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Sat. January 28, 2023
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IA-Forum Interview: U.S. Brig. Gen. James Holmes
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International Affairs Forum: Brigadier General Holmes, you have just returned from a 13-month tour in Afghanistan where you were the U.S. Air Force air commander at Bagram Airbase. What’s the main lesson that you learned from the role of air power during your time there? Brigadier General James “Mike” Holmes: Probably the biggest one that most people are interested in is: how do you take the benefits of air power that the U.S. military is able to bring, and fit that into counter-insurgency, but more specifically the Afghan-specific counter-insurgency? The biggest lesson I would say is what’s the dominant force in counter-insurgency, or who has the main role? Air power is everywhere and it’s kind of a waste of time to talk about who’s dominant. IA-Forum: The Air Force can provide close support, intelligence, electronic warfare, surveillance and airlift in the theater of operation. One way to describe what the Air Force does in Afghanistan is provide “armed overwatch” for the counter-insurgency (COIN). How does the Air Force provide armed overwatch, and how does it support the COIN? Gen. Holmes: Afghanistan’s divided into five regions under ISAF. The 101st Airborne Division has “RC East”, which is kind of the northeast corner along the Pakistan border. Army Major General Jeffrey Schlosser would tell you that what air power does for him is it enables him to pursue his strategy, which is to get his guys outside of the main operating base and get them out in the place where they can interact with the country. What makes Afghanistan unique are primarily the terrain and the lack of infrastructure, if you compare it to Iraq. In Iraq it’s fairly flat and there is a pre-existing infrastructure or roads and highways and ways to get around. In Afghanistan, you don’t have either one. So first the terrain is very challenging, Hindu Kush, mountains up to 20,000 feet, and soldiers spread out there in places where it might take a day to get a ground Quick Reaction Force (QRF) to them, because there’s no roads to get there, where we’ll be there in eight or ten minutes. So the first thing that we do is that we provide a quick response that soldiers can depend on, knowing that they can get out and take chances, because you can respond by air. And whenever I say air, I’m an Air Force general, but the Army rotary wing, aviation is certainly interchangeable with that. The U.S. Navy’s flying air support also off the carrier. So I’d include all that under the same umbrella. IA-Forum: When ground forces call in an airstrike, which branch responds: Navy, Air Force, or Army, and how do you decide who goes? Gen. Holmes: There’s a planning process that takes the request by ground commanders, and ground commanders say, “I would like to have air to do this job tomorrow”. It’s called a “JTAR”, a joint tactical air request. They put those in through ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) headquarters, where they do a “rack and stack” and prioritization of them at ISAF headquarters. Then they’d go to the air component at AFCENT’s combined air operations center (“U.S. Air Force Central”; the air component at CENTCOM). There they task the different air to meet those joint tactical air requests. IA-Forum: How long does that take typically? Gen. Holmes: It’s done pretty much daily. A schedule is built, so when you go fly, you sit down, and they tell you, “you’re assigned against this ground commander in this battle space at this time period”. But that’s the first level. Then the second level is, during the course of the day, as ground forces move to contact, or as the enemy moves to contact them, then troops in contact situations are the trigger for spreading the air out from there. So you take off with going to a place to work with the ground commander, but almost every day, you get diverted to another place based on where the action’s actually happening that day and the troops in contact situations. So there’s a command and control (C2) system, an air support operation center in Kabul that works the real time; “these guys in this place need help, what’s my best or closest asset?” Then they call you on the radio and tell you to move from where you are to that spot. IA-Forum: There’s been a great deal of conversation about the buildup of U.S. troops in Afghanistan recently. On April 13th, Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz said about 1,600 additional airmen would be needed there. What would those troops be doing? Gen. Holmes: Well, the original numbers for about 17,000 additional ground forces would be the combat brigades that would come into the south, plus their immediate ground support forces. There’s a logistics command that goes with those. There was an aviation brigade that goes with them with 100+ helicopters to be able to move them around the battlefield. But