Thursday, March 13, 2008

GWOT Chronicles: Strategy Schmategy

"Isn't it odd that after a terrorist attack that relied on $2 box-cutters, we are redoubling our pursuit of fantastical weaponry?" — Robert Scheer

Someday we Americans will look back on our Global War on Terror and ask ourselves what the hell we thought we were doing. Here’s one of our latest shenanigans.

In case you hadn't noticed, we're using nuclear submarines to assassinate terrorists these days. That’s not the most efficient way to assassinate terrorists, but it’s the most expensive, so it has that going for it.

Even assassinating terrorists with B-2 stealth bombers wouldn’t be as expensive as doing it with nuclear submarines. B-2s cost a ridiculous amount of money, all right, but not as much as the subs. The subs carry a lot more people and take a lot longer to get where they’re going, so the people in them have to eat and sleep and so forth. The two pilots in a B-2 eat box lunches and can go to the bathroom without getting up from their seats. And then there are those expensive nuclear reactors, which nuclear submarines have and B-2s don’t.

And as ridiculous as the cost of an F-22 air-to-air stealth fighter is, it’s less ridiculous than the cost of a B-2 stealth bomber, and there are other drawbacks to using an F-22 to assassinate terrorists as well.

Buck for the Bang

For an F-22 air-to-air fighter to assassinate a terrorist, the terrorist pretty much has to be in another airplane. The other airplane is most likely to be an airliner, and the terrorist is not likely to be on an airliner alone. Hence, if an F-22 assassinates a terrorist, it will create a lot of collateral damage (i.e., kill innocent people) in the process.

If a B-2 tries to assassinate a terrorist, it does so by dropping one or more bombs on the place where we think the terrorist is. This usually kills a lot of innocent people too, but they’re usually in a village in a third world country and aren’t the kind of people who can afford to travel in an airliner, so nobody cares about them. Still, the problem with using a B-2 to assassinate a terrorist, aside from it being cheaper than a nuclear submarine, is that even though its stealth is supposed to make it invulnerable to air defenses, it can still crash like any other airplane. If a B-2 crashed while it was trying to assassinate a terrorist, it would be like it got shot down by a village full of poor people, and the U.S. Air Force can’t afford that kind of embarrassment.


When a nuclear submarine tries to assassinate a terrorist, it does so with its Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles, which pretty much do what a B-2’s bombs do except that while a B-2 flies the bombs from the air base to the target, the cruise missiles fly themselves from the submarine to the target. That makes the cruise missiles a lot more expensive than the bombs, and is yet another reason why submarines are better for trying to assassinate terrorists than B-2s. Plus, a submarine’s cruise missiles can kill as many innocent poor people as a B-2’s bombs can, so sub launched cruise missiles have virtually no drawbacks.

The most recent evildoer targeted by submarine launched cruise missiles was Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan. I should have said “alleged evildoer” because Nabhan was not on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list. To get on that list, you have to be indicted as a terror suspect. Nabhan was on the FBI’s “seeking information list,” wanted for questioning about terror attacks that happened in 2002.

According to reports, the submarine, stationed off the coast of Somalia, launched “at least two Tomahawk missiles” at the town of Dobli on March 3. Submarines usually launch two or more missiles at a time because they can crash like a B-2 before they reach the target, or malfunction and not explode when they get there. Shooting more than one cruise missile increases the odds that at least one of them will do what the others were supposed to. We know that at least one of these cruise missiles made it to Dobli and blew up there because at least one of them killed at least six people.

We don’t know if one of the people killed was the intended target, though. In fact we’re not entirely sure the intended target was Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan. The Associated Press says he was; the Los Angeles Times says it was a guy named Hassan Turki. One wonders if the guys in the submarine that launched the cruise missiles knew which guy they were trying to whack.

If the intended target was Nabhan and he survived the attack, maybe that’s a good thing. That way, the FBI might still get a chance to contract the CIA to water board him and ask him those questions they wanted the answers to before they decided to job a submarine to do a job on him.

It’s not pleasant to use words like “assassinate” and “whack” and “do a job” to describe this sort of thing. It would be nicer to call it an “act of war,” but the War Powers Act of 1973 requires Congress to approve wars that go on longer than 90 days. We’ve been whacking people in Somalia for more than 90 days, and Congress hasn’t approved a war there yet. The same thing holds true with Pakistan.

Some of the people in the Congress that hasn’t approved war in Somalia or Pakistan insist that the President can’t have war with Iran unless they approve it. They’re not saying a thing about him whacking people in Somalia and Pakistan though. I don’t quite understand why that is, or why it doesn’t seem to bother these Congress people that we’re snuffing individuals who we deem to be probable or possible or even simply thought to be terrorists based on the say so of the same kind of intelligence experts who told us Saddam Hussein still had weapons of mass destruction.

Throw More Money at It

A lot of those Congress people voted to fund the new Virginia class of nuclear submarines we’re using to rub out these probable and possible and thought to be terrorists. Maybe some lobbyist for Electric Boat and Northrop Grumman convinced them that the older, less expensive Los Angeles class submarines weren’t up to the job.

Oh, I know, people will say we didn’t really build the new nuclear submarines to kill terrorists; we really built them to kill bad guy submarines. That may be true. I’ve studied a little bit of military history, though, and we’ve built a boatload of submarines since the Civil War, but I don’t recall hearing or reading about a single one of them ever killing a bad guy submarine. One or two instances may have escaped my attention, of course, and we certainly killed a lot of bad guy submarines in World War II, but we did that with airplanes and surface ships.

