle. So I turned around … And got turned around. I couldn’t remember which way was home.
I finally got a cab. The driver spoke some french. He didn’t know where the Radisson was, so it was up to me. I had no idea so I picked a direction and hoped I might eventually recognize something. But half an hour later, I decided we were going in the wrong direction. I admit, I blamed my cabbie. Beirut is his town; he should know where the Radisson is. So I told him to stop “over there” and I hopped out with a mind to walk a couple blocks then hail another cab with, hopefully, a smarter cabbie.
By now I could’ve killed and eaten a small Lebanese person. Perhaps a baby Druze.
I walked down a sketchy alleyway full of broken-down cars and greasy, dark-eyed mechanics who stared at me as I passed. I was feeling very American in a very bad way, so I waved down the first cab I saw and hopped in without looking at the driver. Then a voice said, in French, “number two?“
It was the same cabbie as before. And it was too late to refuse his service. He was already speeding down the road, assuring me that he had just remembered where the Radisson was.
(Lest you fail to appreciate the sheer enormity of this coincidence, let me stress: Beirut is crawling with tens of thousands of cabs, and in 10 minutes I had walked several blocks in a random direction from where I got dropped off. Hundreds of cars passed within sight, including scores of cabs. The odds of hailing the same cabbie a second time in that environment are astronomical.)
Hey, Macarena!
Half an hour later, I was at the Radisson and my cabbie was 20,000 livres richer. That’s no fewer than eight kebab-equivalents. Speaking of which, I found the nearest kebab stand, politely refused some skewered lamb brains bobbing in olive oil and ordered two kebabs.
They were the most delicious kebabs I’ve ever had. And they haven’t even made me sick (yet).
David Axe
p.s.: the Lebanese army has stationed an M-113 armored personnel carrier with a .50-caliber machine gun at the McDonald’s down the street, perhaps to guard the “McArab” chicken shawarma they serve there.

Axe Does Lebanon

Monday, December 11th, 2006

unifil.jpgI’m off to southern Lebanon for a couple weeks in order to check up on the U.N. force (including the bad-ass at left) that’s supposedly keeping an eye on Hezbollah and intercepting Syrian infiltrators and Iranian weapons. With pro-Hez demonstrations only growing in Beirut, it seems that the U.N. force is at best ineffective and, at worst, an irritant to local Shi’ites. My job is to check out the U.N. forces’ weapons and technology for Defense Technology International, but I’ll be keeping my eyes open for other stories too. And I’ll blog the trip once my boss at DTI, the fabulous Sharon Weinberger, gives me the all-clear. You can help underwrite my travels by buying my new book, ARMY 101, coming soon from University of South Carolina Press. Okay, enough whoring. Wish me luck!
–David Axe

