Return of the Marine Corps Red Cells

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 10 months ago

From Marine Corps Times:

Commandant Gen. Jim Amos is bringing back “red cell” groups, which he used while commanding Marines in Iraq, to study enemy tactics.

The groups formed of officers and staff noncommissioned officers were handpicked to analyze the enemy threat, including tactics, techniques and procedures on the front lines, and determine the necessary operations to defeat that threat.

Now, Amos hopes to bring the groups back for use in Afghanistan.

Amos’ cells in Iraq included an eclectic group of personnel with backgrounds in intelligence, information operations, logistics, ground combat and civil affairs. What Amos wanted from them, said a former cell leader, were frank assessments and open discussion that challenged conventional thinking. He ended each meeting by reminding his staff: “Let’s do it to them before they do it to us.”

A red cell “is a great way to insist you get a group of people looking at things differently than anyone else,” said retired Col. Gary I. Wilson, who coordinated Amos’ cell with 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at Al Asad Air Base in 2003 and 2004.

Amos’ operational principle was “don’t wait for something to happen, make it happen,” Wilson said.

When insurgents began to fire SA-16 anti-air missiles, Amos “immediately modified his tactics,” ordering more nighttime flights and adding survivable gear and equipment to helicopters, said Wilson, who later led one of Amos’ cells with II Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq.

But before we discuss Amos’ concept, there’s an important report from The New York Times:

QURGHAN TAPA, Afghanistan — The hill wasn’t much to behold, just a treeless mound of dirt barely 80 feet high. But for Taliban fighters, it was a favorite spot for launching rockets into Imam Sahib city. Ideal, American commanders figured, for the insurgents to disrupt the coming parliamentary elections.

So under a warm September sun, a dozen American infantrymen snaked their way toward the hill’s summit, intent on holding it until voting booths closed the next evening. At the top, soldiers settled into trenches near the rusted carcass of a Soviet troop carrier and prepared for a long day of watching tree lines.

Then, an explosion. “Man down!” someone shouted. From across the hill, they could hear the faint sound of moaning: one of the company’s two minesweepers lay crumpled on the ground. The soldiers of Third Platoon froze in place.

Toward the rear of the line, Capt. Adrian Bonenberger, the 33-year-old company commander, cursed to himself. During weeks of planning, he had tried to foresee every potential danger, from heat exposure to suicide bombers. Yet now Third Platoon was trapped among mines they apparently could not detect. A medical evacuation helicopter had to be called, the platoon moved to safety, the mission drastically altered. His mind raced.

“Did I do the right thing?” he would ask himself later.

Far from the generals in the Pentagon and Kabul, America’s front-line troops entrust their lives to junior officers like Captain Bonenberger. These officers, in their 20s and early 30s, do much more than lead soldiers into combat. They must be coaches and therapists one minute, diplomats and dignitaries the next. They are asked to comprehend the machinations of Afghan allies even as they parry the attacks of Taliban foes.

As commander of Alpha Company, First Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, Captain Bonenberger was in charge not just of ensuring the safety of 150 soldiers, but also of securing the district of Imam Sahib, a volatile mix of insurgent enclaves and peaceful farming villages along the Tajikistan border.

Analysis & Commentary

The good Captain is working so hard he is likely losing very badly needed sleep.  He has been given an impossible mission.  Population-centric counterinsurgency with too few troops, too little time, too few resources, a corrupt government, and an American electorate who doesn’t understand what pop-centric COIN is or why one would need to conduct such a thing.

But allow me a pedestrian observation, if you will?  The American electorate knows at least a moderate amount about life-s decisions, and they set policy.  The American Generals are waging pop-centric COIN, but America expects us to be killing the enemy.  We shouldn’t be engaged in nation-building, but killing the enemy is complex when they hide amongst the people, and when some of them are the people.

The trouble with Captain Bonenberger’s trek up the hill wasn’t that he didn’t do everything he should have.  True enough, mine sweepers can only do so much.  The olfactory senses of dogs has proven to be much more reliable and informative in IED detection, and the Captain’s team should have had several good ones.

For reports of IEDs and dogs, see:

Combined Strategies Help IED Fight

Bomb Dogs See Action in Afghanistan

Training Dogs to Sniff Out IEDs

Bombs Frustrate High Tech Solutions

Marines Plan to Deploy More Bomb Dogs

And many more reports.  Forget the high tech solutions.  Defer to the only ones to whom God has given this skill – dogs.

