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Book review: Uiters Geheim en Ander Anekdotes

Uiters Geheim.This is a memoir written in Afrikaans by Kobus de Villiers, a South African engineer who spent his working life on top secret government projects aimed at circumventing the arms embargo against South Africa during the period leading up to 1994. He recounts episodes in his life with a wry sense of humour and older readers will recognize many of the references to childhood and growing up in the South Africa of that era.

He was born and raised in Welkom, a dusty mining town in the Free State, in a typically conservative Afrikaner family that believed in respect for elders, attending church and hard work. Like most little boys, he dreamt of working on racing cars, airplanes and spaceships. He lived in his imagination and spent many hours sketching rocket engines and airplane wings. When he was still in primary school he converted a portable radio so that he could tune in to the conversations between Houston and the NASA spaceship crews. He built a rocket from bits and pieces found in his father’s garage, that exploded in the back garden and shredded his mother’s washing. Undeterred by parental wrath, he built another, which he strapped onto himself and launched off the garage roof. He landed in a thorny bush in the garden and suffered a broken arm. He tried to launch his brother’s pet white rat into space, and was perhaps successful, as the rat was never seen again!

After matriculating, he was drafted into the army and served in 6 South African Infantry (SAI) and 2 SAI battalions. He saw border duty and recounts life in the army for ordinary recruits with empathy and a rare talent for seeing the funny side of any situation.

He graduated from the University of Pretoria with a degree in engineering, recounted with more very funny stories of student life. They had a beat up and temperamental “Volksie” that often needed innovative interventions and was literally kept on the road with bits of wire and string. He built a racing car and started racing. He sold the car, which then won a Formula V race. After that, he was in demand to upgrade race car engines, which he enjoyed immensely as he found that he enjoyed solving the puzzles presented by engines not performing optimally more than driving the cars.

He started his post-university career in the South African Air Force. His particular puzzle-solving talents were soon recognized. When South Africa was forced to find ways and means to establish their own defence systems, most notably the Cheetah project, he was drafted into a team that liaised with similar teams overseas. He spent many years studying and working in countries such as Italy, Germany, France, Peru, Israel, Malaysia, Germany, USA, Singapore, the UAE and even the USSR where they worked on a top secret project to re-engine the Cheetahs and Mirages with Klimov engines as used in the Mig-29s; and later the abandoned Cava project to design an all-new South African fighter jet.

His accounts of what happened are hilarious. After 1994 he joined overseas companies that required his expertise. Through the years he made a major contribution to the development of new technology, but due to the strictly top secret nature of his work, his family and friends never knew where he was and what he was doing.

Now retired and living in Canada, he reflects on his various postings and projects and all the funny adventures along the way from a dusty Free State town to living in Leonid Brezhnev’s dacha in Russia, meeting the great grandson of Henry Ford, singing “Sarie Marais” at a karaoke evening in Japan and eating a Philly-steak at a table once occupied by Bill Clinton, among many interesting experiences, to finally living in Vancouver with his French wife and still tinkering in his garage.

“Uiters geheim en ander anekdotes” by Kobus de Villiers
Publishing World SA 2017
ISBN 978-1-928362-59-3
Soft cover, 547 pages

Book review: Operation Relentless – The world’s Most Wanted Criminal; The Elite Forces Hunt to Catch Him

Operation relentlessOperation Relentless is the gripping story of the years-long effort to catch arms dealer Viktor Bout, nicknamed ‘The Merchant of Death’ and 'The Lord of War'.

Damien Lewis, author of the best-selling special forces book Zero Six Bravo, does an impressive job of turning the facts into a thriller-like package. Although it is clear Lewis takes liberty in describing some of the conversations, feelings and actions of the book’s motley subjects, it does make Operation Relentless an easy and entertaining read that is more akin to a James Bond novel than a work of non-fiction. Nevertheless the book is based on extensive research, including accessing US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) transcripts, court testimony, interviews and information on Bout’s seized computer.

“Two major conflicts in recent history have dominated news headlines: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Lewis writes. “However, this same period has witnessed other, equally devastating wars… In Angola, Rwanda, the Congo, Sudan and Sierra Leone these ‘second level’ conflicts rumbled on largely unnoticed by the outside world, yet claiming a far great loss of life than both the Iraq and Afghan wars combined. In the Congo alone some five million are estimated to have died. These conflicts were perpetuated in large part by the clandestine flow of weaponry to these parts of the world.

“This is the story of how one of the men most implicated in that illicit trade – the Russian arms trafficker and businessman, Viktor Bout, also known as ‘the Merchant of Death’ – was brought to justice. It is the story of the undercover operatives who went into harms’ way to track him down…It deals, therefore in part with the forgotten modern wars that have convulsed the continent of Africa.”

Lewis brings together a wide cast of fascinating characters that hinge around Bout. Mike Snow, a former British soldier and bush pilot was recruited by the DEA as a confidential source on Operation Relentless and together with Bout associate Andrew Smulian, a former South African Air Force officer and bush pilot, were instrumental in putting Bout behind bars.

Snow’s adventures as a sometimes shady, small time air operations manager occupy a number of chapters, as Snow was vital in getting Smulian to unwittingly gather enough evidence to put Bout in prison, along with several DEA employees, who posed as Colombian FARC rebels and got Bout to promise to supply them with surface-to-air missiles, small arms, grenades and rockets, amongst others.

