Monthly Archives: April 2010

Polish President Dead in Plane Crash, Interesting Russian Appointments

The Polish President’s plane just crashed on landing at the Smolensk airport. Polish President Kaczynski, the Army chief of staff as well as the foreign minister were all aboard, and all are reported dead.

Plane crashes happen. However, it is not very often that a plane carrying such significant national officials involved in extremely sensitive position negotiations crashes in the country it feels the most threatened by. Specifically, the three top officials most deeply involved in Poland’s US-Russia regional tug-of-war were just wiped out. These three had pushed a heavily anti-Russian, pro-US policy and had the biggest stake in how the US’s East European stationing plans (the root issue underlying the BMD, Patriot, X-band radar station, etc. negotiations) work out. Poland knows Russia is pushing hard to recover its post-Cold War losses and regain its old Soviet sphere of influence, and Poland knows it is one of Moscow’s prime targets for acquisition for a variety of deep reasons.

Despite a recent warming in Polish-Russian relations, the calculus has always remained the same. The recent “warming” has really amounted to nothing more than a change in atmospherics, but the now friendlier-feeling negotiations have continued to cover the same sticking points. With that in mind, this plane crash presents Russia with some big opportunities. Now Russia can get to work on shaping the next Polish government in pro-Russian way, if the Poles will have it.

It will be interesting to see how the Poles take this plane crash. The fact is the Russians certainly aren’t saddened by it and it opens a lot of doors for them. Undoubtedly many will accuse the Russians of having arranged the plane crash as a FSB or GRU operation, something neither agency is morally above or incapable of pulling off. Suspicion of foul play will be incredibly difficult to wash out, particularly in the Polish (and likely general East European) press.

After all, the Russians did:

  • try to kill Yushchenko with poison when he was running for president in Ukraine on an anti-Russia, pro-West platform
  • invade Georgia to prove a point about Russian resurgence and
  • rid themselves of a problematic former intelligence agent by poisoning him in London

Because this suspicion is going to be impossible to overcome the Russians best course of action is to claim credit for the crash in subtle ways whether they were actually behind it or not. This is exactly what Russia seems to be doing.

To this end it is very interesting that Russian President Medvedev has appointed the Prime Minister, Vladmir Putin, as the head of the commission investigating the crash. From an outsider’s perspective it can easily be taken as a sign that Russia is extremely concerned with the crash and that they are so serious about getting to the bottom of it they are calling on Putin Himself to check things out. From an insider’s perspective, however, this puts the very man whose plan stands to gain the most from the crash in charge of writing the story of how it occurred.

An additional Russian move which appears outwardly innocent but highly suspicious to insiders is the somewhat as-yet undefined involvement of the Ministry of Emergency Situations (EMERCOM). Sergei Shoygu, the head of this ministry, was personally dispatched to the site immediately after the crash. EMERCOM outwardly acts as the Russian equivalent to the American FEMA, but in actuality its tasking is far different. EMERCOM is a GRU (the Russian military intelligence agency, a rival agency to the FSB) agency. In fact, Sergei Shoygu currently holds the rank of General of the Army. His ministry’s true purpose is to use the political opening provided by regional disasters to set up intelligence shops anywhere bad things happen. It is an excellent cover for action and GRU is an increasingly well-run agency.

The lack of FSB involvement is also telling. The Sechin faction of Moscow to which the FSB side of the intelligence/security community belongs is on the losing side of the current Moscow internal power struggle, whereas the GRU is aligned with the winning faction controlled by Surkov. This lack of FSB involvement may be representative of a decline in its influence and a signal of more things to come. It may be interesting to keep a sharp eye on the GRU and EMERCOM over the next few months and see what comes of its current initiatives in Mexico, Haiti, Moldova, Africa, etc.

Foreign Military Capacity Building: Practical Complications

Reading over recent events in Guinea it is interesting to connect them with the recent job offers I have received for that country. It seems a contract series is forming for the training of the new presidential detail. I say “a series” because I have been contacted by several folks across a span of three weeks now, all with slightly different job details, but all relate to Guinea and the training of this or that official force there. What follows are my somewhat un-edited and unorganized thoughts on this.

I am not taking any of the contract offers beacuse nearly every contract training job in Africa ends in frustration, either personal, professional or fiscal. For starters there is no such thing as a primary contract for military training that is clearly written and set in stone in a place like Africa. Material purchases are much easier to quantify and decide on, but training itself is an activity which makes it difficult for African governments to quantify and most critically impossible to qualify — as they are usually using the contractor itself as the index for performance capacity, which they may or may not actually wish to confer to their troops (or “troops”).

This leads to convoluted contracts peppered with both written and informal restrictions from the outset. Everyone involved is generally restricted from conducting what in the American military would be regarded as functional tactical training and expressly prohibited from conducting any sort of staff exercises which could lead to the establishment of a common core military capacity.

