August 11, 2005
Too many casualtiesBy Mike McGill
Before I get into this, let me provide a little background. I am a former Marine and served on active duty in a Reconnaissance outfit for several years. I am quite familiar with small unit infantry tactics, MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain), and raid operations. In the interest of full disclosure, I was discharged in early 1991, so I am 15 years out of date in training and doctrine. Having said that, it certainly looks like some of our troops are breaking some fundamental rules of combat and combat patrolling.
I have noticed several related things that appear to be primary causes of US casualties in Iraq. First of all, every time I see video of troops holed up in urban terrain, they look like a covey of quail. It makes my skin crawl every time I see an entire platoon packed onto a twenty by twenty rooftop during a firefight. One accurately placed RPG or mortar would wipe out a double handful of young troopers. This 'packing' of forces is inexcusable. An after action report from Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah describes the layout of the city as follows:
At the time I was on active duty, all of our senior officers and NCOs were Vietnam combat veterans and they were applying lessons hard learned in Southeast Asia. The number one rule of infantry operations back then was simply and bluntly this; 'spread the f**k out.' As often as you heard it, you would assume that it was an alternate motto for the Marine Corps. Even if you are on a rooftop, if you can step — or jump — from building to building, then you should never see more than a fireteam in one place.
Individuals within the platoon should be close enough together so that squads and fireteams can support one another, but placed far enough apart so that a lucky shot with a mortar or RPG won't cause an inordinate number of casualties. When you pack troops close together, you invite multiple casualties from any kind of indirect fire weapon. Due to the nature of combat in Iraq today, this applies more significantly to mounted operations and IEDs, which is my primary concern here, rather than troops on foot, which is why I'll discuss why we need to get back to those dismounted patrols.
When I was on active duty, our primary means of getting from one place to another was via helicopter. When we got off the helo, we took the advice of the old guys with all the hashmarks and spread out. We moved on hillsides in the thickest nastiest terrain we could find. Why did we do this? Because ambushes are laid on trails, roads, open areas, dry creek beds. While I understand that it is impossible to avoid open areas in the desert, it's fairly obvious to me that driving down a road is eventually going to get you racked.
Virtually all of our combat casualties today are due to IEDs along roadways.
The best description I ever heard of a Bradley 'Fighting Vehicle' was this; a friend of mine with the 1st SFG called it a 'tin can that packages infantry troops for convenient mass destruction.' The terrorists in Iraq have put the proof to his words and I would submit that they apply to all armored vehicles commonly used to transport troops; Bradleys, AAVs, LAVs, etc. In the interest of simplicity I'll just call them 'AV's' (for Armored Vehicles) from here on. If the terrorists can kill an Abrams tank, and they have, then an AV is child's play. The theory when I was on active duty, and I assume that it still holds, is that your AV is a sort of rolling command post. Everybody rides around in it until contact and then bails out, spreads out, and engages the enemy. That's fine, unless your infantry squad happens to be in the one that rolls over the IED as it is set off.
I recognize that 1800 KIA in three years is unprecedented for a ground war of any kind, but that doesn't mean that we should ignore what is killing most of our guys. It seems that our military is relying on armor, speed, and maneuver a la cold war Eastern Europe armored assault. While this worked exceedingly well during the push to Baghdad, it is notso hotso for day—to—day operations, particularly in urban terrain. It seems to me that it would significantly reduce the number of troops killed and wounded by roadside bombs and suicide bombers if we did the following.
First, stay out of the AVs, spread out, and walk. Use the AVs in a supporting role to the infantry troops rather than the other way around. This accomplishes several things. Instead of having virtually all of your firepower locked up inside of a vehicle, blind and impotent and useless, you've got a heavily armed squad already spread out providing multiple sets of eyes, ears, and weapons for the operation. If an IED is set off, there'll be casualties, but it'll be a fraction of the number killed if an IED were to be set off under an armored vehicle loaded with troops. It also allows all those aforementioned eyes and ears to pinpoint and independently and immediately react to the situation, potentially resulting in additional enemy KIA or captured.
Second, use helicopters. The last I checked, the terrorists completely lacked an Air Force and their anti—aircraft capabilities primarily consist of occasionally lobbing an RPG in the general direction of a slow—moving or hovering helo. Use gunships, Cobras and Apaches, as escorts. Move your troops with Blackhawks and 53s. Stay out of the rolling sardine cans. There was a lot of concern about up armoring HMMWVs a while back. I think that's a good idea, but it's not a solution. No amount of armor is going to prevent even a semi—skilled bomber from destroying the HMMWV and killing the occupants. I would propose instead that we avoid, as much as possible, even getting in the damned things outside of completely secured areas. Riding in a Hummer around central Iraq is the moral equivalent of wearing a 'kick me' sign on your back. Eventually you're going to get kicked square in the backside.
This leaves the problem of convoy escort. You've got to get supplies and material in to your troops. The convoys we use today have to be escorted and protected. I assume that this is where a significant number of casualties are coming from. If so, shut down the convoys. Use aerial resupply. This is a basic and uncomplicated Air Force mission and it is precisely what C—130's and C—141's were originally designed for.
It seems obvious to me, in my position here as a 4—star armchair general, that if I've got IEDs killing my men en masse then I should spread the men out so that the enemy is forced to attempt to target them individually. If they are blowing up my mounted patrols I should dismount my troops. If they are hitting my troops as they move from one point to the other on the ground, then I should put them in the air. If they are hitting my convoys on the ground, then I should move my materials by air as well. If they are hanging out and setting up traps and ambushes along high—speed avenues of approach, then stay the hell off of them.
The Marines in Fallujah learned their lessons well, and those lessons, though they are focused on house—to—house combat should be utilized and applied not only during offensive operations, but also during daily patrols and general security operations. Let's look at a few of these lessons (all emphasis is mine):
That's it, and it is quite correct. Spread out, stagger your formation, maintain 360 degree three—dimensional security, and move quickly. To that I would add that the AV be used to support the dismounted troops.
As the old saying goes, wars are won with boots on the ground. This still holds true, though for a different reason. Every time an AV gets blown to hell and another dozen or so young troopers are killed inside it, support for the war dwindles. The most horrible tragedy I can imagine is that the American people decide the War in Iraq is not worth it, and those troops end up dying for no reason. Let's get out and walk. Just remember to spread out.