It was this elaborate sting operation that finally nabbed Bout after more than a decade of pursuit. One of the things that strengthened the DEA’s case was that they got Bout to admit he was at war with the United States and was complicit in the death of American citizens by agreeing to supply the FARC with weapons.

“I am not an arms trader,” Bout said in one interview. “It’s possible that I have transported arms, but I am a businessman and I have lots of planes and I don’t’ care what I transport because that is not my responsibility.”

Bout’s philosophy was to never fly empty and this, together with his view that no-one should shoot the postman, were some of the reasons for his successful airline ventures, along with his gift for languages. Born in 1967 in Tajikistan, Bout entered the Soviet military’s Institute of Foreign Languages before being sent to Mozambique in 1987 when he fell in love with Africa. In 1993 he set up an air freight company in Brussels and went into business with Peter Mirchev, a Bulgarian arms dealer. Angola and Afghanistan were his earliest customers.

Was Bout a businessman who would fly anything and everything, including arms, or was he indeed The Merchant of Death? It seems he was someone who would fly anything, anywhere, by any means. Apart from weapons this included Tilapia fish from Africa to Europe, frozen chickens to Nigeria, peacekeepers into conflict zones and aid into areas of unrest. In 1997 Bout’s aircraft were vital in flying refugees around the Congo and aid for the UN World Food Programme, while at the same time flying weapons around that very country - his aircraft were very busy during the Second Congo War.

By 1999 the United Nations had discovered that Bout was flying arms around Africa but there was no way to prosecute him even though he was violating UN arms embargoes. By the 2000s Bout’s empire was worth billions of dollars, employed several hundred people and dozens of mostly ex-Soviet aircraft.

Bout flew anything, anywhere and in 2004 it emerged that Bout’s companies had been contracted by the US military to fly supplies and equipment into Iraq for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and the US Department of Defence had even refuelled his aircraft in Baghdad. After this embarrassing episode, in July 2004 US President George W Bush signed a Presidential Executive Order declaring Bout “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the foreign policy of the United States,” and the United States started going after him where it hurt by seizing his assets.

For years international authorities attempted to stop Bout’s activities, with Interpol issuing a money laundering arrest in 2002, but it was not until 2006 that the beginning of the end drew near, as the United States and United Kingdom made a concerted effort to take him down and the DEA recruited Mike Snow. By this time Bout was described by the US National Security Council (NSC) as the world’s most notorious arms dealer due to his ability to deliver weapons into civil war zones, with the complicity of the highest ranks of government and military in Russia. As a result he was branded ‘one of the most dangerous men on the face of the earth.’

With Snow luring Bout’s trusted former deputy Smulian into the trap, the DEA set the scene for the elaborate FARC sting. Over the course of two years the DEA worked to successfully get Bout and Smulian to agree to sell weapons to the FARC. With meetings in Curacao, Russia, Denmark and Romania, things came to a head in March 2008 when Bout agreed to meet the ‘FARC representatives’ in Thailand. He was arrested along with Smulian, but it took two years to extradite him to the United States for trial, due in part to political interference from Russia.

The US Grand Jury indictment stated that Bout was an “international weapons trafficker” who, in order “to provide cover for his illicit arms transactions…developed an international network of front companies, and used his cargo airplanes to deliver lawful goods, such as food and medical supplies, in addition to arms.” He was charged with conspiracy to kill US nationals; providing the FARC with weapons; and conspiracy to acquire and use anti-aircraft missiles to enable the FARC to attack US aircraft in Colombia. Bout, and Smulian, were also charged by the United States with conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist organisation.

In October 2011 Bout was found guilty by the jury and in April 2012 sentenced to 25 years in a US penitentiary. Before his sentencing he said “I am innocent…If you gonna apply the same standards to me, then you’re gonna jail all those arms dealers in America who [are] selling the arms that end up killing Americans…It’s a double standard.”

Judge Shira Scheindlin, in imposing the mandatory 25 year sentence, noted that “but for the approach made through this determined sting operation, there is no reason to believe Bout would ever have committed the charged crimes.” She said later that, “I’m not defending him…but he’s a businessman. He was in the business of selling arms.”

Lewis, in his epilogue, writes that he believes Bout did little to defend himself and in doing so avoided going into details of about all his arms deliveries across the globe and therefore avoided implicating others. “Victor Bout’s arrest and conviction proved controversial at the time and continues to do so. World opinion seemed split between those who believed Bout was the incarnation of all evil and deserved all he got, and those who claimed he was a victim of a US-led witch hunt.”

“Some have argued that Bout’s conviction did little to stop the flow of illicit arms to conflict torn areas of the world. Certainly he was not – and is not – the only arms dealer in the world. As Mark Galeotti [senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague] remarks, ‘Bout did not create the market. He was able very effectively to capitalise on it, but he didn’t create, and where there’s a market there will be other suppliers.’”

Operation Relentless: The World’s Most-Wanted Criminal, The Elite Forces Hunt to Catch him, by Damien Lewis
Quercus Books 2017
ISBN 9781848665439/9781848665392
Softcover, 384 pages

Wings over Langebaanweg. Stories from a South African Air Force Base

Review of Wings over LangebaanwegHermanus-based Andrew Embleton’s third book on SA Air Force (SAAF) training looks set to be a winner with the military flying fraternity.

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

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