Archive for the 'Weapons and Tactics' Category



Tactical Appraisal of Israeli Flotilla Raid

BY Herschel Smith
4 years, 2 months ago

In early 2009 the USS San Antonio interdicted and boarded an Iranian ship bound or Gaza, and it was found to be transporting weapons for waging war with Israel.  I supported this move, and in fact even more exhaustive measures to contain rogue states and ensure American security (or the security of our allies).  So support of Israel’s right to ensure its own national security is not in question.

But immediately upon hearing about the Israeli flotilla raid, my reaction was the same as it is now.  Without rehearsing the gory details, Israeli Marines fast-roped onto the boat bound for Gaza, one at a time, in broad daylight, armed only with nonlethal weapons, to a group prepared to beat them over the head and throw them overboard.

Joe Klein is preening over Israel having learned its lesson, pressing for more traditional ship-boarding measures in lieu of this method.  Well, there are various tactics to be taken under various circumstances.  If there had been reason to believe that there would be kinetic operations, then heavier tactics are in order.  But not the ones we witnessed in the recent raid.

If there had been reason to expect kinetic operations, then fast-roping is not done one at a time.  Furthermore, it should not have been done in broad daylight.  The Israeli Marines should have owned the night.  Night vision gear, the element of surprise, quick Marine presence on board the ship due to proper implementation of fast-roping techniques, inundation with tear gas, and the ship could have been secured within seconds and without incident.

The Israeli Navy has said they will do it differently next time.  Let’s hope so, but that’s not quite the point.  There may be the need for softer tactics, or not, depending upon the situation.  The real question is why this operation was ever approved in the first place?  The raid was a tactical disaster.  What kind of tactical malaise has descended upon the IDF that they would have even thought up something like this?  Who was in charge of this, and will he be held responsible for his lack of tactical ingenuity?  What does this say about the state of tactics in the IDF generally?  The hard questions remain, and the larger issue of the state of the IDF is the real story out of this event.

Taking Back the Infantry Half-Kilometer

BY Herschel Smith
4 years, 5 months ago

I weighed in over three years ago on the merits (or lack thereof) of the M-16 (although not comprehensively).  Since then, a certain Marine I know had to put a nine round burst (from a SAW) into an insurgent in Fallujah in 2007, only to see him keep advancing (they suspect that he was high on morphine and epinephrine like so many others at that time).  There are advantages (lighter ammunition leading to more ammunition carried on patrols) and disadvantages, e.g., lack of killing power at long range, to the Stoner system of weapons.  C. J. Chivers also has two very good articles on the same subject, and much more comprehensive than I have time for (Part 1 and Part 2).

But there is an interesting graduate paper from Leavenworth by Major Thomas P. Ehrhart entitled Increasing Small Arms Lethality in Afghanistan: Taking Back the Infantry Half-Kilometer (PDF here).  It is causing a stir, and is more applicable to Afghanistan than Iraq due to the protracted distances of fire fights (as opposed to the MOUT in Iraq).  We have covered some of this in our ongoing analysis of the Battle of Wanat (where the limitations of the M-4 figured prominently) and Kamdesh (where terrain loomed large, so to speak, similar to the situation at Wanat).

I observed of the Cubbison study that training is paramount for clearing jams and ensuring proper functioning of this system of weapons.

Mr. Cubbison also goes into some detail considering other tactical and weapons failures (specifically at OP Top Side).  Due to rate of fire issues, there were numerous weapons systems failures (e.g., jamming) of SAWs, M4s and M16A2s.  I know one Marine who has trained his “boots” hard in the art of rate of fire and other measures to keep their SAWs from jamming and the barrels from melting.  Clearing jams within mere seconds is necessary for proper functioning of the Soldier and Marine and his .223 closed bolt system of arms, and Soldiers and Marines must be extensively trained to accomplish this under duress.

However, there is also truth to the notion that this training is necessitated by the weaknesses in the system of weapons.  Another way to say it is that when fire fights have to depend heavily on the art of weapon jam-clearing, something is fundamentally wrong.

Increasing Small Arms Lethality in Afghanistan: Taking Back the Infantry Half Kilometer

I agree with the recommendations of Major Ehrhart to tool the fire team and squad with greater latitude and more available weapons depending upon the situation and their own choice.  But aside from this, two other observations are appropriate.  First, leaving aside the issue of lethal range for a moment, there is no reason whatsoever that the Army and Marines can’t replace the current M-4 / M-16A2 system of arms with an open bolt or gas piston system like the H&K 416.  This may not affect range, but it would go directly to the issue of reliability which was paramount at Wanat.

Second, it occurs to me that the Army (with their much more vehicle-borne approach) could take a page from the Marines (who are more foot-bound).  The Marines qualify (iron sights) at 500 yards, or around 457 meters.  The Army could as well, and it has to do with a strategic choice, not capabilities.  This might go a long way towards a remedy for the infantry half-kilometer.

Micromanaging the Campaign in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
4 years, 8 months ago

From The New York Times:

The Taliban commander was back in the village. Our base roared to life as we prepared to capture him. Two Chinook helicopters spun their blades in anticipation in the dark. Fifty Afghan commandos brooded outside, pacing in the gravel. I was nearby, yelling into a phone: “Who else do we need approvals from? Another colonel? Why?”