those numbers didn’t include the extra air things that you’d need. There are three main air fields in Afghanistan: there’s Bagram up in the northeast; there’s Kandahar down in the southeast; and, the third one is the carrier presence in the Gulf. IA-Forum: The U.S. S Roosevelt had been the carrier in the Gulf? Gen. Holmes: Right. The U.S. Air Force presence was much bigger at Bagram with about 2,000 airmen there, because historically we’ve been supporting the U.S. forces, and that’s where most of them were. We have a group at Kandahar that had about 600 airmen in it that’s going to quickly grow and triple in size so that they can provide the airlift resources that those 17,000 ground forces will need to move around the battlefield so that we can continue to add the Predator and Reaper ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) numbers. We’re growing as fast as we can do that. Then move a fire squadron in there as well so that we can provide armed overwatch or “close air support” (CAS) for the additional U.S. ground forces. The Marines will also bring a lot of their own close air support assets in down there with them into the south. So the Air Force that will be moving down there is available for everybody, but primarily it will support that striker brigade that the Army’s putting in down there. So most of those people are going to support those ground forces in one way or another, and most of them will be coming in to the south, where those 17,000 additional ground forces are going. IA-Forum: General McKiernan, the senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said in February that the operation in Southern Afghanistan was basically a stalemate. What can the U.S. Air Force do specifically to help break that stalemate? Gen. Holmes: Well, we have flown over the whole country, always. One of the benefits of the air operation is that I had 36 armed overwatch airplanes at Bagram, about 700 people required to operate them and fly them. Those 700 people had a disproportionate impact across the entire country. They could reach out and be anywhere in the country, the longest it would take you to fly there is about 40 minutes, but typically you’d be prepositioned somewhere, so that response time was about eight or ten minutes from the time a ground commander got in trouble until air would show up. What the Air Force is doing in the south is helping this new batch of ground forces that are going in, be able to move out of their main operating base, and be able to get out to where the people are, knowing that if they get into trouble, or if they get into a large force, that they can have a quick response force to respond. As our guys brief every day in the armed overwatch close air support role, they brief their priorities to first, safeguard coalition forces; second, to protect innocent Afghan non-combatants; and, then third to kill the enemy. So often it’s just the noise of your airplane overhead will discourage the enemy from making an attack, or will induce them to break contact if they have. If not, then you go with the smallest, least force required to resolve the situation, which for an airplane is usually a bullet first out of one of the guns on the airplane, and then moving up to a 500-pound class weapon with a delayed fuse, where you can bury it into the ground before it goes off, so you can contain the destructive power and work through that process. It’s a stalemate in the south because there haven’t been enough ground forces to get out and challenge the enemy where he is, and so by bringing in the additional forces, General McKiernan hopes that he’ll be able to get out and challenge the enemy where they are. Because the infrastructure and the terrain, you can’t take all the artillery with you that you would like to on the ground. So you’re going to have to rely on people to help you get resupplied through the air – that means rotary wing aviation and fixed wing. And then to electronic attack, and also to be there in case they need it. IA-Forum: One of the risks of using air power in a counter-insurgency is collateral damage. Can you walk me through the procedures that are in place to mitigate or prevent such damage? Gen. Holmes: Any bomb that’s required to be dropped, you have to answer three questions. But they’re driven by the laws of war. The first one is distinction: you have to be able to distinguish between a military target and the civilians that are there in the area. The second one is necessity: is there a military necessity to make this attack? Are you going to accomplish something that will make the military situation better? And then the third is proportionality: is the force you’re using proportional to the gain that you’re going to get out of it? In a Desert Storm kind of scenario, where the Air Force was doing deep strikes forward of the ground troops, that was pretty much an airman’s responsibility to decide there were tools in place to help you do that. That’s a deliberate target, which we almost never do in Afghanistan. The next class of targets