July 21, 2014

MH17 new info

Two interesting additional data points on the MH17 shootdown:

1) As Rachel Maddow has identified, the NATO head's briefing on the area from the end of June specifically referred to vehicle-mounted heavy AA missile systems being on both sides of the Russian border in the vicinity of the crash with evidence of Russians actively conducting training on those systems within Russia. The implication is, of course, that these were Ukrainian separatist fighters being trained, on the specific missile system in question, the SA-11 or Buk.

2) Russia's own civilian airspace authorities acted to stop civilian flights in Russian airspace close to the disputed area earlier the same day, as the New York Times has reported.

Now I'm inclined to think the timing of the latter was a coincidence, that the Russians took a couple days to draw the obvious conclusions that if a rebel force was taking down Ukrainian planes at airliner heights, it was past time to close civilian airways at all altitudes running through the same area. But it again, along with the first information, raises the question why Ukrainian civil aviation authorities did not act much earlier here, and why the international airline risk community was not acting much more promptly as a whole.

Simply put, Ukraine had all the necessary information to stop this. They closed part of their airspace, but only up to an altitude that wouldn't inconvenience anyone, even though their military authorities had to have known that the same missile that took down their transport plane 3 days before almost certainly had the capability to take down any airliner above that altitude as well. It does not speak to a government functioning at a high level or with a strong sense of its international responsibilities. Of course, compared to the Russians here, they're still looking like the more responsible, aggrieved party in all this, as they should.

There is no doubt in my mind that Russia and its proxy fighters in Ukraine deserve all the blame here. But these were still avoidable deaths if some combination of Ukrainian and international aviation authorities and the airline itself, had been more on the ball.

I will also say that the pro-Russia pushback in all the comments sections of all major news outlets' stories on this has been remarkable the last couple of days, way more than one would expect from disorganized first- and second-gen Russian immigrant communities. That an organized push of a pro-Russian counternarratives is partly responsible for that seems highly likely.

Posted by BruceR at 07:52 AM

July 17, 2014

The Ukraine airliner shootdown

There's only one thing you really need to know about the tragic loss of a Malaysian 777 airliner over Ukrainian territory today and that's this.

No civilian plane has ever been shot down before at modern day cruising altitudes, other than in mistaken attacks by state actors. There is no system readily available to any non-state armed force that can hit a plane at these altitudes.

When insurgents and guerrillas have attacked planes, it has invariably been on takeoff or approach to landing, when the plane is near to the ground and within the range of man-portable air defence missiles (aka MANPADs), mostly with infrared guidance, that can home in on a jet engine from a few thousand metres away, vertically or horizontally, at most. Were a man-portable missile to hit a jetliner in such circumstances, from that kind of close-to-tarmac firing point, it would tend to explode at a distance dictated by its built-in proximity fuze, shredding the one engine and potentially damaging other components. While obviously extremely dangerous, in most historical cases multi-engine aircraft crews have reacted to the engine loss and brought the plane out of danger in at least a semi-controlled manner. They almost certainly would have time to communicate, which was not the case here.

This is not what this shootdown today was, at all. This plane was destroyed at high altitude, by a massive explosion. Any missile that can do that, like the SA-11 Buk apparently used here is large, and radar-guided: meaning significant infrastructure and a trained team is required for its use. Whereas a standard shoulder launched missile has a 1kg explosive warhead, the SA-11 has a 70 kg warhead, capable of taking any plane out of the sky completely with one accurate hit, at any altitude.

An SA-11 launcher/radar (TELAR) vehicle is mobile, in the sense a tank is mobile: a tracked vehicle weighing over 24 tons. It's huge. The missiles are telephone poles: 18 feet long. This is what this rebel group was using to strike first a Ukrainian transport 3 days ago and now this unfortunate jet.

I don't doubt the rebels in this case committed an immense error, as they tried to keep the air above them clear of the Ukrainian military planes that have been beating up on them pretty badly lately. (Russia's increasing attempts to impose some kind of no-fly zone over Ukraine to help them, shooting down a Ukrainian ground attack jet this week, are the other way Ukraine is being challenged in the air right now.) The very fact this happened at all indicates their crews weren't particularly well-versed in airspace control and defense the way a real anti-aircraft detachment would be... which suggests this was probably some poorly trained yahoos on stolen or loaned gear, not an organized Russian unit.