This is usually because in places like Africa numbers 1 and 2 (i.e. President and Vice President, or whatever equivalent exists) are always waiting for the other to make a weak move so they can be taken out. Since everyone always maintains some personally loyal militia faction, nobody trusts the “national” force, and nobody wants a personal militia to actually develop any real combat proficiency for obvious reasons — and nobody wants the “national” force to become skilled because nearly every African constitution forbids the maintenance of personal militias (imagine that).

Political calculation is almost exclusively about threat/opponent-value elimination and never about opportunity/wealth creation. The negativity is overwhelming and inherent in the social system — a poetic/polite way of imagining this is to recall the reasons why lobsters will never escape a shallow enclosure if there are more than one of them alive in there. If the President wants his private force trained, the Vice President will make sure he has some say in how that is conducted or send his men around to ensure that the training is valueless (but expensive).

This happened in Nigeria recently. Everybody there is afraid of anyone else’s advantage, but feels obligated to hire “white soldiers” to train whatever force is considered “national” that day as a matter of public pride. The end result is usually a bunch of shabby driving training, watered-down smoke sessions and drill & ceremony-type practice just to fill the hours with something to do.

The D&C part is something the Africans love because it produces a visible result that looks good(ish) despite being practically worthless. The same can be said of a lot of African activities, come to think of it, and at the root of almost every one is an unparalleled ability to misplace priorities. The Iraqis (and Arabs in general) love this stuff too and suffer from an almost equal impairment in the priority valuation department. In fact, D&C is essentially the only training any “Iraqi Border Policeman” observably received when I’ve ever been present to watch aside from some completely worthless and un-gradable range time that nobody can fail. The key to that last sentence is that “nobody can fail” part — it’s not just that it’s unacceptable if someone fails, it is so unacceptable that there is a strong bureaucratic effort to guarantee that there were no set standards of performance by which to grade students to begin with. The operative assumption seems to be that if someone fails there is something wrong with the training or trainer, not the student. The wonderfully bureaucratic solution to this (arrived at in the strictest isolation from reality) is to simply refuse to devise or implement any performance standards.

This demoralizes the instructors but not the students, who are so disconnected from the world of modern law enforcement (or actual border patrol, for that matter) that they have no idea they aren’t being taught meaningful things. It’s almost like an official version of Wimp Lo the Kung Pow moview character who was “trained wrong, as a joke” by his master.

African (and non-elite Arab force, for that matter) fights are usually won in one of two ways:

  1. Developing a critical mass of fighters in an unexpected place quickly thus displacing the surprised opponent and taking a geographical objective
  2. Engaging in violence outside of the normal Western model of a battle between forces and instead directly engaging the enemy support or social base while avoiding the enemy’s actual military arm itself (in other words, attacking enemy families/villages/etc not the fighters themselves — which in the absence of formal supply trains is effectively the same as attacking the king’s baggage train with the added bonus of making the enemy cry more)

Interestingly, due to the lack of quality weapons training, force-on-force engagements usually do not result in very high casualty rates unless one side is both physically trapped (sometimes this is mental) and out of ammunition.The level 1 infantry tactic tends to look like this:

  1. Move as far toward the enemy as one feels brave enough to do
  2. Strip off a mags or two from the hip
  3. Haul ass to the rear (usually 200-300m or so) to pick up another mag
  4. Go to 1

Firearms are simply not an effective way of doing business in Africa. Having them is a must to guarantee that you will not be massacred, but it is an equal-state game on the guns, not a game changer.

Mortars are hit or miss (no pun intended), but very nearly always massively underemployed or mis-employed and work more to generate fear than the mass casualties they were designed for. Mortars are designed to be employed in concert by platoon or section sized elements for quick concentration of fire and rapid mobility. This means a mortar section must be developed to operate in concert which requires disciplined drilling and a lot of practice time for the fire-direction controller, the observer and the mortar crews. African “mortar sections” usually are made up of a few guys with tubes, no fire-direction control, no observers, and usually no sighting systems (I’ve seen these get tossed or made into bottle-openers (!!!) without the “mortarmen” knowing what they were throwing away).

In this environment the reliable weapon classes are edged and blunt melee weapons. Guns are effective only at the same melee ranges due to the astounding lack of weapons handling skills, but require reloads and maintenance. This dynamic lends itself to avoiding force-on-force battles and targeting civilian support structures — a common military strategy the world over, but for different reasons : in the Western model the strong force seeks the weaker out so as to engage it decisively, in the African model nearly all force-on-force battles result in an expensive and face-losing military and social chaotic stalemate.

It is important to keep cultural, social and political constraints in mind and use them as a context for evaluating the potential to develop meaningful military capacity. Almost nobody takes this sort of thing into account when they plan their “grand capacity building” scheme or announce one in the media. This is why I sometimes make a point of prepending “socio-” to “geopolitics”, because as the history of England and Japan (contrasted with the history of any part of Africa, for example) clearly demonstrate, it is not obvious that societies rise to power based strictly on the strategic value of the land they inhabit.