A villager had come in that afternoon to tell us that a Taliban commander known for his deployment of suicide bombers was threatening the elders. The villager had come to my unit, a detachment of the United States Army stationed in eastern Afghanistan, for help.

Mindful of orders to protect the civilian population, we developed a plan with the Afghan commandos to arrest the Taliban commander that evening before he moved back into Pakistan. While the troops prepared, I spent hours on the phone trying to convince the 11 separate Afghan, American and international forces authorities who needed to sign off to agree on a plan.

Some couldn’t be found. Some liked the idea, others suggested revisions. The plan evolved. Hours passed. The cellphone in the corner rang. “Where are you?” the villager asked urgently. The Taliban commander was drinking tea, he said.

At 5 a.m. the Afghan commandos gave up on us and went home. The helicopters powered down. The sun rose. I was still on the phone trying to arrange approvals. Intelligence arrived indicating that the Taliban commander had moved on. The villagers were incredulous.

This incident is typical of what I saw during my six-month tour in Afghanistan this year. We were paralyzed by red tape, beaten by our own team. Our answer to Afghans seeking help was: “I can’t come today or tomorrow, but maybe next week. I have several bosses that I need to ask for permission.”

In my experience, decisions move through the process of risk mitigation like molasses. When the Taliban arrive in a village, I discovered, it takes 96 hours for an Army commander to obtain necessary approvals to act.

Analysis & Commentary

We dealt with this same thing in Seeking Riskless War based on an experience by Vampire 06 blogging at Afghanistan Shrugged.  Illumination rounds were needed in order to conduct kinetic operations against insurgents, with the request to deliver those rounds denied by Battalion command 100 miles away because the eight pound canister might land on a domicile.

This same mentality is evident in McChrystal’s tactical directive that essentially promulgates new rules of engagement under a single signature.  The rules as they stood were restrictive enough, and if McChrystal had wanted to calibrate his reports a closed door meeting would have been the best option.  Instead, publishing the new rules has opened up new space for the insurgents according to the Pentagon.

Four Marines were killed in the Kunar Province while under fire, when after twice requesting artillery and air support, they were twice denied by command who was located remotely.  The problem goes not to the issue of whether there should be rules or whether overuse of kinetics might lead to rejection of U.S. forces by the population.  The problem goes to whether tactical directives should be issued from remote locations to Lance Corporals in the field under fire, thus undermining the decision-making of those sustaining the real risk.

Norville de Atkine in Why Arabs Lose Wars has a remarkable analysis of the role of NCOs and first line command on troops and troop performance (also available here).

The social and professional gap between officers and enlisted men is present in all armies, but in the United States and other Western forces, the non-commissioned officer (NCO) corps bridges it. Indeed, a professional NCO corps has been critical for the American military to work at its best; as the primary trainers in a professional army, NCOs are critical to training programs and to the enlisted men’s sense of unit esprit. Most of the Arab world either has no NCO corps or it is non-functional, severely handicapping the military’s effectiveness. With some exceptions, NCOs are considered in the same low category as enlisted men and so do not serve as a bridge between enlisted men and officers. Officers instruct but the wide social gap between enlisted man and officer tends to make the learning process perfunctory, formalized, and ineffective. The show-and-tell aspects of training are frequently missing because officers refuse to get their hands dirty and prefer to ignore the more practical aspects of their subject matter, believing this below their social station. A dramatic example of this occurred during the Gulf War when a severe windstorm blew down the tents of Iraqi officer prisoners of war. For three days they stayed in the wind and rain rather than be observed by enlisted prisoners in a nearby camp working with their hands.

A strong NCO corps was and is something that the Iraqi Security Forces haven’t been able to implement despite the best efforts of U.S. trainers.  But the trend in U.S. warfare is going in the wrong direction.  While officers might like to claim that they have the utmost respect for and confidence in their Gunnys, First Sergeants, Sergeant Majors, and in the Army, Command Sergeant Majors, the practice of micromanaging conflicts shows this claim is to some extent wishful thinking.

The U.S. officer corps has unwittingly bought into the Western business and industrial model of high level managers micromanaging their employees, metrics, and even day to day actions.  Officers have become more managers than military leaders, and paradoxically this has driven the U.S. military away from the Western strength of the NCO corps and towards a more Middle Eastern model.

I have recommended chasing the Taliban into their lairs by a combination of tactics, including distributed operations (Force Recon, Scout Snipers, small unit operation, and high confidence in their decision-making).  Based on the micromanagement of the campaign by high level officers, this is a forlorn hope and wasted counsel.  We continue to seek riskless war.

The Dismounted Campaign in Helmand

BY Herschel Smith
4 years, 12 months ago

As we have noted before while studying heavy battle space weight, requirements for cold water and completely exhausted Marines, the battle in Helmand is dismounted.  The Marines are drinking on average more than four gallons of water per day.  It is now being termed a walking war for the Marines.

ADARVESHAN, Afghanistan — The threat of buried homemade bombs, coupled with an often unforgiving terrain and a counterinsurgency agenda that requires regular presence among Afghans, is forcing U.S. Marines to take on Taliban fighters on foot.

And these footprints in the sand and dust of Helmand Province are, according to some defense analysts, leading down a path of higher American casualties that could potentially affect the American public’s support for the war here.

