I originally wrote this essay in 2011. It is still relevant. A recent article about issues with military radios reminded me of it. Updates are at the bottom of the page.
In the last few months I’ve read 3 memoirs dealing with modern military actions. These ranged from Mogadishu in 1992 to Afghanistan in 2005.
The first was Joker One. It was written by a Marine lieutenant, Donovan Campbell, who led his platoon during their deployment to Ramadi, Iraq in 2004. This is by far the best of the three memoirs and I recommend it highly.
The second was Seal Team Six. This was written by a member of ST6 who was part of the “Blackhawk Down” battle in Somalia in 1992.
The third was Lone Survivor written by Marcus Luttrell. This book is awful. Marcus was part of a reconnaissance team that was compromised when goat herders (2 grown men and a boy) discovered them. The 4-man SEAL team held a vote on whether or not to kill the goat herders. Marcus cast the deciding vote to let them live. In the book he says he regrets that decision.
I’ve gathered that the Just War Theory classes at BUDS are not well attended.
The book has many issues which I will not get into here. I will say that I think the publisher and the ghost writer, who writes military fiction and should have known better, did Marcus wrong.
So after reading these three books I’ve noted three things that run almost as themes through them.
The first is the poor quality of military radios and military communication systems in general. No one would know Marcus Luttrell’s name if his team’s radio had worked and they had been able to call in air support. His commanding officer would not have had to sit, exposed, on top of a hill to use a satellite cell phone. He was mortally wounded making that call. He was eventually awarded the MOH.
In Ramadi the Marines’ radios were constantly malfunctioning. A former Marine who was working for a Blackwater-type outfit in Ramadi saw their plight and gave them some civilian Motorola radios to use. Marines were wounded and killed because of their inability to communicate with each other, with their base, and with supporting units. When there was trouble they would often find each other in the city by running toward the sound of the gunfire.
I did not read of any radio malfunctions during the battle of Mogadishu. What did happen was that men on the ground were unable to talk directly to aircraft overhead. The aircraft were trying to direct the convoy of Rangers back to base. Directions had to be relayed through several different radio operators. Since they couldn’t directly communicate with the convoy, by the time word reached the lead Humvee to “turn left at the next intersection” the lead Humvee was already several streets past it. What should have been a quick drive back to base turned into a do-loop through a gauntlet of AK-47 bullets and RPG’s. With adequate communications the convoy would have gotten back to base quickly, its casualties would have been minimal. The Blackhawks would have had no reason to linger at low altitude above the city, therefore they wouldn’t have been shot down. Even if they had been shot down, elements could have been directed to assist them. Part of the confusion of the lost convoy was that some of the directions it received were meant to send it back to base, while others were directing it towards the downed helicopters.
The military use of radio has been around for almost a century now. Its use at the company and platoon level has been around for the 70 years since WWII. And yet we still haven’t nailed this technology down to where fire teams can reliably communicate with each other and with their commanders. If the three books are in any way representative of what our troops are going through, then with the exception of defeating IEDs, improving communications would be the single greatest lifesaver out there.
The second theme is the limited effectiveness of the individual rifle. Studies performed after WWII on rifle use in combat showed many interesting things. After the shocking stat that two thirds of all riflemen never fired their weapons, there were some other jaw droppers. One was that those wonderfully built, accurate out to a thousand yard, match-grade rifles were rarely used to inflict an enemy casualty beyond a hundred yards. Most casualties were a lot closer than that. Another jaw dropper was that firing accurately was not important. What mattered was the number of bullets fired. The nature of firefights is such that once combatants are firing at each other while maneuvering or while behind cover, the bullet hit probability trends to a very low number. It is just plain hard to hit a target that is either moving in a random pattern or is positioned in such a way that it is presenting only a small exposed area to aim at. Add to this the difficulty of aiming while you yourself are trying to randomly move, or you are situated awkwardly behind cover. Then throw in some excitement-panic (some “Baghdaddy buck fever”) and it’s a wonder anyone manages to hit the enemy. When the odds of an aimed shot go this low, they approach the odds of getting hit by a stray bullet or a ricochet. This is when quantity outstrips quality.
