Leadership: Reachback Makes a Comeback


February 14, 2024: The Ukraine War began, as most wars do, because of a miscalculation. In this case it was Russia, the invader believing the defending Ukrainians would be unprepared and unwilling to do what was needed to repulse the Russians. To the shock and surprise of the Russians, the Ukrainians did put a defense and an effective one at that. Ukraine received a lot of foreign assistance. This included large quantities of new, to Ukrainians, weapons sent by NATO countries. NATO could not send troops because NATO is a defensive organization created in the 1950s to deter Russian aggression. NATO does not go to war unless it is attacked, and Russia has been careful not to do that. One Russian reason for invading Ukraine was Ukrainian plans to become a NATO member.

For this reason, the countries sending weapons and equipment cannot send their own personnel to Ukraine to help maintain or repair the military aid. Since Ukraine is not a NATO member, NATO nations do not send their own troops or technicians into Ukraine. Neighboring Poland is a NATO member and has become the place where Ukrainians can go for training. Doing this effectively proved inconvenient or impossible because Poland did not have all the necessary resources to provide training on repairing or setting up new weapons systems.

A solution was soon found by updating a three decade old technique that used internet-connected troops in the combat zone with a large number of tech experts and other support personnel stationed anywhere in the world outside the combat zone. This was called reachback and one of the variations of reachback was used in Ukraine even before the 2022 invasion. This was because, after the brief 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine, a lot of NATO military and tech advisors went to Ukraine and established good relationships with the Ukrainians they supported. This often included trainers or support techs leaving Ukraine after their terms of service were up, but leaving behind their cell phone number and instructions to call any time they had an emergency the departing expert might be able to help with.

The current enhancement was the use of video software like Zoom so that groups of Ukrainians could participate in a tutorial by someone outside Ukraine on how to use, maintain or repair some new bit of equipment. The Ukrainians have been very resourceful and inventive themselves, and recognized the enhanced reachback capability was yet another way to make their military more effective than the Russians.

Reachback has been heavily used by American forces for over two decades. This has been the case even when the United States has very few troops on the ground in places like Iraq and Syria. In those situations, the Americans had to be resourceful finding targets for the coalition of NATO, Arab and other allied warplanes to attack. Just because the attacks were being made with precision munitions did not eliminate the risk of civilian casualties. There have been few of these, and none are ignored on the ground because Arab Islamic terrorists will invent them if they can rally more support to their cause. There have been so few civilian casualties because the coalition used new American intelligence techniques. This system uses many analysts based anywhere, usually in the United States, carefully examining the aircraft and UAV video and still photos for information that identifies Islamic terrorists and any nearby civilians. This is not easy just using overhead video and some electronic intercepts. The analysts do have software and electronic tools to get more out of the images and electronic chatter. Within minutes, hours, or days the analysts can provide highly accurate, and safe from the possibility of civilian casualties, GPS coordinates. Sometimes armed UAVs or aircraft are already overhead, waiting to be directed to a specific target.

This concept, which the U.S. began developing in the 1990s and used with increasing frequency after September 11, 2001, was called reachback. Originally this meant that some parts of a unit ordered overseas would remain in the United States and use Internet communications capabilities to do their work from their home base. Sending fewer people overseas is a major advantage, as it means less transportation, and supply effort is needed. Since the 1990s it has been noted that modern communications make it practical for some support units to stay behind, with no loss in effectiveness in the entire unit. Reservists make for better reachback troops, because they are required to go through more additional combat training before being sent overseas. Moreover, the reservists can be taken on and off active duty in case the workload unexpectedly increases or decreases.

Reachback works particularly well for intelligence work. With reachback, the few intel personnel in the combat zone are mainly there to work with local counterparts and provide them with intel collected by the UAVs and other sources. For the Iraq/Syria operation, which involves several hundred manned aircraft, UAVs, and several satellites, the reachback intel operation in the United States has been equally large, so that analysts can be quickly switched to the most important possible targets. Often, though, the analysts are looking at stakeouts extending several days, weeks or more into the battle area to identify who the enemy individuals are, where they fight from, which can be bunkers, buildings, or ruins where they place snipers or machine-guns. In addition, you want to know where they live and where they store their ammo and explosives and other supplies and which vehicles they use. Once the analysts believe they have the most targets they are going to find, they send the target list off to the waiting targeting analysts in the Middle East and the airstrikes are carried out as quickly as possible. The bombers have their own video cameras in targeting pods so they can double check for the presence of civilians or anything else the original analysts noted. In some cases, all the analyst activity back in the United States is to confirm the identity and location of one major leader or a meeting of key people. This will usually be attacked by a single aircraft or UAV. The Islamic terrorists know that when several warplanes appear overhead bad things are probably about to happen to them.

The same analyst teams used for air strikes in Syria and Iraq are composed of people with lots of experience at this. While their recent experience may be in Afghanistan or other parts of the Middle East like Yemen, Somalia and so on, most have spent time covering Iraq operations before 2011. The important thing is these men and women have lots of experience and skill with quickly adapting to new analysis software which have undergone many major updates since 2001. All this is made possible because of reachback. The main benefit is that reachback enables a lot of troops to operate from a foreign base without being there. Many other nations are noticing.

One of the most frequent uses of reachback is the operation of the larger American UAVs like Predator and Reaper. It involves operating UAVs with crews connected via satellite communications. In 2014 the United States established an intelligence base in Niger, which is the eastern neighbor of Mali and just south of Algeria and Libya. Only a hundred Americans are stationed there, most of them to maintain several American UAVs that fly surveillance missions over Mali. Thanks to satellite communications, this base has hundreds of other people involved in what it is doing, almost as if they were there, by using reachback. For example, most of the people actually operating the UAVs are back in the United States. Operating UAVs is very labor intensive, as you need a pilot and one or more sensor operators for something like the Predator or Reaper. In addition, you need shifts of operators because these air force UAVs typically stay in the air for 12-36 hours at a time. So having the operators back in the United States greatly reduces the number of people you have overseas. The UAV maintenance crews get the aircraft ready for take off and on the airstrip. But after that the flight operations crew back in the U.S. can take over.

In Ukraine, this enhanced reachback provided Ukrainian forces with yet another advantage over their Russian adversaries.




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