Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell… Homosexuals and the military.

This week Charlotte Bignell looks at the relationship between homosexuals and the armed forces.


The unique experience of war and gender-segregated military conditions have emerged in the studies of homosexuality as being some of the greatest opportunities for homosexuality to flourish, as researched by John D’Emilio and Allan Bérubé.  Militaries tend to have strong connections with their history, which may make them lean toward conservatism; this has led some critics to suggest that the US military’s views on homosexuality are archaic and backwards. This essay will focus mostly on the experiences of male homosexuals in the US military since the beginning of World War Two. In addition, the historiography on Britain by Emma Vickers and World War One by Margot Canaday will also be explored briefly to provide a wider picture and demonstrate the scope for future academia. Whilst the essay focus may just represent one aspect of gay military history, it raises interesting ideas about the leader of the Western World’s military being outdated and out of touch with mainstream society; homosexuality has been legalised in America for some time and is arguably widely accepted, yet the military ban on homosexuals was lifted only in 2011. The topic’s contemporary relevance makes the emerging history significant as earlier experiences may been seen to have shaped today’s society and the progression over recent times can be tracked to an extent, particularly with the interesting links between scholarship. The theory of World War Two as the trigger of modern homosexuality, the impacts of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ campaign, the importance of oral histories and the issues that arose because of the Vietnam War will all need further research to illustrate the ways in which it is significant that studies of homosexuality in the history of the military have emerged.

War has been described as a unique experience; one reason for this is because of the sense of detachment from reality. For example, individuals were only surrounded by members of the same-sex for long periods of time and had to confront death daily. Such circumstances make it is possible to see why homosexual opportunities are seized and bonds are formed which are unlikely to be possible in ‘normal life’. The intimacy, closeness and comradeship are felt by both gay and straight men which obviously poses difficulties with defining homosexuals in the military. Homosexual activity may not necessarily equate to the participant being gay; the prevalence of intimate contact and affection when threatened with death is not an uncommon practice. Leon Podles notes that “in our society, men aren’t supposed to show that kind of affection except under such stress as this.”  It is important for history to look at this unique topic as it has such a precise focus, perhaps unlike previous gay histories, but also because it holds a wide range of consequences and outcomes in the military and the greater society too.

The work of Bérubé has focused on the significance of World War Two as a nationwide ‘coming out’ experience for gay Americans and for many, their military experiences during this time became “the foundation upon which they built a post-war life.”  This counteracts the thoughts of many scholars who have placed emphasis on the Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969 as the trigger of the modern gay identity. The construction of urban gay communities in the 1940s owes much to the experiences of World War Two; homosexuals had had a taste of freedom and did not want to return to normal life or succumb to the post-war pressure of practising heterosexual and conventional family norms.  The urban gay centres of the US we know today, such as San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles all have strong links to the experiences of gay men in the war, who were consciously realising their own identity and searching for a like-minded community.


To address the theory of D’Emilio and look at why the US experience of World War Two led to the acknowledgement of gay identity and the formation of homosexual communities, the policy of homosexual screening at the draft boards needs to be explored. Bérubé developed on from D’Emilio’s earlier work on homosexuality in the history of the military by using oral histories, this demonstrates the significance of this topic as there is area for scope and the ability to expand on the scholarship. Bérubé’s oral methodology has gained considerable praise and has proved to be of huge significance to the subject because of the value of first-hand accounts which belong to a generation soon to die out; its aim is for the history not to be lost. With the increasing authority of psychiatrists in the armed forces, the homosexual screening process became mandatory for those wishing to enter the US army. By simply asking blunt questions about one’s sexual orientation, it was necessary for men to face their own sexual status which they may have not done previously in their lives.  Looking at World War Two as a time where conscious homosexual identity emerged is significant to the history of the military as it represents a turning point in the lives of many Americans and thus in post-war life, where urban gay communities increased dramatically.

The use of psychiatry in identifying homosexuals in the US military supported the notion of homosexuality as some form of mental illness. This had been a long-standing view of psychoanalysts, such as Sigmund Freud and sexologists, such as Magnus Hirschfield, but its application in military draft policy raises serious morality issues about one’s patriotism and not being accepted or wanted to represent and fight for one’s country. This will be discussed later when focusing on Vietnam and the work of Justin David Suran.

It is important to observe that the US military did address homosexuality in World War One, but did not have the resources to implement the sophisticated screening and surveillance as they did in World War Two.   Margot Canaday focuses on the dramatic change from the traditional law of sodomy as a punishable offence in the military to World War Two where the homosexual status became punishable and a reason for discharge or not recruiting in the first place.   This demonstrates significance in the emergence of studies of homosexuality in the military as it has the ability to track the transformation of the U.S over time into a more sexually conscious and sexually aware society. The change in punishment in the law from acts to status illustrates the wider society’s progression to ideas about acknowledging what you are with names and labels. The historiography suggests that to be a homosexual in World War One would have been easier than in World War Two because of the ability to go undetected and avoid trouble with the officers, compared to World War Two were homosexuals were actively sought out.

Relating back to the significance of oral histories in the study of homosexuality in the military, Vickers, who was researching homosexuality in the British Armed Forces in World War One, appeared to cause great insult to some veterans she wished to discuss the subject with. John Clarke was outraged with the claim that any of his fellow soldiers in the war may have been homosexual, as it was illegal and “un-British” . She was accused of disrespecting the sacredness of war and those who died for their country. With the abundance of research and evidence that many homosexuals did serve in the British Armed Forces in World War One and elsewhere, these accusations are likely to represent the continuance of heterosexual tradition and sexual stigma within the military. The apparent dishonour of claiming homosexuals served in the military relates back to the morality issues surrounding one’s patriotism and right to die for one’s country. The outdated beliefs of some military officials have significance to current debate, particularly relating to the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ (DADT) policy. The continuance of social stigma toward homosexuals in the military is demonstrated by a retired Army chaplain, Ron Crews’ notion that DADT is a radical sexual experiment threatening the US military.