It’s not like accuracy doesn’t matter. The situation is very different when the soldier has cover and his enemy is exposed and not actively avoiding fire. This is the sniper’s setup. Now the shooter has time and opportunity to aim and fire. The dynamics of sniping and skirmishing are almost totally opposite. The sniper maintains cover at all costs. He will move only when he absolutely has to. His volume of fire is minimal; he’ll expend a max of two or three rounds for each target engaged.
For the skirmisher, maneuver is everything. If he becomes pinned down behind cover, he may remain unhurt, but he is useless to his team-mates and will not push toward his team’s objectives. Cover is only a temporary stop to allow him to provide “overwatch” fire while his team-mates run past and take up cover positions so he can do the same. The volume of fire he lays down is limited only by the mechanics of his rifle and his need to husband his supply of magazines for the duration of the firefight.
All 3 books have both situations of sniping and skirmishing. During the sniping episodes the men’s rifles are lethal. Their marksmanship skills shine. During the skirmishing episodes it’s a different matter. When the combat is just rifle against rifle the situation bogs down into a miniature war of attrition. The give and take of rifle fire continues until one side decides to cut its loses and disengages from the battle. Lots of bullets are exchanged but few hits are taken or given. When both sides are firing from cover there are only a few choices a team leader can make.
One choice is to keep his team where it’s at (assuming the cover is decent) and hope that all of the following are true: 1. the enemy gets tired of the fun and games before his team runs out of ammo and functional fighters, 2. the enemy doesn’t employ a tactic that changes the balance of fire and cover, and 3. that the enemy doesn’t bring a weapon to bear that does the same.
Another choice is for the team leader to move his men despite the risk of getting hit. Movement is done through what the army calls a “bounding overwatch”. This is the classic technique where half the team is stationary and provides covering fire while the other half runs to its next position. Once there, that half fires, while the other runs, and so on. Movement can be to the sides or back to disengage from the fight (retreating), or it can be to the front or sides to attack the enemy. Coming at your enemy from the side is called flanking. The idea being that while your enemy’s cover may protect him from fire from one particular direction, you will start firing at him from a direction where his cover doesn’t provide him protection. Usually some sneakiness is involved. If you leave part of your team at the original position to keep your enemy occupied while the other part performs the flanking maneuver, you will manage to put your enemy into a crossfire. It is a checkmate of sorts where he can’t get adequate cover to protect himself from fire from both directions.
Attacking your enemy by charging directly at him goes by many different names. Some call it gutsy (especially when it succeeds), some call it stupid, (especially when it fails), while others call it being a Marine.
Sometimes it’s the only choice left. I love the story of the seven British Highlanders who were ambushed by 35 Iraqi insurgents. They had taken cover behind their vehicles and were trading fire with the insurgents. As their ammunition ran low, they saw they were on the losing side of this battle of attrition. With no other choice, they fixed bayonets and charged. In the end they killed or captured all 35 insurgents and didn’t lose a single Highlander. Sometimes being a hero means doing the obvious.
This is the dilemma of the rifle-armed participants of a firefight. Rifle fire is dangerous enough to keep soldiers behind cover, but not dangerous enough to quickly resolve a standoff. Rifle fire is also not dangerous enough to totally prevent movement; it just makes it costly.
The MILES training gear accurately portrays this condition. Laser hits on the receiver sensors worn by the participants are never considered a definitive hit or miss. Instead a probability is assigned based on how accurate the shot was made. The system will make the participant a casualty based on the frequency of shots and the probability of each of those shots causing a wound. Each soldier finds himself in a military version of the Schrödinger’s cat experiment.
In all three books the combatants fall into this firefight situation. Men who are deadly accurate with their weapons wind up playing ballistic whack-a-mole with an enemy who merely has to lay prone behind a head sized stone to negate a million dollars’ worth of training (Wasdin was part of Seal Team 6 which fired more rounds per year in training its approximately one hundred members than the entire Marine Corps did to train all its members).
I wrote earlier of the choices a team leader has when in a firefight. There is one more option.
Metaphorically (and to quote President Obama), it’s to bring a gun to a knife fight. Or in this case, to bring an RPG to a gun fight.
Which brings me to the third observation.
If your headed into a firefight, bring some RPG’s. Where rifle fire was not as effective as I had supposed, RPG’s are devastating; more so than I had imagined before reading these books.
