Small Wars Journal

This Week at War: Don't Arm the Rebels, Train Them

The ragtag anti-Qaddafi forces need basic combat skills a lot more than bigger guns.

Here is the latest edition of my column at Foreign Policy:

Topics include:

1) Libya's rebels need boot camp, not more weapons

2) A new bomber is cheaper than Tomahawks -- if you do enough bombing

Libya's rebels need boot camp, not more weapons

Two weeks ago, when an armored column loyal to Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi was poised to crush the rebellion in Benghazi, U.S. President Barack Obama dramatically reversed his policy and endorsed a limited air campaign against Qaddafi's forces. A week ago, the rebels were on the march toward Tripoli and seemingly on the verge of removing Qaddafi from power. Alas, it was not to be. A Qaddafi counterattack has sent the scattered rebels fleeing once again back toward Ajdabiya and Benghazi. This second setback for the rebels has resulted in a debate inside the White House over whether the coalition should arm the rebels, another escalation in the conflict.

On March 30, it was reported that CIA officers were in Libya with the rebels, making an assessment of their situation and possibly directing airstrikes in support of their fighters. We can gather from open sources much of what these intelligence officers are likely to report. As a military force, Libya's rebels are a disorganized rabble and seem incapable of preparing and holding defensive positions or maneuvering effectively against rudimentary enemy resistance. The rebels need boot camp, fundamental infantry training, and the development of some battlefield leaders, not a new stockpile of weapons.

Those Western leaders whose plan currently consists of hoping that Qaddafi will be spontaneously overthrown need to think again. Absent a Western invasion of the country, the rebel force is the only means of removing Qaddafi, and the rebels will need many months or even years of training before they are capable of defeating loyalist ground units and marching all the way to Tripoli.

A comparison with Afghanistan's Northern Alliance is instructive. The anti-Taliban Northern Alliance was the battle-hardened survivor of a decade-long struggle against the Soviet Red Army. After that Darwinian test, the Northern Alliance had capable leaders, a disciplined command structure, and proven tactics. When CIA and Special Forces advisors arrived in October 2001 to assist the Northern Alliance, they found a capable military force to support. By contrast, just a few weeks into their struggle, Libya's rebels are far from being able to accomplish the military goals they seek.

Some analysts have suggested that the rebels only need some anti-tank weapons to deal with Qaddafi's tanks and armored personnel carriers. The rebels already have a very effective anti-tank weapon at their disposal -- NATO airstrikes. But as I predicted two weeks ago, Qaddafi's forces have adapted to the arrival of coalition air power by abandoning their armored vehicles and now move about in the same pickup trucks used by the rebels. Out of fear of striking either rebel vehicles or civilians, coalition air attacks on Qaddafi's forces west of Ajdabiya appear stymied for the moment, which is allowing Qaddafi's superior firepower to batter the rebels in eastern Libya.

Obama's team and other Western policymakers fear a stalemate in Libya. A deadlock would make these leaders appear ineffectual against Qaddafi. They also fear an erosion of political support for the intervention both at home and internationally.

However, one advantage of a stalemate is that it would give the rebels, assisted by Special Forces advisers, the time necessary to organize and train for the long fight that will be required to push on to Tripoli. If Obama and other Western leaders are serious about removing Qaddafi from power -- without Western "boots on the ground" -- they and Libya's rebels will have to brace themselves for a long and nasty slog.

A new bomber is cheaper than Tomahawks -- if you do enough bombing

When military planners for Operation Odyssey Dawn received orders to demolish Libya's air defense system, they turned to a weapon they have used since the 1991 Desert Storm campaign against Iraq: the Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile. British and U.S. warships fired 110 Tomahawks during the first night of the conflict and have launched nearly 100 more over the following two weeks. War planners use the low-flying and virtually unstoppable missiles against air defenses and other targets they consider too dangerous to attack with manned aircraft.

With the Tomahawk missile once again performing the most dangerous missions, particularly against air defenses, why does the Pentagon insist on spending billions on a new stealth bomber, which is designed to foil the same air defenses the Tomahawk has been reliably neutralizing for two decades? Although the Pentagon has yet to disclose its description of the new airplane (a successor to the Air Force's B-1, B-2, and B-52s), the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a well-connected Washington think tank, foresees a program costing as much as $56 billion for 100 new, heavy, long-range bombers.

