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Book Reviews

Book Review: Harsh Lessons: Iraq, Afghanistan And the Changing Character of War

altThe interventions by the US and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan were on a massive scale and came close to failure. In the thirteen years of fighting there were 250,000 civilian casualties (dead and wounded) and 35,000 casualties among the US and allied forces.

Drawing lessons from these wars is key to understanding the future of warfare, with the caveat of the old adage of the dangers of “generals fighting the last war”.

This short book by Brigadier (Retired) Ben Barry, who is the Senior Fellow for Land Warfare at the London based International Institute for Strategic Studies, is enormously useful as a way of coming to grips with the future likely character of warfare. The book could help military planners and strategists in the intervening powers as well as other to think of the capabilities needed to fight the next war.

Intervening militaries from the US and its allies now perform everything from fighting to “nation building under fire”. In the late 1990s US Marine Corps General, Charles Krulak, described the “three block war” concept where Marines might be involved in full scale military action, peacekeeping, and humanitarian aid within three city blocks. Barry believes the future might involve “n block wars”, where n is the number of different types of activities, which could be even wider in range.

In these two wars the US and its allies came close to “strategic defeat,” he writes. They were only really saved from defeat by the surge in forces that took place well into the wars.

In the wake of some wars some of the Generals often complain that they were not given enough troops or time, and hamstrung by the politicians. There is recognition that density of forces made a difference and that some allies were restricted in what they could do, but this is not the core of Barry’s case.

Leadership, reconstruction efforts, political strategy, military strategy, operational concepts, and equipment were inadequate. There were failures “at every level” to adapt quickly enough to unforeseen circumstances, such as the use of IEDs and the mistreatment of prisoners, which gave opportunities to the insurgents.

“It took years for the US and its allies to sufficiently understand both conflicts,” Barry writes.

Innovation by the US and the UK was slow and encumbered by large defence bureaucracies. By contrast the insurgents were quick to adapt their methods.

The successes of the two campaigns were the initial offensives to bring about regime change and, in the case of Iraq, the US move to support the Anbar Awakening of the Sunni against al Qaeda.

If there is one overriding message from the book, it is to reinforce what Clausewitz said - that war is and always will be an inherently political process. The importance of understanding local politics would have helped the intervening powers avoid such pitfalls as breaking up of the Ba’ath Party and the army. The question of what after regime change was hardly addressed at the outset.

Soon after the US declared what was tantamount to victory, insurgencies exploded in both theatres. Both the US and UK had neglected the counter-insurgency doctrine and had to re-learn what had been learned in Vietnam and Northern Ireland.

From the disasters a host of lessons emerge. There is a need for improved intelligence and political understanding, as well as a case for armed forces to retain their own development and reconstruction experts who can operate in hostile environments from which civilians had best stay away. The necessity of maintaining and developing a counter-insurgency capability was brutally reinforced by these conflicts. Barry also argues that armed forces must ensure that they can win the battle of the narrative through electronic and information warfare in the age in which social media is dominant.

In military operations, the wars showed the value of Special Forces in conducting counter-insurgency operations and in training. Iran used its Quds forces in Iraq to wage a proxy war through support of Shia extremist groups.

Other lessons from military operations in these campaigns showed that infantry remains a key capability especially in urban areas and mountains. However, the improvements in infantry protection do restrict mobility. Armoured vehicles will continue to perform a key role. Artillery was also effective and the fighting in Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq has shown its continued importance.

The great advantages of the US and its allies in Iraq were their overwhelming air superiority and uncontested use of the electromagnetic spectrum. In future conflicts it is highly unlikely that any force will enjoy these sorts of advantages. Russia places an enormous emphasis in its military doctrine on electronic warfare, and means of bringing down UAVs are fast developing.

For countries that might fear invasion or intervention, the main lesson of the war could be the failure to deter a foreign power. That could mean more investment in anti access and area denial systems. Planning for a fall back position on an insurgency once the conventional army has folded could also be a lesson for many and drive an investment in irregular forces.

The two wars have generated a public distaste in many countries for boots on the ground intervention. That makes intervention a less likely policy option for many countries, meaning that interventions when they do occur will have to be quick and limited.

An associated lesson from such interventions might be that regime change without successful stabilisation could bring about a worse situation than the preceding one.

For most forces, the overriding lesson to be drawn from the book is the need to quickly understand an environment and to rapidly adapt.

Harsh Lessons: Iraq, Afghanistan And the Changing Character of War by Ben Barry
Publisher: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group
ISBN 978-1-1-138-06096-8
Softcover: 164 pages

Apartheid Guns and Money - a tale of profit

Review of apartheid Guns and Mioney“Apartheid Guns and Money - a tale of profit” is the latest addition to the stable of South African non-fiction providing much-needed and valuable insight into the darker workings of government, both pre- and post-apartheid.

Book Review: Firearms Developed and Manufactured in Southern Africa 1949-2000

Firearms Developed and Manufactured in Southern Africa 1949-2000This weighty tome is a definitive reference guide to firearms developed during the region’s golden age of gunmaking.

It took seventeen contributors eight years to produce the book and in the process they accumulated a library of 30 000 documents. A vast amount of original research was undertaken, from interviews to digging through patent documents.

Initially planned to reach no more than 200 pages, the book takes 540 to cover some 200 local firearms, covering everything from hunting rifles, sporting weapons, handguns, machineguns and sniper rifles. Even experimental, one-off and prototype designs are covered, such as a farmer-specific BXP submachinegun, the early prototypes of the Neostead shotgun and experimental assault rifles like the Vektor CR21 and Truvelo Raptor.

