TOC Ready Room 10 March 2022: NFZs, convoys, and Iran follies, oh my

What’s wrong and right with the world; Russia-, Ukraine-, and Iran-wise.

Keeping it short and sweet for now, as things keep updating on the long-running Phase II of the “IT in Russiagate” topic.  The first subject in today’s Ready Room grab-bag is the no-fly zone proposal for Ukraine.

It’s a bad idea.  All I will do here is copy in an email sent earlier with my reflections on the matter.  They were forwarded in response to a piece by former Senator Joe Lieberman in the Wall Street Journal (apologies for the paywall).

The email text:

I’m sorry to see Lieberman buy into an NFZ.

Because of the circumstances, it truly is a very bad idea.  It’s likely to widen the war, and people’s idea of what that would mean is way off base.

The circumstances are significantly different from the Iraq years.  Russia has serious SAM defenses, which NATO would have no justification for preemptively attacking even if they were moved into Ukraine.  But they (S400/500) can already take out aircraft well inside Ukraine, from Russia or Belarus (or Crimea).

In Iraq 1991-2003, Saddam had a few SA-6s and now and then put up a MiG-25 to rattle the US coalition’s cage.  The “combat situation,” during the 12-year post-war enforcement period, was completely static.  Saddam was operating no ground forces for any conventional maneuver purpose.  (That said, he did fly helos against his own restive population a bit more often.  And we did nothing, because see next paragraph.)

Russia is using mostly helicopters for ground support to maneuver forces, in a decidedly non-static combat situation.  Enforcing an NFZ on helos is inherently entering combat.  There’s no other basis on which to do it.  Moreover, in the areas where Russia is conducting ground strikes with fixed-wing aircraft (around the eastern perimeter), to go in with NATO fighters for counter-air is to enter an S-400/500 envelope.

It’s better to equip Ukraine to shoot the Russian attack aircraft down, and let them effectively enforce a no-fly zone.  We should be tightening an iron clamp on Russia in other ways.  (Which don’t include prohibiting performances of Tchaikovsky.)

The will-and-credibility dynamics of this would all be reversed with different leadership in Washington and Mons. But we have what we have.  Military policy and strategy don’t execute themselves; the will, rules of engagement, and how well the political leaders are backing up the troops are the tiebreakers – not brilliance of plan or even weapons capability and training.  It’s pretty much guaranteed the Biden White House would make an NFZ unexecutable.

Half of NATO would start out wanting nothing to do with it; the US would be in the driver’s seat, because under our leadership is the only way anyone would sign up to it.  Poland and Romania would have to let their territory be used for it; there’s no way around that.  Turkey wouldn’t let an aircraft carrier into the Black Sea, nor should we want that.  The only way to fight a carrier there would be to blow up the Montreux Convention entirely, and allow not just “NATO” but the United States, one nation, to wildly exceed the tonnage allowed under the Convention in the Black Sea.  I’d insist on two carriers – one for force defense – and each carrier would *have* to have a powerful USN escort (I wouldn’t go in without at least six US Aegis escorts), full stop.  No alternatives.  Russia has all the advantage in the Black Sea.  In fact, it would be essential to have at least two attack submarines as well.  And that’s all apart from combat logistics.  The Montreux Convention outright prohibits everything I’ve just listed.  (Just one carrier, at 90,000 tons, would bust the limit, and that’s aside from the air-arm capability aspect.)

I’m quite doubtful, moreover, about Greece or Turkey allowing overflight for NFZ enforcement missions from the Aegean.  Greece has been close politically to Russia for centuries, not only due to cultural/religious affinities but because Russia is a perennial counterweight to Turkey (slant Ottomans).  Turkey is on the end of a vulnerable tether no matter whose side it takes; Ankara won’t want to get sucked in with Russian forces actively jolting around on either side of her.

I don’t think Russia would attack Poland outright, and probably not Romania either.  But Russia would be prepared to shoot down NATO aircraft if one of them juked a little funny, and escalate the second a live NATO warhead made an impact in any part of Crimea or Donbas, including the airspace.  Any use of Romania to enforce an NFZ would be an excuse for Russia to put more forces in Transnistria, quite possibly starting with S-400s and Iskander missiles.  Poland already faces those threats from Kaliningrad and Belarus.  (There’s been an S-400 battery in Crimea since 2014 as well.)  What are we going to do – attack missile batteries, if Russia puts them in Transnistria?  That’s not a way for an NFZ to stabilize the situation.