Which leads one to conclude that civil aviation authorities really dropped the ball here. Because the Ukrainians reported the loss of a military transport to surface-to-air fire three days ago in the same area, flying at the same civil aviation altitudes (6,500m in this story). That should have led to an immediate reassessment by all airlines and agencies of the threat here. A kill at 6,500m is not achievable with insurgent-type weapons: it meant a radar guided system, professional military-grade, right there. Which meant it was highly likely 3 days ago someone in that area, not responding to any clear national chain of command, had a system capable of shooting down airliners and was actively using it to deny that airspace. It was the smoking gun/red phone moment for any airline intelligence analyst and they all apparently failed to raise any kind of alarm anywhere near quickly enough.

All adverse military effects are going to be called "intelligence failures" by somebody. Comes with the trade. But this was a Challenger-shuttle level example of cross-institutional inability to react to new and changing information. Absolutely, blame the Ukrainian rebels. But save a little blame for Ukraine, who should have stated more strongly that, given the threat 3 days ago, all planes flying in that area were now in jeopardy and should be diverted around the area, and for the airline officials who put an incredible number of lives at risk by failing to respond appropriately and promptly to one of the most obvious threat warnings they were ever likely to see. Someone needed to be screaming from the rooftops on Monday that a major international air route was seriously jeopardized this week, and someone in Malaysian Airlines needed to have been listening. What the hell, ICAO? What the hell, FAA? WTF, EASA? The fact Fallows can't find a relevant FAA warning for the actual Donetsk area (as opposed to the Crimea ones he did find) even before the Ukrainian transport was shot down, let alone after, despite repeated attempts to help from commenters, is indicative here: no one picked up on this particular alarm bell.

For the last 50 years of air travel, airliners have benefited from being too high to be affected by ground battles. So long as they obeyed the wishes of governments that wished you to stay out of an area and state-on-state warzones where radar weapons and jet fighters were in play, and didn't land at airports with rebels at the end of the runway, they could always cruise serenely above the fray, along whatever rhumb line saved them the most time and money. It was that complacency that killed these people, almost as much as the rebel who pressed the launch button on a radar hit he probably didn't even really understand.

See also David Cenciotti for a slightly different take. It's just appalling that Ukraine didn't immediately revise their altitude limitation on that airspace up from the 32,000 feet ceiling it was at this week. The way these things work, if you can kill at 20,000', you can kill at 40,000', or 60,000'. A 32,000' limit only makes sense if the defined threat is infrared shoulder launched infrared missiles, with a big, big margin of error (really, a kill at 10,000' with a man-portable missile would be nearly impossible). To fly planes at 33,000', right above that,indicated Malaysian Airlines understood that to be the most likely threat scenario, one that effectively had no impact on your flight financially because you would likely have been above that altitude in midflight anyway. If you have a current-technology vehicle-mounted radar-guided system like the Buk in play though, no altitude is too high, and diversion (and extra flight miles) is the only option. Which of course Ukraine got around to doing today. Appalling.

Continue reading "The Ukraine airliner shootdown"
Posted by BruceR at 11:17 PM

May 12, 2014

Sunk cost fallacy watch

Globe and Mail today:

Graeme Smith and Louise Arbour offer their "won't somebody think of the Afghans" cri de coeur in advance of the ICG's report on Afghan security forces, not yet available online. (I hate it when opinion writers do that, by the way... if you can't link to the report you're touting yet so people can judge the quality of your arguments in full, you shouldn't be appearing in an opinion section.)

The entire piece can be summed up with one quote:

"Perhaps the best way, though, for Canada and other donors to respect the sacrifices of their soldiers would be to help the Afghan government survive after their departure...

"But the fledgling Afghan state does not have the ability to pay for its own security forces, and countries such as Canada have an obligation to continue funding the unfinished war."