RPG’s are game changers. They are one of those weapons that negate cover.
In Afghanistan, Luttrell and his team were pinned down on a ridge, taking cover behind rocks. It wasn’t great cover, but sufficient to prevent them from being immediately over run. They continued like this for a while, both sides exchanging rifle fire from behind cover, when the Taliban “brought the gun to the knife fight”. They launched several RPG’s at the SEALs’ positions. RPG’s can act as direct and indirect weapons. As direct weapons (weapons that are fired at a target that is in the shooters line of sight) the rocket propelled grenades simply blow up the opponents’ source of cover. The rock or wall you’re hiding behind shatters. If the explosion hasn’t taken you out of action, your now exposed condition will. As an indirect weapon (one that hits targets hidden behind cover) the RPG hits to the side or back of a position and the poor soul is hit by shrapnel from either the grenade itself or whatever the grenade blewup.
When Luttrell’s team was hit by RPG’s they immediately abandoned their position in the only way they could: they jumped off the cliff they had been backed up against. Later, on a lower ridge, the Taliban again had the SEALs pinned down. This time Marcus was taking cover behind a tree stump when it was hit by an RPG. That is what saved him. The explosion knocked him off the ridge and out of the Talibans’ sight. He spends the rest of his book hiding from them.
It’s is notable that it is only the SEAL ops that go horribly wrong that are interesting. The ones that go well are incredibly boring. Wasdin did several ops during Desert Storm. And they are snoozers. “Yep, I infiltrated a hundred miles behind enemy lines, aimed a laser at a compound until the JDAM’s hit, then I ex-filtrated. I never fired my rifle the entire op.” Or words to that effect. I don’t remember exactly since my eyes glazed over. When a SEAL gets into a firefight it means things have gone horribly wrong.
SEALs go on ops to snipe, perform reconnaissance, blow things up, or capture people. The only time they actually attack or assault is in close quarter combat situations. Those are a different kind of animal. Taking over Iranian oil rig platforms in the Persian Gulf or attacking Bin Laden’s compound would fall in this category. SEAL’s never intentionally get into protracted firefights and if they do, their reaction is not to attack the opposing force but to get away as quickly as possible.
But back to RPG’s.
All three books highlight their devastating effectiveness. In Jocker One, Campbell’s platoon is shot up so many times it’s not possible to keep count. By the end of their deployment over half of the men have been wounded in some fashion. Many more than once. Few of the hits actually take guys out of the action. While Campbell loses about 20% of his men to battlefield injury, with one exception, none are permanently or seriously disabled. The one exception is a fatality. The man is hit by shrapnel from an RPG. In Luttrell’s book, not only are the RPG’s devastating in firefights, they also are effective against helicopters. The Quick Reaction Force that comes to rescue Marcus and his buddies is wiped out when an RPG is fired directly into the open ramp of their helicopter. And of course during the Blackhawk Down incident, two helicopters are brought down by RPG’s. The more I learn about it, the more the battle of Mogadishu comes across as a proxy battle between Al Queda and the US. According to Wasdin, the Somali’s learn how to use RPG’s in the anti-helicoptor role from Al Queda advisors. Prior to their help, both the Americans and Somalis assumed that pointing an RPG upward would be suicide to the user due to the rocket’s back-blast against the ground. Wasdin doesn’t elaborate on how this is overcome (I assume they just launch from spots where the back-blast won’t affect them, such as at the edge of roofs.
It is interesting to consider why the RPG is such a game changer. Why is it like “bringing a gun to a knife fight”? Why isn’t the modern assault rifle in the hands of a well-trained soldier equally as devastating? Part of the answer goes back to the difficulty in actually hitting your target in a firefight situation. Another part of the answer lies in how effective assault rifle rounds are in taking a man out of the fight: that infamous measure of “stopping power”.