In order to identify ways in which the emergence of homosexuality in the history of the military has been significant, the contemporary relevance of the DADT policy and Bérubé’s scholarly influence cannot be ignored. DADT, implemented under President Bill Clinton in 1993 as a compromise with traditional military leaders, barred openly homosexual men and women from military service. To some, this may have appeared to be a success for the homosexual community; they were being allowed to serve in the military, as long as they didn’t discuss their sexual orientation or engage in any homosexual activity. Yet, DADT raised many issues and, it could be argued, was an even greater hindrance to the gay movement than previous policies. The experiences of gay servicemen were not improved and by essentially being forced to remain in the closet, there would have been great “costs to the individual’s identity and sense of human value.”  Joseph Rocha, who served in the US Navy from 2004 to 2007, spoke of the daily fear and anxiety of being discovered but also the grave unhappiness of lying about one’s true identity; “in order to be protected by DADT, it would require such a level of deceit and deception and such a removal of everything that is beautiful in your life – of relationships, of meaning, of friendships…that’s not human.”  Derek Burks finds that DADT serves only to highlight homosexuality undesirably in the military environment which is already characterised by heterosexuality and conservative gender norms.  This augments homosexual victimisation and diminishes the feeling of safety and confidence in one’s troop, resulting in an absence of victim reports and help seeking.  The general consensus of Steve Estes’ interviewees was that DADT “changing nothing or even made matters worse.”  The repeal of the policy and the emergence of these histories allowed gay servicemen the long-awaited feeling of acceptance and the ability to be open about one’s sexual identity without fear of discharge and the end of their military career.

By bringing homosexuality into the political sphere, DADT highlighted the outdated tradition of military law. The US military were backwards compared to US society. The implementation of this policy saw a resurgence of gay political activity, similar to the 1970s gay liberation movements. It is significant that the history of homosexuality in the military has emerged because, as seen here, it ties in with other aspects of social life, such as political protest. Another important aspect to consider is the credibility of the scholarship of homosexuality on this topic, highlighted by Bérubé’s work becoming part of contemporary debate in the 1990s. Being considered an expert on the topic, he himself was caught up in the political storm of DADT and was consulted on the issues of it.

Gay anti-Vietnam War protest and the conflicting pro-war stance of the Mattachine Society in the 1960s and 1970s is another area which highlights the significance of political links with homosexuality and the military. Suran studies the Vietnam War’s considerable impact on the lives of homosexual men and women, and criticises the other historiography of this subject for missing the conflict’s unique relevance to homosexuals and the gay rights movement of the era.  The Vietnam draft, like World War Two, forced many men to come to terms with their sexual identity because of the US Army’s screening process. Yet, times had moved on since World War Two with homosexual issues discussed more openly in the wider public and with the emergence of the gay liberation movement, homosexuality’s political connections were amplified. The US military’s controversial involvement in Vietnam spurred a split in the gay movement between gay veterans and gay activists. The Mattachine Society, which emerged post-World War Two, was a homophile organisation which sought to improve the rights of homosexuals. They were keen to assert their ability to conform to the conventional norms of society and exist as loyal, hard-working citizens. This led to pro-war attitudes among homophiles as it may have been a perfect opportunity to fit in with society and essentially prove their honour and devotion to their country. At the opposite end of the spectrum were younger, radical gay activists who were entirely opposed to conforming to the heterosexual, capitalist means behind fighting in Vietnam; they wanted no part in the masculine dominance and oppression of war.

Suran criticises D’Emilio for focusing on New York and Stonewall in the history of homosexuality, where he believes greater attention is needed in San Francisco where the anti-war protest and gay rights movements were at their height. Vietnam illustrates the significance of the study of homosexuality within military history as it highlights the individuality of homosexuals and their political views resulting in a division in the gay movement. It continues to track the changes in political views and what their implications were in the military and in wider society. Suran sees the Vietnam War as an unavoidable topic when tracing the history of homosexuality because of its formative influence of gay solidarity and urban, social protest.

In conclusion, it is of considerable significance that studies of homosexuality in the history of the military have emerged because it ties in with other areas and aspects of society, such as politics, protest, medical understanding, employment law and urban life. It provides a new perspective on how to understand the importance of war. The development of military history with new areas of relevance being explored provides historians with a richer understanding of the dynamics and experience of war. The abundance of sources in the form of draft boards, legal documents, letters, oral histories and the high standing of scholarship on the topic serve to promote and exemplify why homosexuality should be included in the history of the military. Bérubé concludes that World War Two was of great significance to the history of sexuality, as well as US and world history.  The experience of the military draft boards, and later with the political gay movements of the 1960s and 1970s, homosexuality was finally gaining public acknowledgement. Whilst, this may have excelled effeminate stereotypes as associated with the screening processes, some would argue that any public representation of homosexuality was better than none at all. A final point that should be made is that armies can be used to impose their country’s will on others, in America’s case this would be liberal democracy.  Since the majority of American civilians would consider themselves liberal and with the legalisation of homosexuality in America, it could be argued that the US army should have put American values into practice earlier than 2011 in order to be fully representative of US society. Nonetheless it is significant that homosexuality has become legalised within the US military as it represents a marked progress from their archaic laws that existed prior to this.


Bérubé, Coming Out Under Fire (North Carolina, 1990)

Bérubé, ‘Marching to a Different Drummer: Lesbian and Gay GIs in World War II’, in Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, George Chauncey (eds) Hidden from History: reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past (London, 1990)

D. J. Burks, ‘Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Victimisation in the Military: An Unintended Consequence of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”?’, American Psychologist, Vol. 66, No. 7 (2011), pp.604-613

M. Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, 2009), ch 2, 5

G, Chauncey, ‘Christian Brotherhood or Sexual Perversion? Homosexual Identities and the Construction of Sexual Boundaries in the World War I Era’, Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, George Chauncey (eds) Hidden from History: reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past (London, 1990)

J. D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities (University of Chicago Press, 1983), ch 1, 2

S. Estes, ‘Ask and Tell: Gay Veterans, Identity and Oral History on a Civil Rights Frontier’, The Oral History Review, Vol. 32, No. 2 (2005), pp. 21-47

