Tag Archives: Military

Urban Combat: Lessons from Chechnya

At its widest point, Russia spans nearly 5,000 miles from the Vistula Spit in the west to the Kuril Islands in the east. In 1994, its military numbered 1.4 million. It had a massive air force and heavily armed infantry, along with the latest technologies like guided missiles.

Chechnya is a small, impoverished region about the size of Connecticut. It has been inhabited for over 40,000 years and been a part of many empires, from Persian to Russian to Soviet.

In 1991, Chechnya declared independence from Russia. Reports of mistreatment of the Russian minority inflamed tensions with Russia, and Russia began to bomb the tiny breakaway republic on December 1st, 1994. (This same casus belli was used by Putin against Ukraine.)

For 12 years over two separate wars, this tiny country held off the Russian colossus. How did they do it? As former Navy SEAL Commander Jocko Willink details in his excellent podcast, superior leadership and infantry tactics outweighed Russia’s seeming advantages.

Russian soldiers encountered unexpectedly heavy resistance as the fighting moved to Grozny, the capital. The Russian soldiers had major air power behind them, while the Chechen air force had been quickly destroyed at the beginning of the war.

But the Chechens neutralized Russia’s key advantage with a simple tactic: move closer. The air force couldn’t bomb the Chechens without bombing their own comrades as well. They bombed away anyhow, and many Russian soldiers died of friendly fire.

Their air superiority neutralized, the Russian military’s shortcomings in more basic areas became evident. They didn’t have ladders to get into buildings, an essential urban combat tool. Their leaders micromanaged and worked at cross purposes.

Chechens terrorized the Russians whenever they could. They put the heads of Russian soldiers on pikes for the survivors to see. Booby traps were everywhere (an echo of America’s experience in Vietnam and Iraq). Many Russian soldiers began to suffer mentally, and either became unable to fight or indiscriminate in their aggression, attacking civilians and driving the population to the insurgents.

Maybe it all started when the Russian soldiers stopped shaving. This was the first breakdown in discipline. It was small, but noticeable. Later, soldiers stopped following rules about boiling drinking water, leading to massive outbreaks of illness.

Eventually, Russian food supplies fell short. These tired soldiers, many of them teenagers, faced illness and hunger. The attacks from the Chechen rebels, many seasoned veterans of the USSR’s war against Afghanistan, were relentless.

Facing a grim situation in Chechnya and declining support for the war at home, Russia declared a ceasefire in 1996 and soon signed a peace treaty. Chechnya would ultimately fall after a second, and much longer, war. But this band of ill equipped rebels held off Russia for years, an incredible feat.

What did the Russian military learn from this, and what are the lessons for us? Here are a few key points:

  • Don’t count on airpower. Determined infantry wins wars.
  • Maintain discipline, even in small things.
  • Urban warfare is manpower intensive with high attrition. Be sure to have fresh troops available and an extensive mental health staff to deal with the psychological stresses of urban combat.
  • Get the civilian population on your side. Don’t hurt them. Respect their leaders and give your orders through them.

This is a fascinating history lesson that can inform US policy and even our daily lives. Where are we letting our own discipline slip?

Dig into these posts for more on history and the military:

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Photo: “Chechnya/Чече́нская” by LOreBoNoSi is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

From Anticommunist to Navy SEAL: “I Owe Everything to America”

“I owe everything to America.”

That’s Thomas ‘Drago’ Dzieran, who left Communist Poland in the 1980’s for freedom in America and became a Navy SEAL. His path to the teams is singular.

Drago began to oppose Communism at an early age. He refused to learn Russian in school and was promptly hauled to the principal’s office. The principal explained to him that if he refused again, he could be taken from his family and sent to a foster home.

This did not stop Drago from questioning the Communist system. He listened secretly listened to the BBC on the radio, a highly illegal act. There he learned that the Communist government was killing people in Poland. He covered himself in blankets to dampen the sound as he listened, but his mother scolded him to use even more blankets and pillows lest a neighbor hear. If anyone heard, she could go to prison.

But Drago didn’t need a radio broadcast to tell him things in Poland weren’t right:

“I was always cold in Poland because we didn’t have good clothes.”

Privation was the norm, and he often went to school hungry. He took to assaulting the children of high party members, who were well fed. If you want to eat tomorrow, bring two sandwiches, he told them.

As a young man, Drago found himself in a Polish prison for printing anti-Communist leaflets. When released, he emigrated to the United States, and found himself resettled in Memphis, Tennessee by a refugee program.

