The Dismounted Campaign in Helmand

BY Herschel Smith
11 years, 1 month 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.

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Comments

  1. On September 5, 2009 at 10:50 pm, James Harris said:

    This comment, while pertinent to this article (The Dismounted Helmand Campaign), is also relevant to the article(s) about women in combat, especially “Counter Insurgency, Brutality, and Women in Combat.”

    I’m trying to keep an open mind, comparing my experiences with what I’m hearing/reading now.

    On the one hand, there seems to be a great body of evidence that women have done very well in the recent conflicts. The literature indicates that women have been prominent in convoy duty, and on patrol where interaction with local females may be an issue. In addition, they have continued to provide good service areas where they were prominent before Iraq (OIF) and Afghanistan.

    On the other hand, as the current article indicates, there may still be some issues with respect to certain kinds of injuries, generated by the way the war is being fought in Afghanistan.

    All of this suggests the following: Women may do very well in combat where mechanical devices do most of the movement. They may still be physically challenged where the primary mode of movement and maneuver is on foot.

    This leaves a large area where women could legitimately serve in combat. Examples are: Convoy ops, mechanized ops, helo ops, etc.

    It depends on the day; but for the most part there is no point of view here I could/would try to defend with confidence. Basically, I’m prepared to allow women to prove themselves and work anywhere as long as standards — including physical standards — are not compromised. But the political world we live in makes that an unlikely outcome.

    I hope more people pile on with their observations based on actual experience here. I’d really like more “enlightenment and wisdom.” A few years ago, somebody wrote a book entitled “The Kinder Gentler Military” or words to that effect. Was any of that true? Still true? Speak!!

  2. On September 5, 2009 at 11:42 pm, Herschel Smith said:

    Well, as you can tell, the delineation I have made is infantry, SF and SOF. By Infantry I include both Army and Marines. The Congress of the U.S. sees things differently. They except Army infantry and allow women. Marine infantry, Army SF and Army SOF are excepted for obvious reasons. It all depends upon what you want the Army infantry to be capable of doing and what you see as its mission.

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You are currently reading "The Dismounted Campaign in Helmand", entry #3741 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Marine Corps,Marines in Helmand,Weapons and Tactics and was published September 4th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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