Labouchere of Arabia

Monday, November 13th, 2006

“He’s gone totally native,” one British officer at Basra Air Station said of the maverick commander of the Queen’s Royal Hussars battlegroup. He’s the subject of my first feature for Defense Technology International, where I am the new military editor.
Lieutenant Colonel David Labouchere commands 500 soldiers in three squadrons scattered across the dry expanse of Maysan province on the Iranian border. His mission: to intercept illegal weapons and foreign fighters slipping across the old minefields and hulk-dotted former battlefields left over from the Iran-Iraq war. As many as 3 million people died here from 1980 to 1988 in what was just the bloodiest chapter of a long bloody history. Maysan is entirely Shi’ite, deeply tribal and hostile to all foreigners — defined as anyone not from Maysan. That means Sunni insurgents and terrorists don’t last long here. On the other hand, British forces aren’t terribly welcome either. It didn’t help that, until August, British forces in the province operated from a former Ba’ath prison called Abu Naji. The base became a magnet for mortar and rocket fire. After one particularly intense barrage in May, Labouchere decided it was time to rethink his tactics. He found his inspiration in history.
labouch.jpgNearly a century ago, British Lieutenant Colonel T.E. Lawrence — a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia — raced across North Africa the Middle East on horseback, uniting warring tribes in the fight against the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence combined tactical brilliance with a deep respect and sophisticated understanding of Arabs and Islam. Labouchere does the same. Where elsewhere in Iraq, coalition commanders fret over every violent act perpetrated by one Iraqi on another, often intervening in a way that just escalates tensions, Labouchere accepts a certain amount of bloodshed in his province … as long as it’s in line with traditional ways of resolving conflicts. Observing one recent firefight between tribal fighters and Iraqi cops, Labouchere chose not to step in. By Iraqi standards, he says, it was simply a “conversation”.
Like Lawrence, Labouchere relies on speed and agility. He travels light in just a dozen vehicles per squadron, mostly trucks and speedy Land Rovers but including a handful of Scimitar light tanks armed with 30-millimeter cannons. At night he bivouacs in depressions or nestled between hills to shield him from prying eyes. By day he sorties to patrol the border, show the flag in remote towns and hold court with Iraqi cops, local army troops and the tribal leaders who are his eyes and ears and his allies in the fight against smugglers and foreign fighters. He and his troops shit in ditches, shave with bottled water and eat foil-packed rations. They sleep under the stars on collapsing cots. They live simply and waste little, all in an effort to stay light and to ween themselves from slow, vulnerable ground convoys.
Most resupply is by air. Every couple days a Merlin helicopter arrives with water, food and fresh troops and carries away soldiers in need of rest. For bigger spares and lubes, a Hercules will airdrop a dozen pallets … or the battlegroup will clear a desert airstrip for a quick landing. For diesel fuel — the heaviest and most vexing of Labouchere’s logistical needs — he tries to buy tanker services from a trusted local contractor.
Staying light means doing without many of the high-tech whizbangs other coalition commanders take for granted. Periodically, Labouchere’s superiors send him some fancy new gizmo on a Merlin. More often than not, he sends it right back. A couple weeks ago they sent him a Raven drone and its operators. In a rare act of indulgence, Labouchere let them demonstrate the tiny drone. But when it crashed into his Merlin, putting a dent in the prized $30-million chopper, Labouchere sent the operators packing. Who needs a drone when you spend most the day racing across the desert, scanning the horizon with your own two eyes? Labouchere eschews networked comms and navigation in favor of old-fashioned radios and paper maps, prefers alert troops to radio jammers for avoiding roadside bombs and refuses weapons heavier than a 7.62-millimetere machine gun, If he gets in a pickle, his battlegroup is stacked with forward air controllers and the U.S. Air Force is just 15 minutes away. A low-level flyby has always sufficed to defuse a bad situation.
Queen's Royal.jpgAccustomed as I am to heavy, bristling, techy American methods in Iraq, I was shocked and little bit unnerved by Labouchere’s “keep it simple” philosophy. But when I saw it working … when I saw the way locals had warmed to his presence … when I saw how much ground he covered and how quickly … I declared his methods “revolutionary”. “This is actually quite an old way of doing things,” Labouchere countered. I saw his point: overlooking for a moment the vital presence of the sophisticated Merlins, there’s no new technology in the battlegroup. We’re talking diesel engines, machine guns, radios, maps and canvas cots. What’s novel, in the context of this war, is Labouchere’s confidence in tradition and basic principles. But he’s right. Delicate communications networks can’t replace a friendly local populace. Billion-dollar support contracts to firms such as Halliburton don’t boost Iraqi confidence in their government and armed forces — and they certainly don’t kill foreign fighters sneaking across the border. Heavy tanks and massive fixed bases just draw fire and sprout huge convoys that also draw fire … and that require escort, which only leads to more forces operating from fixed bases requiring still more convoys, and so on. An American base housing a thousand troops might generate a dozen small patrols per day. Labouchere does twice as much work with half the force — and he does it more cheaply and with a proportionally smaller footprint that’s far less irritating to Iraqis.
But could a force like Labouchere’s survive in an urban jungle like Baghdad, where coalition forces have turned to heavier and heavier vehicles for protection against rockets and roadside bombs? “Why couldn’t it?” Labouchere asks. He points to another historical lesson, this one from Northern Ireland, where British heavy vehicles just pissed off the natives and provoked a proportional response. If we went light in Baghdad, Labouchere’s argument goes, it might help defuse some of the tension. And it would certainly be cheaper.
It’s a bold proposal, but one with firm grounding in history … and one getting an early test run on Maysan’s sandy wastes.
Imagine a Stryker brigade adopting Labouchere’s model. Imagine what we could accomplish combining American resources with Labouchere’s no-nonsense methods. Now imagine that American commanders had half his guts and smarts.
–David Axe
UPDATE 11:16 EST: David Axe here. Folks have responded pretty violently to this post, especially to that last sentence. Let me clarify. There are plenty of brave and smart U.S. commanders, especially at the battalion level and below. But it’s telling that none have adopted Labouchere’s model. Here’s why I think that is: Labouchere’s methods are risky. His constant worry is that he’ll get caught in a firefight against a superior force and get massacred. But that’s a risk he’s willing to accept in order to operate the way he does, in order to win. Most coalition forces in Iraq are, by Labouchere’s estimation, hampered by an obsession with static force protection, a fortress mentality. While it’s great to take care of your troops, if taking care of your troops means you handicap your own ability to operate — thus prolonging the war and, as a result, incurring further casualties on your force — then something’s got to give.
UPDATE 11:25 EST: David again. Not to get carried away with the updates, but I gotta respond to one criticism. Folks are saying that the recent takeover of a city in Maysan by a Shi’ite militia proves that Labouchere has failed in his mission. I have addressed that very point here at Defense Tech and in a piece over at World Politics Watch. My basic point: several of the militias in southern Iraq represent law and order, and police do not. So a militia takeover is actually a good thing. I believe Labouchere would concur.