Almost 90 percent of the Marine operations under way in Southern Afghanistan’s Helmand are on foot, according to Col. Christian Cabaniss, commander of 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines.

“We walk. This is not Iraq. We don’t drive around,” Cabaniss said.

Often, there’s no other option, Marines here say. Mine resistant ambush protected vehicles, for example, are too big and heavy to allow nimble navigation of the labyrinth of irrigation canals and ditches in southern Helmand Province. Add to that the fact that the bulk of the population in southern Afghanistan is located in rural areas.

“To be amongst the people, you’ve got to walk out there,” Cabaniss said …

“Instead of just trying to kill us, they also want to make us spend forever to go 100 meters,” Hunt said. “If you go on the roads, you know you’re going to hit IEDs. Then you’re just stuck in vehicle recovery all day, every day.”

Troop reaction to the foot patrol strategy on a battlefield that requires them to carry up to 100 pounds of gear where temperatures regularly soar over 110 degrees is mixed.

“I’m biased,” said Sgt. Matthew Roell. “I was a pall-bearer for a while and I saw a lot of people in pieces. Whenever we go foot mobile, I’m thinking about that,” he said. “Either you’re in a truck and get hit or you’re out in the open and get hit. Either way, if it’s your time, it’s your time, you know.”

While the stakes may seem higher by being outside of protected vehicles, many infantry Marines support the combat patrol strategy.

“I prefer to be foot mobile if we get attacked because that’s where I make my bread. That’s what we’re trained to do in the Marine Corps,” said Cpl. Joshua Johnston.

As we have noted before, infantry belongs on foot.  It’s the best way to ensure contact with both the population and the enemy, or in certain circumstances, both at the same time.  But not only is it tactically what the Marines are all about, the bifurcation between vehicle-borne troops and foot-borne troops seems to be solidifying.

Two years ago when I was in Iraq, I noticed there were essentially two different primary infantry weapons (the M16 automatic rifle and the also-automatic M4 carbine) carried by America’s two primary ground forces — the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Army.

Marines for the most part were carrying the M16. The Army on the other hand was primarily carrying the M4: a shorter, lighter version of the M16 with a collapsible-stock.

Not that there weren’t leathernecks carrying M4s; there were. And soldiers also were wielding 16s.

But slightly different approaches to infantry tactics had led one force to favor one version of the weapon over the other. And experts today at Headquarters Marine Corps and the Army’s Picatinny Arsenal suggest that trend is increasingly reflecting the differing operational philosophies between the two services …

One Marine officer told me, “I understand the Army has in fact considered an M-4 pure fleet, getting rid of all their M16s, and they’ve already done that within their brigade combat teams.”

Indeed, during my time in 2007 embedded with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the Army’s famed 1st Cavalry Division operating out of Baghdad, nearly all of the soldiers were armed with M4s — whereas during my time spent with Marine rifle squads of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit at Al Taqaddum and Regimental Combat Team 2 near the Syrian border, I observed a far greater number of Marines carrying M16s.

The reasons were simple: Army patrols were frequently mounted (in Humvees and other vehicles) at least for a portion of any given patrol. And it is simply easier to get in-and-out of vehicles with a shorter M4.

Marine patrols however were almost always on foot (and for hours at a time).

“We see ourselves as foot-mobile infantry,” says Clark, who adds, “From the Marine Corps perspective, we issue the carbine to folks — vehicle drivers, crews, and infantry officers [tasked more with leading men than physically engaging enemy targets] — who might be impeded by a longer, heavier weapon.”

Like their Belleau Wood ancestors, Marines still pride themselves on being able to kill the enemy at great distances. And rifles are frankly better suited for distance-shooting than carbines. Though Clark adds the capabilities between the two “are very close,” and the M4 is very effective.

U.S. Army Col. Doug Tamilio, project manager soldier weapons at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey, tells HUMAN EVENTS, “The M4 is [now] the primary infantry weapon in the U.S. Army.”

Both approaches are needed, and the discussion above is a good example of the need for different branches of the armed forces.

Colonel Gian Gentile on Killing the Enemy

BY Herschel Smith
4 years, 12 months ago

Friend of The Captain’s Journal Colonel Gian Gentile has an article out at the Small Wars Journal, in which he quotes a Washington Post article, which itself points out that:

The Taliban has become a much more potent adversary in Afghanistan by improving its own tactics and finding gaps in the US military playbook, according to senior American military officials who acknowledged that the enemy’s resurgence this year has taken them by surprise.

US rules of engagement restricting the use of air power and aggressive action against civilians have also opened new space for the insurgents, officials said.

Yes, just like we said it would (and more here).  Continuing with Colonel Gentile’s points:

A very recent article in the Washington Post says that the enemy in Afghanistan has improved its tactical fighting abilities when confronting American forces there. The article stated that the enemy has figured out “gaps” in the current American tactical and operational approach of population centric counterinsurgency. And the article added the tactical improvement on the part of the enemy in Afghanistan, according to “American military officials,” has taken us by “surprise.” This means in effect that the enemy has the initiative.

Afghanistan is war, right? In war there has to be fighting or the threat of fighting for it to be war, right? If there is no fighting or threat of fighting then it cannot be war, right?

