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Posted on Jun 15, 2011 in War College

Ralph Peters Exclusive: Learning From Chaos: Six Military Lessons From Today’s Arab Revolts

By Ralph Peters

Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry launches a Tomahawk missile in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn on March 19, 2011. (U.S. Navy Photo)

Political posturing, partisan divides and a great deal of mindless hand-wringing have obscured the initial military lessons to be drawn from the revolutions shattering the concrete in which the Arab world had trapped itself. Additional lessons may emerge, but for now we need to take these six to heart:

An Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon of 480th Fighter Squadron takes off from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn March 19, 2011. (Airman 1st Class Matthew B. Fredericks)Airpower still does not win wars by itself. Despite the immune-to-evidence claims of the defense industry, airpower still serves best as a member of an air-ground (or air-sea) team. In the not-quite-war operation against the Qaddafi regime’s forces in Libya, combat aircraft did a solid job of blunting the strongman’s offensive against his own people, saving the major city of Benghazi at the last hour and preventing Qaddafi’s annihilation of Misrata’s population. But all of NATO’s sophisticated air-to-ground capabilities could not turn the tables decisively. The ground game, in one form or another, will still determine the outcome of this conflict.

Yes, the Libyan rebels are a ragtag lot, lacking heavy weapons or basic skills, and yes, they’re making some progress through sheer tenacity. The point isn’t to denigrate airpower, but to acknowledge its enduring limitations. Just as the U.S. military had to go to Baghdad, the rebels are going to have to go to Tripoli, Qaddafi’s capital and primary stronghold.


Tactically, the lack of trained forward air controllers and other qualified observers on the ground severely limited the ability of fixed-wing aircraft and even combat helicopters to target Qaddafi’s combat vehicles and fighting positions. Without eyes on the ground, the eyes in the sky remained blurred.

This does not mean that airpower should not have been used. It has done genuine good, stopping massacres and frustrating the brutal intentions of a dictator who, until the rise of the late Osama bin Laden, was responsible for the deaths of more Americans than any other mastermind of terror. Airpower is tremendously helpful. It just isn’t decisive in itself (unless it uses nuclear weapons, which certainly isn’t in the cards).

Still, there’s a caveat here – as there so often is in real life, with all its complexity. In missions of this nature, timing is critical. Had NATO’s airpower been committed early in the uprising, when the rebels had the initiative – even in the streets of Tripoli – and Qaddafi was reeling in confusion and doubt, the psychological shock of the introduction of NATO airpower might have led to an early end-game. But that crucial psychological advantage was thrown away as the American president dithered and debated and delayed, leaving it to less-capable allies to take the initiative. Just as there are crucial moments on a battlefield when prompt action brings victory or inaction delivers defeat, so, too, there are key points in revolutions when the right action can change the course of history: You have to pile on early. To be fair, then, had airpower been used promptly and powerfully, pilots might have had bragging rights, after all. But that would have been a situation-specific exception.

Airpower is a tool, no more, no less. As with any tool, it has to be applied wisely and skillfully for maximum effectiveness. Qaddafi will go, and airpower will have helped to remove him. But had we acted decisively and swiftly, he’d already be gone. The combination of tens of thousands in the streets plus NATO aircraft overhead could have been a game-changer. We missed the window; now the fight drags on.

Liaison officers from coalition countries meet with U.S. Joint Task Force Odyssey Dawn staff members aboard the command ship USS Mount Whitney to discuss command and control of the multiphase international military operations in the Mediterranean Sea March 21, 2011. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Daniel Viramontes)NATO lacks big-war staying power. In fact, we’ve just learned that key NATO powers don’t even have much small-war staying power, if hi-tech weapons are required. The greatest embarrassment arising from the slow-roll campaign in Libya isn’t that Qaddafi’s still in power, but that the Brits and French quickly ran low on precision-guided weapons. Weeks ago, the Brits had to rush-purchase additional cruise missiles from the U.S. Now other weapons stocks are emptying fast.

The French and the Brits have some very good weaponry, but the munitions are so expensive that they hold only shallow arsenals – fatefully constrained by shrinking defense budgets. They bought the best, but could not afford enough of it for a serious stretch of combat. Additionally, they’re saddled with some aging, never-were-very-good Euro-built systems, such as the Tornado combat aircraft, that have become eternal hangar-queens.

Given the current atmosphere of economic crisis in the European Union, this situation is not going to improve.

In a stunning development a few days ago, the United Kingdom’s First Sea Lord Admiral Mark Stanhope made the public claim that the small-beer Libya operation “puts Britain’s defense at risk” and that he could only sustain the current level of engagement (not very intense) for another ninety days. After that, he stated, he would have to make dramatic cuts elsewhere.

The really alarming part: The Royal Navy only has four ships on-station off Libya’s shores. Britannia no longer rules the waves.

