One of the reasons I love writing is the wide breadth of subjects I get to poke at in the process. One day I’m poring over the sleeping cycles of wasps and bees, the next I’m drilling through Kameron Hurley’s excellent takedown of the Women, Cattle and Slaves narrative, and five minutes later I’m enraged enough by the article’s title to read up on the Oxford Comma. All of this ends up being useful somehow.
Likewise, one of the reasons why I like my job – with the usual caveats of ‘It’s not my dream job!’ and ‘It’s not writing!’ – is that it exposes me to a ludicrously wide field of subjects that are all useful for writing.
I’m a researcher, give or take the job title, and I do a lot of reading on the defense and intelligence communities as part of my work. It’s not enough to make me think of myself as an expert – and be wary of anyone who ever calls themselves an expert – but it is enough to have taught me some valuable things. One of the big ones is that most wars are won or lost based on logistics. Fighting spirit, popular support, noble sacrifices, a certain inhuman cunning, big freaking explosions, so on and so forth; these things are all important, but logistics can and will outweigh just about every single one of them. Combined.
The other big thing I’ve taken away from this is that organizations, and the people in them, have a tendency to get bubbled off from the world around them. They have a certain habit of assuming the best even in a hypothetical disaster. Take, for instance, the concept of Untethered Operations, as put forward by several Air Force officers in the middle of last year. I’ll spare you most of the actual article in favor of the opening blurb of creative writing at the start:
A lone C-17 landed smoothly in the predawn hours at Ämari Air Base, Estonia. The C-17 was from the Heavy Airlift Wing in Pápa, Hungary. Ämari had yet to experience the devastation of a Russian air attack. The sheer number of NATO basing options made targeting all of them impossible and had so far kept Ämari safe.
The cargo ramp was already lowering as the C-17 taxied to a stop and USAF Airmen piled out. The seemingly deserted base came alive as Airmen began organizing the ramp. There were aircraft maintainers, operations and intelligence personnel, and a squad of security forces. They went to work immediately, unlocking and organizing munitions, connecting fuel lines to hydrants, and setting up expeditionary defensive fighting positions. The operations and intelligence personnel set up a deployed ops center.
In less than an hour, four Dutch F-16s entered the traffic pattern and landed quickly. Like the C-17, the fighters had barely come to a stop before Airmen clambered over them, helping the pilots unstrap and egress. The aircrews were hustled to the waiting intelligence officers while the aircraft were reloaded with bombs and fuel. The operations update and intel briefings would last just as long as it took the Airmen to rearm and refuel the jets. They would then depart on their next combat mission—their third of the night.
In less than two hours, the F-16s were gone, and the C-17 was taxiing for takeoff. The next base was Łask in Poland where a flight of US F-16s was scheduled to join them. The C-17 could do this three more times before it had to return to Ramstein and refit. NATO forces were repeating this scene all over Eastern Europe. The war is going well; Russia simply doesn’t have the capacity to fight across such a broad front.
Kudos to whichever one of them wrote that. It’s actually kind of nice to see an ‘intro sequence’ to a whitepaper.
That said, the thing that gets me is how perfect everything goes in the narrative, and how perfect everything is assumed to go throughout the whitepaper as a whole.
Fun fact for you: War is goddamn messy, and not just when it comes to people, places, and things getting blown to Hell. It’s messy from both a financial and a logistical standpoint. In one year, a single Army brigade in Afghanistan managed to flat-out lose about $420 million in equipment. One year. You can downplay that or try to spin it all you want, it’s still $420 million lost in the space of a year when we were withdrawing from a relatively low-intensity conflict with an insurgency group.
Now imagine how much stuff would get lost when trying to take on an actual professional military close to its home turf. One that’s capable of contesting airspace, conducting high-tech information warfare, and one that has an atomic arsenal on standby if things ever go pear-shaped.
But let’s assume, for the moment, that nuclear war will not be the logical endgame; presumably our hypothetical world leaders don’t feel like wiping out civilization in Europe and North America.
In a hypothetical war, there’s a good chance that the airport in Estonia has had its runway disabled from the get-go. War planning involves a metric ton of diplomatic forethought, up to and including agreements to use land and airspace. Sure, we could take it by force, but it’s easier to smile menacingly while writing a check than it is to make good on any implicit threat. Estonia’s government presumably has at least some idea that the US and NATO will use its airspace, maybe even its infrastructure, in order to fight Russia. Estonia’s government is also riddled with FSB spies, ergo Russia probably knows about this plan. Even if they don’t know for certain, Estonia is still one of their neighboring countries and it’s buddy-buddy with NATO. Uncle Vladimir and Friends are going to backhand them on general principle if they’re even one tenth as competent as everyone makes them out to be.