Absolutely nothing about the Biden leadership’s responses since January 2021 would lead us to realistically expect timely, decisive responses if an NFZ were declared, and US/NATO assets deployed to enforce it.  I strongly suggest not making fun of Russian capabilities either.  They haven’t been using their front-line forces up to now.  The only way in which they’ve really used them on land is with the Su-34s in a ground attack role, and it’s no real surprise that the Su-34 can be shot down relatively easily.  Russia isn’t defending the Su-34s (with fighter and electronic warfare escort), the way we would, probably because they don’t want to risk the other assets at this point in their campaign.  The Su-34s aren’t using the high-end weapons either.  There was video on Wednesday of Ukrainians defusing a Russian aerial bomb that had failed to detonate, and it was an ancient TV-guided, 1970s-tech thing from the KAB-500 family.  (It had the characteristic fat, snub nosecone with the optical window, rather than the pointed nosecone of the bombs with laser guidance capability.)  No wonder Su-34s are being shot down.  Putin’s sending them in, without adequate escort, to guide their freaking bombs to target from the cockpit, like it’s 1971 in Vietnam.  (Our guys guiding bombs in 1991 were escorted up one side and down the other, and the Iraqi force had less anti-air capability than Ukraine’s.  That’s partly because, unlike Putin, we spent 96 hours bombing the snot out of it before we started bombing anything else.)

Putin seems to be saving his higher-end assets for something else.  If he can get NATO to send one round into Belarus, Russia, Crimea, or Donbas, that could well be when he starts using them.  The best way to help him set up that scenario, in which he can very reasonably expect NATO to pull punches and dither, is to start enforcing an NFZ.  Once our forces were out there roaming the skies under ROE that would no doubt put all combat-reaction decisions in the NATO HQ watch center, Putin would be in the driver’s seat for creating provocation.  It’s quite conceivable that he could shoot down NATO aircraft and NATO wouldn’t respond, partly because the only way to do so with LOAC [Law of Armed Conflict] justification would be to target the shooter – possibly an S-400/500 INSIDE Russia or Belarus – and land that initial warhead on Russian-defended soil.  (Note also that if the Russians used point-defense anti-air missiles against NATO aircraft, from inside Ukraine, the LOAC response would mean effectively becoming a combatant in the Ukraine war by immediately targeting the Russian asset in the tactical theater.  That’s a one-and-done regardless of how the immediate situation turned out.  Ever after, NATO aircraft would be “hostiles” from Russia’s perspective.  Russia’s justification for being at war, in the bigger picture, is not something that would be controlling for battlefield decisions.  It’s something that has to be adjudicated, to the extent it can be, at a political level afterward.)

Would these scenarios develop instantly, with inauguration of NFZ enforcement?  Ordinarily I’d say probably not.  But watching Putin prance around with the provocation and the real-world moves, I’d shift that to the “maybe not” column.  Frankly, that’s the wrong column for sending our airmen and women into a very dangerous situation with poor political leadership  and what are bound to be flawed ROE.  (Remember who’s in charge.)

Some things to think about, maybe.  Executing an NFZ isn’t a hand-wave or even a handoff (i.e., to allow the local commander to make the decisions); its viability is very situation-dependent, and because it’s all about brinkmanship and unscheduled reactions, ROE and political will are paramount.  If I were NATO’s air commander echelon, I’d wake up thanking God every morning I didn’t have to enforce a no-fly zone on Putin, under the current political leadership of NATO.

The compilation of thoughts is serviceable enough.  Besides working on the other research, the main reason I haven’t written more about Ukraine is that I don’t think anyone in mainstream commentary on the matter perceives accurately what Putin is doing.  It would be a significant labor to reframe things each time I write, and I doubt there would be enduring value to any one slice of commentary.

We no longer got us a convoy. Don’t think inside a box on this.

That said, one point on the last 24 hours, which may or may not survive the night. I’ve seen reporting from multiple sources all day (Thursday) that the Russian convoy parked outside Kyiv has dispersed.  This is being taken, for the most part, as a sign that the Russian campaign plan may be falling apart, or unit commanders and soldiers are losing heart, or whatever.

On Fox News Thursday evening, a video clip was shown over an over of a tank group that apparently drove into an ambush east of Kyiv.  The implication was that this was part of the convoy, running into a Ukrainian trap as it sought to “redeploy” from the convoy.

Maybe such a straightforward conclusion is correct.  But as the commentary implied, it sure makes the Russians look incompetent to bolt into a trap like that.  (The wording was more along the lines of “This seems to be another indicator of the poor level of training and tactics in the Russian forces.”)