R. Jennings, A Lesbian History of Britain (Oxford, 2007), ch 6

L. Meyer, ‘Creating GI Jane: The Regulation of Sexuality and Sexual Behaviour in the Women’s Army Corps During WWII’, Feminist Studies, Vol. 18, No. 3 (1992), pp. 581-601

J. D. Suran, ‘Coming out against the War: Antimilitarism and the Politicization of Homosexuality in the Era of Vietnam’, American Quarterly, vol. 53 (2001), pp. 452-488

E. Vickers, ‘The Good Fellow: Negotiation, Remembrance and Recollection – Homosexuality in the British Armed Forces, 1939-1945’, in D. Herzog, (ed.) Brutality and Desire: War and Sexuality in Europe’s Twentieth Century (Basingstoke, 2008), pp. 109-134

L. J. Podles, review of J. Boswell, Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (New York, 1994) <Online>

[accessed on 24/11/2012]

C. Heath, ‘Tell: An Intimate History of Gay Men in the Military’ <Online> [accessed on 23/11/2012]

R. Crews, ‘Homosexuals in the Military Demand Special Privileges’ <Online> [accessed on 23/11/2012]

K. Webley, ‘Brief History of Gays in the Military’ <Online>,9171,1960257,00.html [accessed on 24/11/2012]


Mali, Historical Precedents and France

Giles Longley-Cook looks at the situation in Mali and French involvement in the region.

Once again a rich Western power is involving itself militarily in the affairs of a third world nation, supplying aid and armed force to the side it deems friendly to its national interests. Time for protests, calls of corruption, anger, condemnation…

Oh wait; it’s not America intervening. OK cancel all that. No, the gung-ho power on this occasion is France. ‘What?’ you ask ‘The country we praised for not bowing to American pressure and invading Iraq with us?’

French Supporter

Yes France, not a country we consider too much militarily these days, has now involved itself, with the UK in close pursuit, in the military conflict in Mali. While not in large numbers, its troops are occupying frontline positions in the battle to eradicate Islamist rebels in the North.

With such similarities to the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan (the fight against Islamism, defence of dodgy allies, technological advantages and history of interference with the countries involved) it’s hard to see why one should be accepted as a necessary intervention while the others continue to attract revulsion as imperialist ventures. A certain level of snobbery can be detected in the opinions given of either. Europe, the old money, likes its international relations to remain small-scale, tasteful, unhindered by any vulgar overt displays of action or principle. America on the other hand is the Nouveau Riche power; brash, flashy, confidant, in-your-face. And like the quiet struggle between any elite and rising group, European disdain for the uncouth ways of our transatlantic cousins comes with a barely veiled hint of jealousy and fear.

The truth is that whatever the motivations behind and the methods used in American foreign policy, and boy can they be terrible in both, any imperialism or self-interest has come in varying degrees. If you want a record of foreign policy that bears an almost unbroken stream of both those two motivations, look no further than that of post ww2 France. Obvious early examples include the terror campaigns waged in their colonies in Algeria and Indochina in the 50’s, campaigns of a similar nature to the ones this country was waging simultaneously in our own holdings. Those wars were well-publicised and assignable to a forgotten/reviled colonial age. But with overt intervention off the table a new era has arisen in ex-French West Africa, one of covert financing, deals, non-committal support and, if putting troops on the ground is necessary, plausible deniability.

Earlier examples of such behaviour, and the worst, include the ‘friendly and fraternal’ cooperation with Jean-Bedel Bokassa, ruthless dictator of the Central African Republic, first putting him in power with a bloody coup, then propping up his vile regime, aiding his overthrow once he’d become too much of an embarrassment and finally giving him sanctuary on the French Riviera, avoiding cannibalism charges alongside other spat out despots. Since then the butcher’s bill has included French military and financial aid used to overthrow the progressive Sankara regime in Burkina Faso, reducing the nation to backward servitude, full on involvement in conflicts in Ivory Coast and Chad, and, while the rest of the world remained shamefully silent, involvement in the Rwandan genocide to save Europeans and sabotage the anti-genocide rebels.

Very rarely has the UN ever been consulted over these decisions and bare-faced self-interest, financial and political, from national levels to the personal business of presidents, has commonly been the deciding factor behind them. The recent Mali intervention is almost unique in that it is against evil totalitarian forces, but then so was the invasion of Afghanistan. The fact that one is seen as a crime and the other as reasonable has yet to be rectified.

Between Shackleton and Chamberlain: Japanese options concerning the Senkaku Islands

The Falkland Islands: A lesson missed?

Thirty years and hundreds of books and articles after the 1982 Falklands War in the South Atlantic, not to mention films, documentaries, and academic conferences, it may not be unreasonable to expect that the lessons of the conflict had been learned. Foremost among those lessons would be that the failure to develop the economy of a contested territory sends a signal to would-be aggressors indicating that it will not be defended, thus inviting foreign powers to use force. This is what happened when successive British governments failed to invest in the Falkland Islands, insisting instead on forcing the local inhabitants to “cooperate” with Argentina in the hope that growing trade and investment links would pave the way to an orderly transfer of sovereignty. In the words of a minister to his Argentine counterparts, it was matter of “seduction, not rape.”

Not content with forcing the locals to accept an Argentine presence in key sectors such as air transportation, London commissioned a report by a committee headed by Lord Shackleton (son of the great explorer) with the thinly disguised intention of proving once and for all that the Falklands were an economic ‘dead end’ and not worthy of any attention. The move backfired, however, with the resulting text reaching the opposite conclusion that they did have a future as long as certain essential changes and investments took place. This advice, however, was not heeded even though it succeeded in convincing some in Argentina that British investors were about to intervene, creating the need for Argentina to act promptly to preempt Britain.

The Senkakus – History repeating itself?

The rest, as they say, is history. Unfortunately, though, not history whose lessons have been learned in countries such as Japan. There, the government keeps blocking the economic development of the Senkaku Islands, which China claims under the name “Diaoyu”, with Beijing orchestrating a constant string of incidents.  Taiwan also claims sovereignty over the islands, with Beijing and Chinese nationalists in Taiwan not too secretly hoping that this overlapping claim will help bring about the latter’s Anschluss.