The answer to this tactical problem in Afghanistan provided by the Counterinsurgency Experts is better population centric Coin tactics and operations; just try harder at building schools, roads, local security forces, establishing government legitimacy, and population security through dispersion of forces to protect them. Once we get better at these processes and try just a bit harder, with a just a few more troops, then voila (just like we think happened in Iraq) victory is achieved, triumph is at hand. But where in this formulation of scientific processes are the enemy and the killing of them?

Perhaps the way ahead in Afghanistan, at least the immediate way ahead to stabilize the situation is to not focus on hearts and minds but in killing the enemy. This is not so radical of an idea, mind you. Earlier this year two infantry lieutenants and one of their sergeants, fresh from hard combat experience in Afghanistan, made the argument that the American Army was losing its ability in Afghanistan to conduct basic infantry combined arms warfare. Their solution was not better population centric counterinsurgency tactics and processes but improving infantry platoons and companies ability to close with and kill the enemy through fire and maneuver. What they were calling for was a reinvention of the American Army’s approach in Afghanistan in order to regain the initiative. And in war, whether it is counterinsurgency war, conventional war, hybrid war, whatever, the INITIATIVE is everything. In Afghanistan we have lost the initiative because population centric counterinsurgency is basically a symmetrical, reactive tactical and operational measure.

History shows that focusing on killing the enemy works in a counterinsurgency campaign. The British in Malaya for example (what follows is radically contrary to conventional knowledge about Malaya that has been built by a bevy of counterinsurgency experts and zealots since the end of American involvement in the Vietnam War but is supported by current historical scholarship) broke the back of the insurgency there by brute military force from 1951 to 1952, and not as is so commonly believed through the hearts and minds campaign conducted by General Templer from 1952 to 1954.

Colonel Gentile is deadly accurate in his assessment and his entire paper is worthy reading.  For further reading on Taliban and U.S. Marine tactics see:

Marines, Taliban and Tactics, Techniques and Procedures

Squad Rushes in Afghanistan

Squad Rushes in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 1 month ago

I have always been a bit puzzled about the debate over training for counterinsurgency.  Other than the bifurcation of the armed forces into Leviathan – Sysadmin as per Thomas P.M. Barnett (a move which I oppose), and without any concrete recommendations for exactly how the COIN proponents would revise or amend the training or organizational structure, the suggestion remain vacuous.  We have nothing to evaluate.  But conventional tactics remain important.

LAKARI, Afghanistan — Marines with Company F, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 3, along with the Afghan National Army conducted an early-morning raid on the bazaar.

“The purpose of the raid was to disrupt freedom of movement with the bazaar and to exploit the enemy force logistic base,” said Capt. Junwei Sun, commander, Co. F, 2/8. “This seizure means we invaded Taliban territory, discovered their caches, disrupted their log operations and squeezed them out of the area.”

The Taliban used the open-air market to store mass quantities of drugs, homemade explosives and precursor weaponry. Taliban insurgents also tax shop owners as a further means to make cash. Agents with the Drug Enforcement Agency flew in shortly after the Marines and ANA began clearing more than 300 structures in the bazaar. They seized approximately 270,000 pounds of poppy seeds, 33 bags of opium, 13 bags of hash, nearly 50 barrels of precursory explosive materials, bolt-action rifles and more than 20 IEDs. They also discovered 130,000 pounds of fertilizer that could be used for explosives.

One DEA agent said it was a good haul and a very clear message was sent to the Taliban.

“The Taliban needs to realize that this area doesn’t belong to them anymore,” said Sun. “If they choose to fight, they will be killed.”

Clearing all the structures took approximately 12 hours and the Marines had to use explosives to gain entry into some stores. The stores ranged from a barber shop and garage to clothing and household items. Each room was marked to distinguish that it had already been cleared and whether drugs or explosive material had been found inside.

The raid was intended to only last four to six hours but due to the size of the seizure being larger than expected, the Marines set up security positions throughout the bazaar in order to stay overnight. The next morning, a platoon patrolled through and around the bazaar.

Approximately four hours into the patrol, first and second squad were ambushed from a tree line 800 meters across open farmland. Members of 3rd Squad were to the south along the road and canal to Lakari village when shots began firing toward the other two squads.

“This was the first fire fight for most of my guys,” said Cpl. Brian Short, 23, squad leader and a Mount Vernon, Ohio, native. “They did really well.”

Short, a Mount Vernon High School graduate, made maneuvered his squad toward the other two under fire. Jumping over a wide stream, navigating through grapes vines, okra plants and a corn field, Short’s squad spotted the other two squads and the enemy tree line. With the entire platoon supporting each other, the Marines began squad and fire-team rushes to within 300 meters of the enemy position.

“I wasn’t really that scared. I just wanted to destroy the enemy so my guys wouldn’t get hurt,” said Lance Cpl. Shane M. Lantry, a 3rd Squad team leader and Floyd, N.Y., native. “All the training we get really helped.”

Take note of the situation.  The Marines, most of them, hadn’t yet earned their combat action ribbon.  Taking fire for the first time, they found themselves in the position of doing squad rushes against an ensconced enemy.  They did it successfully due to their training.

Other examples abound.  At the Battle of Wanat as we have seem, weapons failures (e.g., jamming) contributed to loss of Observation Post Top Side.  Clearing jams very quickly under duress is a must-have skill in highly kinetic operations and with the .223 closed bolt system of arms.