I have no idea on what basis that obligation would rest, other than the principle of good money after bad.

Continue reading "Sunk cost fallacy watch"
Posted by BruceR at 08:50 AM

April 21, 2014

Syrian gas attacks: banging nails in the coffin, but still...

After Sy Hersh's ludicrous claim in LRB this month that the Turkish government's hitherto unheard-of and probably imaginary chemical weapons program was behind the April gas attack in Damascus, it's worth adding a ways-ago link to some further, actually compelling, chemical-analysis evidence that the Syrian military, for reasons still poorly understood, did actually gas residents of a capital city suburb with Sarin last August. "Hersh and LR were trolling for clicks" would be the most charitable explanation of their regurgitation now of the clearly false Russian government line on this issue. But it would not be totally crazy either to see the Hersh article as an information plant made with the intent of sowing doubt among NATO alliance member populations, where Turkey is both the weakest link in many ways and would be key terrain for any kind of future attempt by the Alliance to support Ukraine militarily. More on Hersh specifically from the same author here.

Also recently from Brown Moses: compelling evidence that the Syrian military has started to use BM-30 SMERCH artillery rockets, an advanced MLRS system with a huge range. The recovered casings have Cyrillic lettering. There is one country, the one that makes them, that is most likely to have given them those. Starts with "R." (More here.)

The apparent first use of the new rockets was against Syrian rebels in Kafr Zita, who also this week convincingly reported a helicopter-delivered improvised chlorine gas munition was used against them by government forces. No fatalities this time (you're probably more likely to kill people by hitting them in the head if you're just going chuck gas cylinders out of transport helos), so it's unlikely this one will raise much of a fuss, nor should it, and the possibility of a rebel planting or blowing up of a gas cylinder on the ground near where the government's helo attack occurred certainly can't be totally ruled out yet, either. But the military futility of the attack in itself may indicate the Syrian military's chemical weapon deployment options truly have been significantly reduced from a year ago, which is a good thing for Syrian civilians.

Posted by BruceR at 10:52 AM

December 10, 2013

Apparently I wasn't done with Syria's chem attack yet

There's been a lot of discussion on this, with Sy Hersh weighing in recently, so it's time to revisit. Short story, Syrian government culpability still seems clear from here, but the evidence has taken some twists and turns that are worth commenting on (if only because my graphic several posts below now turns out to have been based on inaccurate UN reporting and would appear to have been disappointingly misleading). Below the fold is a detailed analysis of the recent findings on this, and why I would argue the preponderance of evidence still points at the Syrian army as the culprit.

Continue reading "Apparently I wasn't done with Syria's chem attack yet"
Posted by BruceR at 07:16 PM

September 17, 2013

Probably final Syria chem thought

What's really interesting about the Syrian chem attack, analytically speaking, is that it's one of those rare situations where the two of the most reliable intuitive principles we have are completely at odds. The Cui Bono assessment of this is that the Syrian government would have to be incredibly stupid or reckless to attack their own people this way. The Occam's Razor hypothesis points now, entirely at their having done so.

Posted by BruceR at 02:22 PM

Syria attacks: also note the quantity required

HRW's Peter Bouckert raises another good point:

The rocket systems identified by the UN as used in the attack – truck-launched 330mm rockets with around 50 to 60 liters of Sarin, as well as 140mm Soviet-produced rockets carrying a smaller Sarin-filled warhead – are both known to be in the arsenal of the Syrian armed forces. They have never been seen in rebel hands. The amount of Sarin used in the attack – hundreds of kilograms, according to Human Rights Watch’s calculations – also indicates government responsibility for the attack, as opposition forces have never been known to be in possession of such significant amounts of Sarin.