Why is Tokyo still insisting on keeping the islands out of bounds for ordinary Japanese citizens? The issue is now under the spotlight following a string of incidents this summer and the proposal by Tokyo Governor Ishihara to buy three of the islands from their private owners with a view to their economic development. Ishihara later offered to desist in exchange for the Japanese Government building a fishing harbour in the area.

Bureaucrats at Japan’s Foreign Ministry, however, are still trying to achieve peace in our time with China and the government has moved to buy these islands, not to develop them as Governor Ishihara wanted, but to reinforce the policy of freezing them from any meaningful development of presence of Japanese citizens. Not surprisingly, this has been interpreted by China as a sign of weakness, and scenting blood the regime has authorized a number of demonstrations over recent months, many of which have turned violent. In addition to some attacks on Japanese citizens in China, a number of business facilities owned by Japan or somehow connected to the country have been set on fire or otherwise damaged.

Thousands of Anti-Japan protesters march in Shenzhen, Southern China

In spite of this, many mainstream newspapers are supporting the view that it is endless talks, instead of a firm posture, that will reduce the chances of war. Their reaction to the widespread riots has just been to ask for more talks, more dialogue, more peace initiatives, in other words more appeasement. They seem to have forgotten the lesson of the long years of talks between London and Buenos Aires, leaving the Falklands starved of much needed investment, and they are suggesting the same approach: talks without development.

How has such an important lesson in inviting aggression by a continental power bent on maritime expansion been forgotten? Should not the events leading to the 1982 Argentine invasion have acted as a warning to the well-meaning Japanese voices calling for talks instead of the economic development of the Senkaku? Unfortunately two traits in human nature militate against this: the expectation that by being reasonable so will be one’s adversaries, and that elusive but seemingly natural and superficially attractive search for “peace”.

After decades of keeping the Senkaku Islands “frozen”, as a token of good intentions and in a bid not to “provoke” Beijing, there is not the slightest thread of evidence that the policy has succeeded in moderating China’s claims or the options to which she may be ready to resort to secure her objectives. Furthermore, Japanese weakness is not only whetting Chinese appetites but offering them an opening to undermine Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty and ‘real’ democracy. Needless to say, preventing the island becoming part of China once more is a major Japanese national security imperative. We could even say that the value of the Senkaku Islands themselves lies to a great extent in their proximity to Taiwan, to a Taiwan out of China’s grasp. If Beijing came to dominate or even ‘Finlandize’ the island, Japan would see her Southern flank and some vital SLOCs (sea lines of communication) cut off anyway, regardless of the fate of the Senkaku.

Thus Japan has two options, just like Great Britain in the 1970s: the Shackleton approach, defended by Governor Ishihara, or that of the Foreign Office, still dominant in political circles. Although history rarely repeats itself exactly, those advocating the latter course would do well to examine some troubling historical precedents.


Alex Calvo is a student at the MA in WWII Studies, University of Birmingham

The problem with Assad’s aerial strategy…

Assad this week.


With attack helicopters and Russian fighter jets plummeting to the ground around Syria, it could be suggested that President Assad’s air campaign is faltering. In June, Defence IQ published an article called ‘What do Russian attack helicopters say about Syrian strategy?’ Three months on we ask: what has changed – and why?…

Three months ago Syria was denied a shipment of Russian MI-35 attack helicopters, which was a significant blow to the regime.

As suggested in the original article:

If the attack helicopters had arrived, it would have significantly increased the Syrian Arab Army’s capacity to conduct successful counter-insurgency operations, enabling it to root out rebels embedded deep within cities and providing aggressive cover to its own authorities on the ground.

The failure to obtain new hardware has meant that Assad has been relying on an increasingly decrepit armoury. A tweet from FSA leader, Riad al Assad, said:

Reports coming in saying 50% of Assad’s hind attack helicopters may be grounded due to lack of spare parts loyal pilots and poor maintenance.

This will be of concern to President Assad. His strategy has only occasionally launched air strikes from fixed-wing jets, but instead tends to rely on helicopters for air strikes in urban areas.

The most recent images of a helicopter being shot down will do nothing to inspire confidence in his strategy.

When fighting in COIN operations, losing control of the skies has historically marked the beginning of the end for many governments against insurgent forces, from Afghanistan to Libya. Whilst it would be bold to suggest that President Assad no longer has an aerial advantage, it is becoming apparent that he is losing his monopoly in aerial supremacy.

There are several explanations for why this could be, they are as follows::

The kit

The equipment that the Syrian army has is poorly maintained and out of date, thus making them prone to malfunction. For example, the MiG Jet that the regime claims crashed due to a technical fault rather than the skill or will of the enemy. Speaking of which…

The will of the enemy

The capabilities that the FSA have may be underestimated. As with any force that has employed guerrilla methods, the insurgent will find a weakness and then exploit it with any and all available resources. There is an obvious corollary between the growth and variety of the insurgent’s resources, and the vulnerabilities the enemy faces.

For the FSA, a significant boost to their armoury has been the introduction of (admittedly, crude but nonetheless dangerous) SA-7 anti-aircraft systems. These are handheld, heat-seeking SAMs developed during the cold war and are a genesis of the Stinger launchers used by American forces.

Social media

How can social media impact upon COIN aerial strategy? The answer is not obvious – Facebook can not shoot down a jet (…yet). However, what social media does provide is a platform to influence, convince and indoctrinate on a level previously impossible.

The FSA have learnt from other insurgent campaigns around the world and are using social media to shape the battlefield. Take Hezbollah for example; its media campaign has seen them even producing their own TV channel. In a similar way, the FSA are using platforms such as YouTube to broadcast anything that may be of strategic advantage, which is then amplified as it spreads to a global audience.

Therefore, regardless of whether or not you are cynical of the videos of jets and helicopters being ‘shot down’, their presence on global media platforms gives the impression that the Assad regime is weakening, whilst the FSA is becoming stronger and more capable. The impact that this has is not restricted to our living rooms, but has a direct impact on the battlefield, causing fear and doubt to spread. Logic would dictate that if a regime cannot maintain its instruments of control it will inevitably crumble. This is why presenting these instruments as inadequate is of such importance.


