Why the Ukraine separatists screwed up: Badly organized insurgents can’t master complex weapons systems

July 21

Ukrainian rescue servicemen inspect part of the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on Sunday in Rassipnoye, Ukraine. (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)

Stephen Biddle is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and an adjunct senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Ivan Oelrich is a former vice president of the Strategic Security Program at the Federation of American Scientists, and serves as an adjunct professor of international affairs at George Washington University. 

For many people, “nonstate actors” are supposed to be ill-equipped militias, warlord bands or Vietcong insurgents in black pajamas. Because they lack sophisticated weapons, so the common assumption goes, they resort to irregular guerilla tactics. But if they somehow got modern precision weapons, it is often argued, they would quickly become a grave danger to state militaries like the Americans’ – or the Ukrainians. In fact, the increasing proliferation of modern weapons to nonstate actors has given rise to a new category of “hybrid” threatsnonstate actors who combine irregular or terrorist tactics with precision firepower, and which many now see as a central defense planning challenge for the United States.

This brings us to the problem of the Russian-designed SA-11 antiaircraft missile now widely believed to have shot down Malaysian Airlines flight 17 on July 17. Many now assume that Ukrainian separatist rebels acquired at least one SA-11 TEL (transporter-erector-launcher), and used it to fire the fatal shot. The SA-11 is certainly a sophisticated weapon: a modern, radar-guided surface-to-air missile (SAM), it has a slant range of over 20 miles, a speed of about Mach 3, and is capable of tracking and engaging multiple high-performance aircraft simultaneously. How, then, could such a sophisticated weapon shoot down a civilian airliner? And what, if anything, does this tell us about the larger problem of how to assess the threat posed by advanced weapons in nonstate actors’ hands?

In fact the real military capability conveyed by any given weapon is only weakly related to the weapon’s technical characteristics. Especially for nonstate militaries, the presence or absence of the institutional infrastructure needed to use complex systems effectively is a much stronger predictor of real power. Some nonstate actors are actually surprisingly mature on this score; others much less so. And the difference matters – a lot.

Consider the problem of modern air defense weapons, like, say, the SA-11. Modern airspace on a continent like Europe is crowded – there is often a complex mix of civilian aircraft, friendly combat planes and hostile threats intermingled in the sky. To use a SAM effectively requires, inter alia, the ability to shoot down only the enemy while avoiding everyone else. This is a tall order. In air defense, life and death decisions have to be made in minutes or seconds – jet aircraft close with potential targets at hundreds of miles an hour, and if a radar blip is actually an enemy airplane trying to kill you, you need to engage it as quickly as possible. All modern air defense systems thus have complex IFF (identification, friend or foe) systems to distinguish enemy aircraft from one’s own, and combat planes from civilian airliners. These systems typically combine antennas that receive coded transponder signals from friendly combat planes and noncombatant aircraft, software that uses features of the target’s radar signature to identify the kind of airplane being tracked, and contextual information received from other radars and communication systems in a larger network. Taken together, a trained crew, working with other trained crews in a networked IADS (integrated air defense system) can usually arrange to shoot down the enemy rather than someone else. But this is a very demanding job requiring close cooperation among many technically proficient people in many locations.

To do this well requires a well-functioning organization. A few individuals in one place operating on their own cannot accomplish this. Accuracy on these timelines demands constant practice and the ability to trust that other people in distant locations are themselves going to have the training and skills needed to make quick calls accurately on the basis of very abstract incoming information. A pickup team of separatist rebels, some of whom might have trained on similar equipment once upon a time when they used to be soldiers, few of whom have had much if any chance to train together, some of whom may represent factions who distrust other parts of the rebel movement, and many of whom may never have met one another or know whose faction other people in the radio net report to, is going to have a very hard time making fast, accurate, consistent decisions on what to fire at. This is so hard that even professional state militaries sometimes get this wrong: U.S. Patriot missile batteries have shot down more British fighters accidentally than the Iraqi Air Force ever did deliberately, and the USS Vincennes accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf in 1988. For a poorly institutionalized pickup militia of Ukrainian separatists to get this right, every time, is a very challenging project.

Yet some nonstate actors have shown impressive skill in using even complex modern weapons. In 2006, the Shiite militia Hezbollah deployed mobile encrypted communications systems, Russian-made SA-14 and SA-16 guided surface-to-air missiles, Iranian-made armed drones, and large numbers of modern guided antitank missiles, including the Russian-made second-generation Kornet and Metis-M systems, which they used very effectively against the Israel Defense Force. Hezbollah really does pose an important threat for Israelis. Crucially, Hezbollah in 2006 was among the most elaborately institutionalized nonstate actors in the world, with a formal hierarchical military command structure and a regime of multiple civil administrative agencies that ran an extensive system of clinics and schools in southern Lebanon. Though a nonstate actor, it resembled a state government in many important respects – including its military organization.

Other nonstate actors have had much less success. Many have long had access to far more sophisticated weapons than they could actually use. Mohammed Farah Aideed’s Somali Habr Gidr militia of Blackhawk Down fame, for example, had access to at least 86 modern wire-guided TOW antitank missiles during their battle with the U.S. Rangers in Mogadishu. The Habr Gidr proved unable to operate them, however, and they sat unused throughout the conflict. In fact, heavy weapons have long been much more widespread than the institutional maturity needed to use them effectively. As Stathis Kalyvas and Laia Balcells have shown, nonstate actors with conventional weapons have been common across the international system for decades. Real military power, by contrast, has been much more scarce.

For the Ukrainian separatists on July 17, this challenge was probably beyond their organizations’ capacity. The ability to defend airspace effectively is a much bigger problem than having the right radar and a fast missile. A nonstate actor’s hardware is simply not a good predictor of their real military capability: effectiveness lies in the interaction between an actor’s hardware and the institutional wetware that has to use it.

Past Monkey Cage posts on developments in Ukraine, Russia and Crimea can be found by clicking here. Recent posts include:

Joshua Rovner: Putin’s Grand Strategy is Failing

Ivan Katchanovski: What do citizens of Ukraine actually think about secession?

Oxana Shevel: Will the Malaysia Airlines tragedy change the trajectory of events in Ukraine?

Austin Long: Was the downing of the Malaysian Air flight accidental?

Henry Farrell: Europe may get a lot tougher on Russia sanctions

Sergiy Kudelia: Ukraine’s 2014 presidential election result is unlikely to be repeated

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