The Russians truly are not that stupid.  None of this has looked right from the beginning, and the sudden dispersal of this convoy doesn’t look right either.  It doesn’t fit with operations that are hanging together elsewhere (i.e., in eastern Ukraine), in spite of Putin evidently not using his best weaponry and troops for much of this fight.

It’s weird –  unless it means something about deliberate intentions.  If I were Ukraine, I’d be on the lookout for a Russian battle-shaping maneuver: possibly a classic baiting of a Russian trap.  What would be the most favorable outcome for the Russians, of a Russian convoy dispersal?  Obviously, the Russian dispersal prompting a dispersal of Ukrainian forces, going out to hunt Russians whom they expect to be scattered in small, poorly defended numbers.

The ultimate effect is not to even out the fight between Russian attackers and Ukrainian defenders, or generate ambush opportunities for the Russian force.  It’s to flush the forces defending Kyiv out of position.

We’ll see.  If I were the Ukrainians, I wouldn’t run too far or too fast toward retreating Russians.

Iran policy: The eternal disconnect

It’s always heartening to see that U.S. intelligence – however wrong it may or may not be – is producing assessments that quite evidently are the opposite of the assumptions being used for national policy.

Former State Department official Gabriel Noronha, who has put up some great tweet threads over the last week on the Amazon-warehouse-size inventory Team Biden is planning to give away in the Iran nuclear talks, encapsulated such a disconnect nicely in a tweet on Tuesday, 8 March.

It was too juicy to just leave to its own devices, so I composed a tweet thread around it.

The gist up front is that the intelligence community’s latest global threat assessment, published in February, leads with the surreal assertion that “Iran is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities that we judge would be necessary to produce a nuclear device.”

The tweet thread is a reminder of why that’s ridiculous.

Feature image: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Felix Garza Jr. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

6 thoughts on “TOC Ready Room 10 March 2022: NFZs, convoys, and Iran follies, oh my”

  1. The classic Soviet Red Army tactics involve attacking across a broad front with disposable shock troops, causing the enemy forces to expend energy, equipment, and ammunition to halt the advance. Those advances were prepped and covered by massive generalized broad front rocket and tube artillery barrages combined with wave air strikes along that broad front. The wave attacks have the sole purpose of finding a weakness in the defensive line of the enemy. At that point, the more advanced, capable, and usually heavily mechanized “reserve” units (not actually the reserve they are the actual main thrust of the offensive/counter-offensive) called an Operational Maneuver Group are lined up across a narrow deep front to punch through the available weak spots. Terrain and obstacles are not necessarily seen that way. They are usually cleared by the shock front and therefore the casualties as a result are minimal. The OMG (or OMGs if the front is big enough and the Red Army has the resources) then punch through the weak spot in the line and perform an envelopment of the enemy forces. The tactic is pretty old… Epaminondas and the Theban led defeat of Sparta at Battle of Leuktra, in 371 BC. Weapons change, tactics flow back and forth but warfare is what it is.

    In the case of the broad front OMG operation the defensive goal is therefore Alexander’s Chariot Defense. The defenders must dictate the avenues of approach and design their defensive lines to identify the OMG, bait it into attacking a false weak front. The Defense falls back to hardened positions on the rear flanks while the shoulders are reinforced. The Defender then closes the bag, cuts off the OMG and destroys it in detail. Also see Greene and Morgan at Cowpens.

    I said all this for our non-military history friends out there… The neoSoviets pulled their envelopment tactics out and forgot their broad front advance. They drove themselves into the bag(s) to secure strategic geographic and symbolic objectives without regard to the security of the broader front. That placed long unsecured flanks of their OMGs in serious jeopardy if the Ukrainian Army, Air Force, and Militias could harass, ambush and weaken that column. (See, Greene and Morgan – and later just Greene) in the run across the Carolinas as the American Southern Army used their knowledge of the terrain, innovative battle tactics, adaptive tactical awareness and guerrilla warfare to exhaust Cornwallis, cripple his loyalist militia, and then leave him gasping for air at the banks of the Dan River.)

    The if the logistics can hold, the Ukrainians have most of what they need to drag this out and drain the Russian conscript army, and eventually grind the pieces of this badly planned mess into hamburger. The dispersal of the columns is definitely a maneuver to save the bulk of the invasion force’s equipment, but eventually the logistics are going to starve it, and the false premises under which the political decision was taken will begin to have an effect.