At this point the “great taste-less filling” arguments begin between the 7.62 vs 5.56, and the 9 mm vs 45 caliber advocates. I am not picking a side in this debate. Everyone acknowledges that the bigger the bullet, the greater the stopping power. They also acknowledge that the smaller the bullet, the more rounds a soldier can carry into battle and therefore the more he can fire and therefore have the better potential to hit the enemy. There should be a perfect caliber that gives optimum effectiveness by balancing bullet stopping power with the number of bullets it’s possible to carry in a combat load. For all I know, 5.56 mm may be that caliber. But I don’t know and I think it’s immaterial. To push the analogy: arguing about assault rifle caliber is like two guys arguing about optimum blade length for a fighting knife while their enemy shows up with a pistol.
Both 7.62 and 5.62 require that to immediately incapacitate a person a hit has to be made to the head, spinal cord or major organ. All three books have dramatic examples of guys taking multiple shots and continuing to effectively fight, at least temporarily. It doesn’t mean all is rosy for them. Bleeding out is a concern: long term disability as well. One of Luttrell’s team had his thumb shot off early in their engagement. He continued to fight back hard, but if he had survived that would have meant the end of his SEAL career.
Of course, individual mileage may vary. Wasdin described a scene in Mogadishu where the Humvee they were in had wounded Rangers in the back. One of the wounded only had a flesh wound to his hand. He spent the rest of the battle in a state of shock, staring at his wounded hand. Another Ranger had been shot in the back but was still passing ammo up to the front of the truck for the shooters. He was shot two more times while doing this, but never stopped. I probably would have been the first guy.
An RPG changes things. It doesn’t have to have MOA accuracy to be effective. It doesn’t have to hit a vital organ to take a soldier out of the fight. Add to that its ability to take out helicopters and thin skinned vehicles (plus its cheapness and minimal learning curve) and you have a modern wonder weapon.
Speaking of modern wonder weapons, did I mention that it is almost an exact copy of the Panzerfaust RPG the Germans developed in WWII? There aren’t too many things in the modern arsenal that weren’t first seen in WWII (e.g. assault rifles, RPG’s, jets, guided weapons, and atomic bombs).
This brings me to the issue of what US infantry troops do to bring the “gun to a knife fight”.
From what I’ve read, not just in these three books but many others, our troops rely heavily on air power to break the firefight stalemate when movement is not possible. When things go bad, you make it rain steel from the sky with a phone call.
But our squads and fire teams go into battle with little more than their rifles.
Luttrell’s team was armed only with 5.56 rifles and 9 mm pistols. Wasdin’s 4-man SEAL team that accompanied the Ranger’s in Mogadishu was armed with 2 CAR-15’s, two M-14’s and their 9 mm sidearms. The two operators armed with M-14’s were not happy about their choice. They quickly ran out of ammo for their rifles and spent a good part of the battle using their pistols.
In Ramadi, the Marine squads carried M4’s. Each squad also carried SAW’s (Squad Automatic Weapon’s, 5.56 M249 machine guns), M203 grenade launcher attachments for their M4’s, and hand grenades. I don’t have a complete picture of how many of each was carried, but the bottom line was: not enough. The way Donovan describes their fire fights I would guess they had one SAW and one M203 per squad (a 13 man group), at most they had two of each per squad (that would make it one SAW and M203 per six man fire team). They also carried hand grenades, but again, not enough. Always, marines with weapons heavier than rifles have to be located and brought up to meet a situation, instead of just being there. When five out of six of your guys are armed with rifles, that’s mainly what you’re fighting with. Even the M203 seemed to be used only sparingly; only when Donovan, as Platoon leader, called for it.
What Donovan and his Marines excelled in, however, was maneuver. Leaving the protection of cover and running into a storm of bullets is apparently easy when you have a total disregard for your own safety. Either that or the “USMC” patch on the chest makes one bulletproof.
There is a concept in the military called “combined arms”. It usually refers to the bigger picture, to the match-up of battalion sized units and larger. It means the integration of ground units of different types, such as infantry and armor, along with air units. The advantage of combined arms is simple. Different weapon systems are brought together on the battlefield against an enemy. Each weapon system has different advantages. By combining them on the battlefield, their advantages overlap and negate any strengths the enemy may have.