Assume that only the two 330mm rockets the UN inspectors saw were involved. That would still be 100+ litres of sarin in those two rockets alone, not counting the BM-14s or any other munitions involved (estimates have actually suggested 20 or more munitions were used in this one attack). By comparison, the Aum Shinrikyo cult used a total of 5 litres in the Tokyo subway attacks, the only successful deployment of sarin in history by anyone other than Saddam's Iraq. (The Japanese cult released a similar amount in their previous 1994 Matsumoto attack, killing eight.) There is no question the apparatus required for the production here would have been significant. Interestingly, although sarin will kill you, no question, if a drop lands on unprotected skin, when distributed in the air, whether in Syria, Iraq or Japan, it takes roughly a litre of distribution per fatality. Sarin is not the deadliest chemical weapon out there; that honour probably belongs to VX, which the Syrians also have in smaller amounts, which is about 10 times as deadly, and persists longer in the environment (unlike Sarin, which sunlight rapidly degrades).

Note also that the production or transport of Sarin or its schedule 1 precursor chemicals is banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention, which both Russia and Iran have signed, and that sarin's shelf life is about the same as milk -- months.

Posted by BruceR at 12:49 PM

September 16, 2013

Just two other points on the Syria attack

Updating entry below with 2 addenda:

1) The fact the two trajectories we have seem to converge may be coincidental, or maybe not. The high ground north and west of Damascus is held firmly by the Syrian government's Praetorians, the 4th Armored and Republican Guard Divisions, the best troops the government has left. That the rockets in question were launched from that area is telling in and of itself over how accountable the senior leadership would have been. If your key military supporters are the active party, you're either in the know or you've lost control: there's not really a third option. There is also some evidence of another launch point farther to the northeast along that same mountain ridge. Evidence of multiple simultaneous launch points in different divisional and brigade areas of operation would be an indication of higher level control or authorization of the attack, due to the coordination involved. If they were all in one unit's area you could write it off to a rogue commander perhaps, but here, maybe not so much.

2) Also note, these are tactical munitions. All unguided artillery rockets of around 10,000m range, probably directly controlled by their divisional commanders. The larger guided missiles that Syria has are not yet in play here. At the time, there was an interesting Turkish news story, saying the attack had been made by troops of 4th Armoured Division along with 155th Missile Brigade, the linchpin unit of the Syrians' strategic rocket force. The difference is the former is a ground unit, but the latter exists solely to counter-attack Israel in a standup fight, and has weapons with the range and accuracy to do it, some of them undoubtedly chemical in nature.

That story came out around the same time as the highly amusing piece of phone intercept evidence indicating government culpability where a Syrian defence official called the 155th in a panic after the attack demanding to know why they'd fired chemical missiles and an officer told him to come down and count them if he didn't believe they hadn't. The munition evidence recovered so far would seem to indicate the 155th officer was right. These weren't his.

But then, they wouldn't need to be. The attackers were trying to hit a Damascus suburb (not even really picky which one, at that), 10 km away, the same ones they shell with conventional artillery every other night, no strategic missiles or inertial guidance required. Even if successful, the effect achieved would have been purely tactical... depopulate and dehouse the hostile suburban populations south and east of the city... and the tactical commander for the defence of Damascus evidently felt or was told chemical weapons would help with that objective. Which makes it even more baffling why the Assad regime would need to go this far, now. It simply doesn't seem worth it, unless of course things in Damascus seemed far more desperate to them than they did to us.

Posted by BruceR at 11:35 PM

Syria attacks: since I still believe in fighting stupidity still, occasionally

State_Department_map_of_Gouta_chemical_attack_w_arrows.jpgWhat today's UN report on the Syrian Aug. 21 sarin attack states, and which they are prohibited from their mandate from pointing out in very clear terms, is that all the evidence points to this being a government attack. So for instance, the two measurable trajectories on the artillery rocket munitions used that the inspectors could make both point back to government-controlled areas. They are careful to point out there is clear evidence these were actual impacts too, rather than just being dropped there, and both associated with chemical attack symptoms in people who lived nearby. The graphic here shows the actual bearings the report gives (215 degrees and 105 degrees) with arrows exactly 5 miles long, pointing away from their likely points of origin, superimposed on a previous US State Department graphic showing the areas of control of the two sides fighting in Damascus. Pink is the government controlled zone. Note, that these aren't the only munitions, just the only ones that could have their trajectories assessed, that both are artillery types in the government's arsenal, and range estimates in these things are extremely approximate: all you have really have here to go on is direction. Still, the chances of this being some kind of attack by someone outside the Syrian government, already slim, basically have to drop to zero now, assuming you trust the UN's facts as presented. I'd say, "do I need to draw a map?" but I guess I just did.