It’s true that language training could be much better, and we have discussed the need for improved indigenous language classes prior to deployment.  But until some COIN proponent can describe in detail changes he would make to pre-deployment training, the beauty of the situation is that they are training on all of the right things: shooting at ranges, accuracy, clearing jams, rates of fire, fire and maneuver tactics, use of combined arms, and closing with and destroying the enemy, or in this case, squad rushes (the deployment of fire by the SAW gunners while the balance of the fire team advances, until the fire team stops the advance to deploy fire for the SAW gunner or other fire teams to advance, and so on).

As for sitting and drinking chai with the locals – well, that comes naturally.  It requires only a little culture training based on one Marines’ experience.  Speak to the men, don’t look at their women, keep your promises, and so on.  Doing squad rushes is much more complicated to get right, and deadly if you don’t.

Marines Find Afghan Insurgents Bolder Than Iraqi Insurgents

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 1 month ago

From the NYT:

In three combat tours in Anbar Province, Marine Sgt. Jacob Tambunga fought the deadliest insurgents in Iraq.

But he says he never encountered an enemy as tenacious as what he saw immediately after arriving at this outpost in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. In his first days here in late June, he fought through three ambushes, each lasting as long as the most sustained fight he saw in Anbar.

Like other Anbar veterans here, Sergeant Tambunga was surprised to discover guerrillas who, if not as lethal, were bolder than those he fought in Iraq.

“They are two totally different worlds,” said Sergeant Tambunga, a squad leader in Company C, First Battalion, Fifth Marines.

“In Iraq, they’d hit you and run,” he said. “But these guys stick around and maneuver on you.”

They also have a keen sense of when to fight and when the odds against them are too great. Three weeks ago, the American military mounted a 4,000-man Marine offensive in Helmand — the largest since President Obama’s troop increase — and so far in many places, American commanders say, they have encountered less resistance than expected.

Yet it is also clear to many Marines and villagers here that Taliban fighters made a calculated decision: to retreat and regroup to fight where and when they choose. And in the view of troops here who fought intensely in the weeks before the offensive began, fierce battles probably lie ahead if they are to clear the Taliban from sanctuaries so far untouched.

“It was straight luck that we didn’t have a lot more guys hit,” said Sgt. Brandon Tritle, another squad leader in Company C, who cited the Taliban’s skill at laying down a base of fire to mount an attack.

“One force will put enough fire down so you have to keep your heads down, then another force will maneuver around to your side to try to kill you,” he said. “That’s the same thing we do.”

For now, the strategy of the Taliban who used to dominate this village, 15 miles south of the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, is to watch and wait just outside, villagers and Marines here say.

“They all escaped,” said Sardar Gul, a shopkeeper at the Nawa bazaar. Mr. Gul and others who reopened stores after the Marines arrived estimate that 300 to 600 Taliban fled to Marjah, 15 miles to the west and not under American control, joining perhaps more than 1,000 fighters.

Marine commanders acknowledge that they could have focused more on cutting off escape routes early in the operation, an issue that often dogged offensives against insurgents in Iraq.

“I wish we had trapped a few more folks,” the commander of First Battalion, Fifth Marines, Lt. Col. William F. McCollough, told the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who visited Nawa. “I expected there to be more fighting.”

So Marines are bracing for a fight against guerrillas who, they discovered in June, are surprisingly proficient at tactics the Marines themselves learned in infantry school.

“They’d flank us, and we’d flank them, just like a chess match,” said Sgt. Jason Lynd, another squad leader in Company C.

Analysis & Commentary

So why weren’t we better prepared for Taliban tactics?  I have detailed at least half a dozen instances of massing of troops against smaller-sized U.S. units, while their hit and run, guerrilla-style warfare is well known.  It is a smart enemy that counts the cost of whatever tactic they employ at the time.  But the real context for the question of preparedness goes deeper.

About five months ago, this generation’s Ernie Pyle, Michael Yon, posted a very important PowerPoint presentation is a post entitled The Eagle Went Over the Mountain.  This post got plenty of readership, as it was linked by Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit.  Glenn titled his link IED attacks in Afghanistan, and the initial parts of the PowerPoint presentation were indeed about IEDs.  But the balance of the presentation was so much more than that, and upon reading it I exchanged e-mail with Michael about it.

We agreed that this presentation might very well be the most significant and important tactical advice coming out of Afghanistan in the past two or three years – lives would be saved if this advice got into the hands of NCOs and officers preparing troops for the field.  Michael didn’t feel that I was stepping on his work at all.  As quickly as possible, I copied down the presentation and created my own post, Marines, Taliban and Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (and Jules Crittenden linked my post).

I summarized some of the findings of the report: the Taliban had fire control, were able to develop interlocking fields of fire, were experienced in the use of combined arms, fire and maneuver warfare, and many other important observations.  The penultimate point of the presentation is stunning.

Iraq has allowed us to become tactically sloppy as the majority of fighters there are unorganized and poorly trained.  This is not the case in Afghanistan.  The enemy combatants here will exploit any mistake made by coalition forces with catastrophic results.  Complacency and laziness will result in mass causalities.

Concluding, the report advises the Marines to remember the tactics, techniques and procedures taught in School of Infantry.  This report serves as a primer for preparation for kinetic engagements in Afghanistan.