Even if the airport itself is still functional enough to support the C-17 and the assorted shrubbery of fightercraft and equipment that come with it, there’s another problem: There are only ~200 or so C-17s in the US fleet, and most of the ones in Europe will likely be concentrated in Germany – home to Ramstein and Spangdahlem Air Bases, along with the largest collections of American forces in Europe as a whole. While the opening narrative is optimistic about Ramstein surviving, the Untethered Operations paper actually notes the difficulty of hardening (re: fortifying) an air base against attack. In the event of hostile Russian actions, there’s a really good chance that most of the C-17s already in Europe would get blown up on the ground during the opening set of attacks on Germany. Even if they haven’t, the air bases themselves may have been rendered inoperable for at least a short time. And even if they were airborne at the time of the attack, the C-17 is a big, juicy target with less airspeed than a civilian 747; those planes may have adequate countermeasures and even an escort to keep them safe, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll be properly equipped to run an Untethered Operation, nor is there any guarantee that their courses won’t be tracked by Russian military intelligence.
And that’s not going into the potential unreliability of the C-17 crews themselves. Humans have to eat, sleep, use the bathroom, and so on. Even with top notch personnel who have top notch training and maybe even top notch drugs or technology to put these things off, that’s still going to get in the way of their productivity and morale if they’re operating in long-term isolation after a Russian attack.
So let’s just write off the C-17 for the most part.
I want to say you could probably write off the F-16 too, but I’m honestly not sure. The American F-16 fleet is a mix-aged beast that’s getting long in the tooth, but internationally the thing is almost like the AK-47 of the skies – many US allies have them and they’re still being built to this day, so it’s not like parts and supply would be difficult to come by even if the main Air Force bases were knocked out of commission. With 114 secondary bases to choose from, they might even be able to pull off a short-term variant of Untethered Operations for a few weeks, assuming their planes don’t give out from constant wear and tear, and assuming that Russia doesn’t knock out enough of those secondary bases to render the whole strategy moot.
This is, of course, assuming that Russia strikes first and executes a flawless, Pearl Harbor-grade attack without getting most of their own planes knocked out of the sky by American air defenses. There’s a possibility they could pull that off, but Turkey already demonstrated that Russian aircraft aren’t invincible. That’s worth keeping in mind, and the paper’s opening narrative actually does do a good job of hinting at it. For all of its geographic size and scope, Russia is actually not that big. Most of its ~143 million people are clustered in the west, near Eastern Europe. Their economy has been in the pits for years now and their armed forces, while impressive enough to basically chop off part of another country and annex it without killing a whole lot of people in the opening assaults, would probably not do too well in a long-term fight on someone else’s home turf. You can see hints of this in Ukraine, where Russian ‘volunteer’ forces suffered about 5,400 casualties in the space of about a year or so. It’s worth noting that Ukrainian forces probably were and now certainly are being bolstered with American and European assets – weapons, logistics, armor, probably intelligence sharing, and so on – but that still puts a dint in any notion of Russian invincibility.
One way that I could see the Untethered Operations narrative playing out successfully is to just swap out the aircraft; go to something smaller and, presumably, more numerous than the C-17. I leave it to an actual wonk to nail down what that smaller, more numerous aircraft would be. Initially I thought it’d be the C-130, but there are actually fewer of those on active duty than the C-17, and presumably less of them in Europe.
Ultimately though, I have to reiterate that I’m no expert. I’m a lifelong civilian and the Air Force officers who came up with the Untethered Operations concept have a hell of a lot more experience and information on these things than I ever will, and they’re probably aware of flaws in the strategy that I’d never even think of.
I guess I’m just looking for the thing that’ll go wrong with the plan because of the creative writing snippets at its beginning and end. There are very few good stories where everything goes according to plan. The optimism in that piece rankles me less because of technical details and more because it is optimistic at all. It’s trying to sell an idea and glossing over Murphy’s Law to do it. It expects things to go smoothly when war, by its very nature, does not go smoothly at all. Ever. Even when there’s a million photo-ops and public affairs guys saying it does.