An alternative reason for why President Assad’s air force looks vulnerable may be because he is attempting to conserve the most valuable air warfare assets in case of a foreign intervention. If true, this decision resides in the grey space between the bold and the foolhardy. If operations in Libya are anything to go by then it is unlikely that trying to preserve some of his better, yet still old kit, will make much of a difference in preventing no-fly zones being implemented.  More than half of the planes are understood to be 30-year-old MiG-21s and MiG-23s; only 40 or so MiG-29s can be described as modern. More valuable is his ground-to-air assets that overshadow those of Gaddafi and have since caused hesitation among NATO forces where intervention is concerned. But how long can these be preserved from the rebel mob – or indeed kept in operation by a dwindling ground force?

What seems apparent from these points is that President Assad lacks the resources and the nous to implement an effective aerial COIN strategy; he and his leaders have B-grade equipment and are not using it to optimal capability. This equipment and those operating it are bending under the pressure, leading inevitably to mistakes and defections. There are certainly smarter ways to use airpower for COIN.

Many commentators agree that the Assad regime will fall eventually, with the dissection of the state now beyond the point of no return. That prediction should be taken with a degree of pessimism; with the removal of President Assad, he will of course leave behind a power vacuum. And those who fill that gap may not be as opposed to using chemical weapons as Assad has so far been.

In a recent Defence IQ article, James Farwell discusses this issue in more depth:

Potential loss of control over WMDs may pose a threat, considering the terror groups that would like to get their hands on them. Col. Riad al-As’ad, head of the opposition Free Syrian Army, says al-Qaeda is not operating in Syria. But al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has reportedly ordered followers to infiltrate the Syrian opposition. Sunni radicals associated with the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group that includes al-Qaeda, have urged fighters to go to Syria. And one should not doubt al-Qaeda’s determination to acquire WMDs – Osama bin Laden once professed that acquiring chemical or nuclear weapons is “a religious duty.”

WMDs could be smuggled into Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank or elsewhere. In the past, Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have all attempted to acquire chemical or biological weapons. In a sign of precisely how destabilizing some view this threat, Israeli officials have warned that Syria transferring chemical weapons to Hezbollah would constitute a declaration of war.

The introduction of rogue chemical weapons would indeed be a game changer, and would have a huge impact on the likelihood of a quick resolution.

The use of such weapons will not bring the war to an abrupt end, but will instead expand into a far more lethal and long-term conflict. If we take Iraq as an example; the consequences of Saddam Hussein using chemical weapons against the Kurds during the Iran-Iraq War 1980 to August 1988 are still being felt today. In fact, lest we forget, the fear that Saddam possessed WMDs was premise for invasion by US and allied forces in 2003. Arguably, the lack of evidence post-invasion of these assets has in itself limited the strategic options now available in the Syria scenario.

While Assad may be slipping from power, he is still holding cards tightly to his chest. Whether he tips his hand or the rebels call his bluff remains a waiting game

An interview with someone in the know on Apache Attack Helicopters

Afraid I’m not permitted to reveal my source (which is  quite cool for a novice writer!). This is an interview I had whilst working at DefenceIQ.

Thoughts and comments welcome.

What makes the Apache unique?

Although the Apache was designed in the 1970s as a tank killer, when that threat vanished, Apache operators learned it was capable to perform more missions than originally visioned. So the Apache is able to perform missions along all spectrums of conflict.

Iit runs the gamut of reconnaissance and surveillance to attack modes. It is a very successful design and over the past 25-30 years the aircraft has continued to be upgraded with current technologies. And new technologies as they are available are put in block form.

A very efficient development process was established early, which is really amazing when you think about its development over more than 30 years. The A model has evolved into the D model.  The Cobra has had a long life but it has gone through the alphabet and now is up to Z – Zulu.

The Apache started at A and went directly to D — no B or C designation, which is interesting.

The fully integrated capability, the ability to use its radar to scan the battlefield, to be able to communicate and eliminate the need for voice chats – all these things give the Apache unique advantages on the battlefield. Its performance, the ability to be maintained in the field and the ability to survive attacks are its key attributes.

If you go back and look at some of the stories from the Desert Storm through current Operations you can learn a lot about the Apache and how it has been deployed.

There is one story of a battalion of Apaches, more than 20 helicopters, which flew across Iraq in the middle of the night. Local residents were on their cell phones telling soldiers that the helicopters were coming. When the helicopters arrived, the situation was not as they expected and the aircraft turned around and headed back.But they flew through a gauntlet of enemy fire that damaged the aircraft but did not bring them down. Every one of the helicopters made it back safely even though they had been shot up.

The aircraft is capable of taking hits, and it’s capable of surviving.

All of these factors make the Apache unrivalled in combat.  Its ability to perform is what makes it unique.

What are its specific strengths?

Well its lethality is the main thing.  And survivability it critically important too.

The ability to shoot targets without being seen.

The ability to fire missiles from extended ranges so that the enemy doesn’t even know its coming.

It’s the kind of thing that the enemy is afraid of – it makes them not want to go out to work that day! They don’t know if they’ll come back.

That’s how bad Apache is!

When you look at the videos that have leaked out over the years, you understand that when you are a target you are in trouble.

Does the Apache have an advantage over other attack helicopters?

The Apache has the ability to see further and can effectively deploy weapons at greater ranges than other attack helicopters   These and other technolgies make the Apache stand out as unique.

The prevailing message seems to be that the Apache has many competitors, but no competition.

The bottom line is that the Apache has proven it can perform and that it can be efficiently maintained.

One documented fact that is valuable is looking at the number of flight hours the Apache has logged – more than 3.5 million. It has been in constant use in very dangerous and unfriendly environments.

Until another helicopter has matching data, it’s hard to compare Apache to anything.

One other thing that Apache does better than anyone else is modernization through what is called the “technology roadmap.”

‘A’ models were still being produced when testing was begun to incorporate digital capabilities.