is dynamic or time-sensitive targets. We usually have some kind of intel information that says there’s something or somebody important we’ve located at this place and time. We don’t know how long it will be there, and so we have to work through that same process, but quicker, and there are hasty tools to be able to do that, evaluate the explosive power, and will we be able to keep it within the range that we need to, to look and see who else is in that area that we might affect. And then the third one is the “troops in contact” bomb. For the “troops in contact” bomb, the ground commander has the responsibility for determining those three things. In the dynamic target, the ground commander and the air commander kind of work together to do it. In that deliberate target, it’s almost all in the air commander’s boat. So we almost never have any civilian casualty issues in that deliberate target case because we’re pretty good at that. We almost never have any in the “troops in contact” case because there’s usually a ground commander who’s there every day, who’s been there for several months. He knows what “normal” looks like. He knows what time the sheep come back down from the pasture; what time the kids get out of school. He knows the bad parts of town and the good parts of town. And he’s able to distinguish those things. The area in the middle of those dynamic targets is the tricky part. Most of the coalition forces that were killed in Afghanistan over the last year were killed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs). You can counter that by trying to stop guys from planting IEDs. But it’s hard to do. A guy that’s digging an irrigation canal looks a whole lot like a guy who’s planting an IED. You do it at night. It’s hard to cover the whole country. You can do it that way, but it’s going to take a long time, and you’re really only going to target the guy who’s digging a hole for three dollars instead of the guy who’s masterminding it or financing it or putting it together. Or you can study those guys over time. You can watch them. You can follow them. You can see what house they go back to. You can build a picture of the network. And then you can go after the guy that is the mastermind. But if you’re going after that guy, then there’s a higher risk, because he lives in a village somewhere. He probably has his family with him because he’s not deployed to the war. He’s there in the war. So you’re balancing out the effect you have on that network with the risk that you take by going into a village for a “capture call out mission” that then may lead to violence from there. And the next part is, you look at Afghan culture, and you’re a young man in a village, and the dogs start barking at night. Their trash cans are being kicked over. There’s something going on. You’re obligated to pick up your weapon and go outside and see what’s going on, or you’re not going to able to show your face as a young man in the village. So you walk out of these houses carrying an AK47. There’s a highly trained force there to call out this guy. You end up inadvertently maybe getting in a shooting match with each other. The highly trained superior force is probably going to win to bring that firefight to a closure. David Kilcullen calls those “accidental guerillas”. And we do spend some of our time probably fighting accidental guerillas. So the way you counter it is, you’d like to have an Afghan force be with you every time you do that, and you’d like to have the Afghan force be the force that actually goes in and acts on the intelligence and goes in and calls the guy out, surrounds the home, goes into the home if you need to, instead of having coalition forces do it with all the cultural misunderstanding possibilities there. And you’d like to have as many backup sources to confirm that intelligence as you can, and not rely on just any one human source or one technical source. Then you need to be able to decide, “it’s not worth it today; we’ll come back and do it another day”. IA-Forum: So in these days of truly precision bombing, what is the definition of close air support today? Gen. Holmes: We’re using close air support procedures that we developed over time to be able to drop explosive power very close to friendly forces in an armed overwatch role. We’re not really doing close air support, particularly in the northeast of the country where most of the U.S. forces have been, because it’s hardly ever a conventional “force on force” fight. Occasionally, but most of the time the enemy will attack. They know they’ve only got a few minutes, and then they’ll leave, the northeastern enemy. Down in the southeast, with that more traditional Pashtun insurgency, they’re more likely to stay out there and fight, and you can break out of the clouds down there and see mortars going both ways and see more of a “stand and fight” mindset. That’s where these close air support procedures really come in. “Armed overwatch” means that there’s an air asset, whether it’s Air Force or Army or Navy or Marine, that’s out there