A good example of this was used by the Marines when they re-took Fallujah. The Marines fought house to house throughout the city. The house clearing went as follows. A squad of Marines would advance on a house compound. They would break the lock on the compound gate with either a sledge hammer or by firing a breaching round from a 12 gauge shotgun. While waiting in a stack along the wall by the gate, they would toss a hand grenade over the wall and charge through the gate when it went off. They would stack against the house wall this time. If no one had fired at them from the house by this time they would try to draw fire by firing their rifles through a window. If they received no fire by now, they would go through the house room by room. If they were fired on they would attempt to clear with a combination of grenades and rifle fire. If the insurgents were barricaded well, they would simply pull out of the house and call an M1 Abrahms tank to level the house with its main gun. Alternately, they could call for an AC130 gunship, a Cobra gunship, a GBU dropped from a Harrier jet, or artillery rounds.
A group of insurgents well barricaded in a house can hold off a squad of Marines with ease (surprisingly, even though they had plenty of time to do so, not that many houses were well prepared as redoubts; it was as though the insurgents didn’t realize till the last minute that the Marines really would attack). Notice that even before the crew served weapon systems are brought to bear, the individual squad has a selection of weapons to choose from to accomplish different tasks: shot gun to breach a door, grenades to clear space for entry, rifles to engage targets to kill or keep them under cover. A small number of SMAW’s (shoulder fired bunker buster rockets, i.e., expensive RPG’s) were carried and used when a bigger boom was required than what a hand grenade could provide.
The Marine squads in Fallujah were ready for the fight. They carried a mix of weapons that matched the task.
It may seem logical to just drive Abram tanks through the city and not expose infantry to these hazards. After all, there isn’t much that an insurgent can do against an Abrams. There isn’t much that can withstand the main gun of an Abrams. But you can’t clear a house with a tank (flatten, yes, clear, no). Nor can you flatten every house. There aren’t enough tanks or tank rounds. You need tanks working with infantry to clear a city.
The combined arms concept has been pushed down to smaller units but basically stops at the company level. A company of infantry will have three platoons of riflemen (40 men per platoon) with a weapon selection similar to what I referred to earlier with Donovan’s platoon. It will also have a “weapons” platoon that is responsible for mortars, anti-tank weapons, and other crew-served weapons.
In a combined arms type campaign, a company of infantry will work with a company of armor or vehicle-borne crew-served weapons. But generally you don’t see squads practicing the combined arms philosophy within the squad. Either they carry nothing but rifles, or they carry so few other types of weapons that their impact on the fight is not significant.
The combined arms idea for small units is not a new idea. Roman legionnaires each carried a javelin for hurling at infantry formations, and a short sword for melee work.
There are some signs that infantry squads will be better armed in the future. One of the best things to happen was the fielding of the XM25 by some select units. This weapon is what’s left over from the OICW program that was cancelled a few years ago. That weapon combined a 5.56 assault rifle with a 25 mm grenade launcher. This grenade shell is special. It’s equipped with electronics that communicates with the sighting device on the weapon.
The shooter puts the crosshairs of the sight on the target and the device determines its distance with a laser. It then sends that info to the grenade. The shooter can also add or subtract a meter at a time to this distance. He then fires the round and the grenade detonates when it has reached the predetermined distance. If the target is behind cover, the shooter can aim just above or to the side of the target’s location (depending on whether the target is just below a wall or around a corner), add a meter to the target distance, and fire the round. Now the grenade will travel past the target and detonate behind him where he is unprotected.
The XM25 is the OICW without the assault rifle portion of the weapon. It has none of the disadvantages of the M203 or M320 grenade launchers. It fires from a four round magazine instead of the awkward single shot sliding barrel. It has a range of over half a kilometer and is highly accurate. The current grenade launchers have a range of only about 100 meters and are not accurate at all. This weapon is definitely a game changer. It can negate the effectiveness of cover, thereby breaking the firefight stalemate.
It will be interesting to see if it sees enough use in Afghanistan to provide good data on its usefulness and if it changes how fire teams are armed.
Yes, radios are still a problem:
This excellent article at the link below, highlighting the effectiveness of various rifle cartridges, is worth reading. It brings up an obvious issue: a cartridge may be optimal for urban warfare, while totally useless in open countryside. I wish I had read this article before writing this essay.
Click to access a512331.pdf
As for the XM25, I’m not sure about all the reasons, but this weapon is no longer being used. I read reports from initial users in Afghanistan that it was liked by the troops, but ultimately the program was cancelled.