The luxury of America amazed him. He had never seen air conditioning before, and found himself particularly mesmerized by American grocery stores. The cereal aisle had so many choices, and the packages were so attractive, he decided to try one. And another, and another. Soon, his cart was full of 50 boxes of cereal! But he couldn’t stop his curiosity:

“I didn’t even know what a cereal was.”

After a stint as an auto mechanic, Drago was looking for a way to serve his adopted home. He settled on being a Navy SEAL, but at 32, he was at least 4-5 years beyond the typical age limit. No matter. He powered through the qualification tests and insisted on being allowed into BUD/S. Drago later distinguished himself as a SEAL during the Iraq war.

Drago’s commitment to freedom continues today, as the founder of a censorship-free social network called Connectzing.

What really struck me in this interview was Drago’s perseverance, along with the stark differences between the United States and where he comes from. On living conditions in Poland under Communism:

“I would trade my life in Poland for prison here.”

After all, they get food and medical attention! That’s better than he got much of his life.

Drago says he owes everything to America, and that’s equally true for those of us who are native born. Let’s seize the opportunity, remembering these words:

“This is America. You can be whatever you’re able to be.”

For more on leadership and service, check out these posts:

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Photo: “Navy SEAL Graduation” by uscgpress is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Palantir Is Losing $100 Million a Month With No End in Sight

Reddit’s Wallstreetbets loves Palantir Technologies, a Denver-based maker of data analytics software. The merry band of traders mention it more than any other stock, but the company has serious problems.

Big Losses

Palantir claims to make products that analyze data better than anyone else. If that’s true, why has the company never made a profit in 18 years?

“They’re massively unprofitable and they’ve never been able to figure it out,” [NYU Business Professor Scott] Galloway said, noting that it took Google three years to earn a profit, and Amazon seven.

Defense News

Revenue is increasing but losses are increasing much faster, as sales/marketing and general/administrative expenses explode. I don’t see how signing a few more government contracts is going to get them out of this.

In fact, Palantir spends more on sales and marketing than it does on R&D, per their latest quarterly report. This seems strange for a company whose whole value proposition is some technical “secret sauce”. Its sales and marketing expenses are massive, over half a billion dollars in just 9 months. Where is all this money going?

One clue from their latest quarterly filing:

we typically acquire new opportunities with minimal risk to our customers through short-term pilot deployments of our software platforms at no or low cost to them.

They provide costly free trials to customers, and that seems to be killing their financial results. But if that’s what customers are used to, can they move to another, more profitable model? That could be particularly difficult for a company that’s dependent on winning more and more business from the same group of customers. They’ve probably come to expect their free trial.

Dependent on Fundraising

Palantir claims to be a data analytics company but acts more like a fundraising machine. It has lost $3.8 billion and raised $3 billion, cumulatively. It’s also taken on debt to stem the bleeding.

You see this pattern very clearly in their 2020 report. They lose $1 billion in cash, issue $900 million in stock, and pile on $200 million in debt for good measure.

They have under $2 billion in the bank now and lost $1 billion in 9 months. Without new fundraising, that gives them 18 months until they’re broke. Maybe they can easily raise more funds. Maybe they can’t. Either way, a mature company should not be in such a precarious position.

I’m harping on the losses because this is not a new company beginning to build technologies and starting to scale. This is a mature business. It should be making money by now. Amazon and Google were well known for accepting some losses early in order to build and scale their business, but were still able to make a profit in just a few years.

What, Me Worry?

Another major risk is that their business is heavily concentrated in a few big government clients. If they lose one of those contracts, they could be in big trouble:

three clients — which Palantir did not name — accounted for almost a third of revenues.

Defense News

CEO Alex Karp doesn’t seem concerned, though. Maybe he’s too busy enjoying his $600,000 travel stipend to go…where exactly?

For more content on the Wallstreetbets phenomenon, try some of these:

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Photo: Palantir co-founder Peter Thiel. “Peter Thiel” by jdlasica is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sound Familiar?

Today, Myanmar’s (deeply flawed) democracy fell today to a military coup:

The coup follows a disputed election in November that Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won by a landslide. The main opposition party, the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, claimed the vote was marred by fraud. Myanmar’s election commission rejected the allegations but tensions between the two sides had been rising for weeks. The military made its move hours before Myanmar’s parliament had been due to sit for the first time since the National League for Democracy’s win in the Nov. 8 general election.

USA Today

More here.

Photo: “File:Remise du Prix Sakharov à Aung San Suu Kyi Strasbourg 22 octobre 2013-04 (cropped).jpg” by Claude TRUONG-NGOC is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0