providing both intelligence surveillance or reconnaissance in support of the ground commander with a downlink of video that we have, and then are there to use CAS procedures that have been proven over time as a way to safely deconflict the weapons that you’re going to drop from the friendly forces and from the non-combatants and be able to target the enemy. It means you have to know where the friendly forces are; you have to know where the enemy is. Then you have to have good information on what other potential there is for non-combatant information around it. You’re making all three of those things happen before you drop the bomb. That’s sort of the state of CAS right now. IA-Forum: What assistance does the Air Force provide for the PRTs (provincial reconstruction teams)? Gen. Holmes: Well, in RC East, there are twelve PRT teams. Six of them are Navy-manned and led. Six of them are Air Force-manned and led. So there’d be a Navy commander or an Air Force Lieutenant Colonel that’s the PRT commander. Roughly half of the PRT will then be either Air Force of Navy, and then the other half is typically Army Guardsmen who provide the security that allow the PRT team to get out and do their work. So first, we are making up the PRT teams, and we have guys out there that are actually doing the work and leading them through the process. Second, we’re providing them with some of their mobility support, and we provide them with the armed overwatch, if they’re in an area that they need it. Most of the times, though, those PRTs are going to be in an area where it’s not required. The overall strategy is to provide enough security to help a fledgling Afghan government move out into the areas where the people live outside the cities, so that you can bring in development behind them. The PRT’s job is to help the local government extend its reach out to the people, and then to start bringing in development behind it. IA-Forum: My understanding is there was a concerted effort in the beginning of OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom) to remove all the “manpads” (man-portable air-defense systems) in Afghanistan to prevent coalition aircraft from being targeted from the ground by surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Are these missiles making their way into Afghanistan these days? And if they are, how do you mitigate the threat? Gen. Holmes: You always have to be aware of that threat of a more sophisticated manpad. Most of the ones that exist in the country are much older, Soviet-era, maybe Chinese copies of the Soviet-era, and there are commanders that have them, as much as a status symbol as a tool to use. A guy has more authority and power because he’s got a couple of old manpads in the shed, and he can pull them out occasionally. Occasionally those guys will feel obligated to shoot one of them to show that they can. The manpad threat right now is not the biggest threat. I think if they manpad threat started to show up, that would be a signal that some of the other countries in the region have decided to actively oppose us in what we’re doing, that’s one of the ways you’d be able to tell that. Right now people are keeping them out of the country, both through our efforts and through the efforts of the regional neighbors of Afghanistan. But if they start showing up, you’ll know that they’ve decided to raise the ante a step and do it. The threat’s primarily a ground small arms and RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) threat. Most helicopters are shot down by RPGs. It’s hard to hit a tactical aircraft, either with a gun from the ground or with an RPG. But it’s not impossible. The enemy’s making a concerted effort to shoot at helicopters and to shoot at the transport aircraft, because they think they have a chance to knock one of them down. IA-Forum: In the past year, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) have played a significantly increased role in Afghanistan. What tasks do they perform? What are the advantages and downsides of using them? Gen. Holmes: The UAV presence is growing, “UAS” as we would say in the Air Force, because it’s more than just the aircraft. It’s a system, an unmanned aircraft system, which includes the ground station that controls it, and the satellite network that lets a guy back in Nevada fly it. We’d call it a system. It’s growing as fast as our government can get the stuff there and the people there. Some of the advantages: it has a much smaller footprint than a manned aircraft system does. It’s a crew of three to four that fly on a manned aircraft. You’ve got to find a place to bed all them down in Afghanistan. Your crew that’s actually doing the tactical flying of the UAS is back in the United States doing that via satellite so you don’t have to bring them over and feed them and everything else. Advantage two would be that you can leave them up there for a long time without putting an air refueling bill on top of it. AFCENT is pushing two million pounds of fuels through air refueling every day over Afghanistan. Those