As the US Army was fielding thethe first ‘D’ models, designers and engineers were already looking at the next generationApache.  Though its evolution the aircraft has transformed from black and white monotone screens to full colour moving map displays, eliminating the need for radio conversation to collect data and communicate with forces on the ground.

As Apache has added capabilities, the helicopter has become more effective and setting itself apart from the competition.

What are the key upgrades?

Today’s AH-64D Apache Block III, first delivered in October 2012,features increased flight performace with  an improved drive system which provides the ability to use more power from its  engines, and composit rotor blades.

It has increased the situational awareness with cognitive decision-aiding and fused sensor information resulting in improved survivability and targeting

System-level diagnostics,  upgrade to the fuselage –  strengthening it – is part of the aircraft’s improved sustainability.

The upgrades to the computer processing – the Apache has a modular structure – open archtecture design —  enables new software to be uploaded  without having to requalify the whole aircraft.

These are the more significant aircraft enhancements.

Could you explain the UAV Synergy?

The new Block III Apache features Level 4 UAV control.  That means being able to direct a UAV’s flight path and the control it’s sensors.  It extends the crewmember’s vision, allowing them to seemiles ahead and seeing whether or not that’s the route they want to take or that’s the target they must go after.

Considering the targeting capabilities of the Apache, if the crew can see several miles ahead then they will be able to address the threat without even getting close enough to put themselves in danger.

Where can it be used?

The missions of the helicopter are the choice and decision of the battlefield commanderss.

The Apache has capabilities to be used in day/night operations, used in search and rescue, command and control.

If you put these capabilities in to the equation and a defence force can apply it to a wide range of threats.

Where is the Apache going to be in 10 years?

The question really comes down to technology. If a new technology or capability is coming online then you can speculate.

There are a few articles published that talk about potential upgrades and capabilities.

The Syrian Maelstrom

By Dan Challacombe

All views are the author’s own.

Assad pictured here with General Dawoud Rajha, Defence Minister, killed in Wednesday’s bombing.

The 18th of July 2012 proved to be a momentous day for Syria, with fighting intensifying across the country.  Report after report came in detailing the events as they happened throughout the day.  The very heart of Bashar al-Assad’s government was struck by an attack, allegedly a suicide bombing, which targeted a meeting of some the Syrian regime’s most senior figures and claimed the lives of the Minister of Defence and Minister of the Interior, among others. Within an hour more news came through of another explosion, this time targeting the headquarters of the Syrian Arab Army’s main garrison unit in the city of Damascus. Throughout the afternoon Syrian state television broadcast pictures of government forces engaged in fierce street battles with unseen and unidentified enemies, while reports flooded into Western news agencies detailing the shelling of civilian neighbourhoods, the collapse of military units and more high-profile defections from Assad’s regime. Many have today asked what the future holds for Syria, and questions are also being asked about how the International Community can, or perhaps more realistically will, respond to a change in government.

Map showing the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Perhaps more serious, however, is the greater concern over Syria’s remaining capabilities. Despite the fact that large parts of the country are out of the government’s control, the Syrian State still packs a punch fearsome enough to discourage its rivals from intervening in its affairs. Most obviously, American pressure on the Al-Assad regime has been met with increased Syrian hostility towards Israel. The Assad government has long bankrolled and equipped Hezbollah, the Islamist movement which controls much of Southern Lebanon.  Hezbollah is now arguably better placed to strike at Israel than Syria’s regular army, not least since, according to unverified reports circulating since the afternoon of the 18th of July, the Syrian Army has pulled most of its forces out of the highly militarised Golan Heights to reinforce Damascus.  Despite the ferocious campaign mounted by Israel in the summer of 2006 to weaken the movement, Hezbollah maintains a fearsome arsenal of long-range rocket artillery and a sizeable ground force, and should Assad give the command, has the potential to cause Israel considerable problems.  It is worth noting that even in the darkest days of the Israeli invasion in 2006 Hezbollah was still holding back from using its most capable weapons.

In addition Assad can still fall back on his extensive chemical arsenal, reputed to contain the nerve agents Sarin, VX and Tabun. The chemical aspect, alongside those elements of the Syrian conventional arsenal as yet unaffected by the internal strife such as air defence installations and long-range artillery could prove extremely problematic should an external power attempt to use direct action to support the Free Syrian Army. The existing support for the Free Syrian Army from outside,  for example the supply of arms by Qatar and the logistical aid from Turkey and allegedly also the US and the UK  has already caused tension and been used as a pretext for Russia and Iran to make gestures in support of the Syrians.

Russia remains Syria’s strongest Western ally, vetoing UN sanctions for the third time on Thursday.

It has been alleged, without confirmation or independent proof of course, that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is actively involved in fighting the Free Syrian Army, and that a strong force of Russian Naval Infantry are ensuring that the neighbourhood of their base at Tartus remains quiet. Even if these allegations prove to be untrue, Russian support for Assad is still considerable enough to prevent the UN from acting decisively against him. Although Assad’s military has suffered considerably over the course of the uprising and Syria’s economy has effectively been shattered by fighting and limited sanctions, international condemnation alone, it seems, cannot shift Assad from his position of power.

A further concern to those watching developments in Syria will surely be whether the Syria that emerges from the dust will be an open, democratic country or not. Already there have been rumours of Jihadist involvement in the civil war, although it is unclear who they might be fighting for. Pessimists in the West fear that the fall of Assad will open the way for a radicalization of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority and the creation of a new failed state in the heart of the Middle East. Others cite the outpouring of religious sentiment that comes with every turn of the savage conflict as being the beginning of a vicious sectarian battle which may threaten to consume Syria’s minority Christian, Alawite and Druze communities. Certainly, some factions within the Free Syrian Army use the terminology and methods of the extremist militants who fought tenaciously against the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ in Iraq. However, the extent to which there is really a religious element to the war is difficult to gauge. After all, similar religious fervour was expressed during the intense fighting of the Libyan Civil War in 2011, but the successor government to the Colonel Gaddafi’s Jamahiryya has so far proven to be moderate and democratic. Likewise, despite Western fear-mongering, there has not been a collapse in Egypt, despite the election of many moderate religious figures in the first ever truly free elections there. Indeed, the few Syrian voices which have been heard in the West seem to be committed to fair elections and the end of the repressive Ba’athist system.