Defenders of the next-generation stealth bomber point to two arguments for why their airplane will trump long-range stand-off missiles like the Tomahawk. First, bomber proponents believe the economics are on their side, at least given certain assumptions. Their case comes from an introductory microeconomics textbook. As explained in a report from Rand Corp., the Tomahawk missile, at a replacement cost of $1.5 million, is an example of a business with low fixed costs but high variable costs. Its competition in this case is a cheap old-fashioned gravity bomb fitted with a GPS guidance kit that costs only $22,000. Dropped from the exotic and very pricey stealth bomber, the Tomahawk's competition is an example of a high fixed-cost, low variable-cost business.

According to Rand, just 20 days of heavy cruise missile use over a 30-year period (the projected life of the new bomber) is enough to make the bomber the more economical alternative. If over that 30-year period, the bombers leave their hangers only a few times, it will be cheaper to attack those difficult targets with Tomahawks. But if the United States has more than 20 days of heavy bombing over those 30 years, it will be cheaper to send the pricey bomber armed with cheap GPS-guided bombs.

Bomber advocates also note that the Tomahawk cannot threaten those targets some adversaries value the most, those that are inside hardened bunkers or deep underground. The Tomahawk's maximum warhead weight is only 1,000 pounds, which is woefully inadequate against targets such as North Korea's buried nuclear facilities or Iran's underground uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. The Air Force's bombers are the only aircraft capable of the delivering the huge bunker-busting bombs that can penetrate very hardened and deeply buried targets.

The return of the Tomahawk cruise missile to combat may renew the debate over whether the U.S. Air Force needs a pricey new stealth bomber. According to Rand, the answer is a simple matter of break-even analysis. Over the past two decades, U.S. presidents have shown themselves quite ready to turn to air power to solve foreign-policy problems. Given that penchant, hitting Rand's break-even mark should be an easy assumption to make.


Demon Fox

Sun, 04/03/2011 - 8:58pm

This is a perfect UW situation for USSF to get involved with along with ground branch.

OK, so what if they defeat Qaddafi forces - then what? Who are these rebels? What do they stand for? Will they be worse than the current regime? The same question can be asked for all the other simultaneous insurgences in the Middle East. Egypt, for example. What if the Muslim Brotherhood takes over the government? Is that the objective of US foreign policy?

carl (not verified)

Sat, 04/02/2011 - 12:41pm

The rebels are receiving training, on the job training. They will probably learn a lot of the things you point out pretty fast and be around to pass on the lesson or...not. The war tourists will weed themselves out pretty quick. This seems to be pretty standard stuff for completely untrained people taking up the fight.

Dave Takaki (not verified)

Sat, 04/02/2011 - 6:45am

Your assertion that they need training more than weapons cuts to the quick. Simply giving them weapons will give them greater opportunity to kill and wound themselves. You have to cringe when vids show someone acting like a thrill-seeking tourist fires off an old M-40 107mm recoiless without looking behind to see the idiots dancing around in the back blast zone. Or how when they crank off a 14.5mm machinegun in the back of a pickup, shooting transverse-wise and not braced and the firing goes thru say a five-ten degree arc with the recoil on truck springs and shocks. Same for the Chinese type 63 rocket launchers. I actually saw one set on fire a bedroll in the truck bed behind the rocket tubes as the Type 63 tilted the truck bed as the firing rockets shot their exhaust out of the rear.

When one of them gets on a Zu23-2 and goes spinning around while firing, he's likely to kill his own. I wonder how many have been scorched by someone firing off a RPG-7. These guys are dangerous. I watched a "crew" firing a 60mm mortar and could see the tube sink into the sand and tilt to the right with every firing.

They didn't have a spotter, so they just fired in the general direction. I shudder to think what they do with leftover increments.

They call an obvious ambush a trap and dimly grasp the concept of being outflanked. The media for some reason made comments about an advance after the first wave of ATO assignments that pounded the shit out of the Gaddafi force's 155 self-propelled howitzers, T-80s, fuel bowsers, and ammunition carriers outside of Benghazi.

The rebels were simply drafting along in the vacuum of the post-bombing retreat to the west.

Yes, training and the weeding out of "war tourists" would be a start.

Anonymous (not verified)

Fri, 04/01/2011 - 10:09pm

Mr. Haddick:

The rebels are quite incapable of constructing or holding defensive positions in the open countryside. But can the same be said for holding out in cities or built up areas? They have held towns for rather a long time with mainly light weapons. If they had good anti-tank weapons couldn't they possibly do better?

Also could not those anti-tank weapons be as effectively used against technicals as against tanks and APCs? Air strikes are great but as you said, when things get confused on the ground they aren't so great. Good anti-tank weapons would seem to me to be a very great advantage against better trained people when used by poorly trained people defending cities and towns.

The rebels seem to have an advantage in numbers and heart. Maybe they won't need as much as we think to put them just a little over the top.