refuelers are based around the region, not in Afghanistan, because you don’t want to have to haul the fuel to Afghanistan to put it on a tanker. You don’t have to do that with the UAVs. They can fly 12, 14, 18 hours on one tank of gas. Some of them burn aviation gas. Some of them burn jet fuel. But that’s one of the advantages, is they can stay out there a long time without putting the burden on the system. And then in this armed overwatch role, where in manned aircraft or unmanned aircraft, you spend a lot of your time doing non-traditional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, which is you check in with the ground commander in response to that joint tactical air request. He says, “I have some areas of interest I’d like you to look at”. And you take your advanced targeting pod, which is telescopic optics. You point it at that place. You look at it for him, and you download that through a Rover system so that he can see the pictures well. The UAV can do that without having to put people up there and then without having to burn through the gas that goes through an F16, the 60,000 pounds of jet fuel you’re burning in the F16. Instead you’re going to burn 600 pounds of aviation gas, maybe, during that same timeframe. And he also has the capability with both the Predator and the Reaper to respond with force if he needs to, either with the Hellfire off the Predator, or with the Hellfire or a 500-pound laser-guided bomb off the Reaper. The kind of missions that they’re doing are primarily intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, but then they also have the ability to respond if it’s quicker to respond from that platform than to call in another platform to do it. The key to being able to use them accurately is, how do you queue their system? They’ve got a very good sensor capability, but it’s like a soda straw. Unless you know where to point that sensor capability, then you’re not going to get much out of it. So the key to utilizing them is being able to have enough information to know what you want to do with them and where you want them to look, and then having the people available to analyze and process that data and make it available to ground commanders. So, part of it is buying the airplanes; part of it is training the crews; part of it is getting the satellite bandwidth so that you can both fly them and download all the information that they’re gathering. The final piece is having enough analysts and a system that is able to process everything that’s being returned by those and make sense out of it, instead of just having it pile up somewhere. IA-Forum: And the major downside? Gen. Holmes: The major downside is that you don’t have the same flexibility that you have in a manned aircraft. And one example would be to what the Predator and the Reaper both have a hard time with icing and turbulence conditions. Now, you can take some chances with them because there’s no crew on board. But you want to keep flying them every day. They’re cheaper than a manned aircraft, but they’re not inexpensive. So there are a lot of days that they don’t fly that manned aircraft can fly, because you trust that crew to be able to make decisions and be able to deal with situations immediately instead of being stuck trying to do it from back in Nevada. If your satellite link goes down, you can still use these guys. IA-Forum: My understanding is that a Predator UAV, an MQ1, crashed in Afghanistan on April 21st. Its function was armed reconnaissance. If friendly forces can’t recover a downed UAV, and enemy forces find it, what might they learn from it? Gen. Holmes: Well, if you do lose one, usually you have a pretty good idea of where it went down, and we’re able to either go out and recover it, or to destroy it on site. If they’re going to get something out of it is the equipment that’s in it and maybe some insight into how it was constructed and prepared. If you’ve made that available to a country with the right technological base, then you might be able to reverse engineer it and make some progress and build it in your own system. But there’s not going to be data on that vehicle since you don’t store the data there in the aircraft. You store it in a server somewhere else. IA-Forum: Manas Airbase in Kyrgyzstan is a key field for the U.S. and NATO forces. If it’s no longer available, how does this affect the U.S. /NATO effort in Afghanistan? Gen. Holmes: There are options that have been looked at, and it would be cheaper for us to pay more money to keep Manas open than it would be to open up those options. There are two main roles at Manas. One is air refueling and being able to support the air refueling mission, and the other is the onward movement of forces that come through. Most of the forces that come into Afghanistan come in by wide body commercial airliner into Manas, where it’s safe to do that. Then they pick up their equipment and get put on Air Force airlifters for the most part, and then moved into Afghanistan. So you have to move both of those missions. You’d