Incredibly, the two rocket paths traced backwards actually converge right on Mount Qasioun, a mountain overlooking Damascus which the Syrian government has heavily fortified. You may remember Mount Qasioun... back in May Israeli jets blew up a huge quantity of "advanced surface-to-surface rockets" on the mountain they alleged were about to be transferred by the Syrian government to Hezbollah. The same mountain is also the location of the government's secretive Jamraya military research center, long rumoured to be central to the Syrian government's chemical weapons program.

The report also gives strong evidence that the attack on the Southwest suburb near the airport was by 2 or more 140mm artillery rockets of a known chemical-capable type, generally fired from a BM-14 launcher. The rocket that was fired into the eastern suburb is of 330mm calibre, a huge thing not previously seen outside of Syria, which some are calling the "bicycle pump" or the "UMLACA", meant to be fired out of a single-rocket tube from the back of a truck, the same launcher used for the Iranian-supplied Falaq-2 artillery rocket. Neither of the rebels' improvised artillery systems, the so called "Hell" spigot cannon or their improvised rocket-assisted mortar (IRAM), are consistent with what's seen in today's report.

For more analysis, the best blog source on this one at the moment is probably Brown Moses.

As for institutions like Reuters, via the Globe and Mail, articles like this one just show the usual reportorial, "I need a he-said-she-said" laziness in the face of factual evidence: "It is not immediately clear whether any of the details in the report suggested culpability." Come on guys, if I could get out the equivalent of a high school protractor, you could have, too. Google Earth does bearings now, and everything.

(As for the "maybe the rebels/Obama did it" false-flaggers, I really hope they stop now. The idea it could be rogue elements in the Syrian government, yeah that was always plausible, maybe still is even... but some of the other, crazier stuff out there had the preponderance of evidence against it weeks ago, and this is just cake-icing. You're embarrassing yourselves, people.

Syrian government forces attacked their own people with sarin gas last month, period, probably at least twice -- those Aug. 5 allegations which showed very similar munition profiles to the Aug. 21 attack certainly need to be assumed to be true, now, as well -- ... That fact in itself is not particularly surprising, and no one here is saying it means anyone needs to bomb anyone right now, but it is still as established a fact now as you're likely to get anywhere in the news today.)

Posted by BruceR at 04:30 PM

That basically sums it up right there

Space Channel in Canada on Sundays is running all the Doctor Who eps, 10 at a time, running up to the 50th anniversary. It's been a fun couple of Sundays. I forgot how much "The Parting of the Ways" among others, can still move me, and how one particular scene always encapsulated for me both the new series, and a lot of my own internal monologues over all all the years this website's been around.

Oh yes; 5 years ago last week I had started work in Kandahar. I guess this is pretty much all I have to say about that right now.

JACKIE: Listen to me. God knows I have hated that man, but right now, I love him and do you know why? Because he did the right thing. He sent you back to me.
ROSE: But what do I do every day, mum? What do I do? Get up, catch the bus, go to work, come back home, eat chips and go to bed? Is that it?
MICKEY: It's what the rest of us do.
ROSE: But I can't!
MICKEY: Why, because you're better than us?
ROSE: No, I didn't mean that. But it was. It was a better life. And I don't mean all the travelling and seeing aliens and spaceships and things. That don't matter. The Doctor showed me a better way of living your life. You know he showed you too. That you don't just give up. You don't just let things happen. You make a stand. You say no.

Posted by BruceR at 10:20 AM

November 09, 2012

!!!

Petraeus resigns over an affair with Paula Broadwell. You may remember Paula Broadwell.

Question: would Paula have gotten access to those declassified photos of the destruction of an Afghan village without her enhanced level of "access," or was it her blithe acceptance of what they actually showed? As I said back here, "the Arghandab district continues to mess with people's careers."