Regardless of the path Syria chooses on the road to recovery from this devastating conflict, however, one thing is clear. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been dealt a grave blow in recent days. It still retains formidable power over the lives of millions of innocent people, and it has proved that it is unafraid of employing methods of terror and brutality in crushing its opponents. Now it only remains for the UN to decide on the cost of Syria’s freedom; let us hope that a decision can be reached before that cost becomes too high.

Editor’s Note:  Since Wednesday 18th July, Free Syrian Army forces have taken border posts on the Iraqi and Turkish borders, creating hugely valuable ‘safe zones’ through which arms may be transported into Syria.  In addition, the FSA has begun to move into Damascus itself, with fierce fighting raging through the streets, and thousands fleeing their homes.  The conflict has reached a crucial point, with one historian labelling current FSA actions as a ‘guerrilla war’.  We shall be watching with great interest the developments of the coming weeks.  Are Assad’s days now truly numbered?

Army cuts cast shadow over future of QEC carriers?

The Army cuts announced by Defence Secretary Philip Hammond, which will see personnel fall from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2020, have “increased uncertainty where clarity was needed” according to Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy.

According to Robert Fox, Defence Correspondent at the London Evening Standard, these cuts are entirely “political… [the Army is] living on a wish and a prayer of the most doctrinaire Tory policy that private industry will succeed.”

Jim Murphy, Shadow Secretary of State for Defence took a more muted tone, suggesting that decisions should not be made in purely military or business terms, but should also “make societal sense.”

Whilst a lot remains open to speculation one big question is whether the future of the two Queen Elizabeth-class (QEC) aircraft carriers that are being built are safe in either Tory or Labour hands?

The announcement today has led to fears that not only the Army but also a major programme will be cut, with some fearing it will be the two QEC carriers that are sacrificed.

At a conference today Mr Fox warned, “One or two major equipment programmes will go” and recommended people “take their shares out of aircraft carriers.”

Cancelling the contract of the carriers would be a massive decision, one that should not be made lightly. The consequences would go far beyond “throwing good money after bad money,” Mr Murphy said.

As Rees Ward, CEO of defence industry association ADS noted, “When we lose capabilities, regenerating them takes more than just building and buying – it will take a generation to rebuild.”

This is certainly true; history has taught us that strategic culture can not simply be bought. This is technological determinism at its ugliest. When a capability is lost, the knowledge and experience of the previous generation goes with it.

Mr Fox strongly criticized how “doctrine [has been] ossified into dogma.” He continued, contesting that the general education of our leaders is “impoverished” because it focuses “too much on instruction rather than wisdom.”

So to lose any ‘wisdom’ would be a major blow to the capabilities of the British Forces. It could lead to a dearth of wisdom that could be vital in the next 10-20 years.

To paraphrase Mr Murphy, “the coalition of cuts will prevent bringing together the coalition of the capable.”

It would be foolish to throw away generations worth of experience, especially in the case of the UK’s carrier strike capability.

Professor Trevor Taylor of RUSI gives another angle, believing that the “carriers are rock solid safe”. He reasoned that it is necessary “to take in the wider factors” aside from cost savings alone. One of the key factors preventing the cancelation is the damage it would cause to Anglo-American industrial and political relations.

Cancelling the aircraft carriers will mean the cancelling the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter contract, Taylor argued. Apart from the obvious strategic implications this would have, the move would as also suggest the UK had lost significant faith in US industry to provide world-beating capabilities.

The rhetoric coming from the Labour camp shows no sign of lacking faith in the F-35B. Labour MP Alison Seabeck stated “the F-35B is an incredibly capable piece of kit … it is the right one put forward.”

A view unsurprisingly supported by Mr Ward: “The F-35B is likely to offer the best capability.” For Ward, ensuring a sense of confidence in the market for industries to come to the UK and invest seemed to be a priority.

The UK is currently the second largest defence exporter in the world, providing over 300,000 jobs and contributing billions to the economy. To lose the confidence of the market would be a disaster; as one of the panellists at today’s conference said “R&D and S&T are vital to this country. We can not turn it off like a tap – it would be death for this nation.”

Whilst Mr Fox’s prophesy is yet to be proved or dispelled, the belief of this writer is that at least one carrier will be flying the Union flag in a few years time. The question is then: Which major programme will be cut?

France: Out of the frying pan and into…Syria?

France’s new President François Hollande recently announced that French troops will withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, one year earlier than initially planned. Until recently, Hollande has remained relatively mooted in terms of his overall defence policy. His election was won on the arguably more urgent economic crisis than it was for his stance on getting soldiers out of the desert.

Despite this, the most divisive issue confronting him is perhaps now not the Eurozone debate, but instead responding to the heightening atrocities in Syria.  Some commentators have suggested that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is a cynical move to enable him to justify intervention in Syria. Whether this is the route that should be taken is as much a bone of contention for all French citizens as it is for their new head of state. What is known is that real action, be it political, economic or military-led, must be carried out quickly as each day sees new reports emerge of fatalities.

A point asserted by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius is that he will call on the UN Security Council to make mediator Kofi Annan’s Syria peace plan mandatory. This would be achieved through the implementation of the UN’s Chapter Seven provision, which permits the use of force.

The type of support the French could provide has not been disclosed, but what is likely is that – as in Libya – France could support the intervention through attempted air dominance, beginning with electronic strikes to disable the ground-to-air defences Syria currently holds in its deck.

As we know, air power played the deciding role in Libya. In the words of Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard, Commander of the NATO operations in Libya, “the use of attack helicopters [provided] the NATO operation with additional flexibility to track and engage pro-Gadhafi forces who deliberately [targeted] civilians and [attempted] to hide in populated areas.”

As mentioned in my previous article on the subject, attack helicopters provide a level of accuracy and firepower not necessarily possible with high flying, high speed fighter jets. Of course, Assad has just lost out on several new units of the Russian Mi-35 owing to NATO’s stance on arms coming into the country.

