Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Distance and Time Are the Least of Our Problems

In his testimony before Congress on the Benghazi response of our military, Secretary Panetta rightly objected that the military is not a 9/11 force that must be ready to respond within minutes to any call for help. But this misses the point. A military bureaucracy that felt at war would have responded within hours just in case it could do something.

When fighting was raging in Iraq, it was often said we had two militaries: the one fighting a war abroad and the peacetime military at home that couldn't be budged from routine to react to the fighting.

As the tide of war has receded, as our president has boasted, that division has gotten worse, with our military leadership unable to even recognize that peacetime rigidity. Former Secretary of Defense Panetta (who has done a good job, overall, I'll admit, in defending the department from calls for cuts--and who I'll miss) highlighted this failure to really believe we are at war when he defended the military's response to the Benghazi attacks.

Said Panetta:

"The United States military is not and should not be a global 911 service capable of arriving on the scene within minutes to every possible contingency around the world," Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Nobody is saying that the military should be capable of reacting within minutes. From the beginning, I've agreed that what is usually called the consulate was beyond help once the attack started. But the annex was not beyond help. There we had hours. And even after the annex personnel escaped, there was reason to secure the annex grounds as well as the consulate grounds. There we had days.

And given the confusion about what was going on in Benghazi, we had no way of knowing how much time we had to make a difference on the ground. One of my concerns is that we may have essentially written off the people at the annex and figured it was better to cope with a score dead Americans than make an effort that might cause casualties in the rescue force.

Remember, a non-military rescue force despite being pitifully small did make a difference in keeping our casualties down to four, saving those who rallied at the annex and getting them out the next morning.

So when our top general backs Panetta with this statement, I just don't buy it:

Dempsey said he stood by his testimony, "your dispute of it notwithstanding." The general said the military was concerned with multiple threats worldwide and, based on time and positioning of forces, "we wouldn't have gotten there in time."

Between midnight and 2 a.m. on the night of the attack, Panetta issued orders, telling two Marine anti-terrorism teams based in Rota, Spain, to prepare to deploy to Libya, and he ordered a team of special operations forces in Central Europe and another team of special operations forces in the U.S. to prepare to deploy to a staging base in Europe.

The first of those U.S. military units did not actually arrive in the region until well after the attack was over and Americans had been flown out of the country. Just before 8 p.m., the special operations team landed at Sigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily. An hour later, the Marine team landed in Tripoli. Defense officials have repeatedly said that even if the military had been able to get units there a bit faster, there was no way they could have gotten there in time to make any difference in the deaths of the four Americans.

Our basic defense for failure to get there?

"This was, pure and simple, a problem of distance and time," Panetta said.

We couldn't have gotten to the consulate in time. But we didn't know that it was too late until much later. And we could have gotten there in time to reinforce the annex. Or even to secure the two sites after the fights were over.

And it bears repeating that to this day we have not taken action in direct response to the attack. I don't count helping the French fight the jihadis in Mali who were linked to the assaults and killings.

But consider what we sent to Libya. We ordered specialized anti-terrorism units and special forces to head for Libya. These are units that were considered the best units to enter a confused situation like Benghazi.

We didn't send even unarmed aircraft to fly over the area to possibly frighten the jihadis let alone armed aircraft that might have been able to shoot.

Oh, we had an excuse for that, too:

Dempsey said it would have taken up to 20 hours to get the planes ready and on their way, and he added that they would have been the "wrong tool for the job."

It would have taken 20 hours to arm planes in Europe and send them on their way? On the anniversary of aerial attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? What the Hell?! Our forward-deployed Air Force units couldn't get a pair of planes in the air on an hour notice, or so? Just how bad is our readiness?

Good God, we did better at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941--with 25 plane sorties that shot down 7-10 Japanese planes. and without the knowledge that the day was rather an important anniversary for our enemies.

And why assume aircraft were the wrong tools or that our enemies would know they were the wrong tools if they were inappropriate? Our enemies have experience with the killing power of our Air Force. Why assume they'd shrug and get on with their attacks if they heard American aircraft overhead?

In the dark, would the jihadis have known that a VIP transport flying overhead wasn't a gunship about to dispatch them to paradise?

And we didn't send any troops that we could have scraped together from our many tens of thousands of troops in Europe. There are about 36,000 Army troops in Europe and we couldn't scape up a platoon of combat soldiers or military police from those units to put on a plane? With the remainder of a company to follow? Just to do something until the specialized troops could arrive?

Or maybe send Air Force base security forces? They'd have some skills in fighting in closed spaces like buildings, right?

If this was a war, our leaders would send cooks and mechanics to the front with rifles in an emergency if there was nothing more appropriate left to send.

Our peacetime leadership considers their role done if they send the specialized units on their way regardless of whether they can make it in time.

Or is our military already hollow before sequestration hits?

I suspect it isn't that bad yet. Even with funding shortfalls, we still have units capable of fighting even if they'd take more casualties to win or have a higher risk of failure. But we didn't send what we could.

I'm sorry, but distance and time are the least of our problems. If our leaders felt like we are at war, forces would have been sent. Maybe they couldn't have made it in time to make a difference. But we would have tried.