There are a number of Milblogs, but not too many well-visited Milblogs.  This is a small community.  Within a couple of days of release of this report, the author of the report contacted me and gave me a veritable ass whipping for release of the report.  You see, the report is FOUO – “for official use only.”  I also took it on the chin in blog comments over release of this report.  But the context of this fight is interesting, as I compared my release of a report on enemy tactics to the release of a new Army field manual describing in detail U.S. satellite patrols in urban terrain (a tactic that I understood but discussed only in the broadest of terms given the sensitivity of the subject – that is, up until the description of it in an Army Field Manual).  I described enemy tactics, Leavenworth described U.S. tactics in a field manual on a federal web site.

Furthermore, my release of the PowerPoint presentation coincided with Michael Yon’s release and Glenn Reynold’s link of it, providing more site visits that Michael or I could ever hope to bring alone (with Michael’s web authority justifiably far outweighing my own).

So I, Michael Yon, Glenn Reynolds and Jules Crittenden are all in it together when the feds come for us.  Or maybe this perspective is all wrong.  After all, Taliban fighters already know how to maneuver to develop enfilade fire.  No Taliban is going to sit in Southern Helmand (let’s say, Garmsir where there is no electricity), and read my web site to find out how to fight the U.S. Marines.  But what discussion of this presentation can do is assist military planners and trainers to do their jobs.

Do we really need to perform this function?  Well, why are the Marines currently in Southern Helmand surprised at the tactical ability of the Taliban fighters?  Apparently the U.S. military across the board is not very good at sharing lessons learned.  Maybe it has to do with something called FOUO.  As it turns out, it would have been better had this presentation gotten an even wider distribution than it did.  The right people still didn’t see it.

Philip Smucker on the Shorthanded U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 3 months ago

The incomparable Philip Smucker has given us a very stark look at the latest counterinsurgency struggle at a far flung outpost in Afghanistan.

The Taliban took shelter in the U.S.-built school they blew up last year before they began the 400-foot climb, rockets in hand, to the American bastion on the hill.

Wrapped in space blankets – thin foil sheets familiar to campers – to avoid detection by the thermal imaging cameras in the U.S. outpost, they zigzagged up the escarpment. Troops at the base said insurgents had come right up on the helicopter landing zone, fired their rockets, then disappeared “like ninjas into the night.”

Fortress Margha, with its grenade launchers and mortars sticking out from behind sandbags and bulletproof windows on three watchtowers, is a safe redoubt for the American troops stationed there. Within its walls, soldiers play ice hockey and video games that imitate guerrilla warfare.

For the Afghans who live in a medieval world of mud homes with interlocking walls in the valley below, however, reality is a reign of terror.

Taliban fighters rule the day and the night in the Bermel district, using threats and atrocities to control the civilian population, Afghans in the valley told a visiting reporter in interviews over two weeks. Accompanied by Arab and Chechen advisers, they behead civilians or sever their hands to force their cooperation. One of the latest Taliban edicts is a ban on cutting trees, so that insurgents can hide and lay ambushes for foreign troops.

From a distance, the U.S. base in Margha, occupied by a platoon from the 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division out of Fort Richardson, Alaska, is a monument to a risk-averse, shorthanded American strategy in Afghanistan …

The small U.S. base can be defended against as many as a thousand insurgents at once, confident American soldiers said. That sums up their dilemma, however: The fortress protects American troops, but it does little to help win a guerrilla war that’s now in its eighth year and about to enter another violent summer.

The faltering U.S. and NATO efforts in eastern Afghanistan have in effect surrendered the countryside – village after village – to insurgent bands, many of them criminal gangs but some of them with weaponry and the backing of al-Qaida.

The American troops descend from their bastion only on occasion, and there’s no one to protect Afghan civilians from Taliban fighters, who collect a “zakat,” or religious tax, from many residents in Bermel …

An older man, leaning against a mud wall, sighed … “People want protection, but they have none,” he said.

“The enemy attacks are sophisticated and well-coordinated,” he said. “They fight you longer and harder than the insurgents in Iraq. At the same time, when you pursue, they just disappear and blend back into the population.”

Jones said that in a half-dozen attacks on his “route clearance” convoy – manned mostly by National Guardsmen from Virginia and California – insurgents had destroyed several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of U.S. equipment. He added that his platoon hadn’t been able to confirm that it had killed a single Taliban fighter.

Read the entire article.  There are a number of nuggets of gold in this one.  First of all, it’s time that this unit get out of Fortress Margha and go on patrol.  It’s being done in the Korangal valley, and it can be done in Bermel.  Second, take note again at Philip’s salient observation: the campaign is “shorthanded.”  It has always been, and as long as there is reluctance in the Obama administration to send more than 68,000 troops, it will always be shorthanded.

It’s worse than whack-a-mole” counterinsurgency in Iraq.  We have ceded control of the rural terrain to the insurgents, and melting back into the population is why day and night time patrols must be conducted and the population engaged.

There are many more observations we may draw from this report, but take note of the recent Taliban tactic of using space blankets to avoid thermal imaging technology.  This is a learning and adaptive insurgency, and the employing of technology as a replacement for boots on the ground simply won’t do.