While Syria is obviously a different conflict it is not known just how much NATO’s aerial tactics would need to re-adapt between last year’s mission and this new theoretical intervention. We hear time and again that Syria is not simply a stone’s throw from Libya, but that it instead presents a more genuine risk of loss of life among troops. Would Hollande roll the die so early into his career given the impact that such publicity has on the home front? Would his left-wing supporters back the exchange of one conflict for another? And would France’s significant Muslim population (now 10 per cent of the total) see him as an aggressive dabbler in the affairs of the Middle East, or as a saviour of the downtrodden?

Air Assets and Spec Ops

The industry will be playing close attention to developments in Syria and the use of attack helicopters, EW capabilities, fast jets and early warning systems. Several different rotary wing platforms, for example, could already be lined up: the British with their Apaches, the French with the Eurocopter Tigers or Aérospatiale Gazelles, and the Italian’s Agusta A129 Mangustas – all itching to again prove their worth.

There is also the new kid on the block – Turkey’s home-grown T129, based on the Agusta A129 Mangusta, which could see Syria as the ideal testing ground to advertise its capabilities to the defence market. The Turkish Army could also bag vital operational lessons, which those with an eye on Kurdish relations would be wise to consider.

While speculation remains over how to deal with Bashar al-Assad’s arsenal, one thing that is known is that intervening nations will do all they can to avoid ground engagement beyond Special Force operations, so as to wage a more covert, low-risk and impersonal fight. As strategic analyst James Farwell has mentioned recently, it is thought by some that French COS task forces may already be working their way through Syria’s streets.

Hollande need only look to his US counterpart to see just how a left-leaning leader can indeed operate an aggressive campaign without coming across as a hawk to his supporters at home.

What do Russian attack helicopters say about Syrian strategy?

The cargo ship supposedly transporting attack helicopters to Syria has returned to Russia.Russian-made attack helicopter

MV Alaed had no option but to turn back after its insurance was withdrawn by The Standard Club in London.

The withdrawal was made as the ship reached 50 miles off Scotland’s north coast, preventing it from sailing until it could secure new cover.

Foreign Secretary William Hague discouraged anyone from attempting to provide arms to the Syrian government during the civil crisis.

“We’ve had discussions with Russia about that specifically and I’m pleased that the ship that was reported to be carrying arms to Syria has now turned back apparently towards Russia.”

Riad al Assad, commander of the Free Syrian Army, tweeted mockingly that Russia is acting like the Soviet Union during the cold war: “Breaking news #Syria Russian cargo vessel carrying arms and attack helicopters has started its journey back to the USSR”.

The attack helicopters being mentioned could be a variant of the Mil Mi-35, the export version of the Mi-24. The Brazilian air force has recently bought twelve Mi-35’s as part of its modernisation programme.

The Brazilian government uses the Mi-35 for a number of roles; air policing, border security and counter-narcotics operations.

If it is true that the Syrian government are trying to get hold of Attack Helicopters it reveals a lot about how they view the conflict panning out over the coming weeks.

One Mi-35 costs roughly $25 million (£15.9 million). So the procurement of several of these helicopters is no small investment by the Syrian government. It suggests that the current strategy being used is not entirely effective and that the Free Syrian army are using insurgent tactics that have been successful in other conflicts. From this, it could be inferred that the Syrian government is preparing for a protracted war.

However, questions are being asked of whether Assad’s forces can maintain pressure on the rebels when their resources are being restricted by embargo. If the attack helicopters had arrived, it would have significantly increased the Syrian Arab Army’s capacity to conduct successful counter-insurgency operations, enabling it to root out rebels embedded deep within cities and providing aggressive cover to its own authorities on the ground. The psychological edge alone could have been decisive.

The Attack Helicopter

The attack helicopter has demonstrated its suitability to counter-insurgency and urban warfare across the world. In Libya the British use of the Apache provided significantly enhanced aerial precision compared to fighter jets. Its manoeuvrability means it can pursue units trying to intermingle with the civilian population.

The Russians have used the attack helicopter to some effect in their conflict with Chechen insurgents. The Karmov KA50 accompanied by an Mi-24 (the domestic model of the Mi-35) destroyed a warehouse full of ammunition belonging to Chechen insurgents. Additionally, in the forest covered mountain area to the south of the village of Tsentoroj, KA-50s were involved in the discovery and destruction of a fortified camp of insurgents.

The Turkish government has also realised the importance of the attack helicopter and have produced their own, designated the T129 (and could be leveraged in the ongoing tensions with the bordering Kurdish population.)

Although these are different conflicts in different environments there are similarities in the tactics that insurgents use. From the Vietcong, to Brazil (where factions of Hezbollah have been known to operate shoulder to shoulder with FARC insurgents), to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, similarities can be drawn.

One of the key tactical and strategic elements outlined by the Mao Zedong, the forefather of modern guerrilla warfare is that “the guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” Considering that Assad does have a strong support base despite also having a strong opposition, differentiating friend from foe could prove to be a huge challenge for Syrian commanders, should rebels seek to exploit their ability to merge into the crowd.

Unfortunately for the Syrian government, if it has been unable to secure helicopter support for both combat and urban surveillance, its counter strategy may already be sporting a large hole.

Defence IQ will publish a full report within the next few days on Attack Helicopter assets worldwide, which will be found on the International Close Air Support download centre.

What was in the crate?

The MI-35

  • The helicopter has six suspension weapon units on the wingtips.
  • It is equipped with a YakB four-barrelled, 12.7mm, built-in, flexibly mounted machine gun, which has a firing rate of 4,000-4,500 rounds a minute
  • It can also carry the longer-range Ataka anti-tank missile system with a maximum range of 8km.
  • It can also be armed with rockets and grenade launchers.
  • There is the option of fitting it with countermeasures that include infrared jammer, radar warner and flare dispensers.
  • Maximum payload 2,400KG
  • Air speed, km/h: maximum 320, cruising 280
  • Range, km 450
  • Powerplant 2 x TV3-117VMA turboshafts
  • Crew: 2

Stats and image courtesy of