Posted by BruceR at 06:19 PM

September 24, 2012

Lang on green-on-blue: not following

I quoted Pat Lang approvingly two posts below, but I don't follow him here:

General Allen can argue what he likes but the Taliban have found the key to a stratagem that will give the "coup de grace" to the Afghanistan COIN project.

I think Allen's point, that most of these attacks are from frustrated Afghan soldiers, not insurgents, really isn't arguable on any of the facts I've seen. My quibble is with Lang's causational fallacy. To say that an increasing number of Afghans, including soldiers, are buying into the insurgents' world view to the point of being willing to kill and die for it, even granting that view is being transmitted in as well propagated an information operation as they can make it, does not mean most of these green-on-blue events were in any way coordinated by them. In 90% of the cases it appears to be pure cultural, societal and religious friction in an incredibly heavily armed, exceedingly high stress environment. That alone can mark the failure of a mission without the Taliban being any more than fascinated bystanders, and calling it their "strategem" seems obfuscatory on Lang's part.

Posted by BruceR at 10:44 PM

Further thoughts: Afghanistan, Mali

A Canadian army major of significant Kandahar-area experience writes thoughtfully, in reference to my post below:

I've generally thought that the overarching problem was we identified the wrong enemy. The enemy was (and perhaps still is) AQ, which is made up of Arabs following the teachings of fringe elements of the Muslim Brotherhoods. But we went after the Taliban. And HiG. And Haqqani. None of them were interested in exporting violence, and I don't actually think they were all that close to AQ either. And then we compounded the error by lacking unity of purpose and command, but that's a political and strategic problem that comes with coalitions. Heck, even the US couldn't agree on a common purpose between Enduring Freedom and ISAF. Actually, we probably exasperated the situation by helping the ISI further strengthen its influence in Pak, with long term consequences to be determined over the coming decades.

As far as training the ANSF, I really think we need to be more honest with ourselves.

Continue reading "Further thoughts: Afghanistan, Mali"
Posted by BruceR at 09:47 PM

September 17, 2012

Afghanistan: yeah, it's pretty much over

US suspends joint operations with Afghan army in wake of recent green-on-blues.

Militarily significant? Not as much as you'd think. But yeah... the mutual hatred and misunderstanding is clearly now at such intolerable levels it's difficult to see any way back even to where we were 3 years ago. As a veteran of this particular fight, I'm not surprised any more, but still disappointed. I wish the outcome could have been different, but not with the inputs going in. I hate to say it, but in retrospect the 2009 US surge into Afghanistan was pretty much a failure. What was needed then was a different vision, involving a radical drawdown of the Western presence and retrenching to what was achievable, if there was even any chance of salvaging anything long term by that point. My personal hopes that we had held the line in a dysfunctional environment until the US could get there in mid 2009 were basically shattered on the realization that that surge--with all of its trying to apply the Iraq surge template to a very different country--just made everything all the more dysfunctional still.

I will say one thing though, about the anonymous spox comment that "we can't trust these people." We never trusted them. Ever. Not as far as we could throw them. And they never trusted us in return. Maybe because that's because we grew the Afghan army too fast. Maybe that's because we had insufficient people we could mentor the right way, with all the cultural immersion and risk and unorthodoxy that entailed. Maybe that's because ultimately their war aims and ours were completely divergent, something we could never ever paper over. Maybe all of the above. But the trust was always something you could measure in a teaspoon. Hospitality? sure (at least by them); politeness? no doubt. But tangible, operationally-significant trust between fellow soldiers? Yeah, not so much.

See also Pat Lang.

UPDATE: In retrospect, the suspension of Afghan Local Police training was indicative.

Posted by BruceR at 10:28 PM

September 13, 2012

On the embassy attacks

I'm not conceding that the Obama administration has been apologizing for America (it hasn't, that's another Romneylie). I'm just saying, given what is now known about the current hothead instigator sheltering behind rights he doesn't deserve, that the world as a whole probably deserves an apology from somebody about now.

Posted by BruceR at 11:26 AM