Taliban Tactics: Massing of Troops

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 3 months ago

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff criticizes air strikes:

The United States cannot succeed in Afghanistan if the American military keeps killing Afghan civilians, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Monday.

In remarks to scholars, national security experts and the media at the Brookings Institution, Admiral Mullen said that the American air strikes that killed an undetermined number of civilians in Afghanistan’s Farah Province two weeks ago had put the U.S. strategy in the country in jeopardy.

“We cannot succeed in Afghanistan or anywhere else, but let’s talk specifically about Afghanistan, by killing Afghan civilians,” Admiral Mullen said, adding that “we can’t keep going through incidents like this and expect the strategy to work.”

At the same time, Admiral Mullen said, “we can’t tie our troops’ hands behind their backs.”

Admiral Mullen’s comments on the civilian casualties from the Farah air strikes, which have caused an uproar in Afghanistan, reflect deep concern within the Pentagon about the intensifying criticism from Kabul against the American military. Admiral Mullen, who noted that commanders in the region had in recent months imposed more restrictive rules on air strikes to avoid civilian casualties, offered no new solutions in his remarks. He only said that “we’ve got to be very, very focused on making sure that we proceed deliberately, that we know who the enemy is.”

By midafternoon on May 4, after a battle between Afghan police and army forces and Taliban fighters had raged for hours, Marines Special Operations forces called in air strikes.

Three F-18 fighter-bombers, flying in succession over several hours, dropped a total of five laser-guided and satellite guided bombs against Taliban fighters who were firing at the American and Afghan forces, said the official, Col. Gregory Julian, in an email message late Sunday.

Villagers, however, have reported that an even heavier bombardment came after 8 p.m. when they said the fighting appeared to be over and the Taliban had left the village.

The military has disputed this version of events, saying the Taliban fighters continued to fire at American and Afghan troops, requiring additional air strikes. These came from a B-1 bomber, which dropped three 500-pound satellite-guided bombs on a tree grove, four 500-pound and 2,000-pound satellite-guided bombs on one building, and one 2,000-pound satellite-guided bomb on a second building, Colonel Julian said. Villagers have said they sought safety from the initial air strikes in a compound of buildings, but it was not clear whether these were the same buildings the American aircraft later bombed. Villagers said the bombings were so powerful that people were ripped to shreds. Survivors said they collected only pieces of bodies.

In all, Colonel Julian said, eight targets were attacked over a seven-hour period, but he denied reports from villagers that a mosque had been damaged in the strikes. Colonel Julian and other American military officials have said that the Taliban deliberately fired at American and Afghan forces from the rooftops of buildings where civilians, including women and children, had sought shelter, to provoke a heavy American military response.

Colonel Julian said at the peak of the fighting that day, some 150 Afghan soldiers and 60 Afghan police, along with their 30 American trainers, as well as two Marine Special Operations teams that made up a quick-reaction force, were battling about 300 militants, including a large number of foreign fighters.

Afghan government officials have accepted handwritten lists compiled by the villagers of 147 dead civilians. An independent Afghan human rights group said it had accounts from interviews of 117 dead. American officials say that even 100 is an exaggeration but have yet to issue their own count.

Analysis & Commentary

There remains an uproar over this incident because of noncombatant casualties, and some of it even over military analysis web sites.  The focus of much of the discussion is on how counterinsurgency cannot succeed with noncombatant casualties, and that successful counterinsurgency must be population centric.  True enough within context, this point misses the mark by a wide margin and succeeds only in parroting doctrinal talking points without a true understanding of what this incident can tell us about the campaign.

Regular readers of The Captain’s Journal can do better.  Be circumspect, smart and deliberate, and consider the question of what we might learn from this incident?  Considering the recent few months of the campaign, what information may we cobble together to place this incident within its proper context?  How can we avoid the traps into which most apparatchiks fall, of advocating either bombing them into submission or implementing procedures to avoid noncombatant casualties altogether because it isn’t “population centric?”

First of all, there is no doubt that fathers and mothers of children who have perished, or children of fathers or mothers or siblings who have perished at the hands of U.S. military action, intentional or not, will forever be our enemies.  It is understandable, and would be the same with most readers.  Noncombatant casualties makes enemies.

Of course, many things make enemies, including promises to stop the Taliban and failing to meet those promises.  But in this case there is something deeper going on, something that requires a bit of thought and trending.

In the Battle of Wanat where nine U.S. Soldiers perished and twenty seven were wounded, the Taliban massed some 300 or more fighters at one time in the area.  Were it not for Close Combat Aviation (CCA) and Close Air Support (CAS), the casualty rate would have been even higher.  Vehicle Patrol Base Wanat and Observation Post Top Side were what one might consider “far flung.”  It was an area of operation that had heretofore not seen U.S. troops, but in which the Taliban were numerous and Taliban control unquestioned.

When the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit was deployed to the Garmser region of the Helmand Province in 2008, they killed approximately 400 Taliban who had massed in Garmser, at times calling their fire fights “full bore reloading.”

In Marines, Taliban and Tactics, Techniques and Procedures, we covered the exploits of one Force Recon platoon who documented the fact that in their engagements with the Taliban the enemy fighters swelled to over 400 during ambushes and even during Taliban attacks on Forward Operating Bases.  This is remarkable.  This is basically half a Battalion of Taliban forces conducting what Force Recon called very good infantry tactics, including enfilade and interlocking fires, combined arms, and all of the other infantry tactics on which most good infantry is trained.