    Poots did something stupid, mad, and evil all at once. Why, other than blind paranoid pride is hard to decern… but what he does in the short term will eventually be ground away in the long run.


  2. Isn’t current US military doctrine that when we send the jets up, the first thing is to eliminate all SAM and the like sites. Which means attacking them in Belarus. Which the Belarussians would view (correctly so, IMO) as an unprovoked attack on them. Which would justify them entering the war. I do not want an expanded war.

  3. Thanks JeD, for what needs to penetrate the amazing pro-UKR propaganda wall in the Anglosphere:The Russians truly are not that stupid. None of this has looked right from the beginning, and the sudden dispersal of this convoy doesn’t look right either. It doesn’t fit with operations that are hanging together elsewhere (i.e., in eastern Ukraine), in spite of Putin evidently not using his best weaponry and troops for much of this fight.

    From my perch, seems like everything RUS does, including the threatening amphibious landing to ‘take Odessa’ is a ‘distraction’ from what might be their primary objective: land bridge from Crimea to Russia in the SE. Ok, Odessa might be a play to make UKR land-locked?
    Is It’s to flush the forces defending Kyiv out of position. also such a distraction from the SE?

    DISCLAIMER: This is NOT an endorsement of RUS “demilitarization” of UKR.
    My views shaped by the Hypocritical Dissonance of UN/NATO/USA/EU over which borders and people count. Primary example: Iraq’s abstention on the UN Res deploring Russia was noticed by pundits who forget that Turkey has ‘cleansed’ villages in northern KRG, built bases, and, continued bombing [all Kurds are PKK!] in northern Iraq. March 7, 2022:
    Iraq’s KRG & Nineveh province are hosting tens of thousands of refugees from northern Syria, displaced by TUR’s invasions and illegal occupations since March 2018, Afrin.

  4. pause JCPOA is getting echo! ☺

    March 11, 2022. The EU said Friday that the talks it is chairing on the revival of the 2015 Iran nuclear accord must be paused, days after fresh demands from Russia complicated negotiations.” A pause in #ViennaTalks is needed, due to external factors,” the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted, adding that “a final text is essentially ready and on the table”. […]

    That is one of the most interesting unintended consequences of the Economic War on RUS.
    More in this good read:
    And, then there is the food crisis, not just for Tunisia and Egypt:

    March 11, 2022. Ukraine war compounds food-security woes of Middle East and North Africa. MENA countries and aid agencies reliant on lower-cost Black Sea grain scramble to find alternative sources […]David Beasley, the WFP’s executive director, said “We get 50 percent of our grains out of the Ukrainian and Russian area. It is going to have a dramatic impact on food, oil, and shipping costs. Just when you think it couldn’t get worse, it’s going to get worse. It’s a catastrophe on top of catastrophe here. It’s just heartbreaking.” […]

  5. First, a caveat. I’m intentionally avoiding going into specifics, or answering. If you are VVP, what is your prime political objective concerning the military operation in the Ukraine? Will that be solved by occupying ‘x’ amount Ukrainian territory? Therein lies the key to all of this –and in general terms, the objective is being achieved.

    Some reactions.
    Yes, about the NFZ, obviously. But no, “It’s better to equip Ukraine to shoot the Russian attack aircraft down, and let them effectively enforce a no-fly zone.”. . that ‘Western’ escalation, will only prolong the death and misery, force the Russians to escalate by expand their targeting and increase shelling. It will increase the likelihood of our active actual/perceived participation in hostilities leading to a possible (public) NATO/Russia exchange of fire, and will NOT change the war’s outcome. The sooner this is over, the better. In the same vein as D4x’s comment, the global politico-economic consequences aren’t fully apparent and haven’t started to bite yet. When they do, oh,brother. . . .

    “Putin seems to be saving his higher-end assets for something else. “. Probably west of the Dnieper, but not NATO territory, they don’t want to be depleted after this is all over. What comes after the Ukraine business?

    “The Russians truly are not that stupid. None of this has looked right from the beginning, and the sudden dispersal of this convoy doesn’t look right either.” It suffices to cut off Kiev’s western approaches. After the failure to capture the city quickly, the Russians have converted the assault into a modified feint. They are tying down the defenders. The same can be argued for Kharkov. Again, think of the north Dnieper — looking south towards northern Transnistria. And, bear in mind, Russian forces have the flexibility to change that option as well, depending on how the situation develops.

    Watch the population movements.
    It’s quite possible the only “Ukrainian” territory that’s going to be left after the end of this is the Lvov/Ternopol/Ivano-Frankovsk triangle.

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