Although 1949-2000 was the golden age of firearm production in Southern Africa, the book does cover many firearms up to the date of publication in a wonderful effort to conclude or complete the stories of different manufacturers. For instance Truvelo's CMS 20x42 mm weapon, referred to in the book as a 'pirate gun', is there.

Although focussed on firearms, the book also gives good coverage to the people who designed them and also provides a history of the companies that built them.

Much effort was also put into photographing firearms from every angle, inside and out, to explain the variants, internal workings and identifiers.

The book's mandate is to cover Southern Africa, but as only two such countries produced firearms, there is a comprehensive chapter on Rhodesia, focussing on the busy period of the 1970s. It also becomes evident how big an influence Rhodesian gunsmiths had on South African developments.

Southern African Firearms is a detailed and fascinating firearms study and the effort taken in producing it is clear. The book is an excellent reference work for historians, experts and aficionados alike. Collectors in particular will find the book most useful as it provides much detail on markings, serial numbers and other identifiers.

The fact that there are many firearms covered that the majority of people have never heard of before - such as the Vektor H5 Zip Gun, Quattro Derringer, TS V submachinegun, and NIAST 5.56 mm assault rifle - is testament to the depth of this book and a guarantee it will remain the definitive guide to South African firearms.

Firearms: Developed and Manufactured in Southern Africa 1949-2000
Compiled by the Pretoria Arms Ammunition Association/Pretoria Wapen En Ammunisievereniging - -
Edited By Chas Lotter
Pretoria Arms Ammunition Association 2017
540 pages
1 200 photos
ISBN 9780620728744

“Composite Warfare” - a composite insight into conflict and war in Africa

Eeben Barlow Composite WarfareEeben Barlow is a name well-known to those who are practitioners of military arts and skills, especially in Africa.

He has now taken all his considerable experience and distilled it into a 500 plus page publication titled “Composite Warfare”, which he sees as an African “Art of War”.

Split into three parts – “Understanding conflict and war in Africa”, “Conventional manoeuvre during composite warfare operations” and “Unconventional manoeuvre during composite warfare operations” – there are 22 chapters covering virtually every imaginable aspect of planning and executing war at whatever level in Africa.

Barlow’s introduction sets the tone for his textbook. He writes: “Africa has seen numerous conflicts and wars since the end of the Cold War. I have partaken in some of them as a soldier, an intelligence officer, a covert operative and as chairman of Executive Outcomes, a private military company that focussed on resolving Africa’s problems during the 1990s and more recently as chairman of STTEP International Ltd” adding “international resistance to both Executive Outcomes and STTEP’s desire to end conflicts and wars and see a stable Africa remains unparalleled”.

He has lectured and delivered papers at many African defence and military colleges, including some in South Africa where his insights into the planning and execution of various military tasks have been well received. After reading “Composite Warfare” this reviewer, not qualified in a military sense but a long-time observer of defence and security in South Africa and to a lesser extent, north of the Limpopo River, would venture Barlow’s venture into, for want of a better phrase “teaching writing”, should be compulsory issue for libraries at military education institutions from Cape Town to Cairo.

The author’s conviction that Africa will not see any full-scale conventional war but will have to endure conflicts where a mixture of conventional and guerrilla warfare tactics and operations are employed is carefully and thoroughly explained. Adding more value, from an operational and execution point of view is his comment to this reviewer “that everything in ‘Composite Warfare’ works. Nothing is theory; everything has been put into practice”.

This is in line with the hands-on manner and methods Barlow has worked out and put into practice on the ground in Africa. Again, his own words describe it best – “what is in the book has been successfully employed against groups and organisations including Boko Haram and Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)”.

He adds ruefully that “outside interference” put an end to what would ultimately have been successful operations. That the interference hasn’t worked can be measured against the activities of both Boko Haram and LRA, both of which are still active and operational.

Barlow introduces each chapter with an appropriate quotation, the majority his own words, and these serve as an able stimulant for the student to delve properly into the wise words that follow.

As an example: “We need to not only look at how we organise ourselves, we also need to take a step back and revisit our principles of war. If we look at post-1945 conflicts and wars – and there have been many in Africa – we will note they have been very different from those beyond our shores. We seem to have a misguided belief that we can simply accept the principles of war of other nations and then all will be well. Our conflicts and wars are different. Besides, where exactly have those principles worked in Africa?” he asks before discussing the modern principles of war.

Barlow takes a different view on some aspects of war, but agrees with military scholars on others. As an example he told a division commander “somewhere in Central Africa” in 2011 that “firepower, mobility and manoeuvre are critical to our success”.

“Without these we cannot achieve our operational and tactical objectives. If we cannot meet our objectives, we give the enemy an advantage he certainly does not deserve. Give us firepower, mobility and the ability to manoeuvre and we will give you the enemy”.

Writing about defence and protection of the pillars of state, he notes: “We (soldiers) are merely an extension of politics. As long as Africa remains at war with itself, it will be unable to flourish and take its place in a vibrant, economically powerful and politically stable international community”.

Barlow’s seven pillars of state are intelligence, law enforcement, armed forces, governance, economy, populace and perceptions. He points out a personal analysis and dissection of every African conflict and/or war since 1945 allowed him to identify numerous commonalities.

“These led to the pillars of state theory, a theory that has proved itself in every conflict and war in Africa.”

An example of how well Barlow reads and knows the Africa situation comes in a single line caption to one of the many photographs illustrating the book. A photograph and Barlow and two unidentified Libyans is accompanied by the words: “In Benghazi in 2013 the author tried to warn the Libyans of what was coming … they opted to believe others”. Those who study and keep a weather eye on African affairs will know Libya today is not a well state.

There are other pithy comments by Barlow which all add value to a work that should be ignored - at their peril – by those wanting to learn about conflict and war on the African continent.

“Composite Warfare” is published by Thirty Degrees South Publishers.


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