What Really Happened at Wanat?

BY Herschel Smith
11 years, 3 months ago

The Battle of Wanat has been in the news lately.  Richard Engel with MSNBC did an expose on Wanat, and still grieving father David Brostrom says a number of wise things concerning the battle, but veers eventually into the lack of soft efforts (building schools, interacting with the population, etc.).  In previous articles I have disagreed with this perspective, since it makes no sense to charge Chosen Company with lack of COIN efforts when they were in a deadly fight for their lives on an hour by hour basis for the entire deployment.  Besides, Major Jim Gant gives us a realistic perspective concerning these things.

This is nothing more than a side bar comment as I have not studied nor read the details of what occurred at Wanat.

However, at the same time we were conducting tribal engagement with the Mohmand tribe (2003), we were also conducting combat operations in the Pesch Valley and the Korangal Valley. The details of these missions are not important. However, we had two informal “meetings” with the tribal leaders in and around the area where Wanat is located. The first time we held a meeting they informed us they did not want us coming through their tribal area. I explained to them, in detail, that we had to move through that area in order to accomplish other missions. I emphasized that we did not want to fight their tribe. They told us that we were not welcome there and if we came through their again that we would have to fight. My answer was simple,”OK. Let’s finish lunch together and then we will fight.” That very day we were involved in a very large fight with them on our way out of the valley.

Several weeks later, the tribal elders came to our firebase and we had another “meeting.” The same topics were talked about. We enjoyed a very nice lunch together and the outcome was – we will continue to fight. We could not come to any type of agreement on how we could work this issue out.

So we continued to conduct combat operations to include raids in their tribal area.

But at least we understood each other.

One last note. The terrain there was by far the most difficult terrain I have ever fought in.

Sometimes, you just have to fight…

Once again, this isn’t a statement about Wanat per se, but the tribes who live in and around the area. They are a tough, fighting group of people.

The U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings has recently published an interesting analysis of the role of weapons in the battle of Wanat, entitled “What Really Happened at Wanat.”  Excerpts are give below (and the reader is left to visit the USNI web site for further study).

Immediately after the release of the Army’s Occasional Paper, press reports seized on Soldiers’ accounts of weapon stoppages detailed in it. The Times reported that “Soldiers who survived the battle described how their automatic weapons turned white hot and jammed from nonstop firing.” A November 2009 Defense News story also cited reports of weapon stoppages, but went further, attempting to connect the deaths of Soldiers in the battle to the enduring debate over the reliability and lethality of the military’s primary infantry weapon, the M4 carbine.

Since its introduction with U.S. forces during the Vietnam War, the M16 rifle and its offspring, including the M4, have been the subject of some controversy, especially related to reports of the weapons’ reliability in combat. Initial reports from Vietnam indicated a high incidence of stoppages. These were in fact directly related to the Army’s initial decision to alter the ammunition’s propellant from military specifications (mil-specs) and to dispense with chrome plating the M16’s chamber—an improvement that had become a standard feature of all U.S. military small arms since World War II.

Both decisions led to premature corrosion of the chamber and ultimately to stoppages. Upgrades, including those that improved the manufacturing process and design of the weapon’s buffer, bolt, trigger components, and chamber, which would receive a chrome lining, resulted in a much superior M16A1. Troops issued the M16A1 in 1969 and later rarely complained about their weapons. One Marine rifleman did complain in a 1967 letter to his family following the battle for Hills 881 and 861 above Khe Sanh: “We left with 72 men in our platoon and came back with 19. Believe it or not, you know what killed most of us? Our own rifles. Practically every one of our dead was found with his [M16] torn down next to him where he had been trying to fix it.”

Not mentioned in the letter was the fact that many of the Marines who fought at Khe Sanh had been issued their M16s only days before the action and probably were unfamiliar with them. Also worth mentioning is the fact that the M16 of four decades ago is not the same weapon as the M4 in service in Iraq and Afghanistan today. Enhancements made to the original design have substantially improved the weapon’s reliability, so much so that commanders often praise the M4. At the 2006 Infantry War Fighting Conference, Major General Walter Wojdakowski, commanding general, U.S. Army Infantry Center & School, called the M4 “one of many success stories in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Yet troops outnumbered at Wanat, like those described in the Khe Sanh account 41 years before, were still plagued by numerous weapon stoppages. Studies conducted by the Army, by independent research institutions, and by Colt itself offer some indication of the cause. In particular, they provide some possible explanations for the numerous stoppages suffered by Wanat’s defenders.

The Army’s draft Occasional Paper states that to maintain fire parity with their attackers, the Chosen Few Company soldiers “were firing their weapons ‘cyclic,’ on full automatic at the highest possible rates of fire.” For this reason, the paper concludes, some Soldiers experienced stoppages.

Staff Sergeant Erich Phillips, manning the 120-mm mortar, recalled that during the engagement his “M4 quit firing and would no longer charge when [he] tried to correct the malfunction.” An engineer specialist who loaded for Phillips recalled that, “Staff Sergeant Phillips poured out fire,” going “through three rifles using them until they jammed.” Specialist Chris McKaig, defending OP Topside, also experienced problems with his M4. “My weapon was overheating,” he recalled. “I had shot about 12 magazines by this point already and it had only been about a half hour or so into the fight. I couldn’t charge my weapon and put another round in because it was too hot, so I got mad and threw my weapon down.”

This same thread is pulled in the Douglas R. Cubbison study out of Leavenworth (I still won’t release or publish this paper since it has not been publicly released).  I find the issue of weapons reliability to be a compelling theme, but in the end, an incorrect one.  It isn’t surprising that an M4 that has fired 12 magazines within 30 minutes no longer functions properly.  Better, more reliable weapons could have been provided to the men of Chosen company (e.g., piston rather than direct gas impingement), and the outcome would still have been the same.

Most of the men who perished that fateful day did so attempting to defend or relieve OP Top Side (8 of the 9 who perished), and the kill ratio that day still favored the U.S. troops (“There were between 21 and 52 AAF killed and 45 wounded. Considering a clinical assessment of kill ratio can be a pointer to the level of risk associated with this VPB and OP. 21/9 = 2.33, 52/9 = 5.77 (2.33 – 5.77), and 45/27 = 1.67. These are very low compared to historical data (on the order of 10:1).”).

It’s tempting to point the finger at weapons systems, just as it is tempting to fault the company with lack of soft COIN efforts.  But in the end, they were outnumbered about 6:1 (300+ to about 50), they were on a poor choice of terrain, they had poor logistics, they suffered lack of air and artillery support, and most importantly, they simply were never given the proper number of troops or the resources to engage in force protection, much less robust force projection.  They were under-resourced, and no analysis of weapons systems can change that fact.  Rather than focus on why the M4 jams after firing 360 rounds in 30 minutes, the real question is why this particular M4 had to be put through this kind of test to begin with?

Taking Back the Infantry Half-Kilometer

Second Guessing the Battles of Wanat and Kamdesh

Wanat Video II

Wanat Video

The Battle of Wanat, Massing of Troops, and Attacks in Nuristan

The Contribution of the Afghan National Army in the Battle of Wanat

Investigating the Battle of Wanat

Analysis of the Battle of Wanat

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  1. On July 8, 2010 at 12:01 pm, jj said:

    “What Really Happened at Wanat?” – Leadership complacency got soldiers killed.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Battle of Wanat and was published July 6th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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