In February, the Pentagon proposed a $515.4 billion defense budget for 2009 that, adjusted for inflation, will be the most America has spent on defense since World War II if our Congress people pass it.

That doesn’t cover the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and everywhere else, or Homeland Security, or spy stuff not done by the Defense Department, or defense activities that the State and Treasury and other departments do. No, the $515.4 billion mainly go for things like the new class of submarines we use to assassinate terrorists, and the B-2s and F-22s we need as back up in case all the submarines sink.

On a closing note, Admiral William Fallon, whom Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called “one of the best strategic thinkers in uniform today,” announced his resignation as head of Central Command last week because he couldn’t bring himself to pretend he supports his commander in chief’s GWOT strategy.

That’s the news from our woebegone war on terror, where the president plays general, the generals play politics, the politicians play dumb, and the body armor still sucks.

"So we can play war…"

"Populated by outrageous characters and fueled with pompous outrage, Huber’s irreverent broadside will pummel the funny bone of anyone who’s served." — Publishers Weekly

"A remarkably accomplished book, striking just the right balance between ridicule and insight." — Booklist


  1. Anonymous10:32 AM

    As I watched and listened to "Winter Soldier:" yesterday, and the day before. A lot of "unforgettables." Two stand out: (a) The young American military man who threw away his medals, and (b) the young Iraqi who told the (only person he had ever met who was Pro-war.) he told the "pro-war" protester who thinks we "should stay in Iraq." "Let me give you my address. Live in my house. Stay in Iraq. Let the snipers, on the roof across the street, point their guns at you."

    Very difficult to hear. All of it.

    But, necessary for Americans to know. WAPO has a pretty good article today. has the whole thing.

  2. Thanks for the post and the link.


  3. Anonymous1:56 PM

    Using American nuclear subs to openly assassinate individuals (who may or may not be guilty of something) in countries with which the United States is not at as good a shorthand as any for capturing the sheer absurdity and outrageousness of our times.

    I hope you'll forgive me this observation, but it may be that the only difference between "us" and "them" lies in the ability to rain death from remote control.

    The willingness to act based on the perception of guilt (and regardless of cost or consequence) appears to be a shared trait.

  4. Kid,

    No need to ask forgiveness from this corner. Yes, the difference is our hand on the remote.

  5. Anonymous2:33 PM


    Here's an interesting tidbit:

    I guess you can file it under "Well, Now That We've Got That Straight..." or perhaps alternately, under "Gee, I'm Sure Glad To Know That There Are No Extremists In al-Qaeda"

  6. Anonymous10:17 AM


    Something else you may want to take a peak at when you get a chance. This is something that has been put together by several Democratic candidates for the US House as well as Maj. Gen Paul Eaton (US Army Retired), Brig. Gen John Johns (US Army, Retired) and Capt. Larry Seaquist (US Navy, Retired):

    A Responsible Plan To End The War In Iraq

    The full text of the plan is at:

    Full Text (PDF)

    I've not had the opportunity to read the full text myself yet so I will necessarily refrain from any comment at this time.

  7. Anonymous7:45 PM


    Thank you for this great post.

    I have, with great sorrow, come to believe that the problems America faces go beyond military spending of questionable efficacy. If anything, other parts of the fe(de)ral government are worse; I've heard of, and even met, foreign doctors at research institutes whom the NIH and other government agencies threatened to deport after they emphatically disagreed, with good reason, with the medical care that Americans were expected to pay for with their tax dollars and endure on their bodies. Nor am I all too impressed by the federal government's regulation of financial institutions.

    It seems to me that the crisis is not as much one of foolish decisions being made, and that ultimately to rail against individual decisions is akin to devising new deck chair seating arrangements, but rather a systemic crisis wherein a government no longer is held accountable by its people, as indeed it cannot be when the media is in few hands, parties redistrict politicians given to independent thought out of office, and morons who want their country to engage in nuclear war are allowed to vote. Until we begin to scratch our heads and insist that the system be fixed, rather than that our individual deck chair be moved, real change will not, and cannot begin.

    It seems to me that the main difference between the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the early 80s and the Republican Party of 2008 is that the CPSU had sufficient self-respect that it did not - to my knowledge - have high-ranking apparatchiks get busted soliciting sexual favors in airport bathrooms.

  8. Good observations, Anon. I think, unfortunately, that the powers are succeeding at keeping us fascinated with the movement of the deck chairs and oblivious to the calculus by which they maneuver.


  9. Anonymous7:50 PM

    A question. This just broke on Buzzflash.

    The Pentagon has decided that Admiral Fallon WILL NOT testify, about the Iraq war next month, when it is expected that General Petreaus and Ambassador Crocker will be giving testimony.

    I cannot imagine why they would take that position. (sarcasm off)

    Would Congress have to, or should they have to, issue a subpeona for his testimony?

    Wouldn't it be prudent for Congress and the American people to hear what he may have to say?

    Does Congress have a way to over rule this, or do we just have to let him fade away?? (Like all the rest) And, wait for the book?

  10. I've been speaking with a number of folks about this issue today.

    There's some question as to whether Fallon's retirement is being held up so they can order him not to testify. At that point, as you suggest, it's a duke out between Congress and the Exec, and you know who's won all those so far.

    I'll have more on this topic next week.


  11. Anonymous9:56 PM

    "Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn't even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush...In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech--and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives--he called them enemies!--hidden out of sight somewhere."

    Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

  12. Anonymous9:57 PM

    Same shit, different century.

  13. Beautiful, Anonymous. Many thanks.


  14. gotta put you on mt favorites list

  15. Thanks, Peggy. Look forward to seeing you again.