Admiral Stanhope also noted that the cost-cutting decision to take Britain’s only aircraft carrier, the HMS Ark Royal, out of service has severely hampered quick-response operations and loiter time: As the British media reported, the lack of a carrier in service means that British aircraft must fly from land bases in Italy, raising the flight time to their target areas from approximately half an hour to an hour and a half. And that’s with NATO infrastructure handy in a relatively small sandbox.
Britain will get a new carrier – sometime after 2020. Meanwhile, the Brits will share a French-navy flight deck. (On the positive side, the food on-board will be better.)

If two of NATO’s top military powers can’t sustain an intervention short of war in a backward, poorly armed state such as Libya (population just over six million), how long could they sustain a major air offensive in a general war? Further, neither France nor the UK would have a fraction of their current limited effectiveness in Libya were the U.S. military not providing the backbone infrastructure for the operation, from intelligence to logistics. Far more than Iraq or Afghanistan, the minor effort in Libya has revealed the hollowness of NATO’s war-fighting capability.

Only the Russians are happy.

For dictators, mercenaries are better than drafted national armies. With his security forces structured around foreign African mercenaries and well-paid local tribesmen, Qaddafi has outperformed his fellow dictator, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. While Qaddafi’s hired guns continue to fight against the Libyan rebels and to withstand NATO’s air attacks, the Syrian military appears to be troubled by doubts and at least some local disloyalty to the regime, with several hundred and perhaps thousands of troops giving their first allegiance to their fellow citizens and refusing to slaughter them. With a much-larger and better-equipped military, and with no foreign intervention to fear, Assad is still struggling to regain control of his country from unarmed demonstrators.

The odds remain good that Assad will maintain his grip on power. He’s turned out to be as ruthless as his father, an unapologetic butcher. And a hard line from the start is a dictator’s best hope of survival (although it doesn’t always work – it hasn’t in Yemen). Assad is willing to kill as many Syrians as it takes to preserve his regime. Yet, there remains a faint hope that further cleavages will appear in his security apparatus, leading to an ultimate weakening and fall of the regime. Just don’t bet on it happening soon.

For now, Assad’s killing freedom demonstrators throughout his country (we should be inspired and amazed by the courage of these unarmed protesters who keep coming back for more). Iran has reinforced Assad with special-operations and intelligence experts to serve as advisers and commissars – even as snipers, according to eyewitness reports. Iran, too, will do all it can to prop up the Assad regime.

Which brings us to a corollary point: As Iran’s number one ally in the Arab world and a strategic keystone, Syria has greater geopolitical importance than Libya (although Libya, with its crucial location and huge oil supplies certainly matters). So why engage in Libya and not Syria? Well, we can’t engage everywhere. A good strategist does the doable and shuns the impossible missions. And Libya is doable. Syria isn’t – not without a full-up invasion, which isn’t in the cards. Syria’s fate will be determined either by its people, or by its dictator. But the teaching point for aspiring dictators everywhere is that a small mercenary force with no local emotional ties is a more-reliable tool of oppression than a draftee, popular military that may hesitate to slaughter its fellow citizens.

Past a point, the shah’s army wouldn’t kill any more Iranians. And this year, in Egypt, an army deeply identified with the people chose to remove its dictator-benefactor from power, rather than gun down tens of thousands of fellow Egyptians. Qaddafi may be in hiding and living on borrowed time, but his approach to security still looks smarter than that of his fellow dictators in the Arab world. Without NATO’s intervention, Qaddafi would have won in a savage bloodbath.

Chaos isn’t only good for the terrorists. Much has been made of the supposed opportunities the disorder accompanying these Arab freedom uprising will present to al Qaeda and other extremists. Well, yes and no. Certainly, al Qaeda would love to step in – but the terrorist organization was blindsided by these revolts (which do not support its fanatic view of the world). These are rebellions over local issues, seeking a bit more freedom and a lot more opportunity. They’re against corruption, nepotism and oppression. Al Qaeda has not yet managed to be a significant player in any of these movements.

But watch Yemen. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) already had put down roots in that wild backwater before the current crisis, and the multi-sided upheaval underway in a country that’s far more regressive and fundamentalist than Tunisia, Libya, Egypt or Syria may open the door for additional terrorist adventures.

At the same time, though, the Yemeni government’s breakdown has opened the window much wider for U.S. drone attacks, air strikes and special operations: They no longer need to be blessed by a what’s-in-it-for-me? regime in the capital. Diplomacy may be on ice, but the gunnery range just opened. Of course, we won’t admit it – but we may be able to turn this turmoil to our advantage. For the strategically adept, crisis always brings opportunity. We just have to be bolder and more ruthless than AQAP.

Satellite communications are great, but land-lines are forever. Despite the ongoing erosion of its base of support, the Qaddafi regime has managed to hang on because it does not rely on state-of-the-art technology. Yes, cell phones are used for local command and control … but fixed, hardened lines allow the regime to function from above (while preventing us from listening in). The old rule for military operations is “Always have Plan B.” Qaddafi had plan B. Now his regime fights on, however clumsily, with robust, old-fashioned mechanical weaponry. Had he relied of hi-tech systems, he would have been finished by now.