probably move them to two different places. There are contingency plans in place to do that. IA-Forum: What lessons from Afghanistan can be applied to writing new joint doctrine for the U.S. military? Gen. Holmes: Well, I think we’ll learn something specifically about this insurgency, and we’ve made a lot of great progress on thinking about counter-insurgency and re-learning lessons maybe that we’ve put aside for a while. But we also learned that each one is different, based on the cultural context, based on the terrain, based on the weather, based on the unique circumstances there. So we’re learning more about how to adjust our counter-insurgency tactics to a particular insurgency. We’re learning more about how do we apply a total U.S. power effort to a counter-insurgency and you’ve seen in the paper this week that we said we’re going to have a civilian surge to go with the military surge, and once again, we found out how hard that really is to accomplish, because the civilian part of our government is not structured to deploy like that. So that’s something we’re going to have to get better at if we’re going to be able to do that. Then there’s some tactical kind of doctrine issues of an armed overwatch doctrine as opposed to a CAS doctrine on the Air Force side, the last tactical mile, as the Army would say, on the mobility side of, are there things that we need to do to change the way we have moved stuff around the battlefield based on the unique circumstances in Afghanistan. And how do we take the superior technological capability that’s inherent in all of our ISR assets and bring it to bear so that we’re not just focusing on the kinetic part of what the enemy does. When we go look at the enemy, we pretty much focus on the enemy’s kinetic options, instead of the things that they’re doing to provide a shadow government or to control the population. Everybody that deploys over there talks about using all those tools, and we’re going to prioritize ISRs to study what the enemy’s doing there. But once your troops get into contact, and you start having people injured and killed, the ISR way goes back to doing that. Sarah Chayes (former NPR reporter who now runs a cooperative in Afghanistan) says the side that wins will be the side that “out-administers” the other side. What are we doing to use the technological might that is unique to us to be able to help us out-administer the other side or to counter their efforts to out-administer us in the countryside, instead of just focusing on the part of the enemy that is trying to kill us. That’s probably the biggest thing that I think we still need to do. IA-Forum: The poppy crop and opium trade in Afghanistan is such a deep problem. Is the Air Force going to have a role in the near future on poppy eradication? Gen. Holmes: The Afghans, the Afghan government, the Afghan people are philosophically strongly against aerial spraying, and it’s because the Soviets used herbicides to force the population out of the countryside and into the city to separate the people from the guerillas, by taking away the people’s livelihood in the country side. So they tore down the trees. They ripped up irrigation canals, and they used aerial herbicide to kill the crops. And so for most Afghans, that’s a non-starter, to spray. If you’re an Afghan farmer, mostly a subsistence farmer, you’re not really making any money on it in most cases. You’re feeding your family with it. It’s easy to say, “don’t grow poppy”. The harder part is giving them a crop that they can make the same money on. And as wheat costs go up, we’re much closer now to making the same money. One of the success stories is the “ag” (agriculture) development teams. It’s a way to get past our limitations to deploy civilian resources by using National Guardsmen. These ag development teams’ job is to teach local people ways to improve their yield, but more than that to build markets for what they’re able to grow. The Afghan pomegranate is now being exported into the Gulf. Saffron is a crop that you can make kind of the same money that you’re able to make on poppy by doing it. The farmer doesn’t make a lot of the money on poppy. It’s the middle man that makes most of the money. So you have to give them an option. An Afghan farmer borrows the money to put the seed in the ground. You eradicated his crop. Then he has to pay that debt. Sometimes he pays the debt with his youngest daughter to the guy that he owes the money to. These ag development teams are a huge step forward in the way to handle it but they’re a drop in the bucket. It’s 30 guys per province, and what we need it 3,000 guys per province to be able to move in and do it. And the enemy is adaptive and very bright; the enemy knows to target the things that are working and to target the soft targets. And the ag development teams are both. If one of these projects starts to take hold and to have effect, you can expect them to come target those guys and test our commitment to the idea. IA-Forum: Thank you.

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