But there is a deeper point to be made here.  We are trying to hold terrain when we do a march up a hill to secure it from the enemy.  He has been there, he has laid his traps and weapons, and we cannot match his knowledge of the terrain.

This all reminds me of our attempts to make the electrical grid in Iraq robust enough to withstand attacks from Sadr’s militia.  There aren’t enough engineers in the world to do such a thing.  Sadr’s militia had to be killed (and still must be).

In the case of the Captain’s hill, it would have been better to have spent his time putting up gated communities, taking census of the population, kicking in doors at night, and finding and killing the enemy.  As it is, not only did the Captain lose men, but he failed in his mission to secure the terrain – at least, initially.  There would seem to be a better way.

Returning to General Amos’ red cells, understanding Taliban TTPs is a step in the right direction.  But during the brutality of war, brutality that affects not only men but equipment, dogs are better than electronic equipment, mules are better than robots for transporting supplies, the backs of Marines is better than trucks that break down over impossible terrain, and finding and killing the enemy is better than trying to anticipate his next move with a crystal ball, with all due respect to Sun Tzu.

  • Andy

    Herschel-
    A couple of things.
    1) Is the concept of “re-introducing” red teams redundant? We already have the Assymetric Warfare Group which analysizes TTPs of both enemy and friendly forces. I’ve found them to be a great asset that can be leveraged to facilitate better operations. They are underutilized as it is. Commanders should be lined up, knocking on their door. As it is, the AWG teams are the ones that have to go out and offer their services. Regardless, my units have had great success working with, learning from, and sharing ideas with AWG. Why recreate what already exists?

    2) I know Adrian Bonenberger well and can attest that he is indeed working very hard and late at night. I think when the military started talking about “Key Terrain Districts” (Imam Shaheeb is one of the top 3 KTDs in RC-N) we lost our sights on true, honest-to-god Key Terrain. It sounds like Adrian’s terrain analysis showed that the hilltop was indeed Key Terrain for this operation in Imam. Key Terrain is defined as terrain, which if held provides a decisive advantage to the holder. I would imagine that in light of the mission (probably something along the lines of (A/1-87IN secures Imam Saheeb district NLT 15Sep2010 IOT prevent AAF from influencing parliamentary elections”).

    I guess what I’m saying is that while I generally agree with you that we need to be fighting a bit more and handing out humanitarian aid a bit less, I disagree that seizing key terrain is not advantageous to that end at times.

    3) Dogs… I know you, Tom Ricks, LTG Oates all love dogs. I’m not going to lie–they’re not that great. Tom Ricks had a blog post about IED-sniffing dogs and I posted a few stats from the 27th Enginer Battalion on it (arguably the most effective IED-D force to pass through Afghanistan). Anyway, I’ll post again:
    “While dogs are good, they’re not that great at finding IEDs. A battalion in RC-East (arguably the best unit at finding IEDs in Afghanistan with a find rate hovering around 80%–despite facing the Haqqani network in some of its favorite stomping grounds) has found nearly 200 IEDs. Dogs, in a sampling of 65 missions, had a success rate around 15% (Dog Finds / (Total IEDs found + IED strikes).

    Add in the fact that you have to constantly test and certify the animal, the fact that it can only work so often, it can’t work in high heat, etc. It all adds up to bunk and a waste of tax payer money.

    We are trusting the lives of our marines and soldiers to an animal that can’t actually say, “You know what, Tom? I’m not feeling it today.”

    I can GUARANTEE significantly better results (if I were a betting man I’d take the 80% odds vs the 15%).

    I agree that dogs are better than pumping money into the next, fancy piece of technology–but now we’re just turning dogs into that next piece of technology. Just saying….”
    http://ricks.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/11/23/dogs_beat_machines_at_detecting_ieds

    Yes dogs are better than ground penetrating radar (I would estimate that JIEDDO has already wasted over $100M on GPR in Afghanistan this year–not including service contracts. To my knowledge GPR has detected fewer than five IEDs this year). Dog are undoubtedly better than GPR. They’re still not great and they’re not the best.

    -Andy


You are currently reading "Return of the Marine Corps Red Cells", entry #5915 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Dogs,General Amos,IEDs,Marine Corps,War & Warfare and was published December 23rd, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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