The point isn’t that technology isn’t a great combat multiplier in the right hands, but that we’ve built our military to fight a mirror-image force. We can take out any sophisticated comms system in the world … but not old-fashioned buried wires and dedicated cables. Oh, and that lieutenant had better be able to read a paper map when his GPS goes down …

Vice Adm. Rinaldo Veri, Italian Navy, Operation Unified Protector's Commander Maritime Command Naples, takes questions from journalists on May 3 in Naples, Italy. (Photos by Army Sgt 1st Class TaWanna Starks) The media are fickle dates. Throughout our involvement in Iraq, the left-leaning global media was rabidly hostile to our efforts to remove a dictator and enable the birth of democracy (essentially, what we’re seeing Arabs doing for themselves this year). Watch al-Jazeera’s English-language global programming today, though, and it’s startlingly pro-NATO – except when complaining that NATO isn’t doing enough.

For much of the Arab media, there always has been a “near enemy” and a “far enemy,” to use al Qaeda’s terminology. And, in the end, the near enemy matters most. For al Qaeda and the Arab media, the near enemy long has been Israel – both from conviction and because being anti-Israeli never got you into trouble with the regime above you. But, at heart, Arab journalists saw the real near enemy as the dictatorships that imprisoned, tortured or executed them (when bribery didn’t work). The ferocity of the attacks by the Arab world’s media outlets on the region’s threatened dictatorships has been startling. Their problem wasn’t really with what we did in Iraq, but with the fact that we were the ones who did it. It was humiliating to Arab pride. But Arabs are all for Arabs overthrowing their own dictators (to be fair, though, the fact that Saddam did go down and that Iraqis gained a democracy, however imperfect, unquestionably helped trigger the current revolts: President Bush was right about democracy coming to the Middle East – it just didn’t come as promptly as he hoped).

Why is this media claim-jumping a military issue? Because propaganda – information warfare – works, when skillful information-masters work on a receptive audience. The Arab media kept these revolts alive … not just Facebook or Twitter or various e-mail accounts, but the traditional print and broadcast media. The explosion of information sources insured that the demonstrators and rebels never lacked for moral nourishment. These really were information revolutions – the dictatorships no longer could shut off the entire flow of news.

And al Jazeera, which was viciously anti-American in Iraq, lined up alongside the U.S. and NATO this time around. At no time, did major Arab media try to steer these uprisings into anti-American or even anti-Israeli channels. On the contrary, they recognized that, in the end, all politics really are local. So when the Syrian regime organized mass border violations on the Golan Heights in an attempt to divert the Arab media’s attention away from Assad’s murder of his own people, al Jazeera reported the events with surprising objectivity – then went back to hammering the regime in Damascus.

Western generals will never control the Arab media. But these developments suggest that we could do a much better job of leveraging it. In Libya today, al Jazeera’s a combat-multiplier for NATO, even to the extent of explaining why some bombs go astray and kill the good guys. That’s a far cry from tacit sympathy for the beheading teams of al Qaeda in Iraq.

A related lesson? People put their faith in their own kind. Arabs may not believe the claims of government newspapers, but they’ve learned to trust al Jazeera – which may be the most-influential television network in the world today. But they don’t trust the outlets that we set up and rig. You’ve got to learn to work the local media: It’s now part of the fight.

Beyond the six initial military lessons highlighted above, there’s a vital strategic lesson we need to tattoo on the forearms of our own strategists: Support for dictators always backfires in the end. Dictators aren’t forever. Sooner or later, they go down. And if your policies have depended on the dictator, your policies go down, too. We should have learned that from the collapse of the shah’s regime. But supporting dictators was just too easy – and in the Cold War years, you could make some sort of case for it. In the 21st century, supporting dictators still can seem like the easy way to deal with regional problems, but it’s a doomed and damned approach.

No dictator is ever America’s friend.

Ralph Peters is a longtime member of the Armchair General team; a retired Army officer and former enlisted man; Fox News Strategic Analyst; and the author of 28 books, including Lines Of Fire, a collection of his best most-enduring military and strategic writing of the last two decades (Stackpole, September 2011) and Cain At Gettysburg, a grand-scale, historically accurate novel of the Battle of Gettysburg (Forge, February 28, 2012).


  1. As always, a very infomative article by Mr. Peters despite the Faux News approved accolades for “President Bush” and the requisite jab at “The American President”. What’s the problem…Faux News not allow it’s employees to mention his name?

  2. In reply to torrone, what does “faux news” have to do with an article on lessons about the arab spring? If I were you, I’d be a little less concerned about the implied control exercised by a news company over one of it’s analysts than the fact that several of our allies don’t seem to have the wherewithal to fight, let alone defeat, a dictator that even President Obama said had to go. If a naval force that used to rule the waves and enforce it’s will just by unfurling it’s flag from the mast can’t even sustain four ships relatively close to home I’d be a little worried about their support if NATO really had to pull the trigger. It’s a worrying proposition.