Finally, in Trouble in the Afghan Army: The Battle of Bari Alai we discussed the probable treachery of the Afghan Army during a Taliban attack on Observation Post Bari Alai in which three U.S. Soldiers perished along with two Latvian Soldiers.  More than 100 Taliban fighters massed for the attack on the Observation Post.

Now go back and study the report above that has Admiral Mullen so concerned.  The Taliban massed approximately 300 fighters for the fire fight with what turns out to be a fairly small U.S. force.  They had Afghan troops alongside, but as we learned at Wanat, no Afghan troops perished that fateful night.  The Afghan Army is shot through with drug abuse, and during the fight for Observation Post Bari Ala, it is believed that the Afghan troops laid down their weapons in a pre-arranged agreement with the Taliban.

Actually, a bit of study yields the conclusion that the Taliban have always wanted to mass troops (2005 report):

As the Taliban start shooting, O’Neal’s platoon scurries for cover. But there’s no panic. “They think, without a doubt, they have us outnumbered,” recalls O’Neal, a native of Jeannette, Pa., and leader of 2nd Platoon, Chosen Company. “We’ve got only 23 people on the ground, and I would say the Taliban had over 150 before the day was over” …

Taliban fighters, meanwhile, appear to gain courage from numbers, the ability to swarm a smaller enemy unit. A sense of safety in numbers, however, is often the Taliban’s undoing if a US platoon can fix an enemy’s position long enough for aircraft or other infantry units to arrive. This is the backbone of US military strategy in Zabul, and one reason why the Taliban have lost so many fighters this year.

It is fairly well known now that the additional troops deployed to Afghanistan are going to the population centers around Kabul and Kandahar – of course, in a tip of the hat to population centric counterinsurgency doctrine.  So the balance of Afghanistan is left to the Taliban to raise revenue, recruit fighters, train, interdict our logistics lines, implement their governance and basically control as they see fit.

Then, since the U.S. is massing troops in and around the population centers, far fewer are left for the rural terrain.  The most that can usually be accomplished is squad, platoon and company-sized engagements, or even smaller units to embed with the Afghan forces.  This is very close to what is considered distributed operations.  Few patrols in Taliban-controlled areas, no ensuring that the Taliban feel the strong presence of forces, just bare minimum to “train” the Afghan forces.

Yet when the Taliban are able to mass forces of as much as half a Battalion, the expectation is that much smaller units of U.S. forces will engage them without causing noncombatant casualties, while at the same time, the Taliban are clearly using human shields.

Clearly, we are asking the impossible of U.S. troops.  The Obama administration doesn’t want to deploy more than about 68,000 U.S. troops to the theater, and as long as this small footprint obtains, heavy use of air power will be necessary to keep smaller units from being completely overrun when the Taliban mass troops.

There is a solution to this dilemma, but it requires more troops to disengage the Taliban from the population.  The number of troops we have at the moment is not enough to do this mission.  Hence, while noncombatant casualties are a sad thing and certainly counterproductive, the answer is not to inform the smaller units of U.S. forces that they cannot use air support.  As much as The Captain’s Journal hates to see noncombatant casualties, more Marines and Soldiers in coffins would be much worse.

One way to fix the DoD procurement problems

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 3 months ago

In Pentagon Plans Huge New Bureaucracy we discussed the addition of 20,000 new government jobs in the Department of Defense to set up yet more bureaucracy regarding weapons and systems procurement.  The Telegraph gives us a nice counterexample – a bright moment in an otherwise apoplectic organization that has too much inertia to be innovative.

The devices have been embraced by the military because they are relatively easy to use, can safely carry secure software and are far cheaper than manufacturing a version specifically for the army.

Capable of holding more than 30,000 programmes, Apple’s best-sellers are being used for everything from translating to working out the trajectories of snipers.

The military is also working on how they can be used as guidance systems for bomb disposal robots and to receive aerial footage from unmanned drone aircraft, according to the Independent.

The US Marine Corps is currently funding an application that would allow soldiers to upload photographs of detained suspects, along with written reports, into a biometric database. The software would match faces, in theory making it easier to track suspects after they’re released.

While members of the British military who have seen the Apple instruments in action are envious, the Ministry of Defence remains wary of security implications and has “no plans” at present to go down the American path.

But Lieutenant Colonel Jim Ross, the director of the US Army’s intelligence, electronic warfare and sensors operation, believes the iPod “may be all that the personnel need”.

“What gives it added advantage is that a lot of them have their own personal ones so they are familiar with them,” he told the paper.

Another advantage is the price. The iPod touch (which soldiers can use over a secure WiFi network) retails for around $230 (£150) and the iPhone for $600. Bulk orders placed by the Pentagon bring further savings.

This kind of latitude and flexibility is usually threatening to a chain of command that wants to control every little detail and ensure uniformity.  But uniformity is not the goal here, and this example ought to be emulated throughout all four branches of the service.  The best way to begin to hold the Department of Defense bureaucracy accountable for timeliness and results is to bypass them.  In order to play the game, they will have to adapt to the more flexible chain of command which is entrusting its officers and NCOs with more responsibility and authority.  In the end, everyone will be a winner.


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