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Guest post: the logistics of limited intervention

February 27, 2012

Much debate has emerged from Anne-Marie Slaughter’s publication of a “no-kill zone” concept. I would recommend Spencer Ackerman, Paul Staniland, and of course Adam Elkus with great posts in response. I will have a forthcoming post at Gunpowder & Lead on the matter.

One of the most serious concerns about the facilitation of an intervention is mission creep. What tactically seems like simple and surgical action, like the embedding of special forces and the collecting of intelligence and facilitation, monitoring, or denial of electronic communications, often creates a much larger logistical tail. While Slaughter’s piece does not argue directly for U.S. military involvement, as in Libya, the tasks at hand are likely to exceed partner capabilities.

What follows is Robert Caruso (follow his own blog at Rocky Shoals) explaining how intelligence gathering and the support of limited special operations forces can balloon into a major commitment – one that America, rather than simply its allies, will probably have to fulfill.

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s no-kill zones are bound to get America  embroiled in Syria’s civil war. In this post, we’ll take a responsible and factual look at what an American commitment, however limited, would look like. I’ll be focusing exclusively on manned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms and the command and control structure since I am intimately familiar with how those emergent requirements are requested and subsequently met in practice.

Achieving Slaughter’s stated goal of establishing ‘no-kill zones’ necessitates American manned and unmanned fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. Period – neither Qatar, nor the other GCC states, nor likely even the U.S.’s NATO allies, can likely provide the necessary support for such a mission. Special Operations Forces are not magical. However badass the Jedi may be, they cannot levitate, control the airspace, provide persistent “high grade” intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) from above nor airdrop anything to anyone at whatever rate they need it. They are people. Exceptionally capable and skilled people; but just people nonetheless.

While I cannot speak to what unmanned and rotary-wing platforms would be necessary — I’ll leave that to fellow professionals who can articulate what that looks like — I can speak to the manned, fixed-wing component and how they would complement the equally necessary forward-deployed command and control element(s).

Operational Preparation of the Environment – U-28s, RC-12s and E-2Ds

Contrary to popular belief, drones aren’t the only ISR platform in America’s arsenal. Committing drones to the Syrian theater when other theaters have a pressing need for them is selfish and will be met with great resistance at all corners of the Pentagon, nevermind the geographical combatant commands (nor do Turkey or the Arab League presently have drone capabilities matching America’s local assets anyway). Additionally, most combatant commanders (CCDRs) would be loathe to give up their ISR platform for nary a second, regardless of what the National Command Authority says (we saw this reality show its ugly face in Libya, where then-Vice Admiral Locklear, even with White House concurrence, was hard pressed to wrangle a solitary Global Hawk for weeks).

Let’s face facts: the employment of even a single National Clandestine Service case officer or one of the myriad of special reconnaissance elements of the Special Operations Command on the ground necessitates persistent ISR from above. It just does – particularly if the operation is dependent on communications and “high grade intelligence” rather than outright firepower. Ergo, in any intervention, the Joint Task Force and Joint Special Operations Task Force commander would be forced to turn to manned platforms to address this emergent requirement.

Each U-28 has a crew of at least three; the E-2Ds, up to five men (and women) each. Every single crewmember is an American in harm’s way. But is the risk of American life inconsequential compared to the Syrian lives we probably won’t save?

To support even this relatively small number of airframes, you’d need the requisite amount of logistical “tail” and the personnel that fly and maintain them. Figure seven personnel for every Air Force Special Operations Command platform, because flying with an two-man organic personal security detachment is a requirement. Other fixed-wing platforms you’d find meandering about in this kind of hybrid campaign would include L-100 Hercules and C-27Js. Still more airframes would begin to join the fray with the committment of general purpose forces, no matter how small.

Command and Control – Amazingly, it takes lots of people to do lots of things

The natural lead in any action inside Syria lies with SOCCENT (Special Operations Command – Central, a Theater Special Operations Command of Central Command). Currently, JSOTF-GCC (Joint Special Operations Task Force – Gulf Cooperation Council) is headquarted in Bahrain. That said, if need be a forward headquarters could easily be established along the eastern border of Turkey or, ironically enough, inside Iraq. Alternatively, JSOTF-GCC elements could embark on an Amphibious Readiness or Carrier Strike Group, a la the Horn of Africa, to minimize the risk of American casualties.

As an aside, it should be noted that any committment of naval platforms off the Syrian coast would in turn necessitate the retasking of a number of national-level assets, to include submarines.

This is turning out to be quite the costly endeavor, is it not?

A Syrian intervention limited to SOF and intelligence gathering would involve anywhere between 3,500 and 4,000 men and women. This is an unavoidable fact and only ticks upward (doubles and triples, actually) with the inclusion of every carrier.

Even back-of-the-napkin math tells you that the employment of manned platforms and augmentees to the Joint and Joint Special Operations Task Force(s) will number anywhere between 550-600 men and women, in order to meet command and control requirements for a campaign of this magnitude. This is somewhat of a conservative estimate that intentionally does not factor in the inclusion of compartmented national-level assets, the involvement of the National Mission Force or liaison personnel from every corner of the Intelligence Community.

The idea of a ‘limited intervention’ in Syria is a damned foolish one, and is fantastical at best. Policymakers and academics should give pause before seizing upon a die that, once cast, cannot be undone.

This is not a game. Intervening in Syria’s civil war is not in America’s national interest, nor is facilitating an intervention that would ultimately require American capabilities. The suffering being undertaken by the Syrian people, however tragic, is not America’s guiding strategic concern. We needlessly thrust our military into this nightmare at our own peril.

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