As a veteran, I know the horrors and hardships of war..I like to think I have hardened my heart enough to not let the news from the battlefield affect me anymore, but that is a joke. With the recent tragic loss of 30 Special Operation Operators, 22 of them from the Elite Seal Team 6 in Afghanistan (The Team that took down Osama Bin Laden.) I have had a heavy heart and it has been on my mind quite a bit the last few days. I want to put out a few points, not as finger-pointing, but as lessons, because if we do not learn from our mistakes in war, we are doomed to repeat them and sacrifice more fine young men un-needingly.
The war in Afghanistan is a guerilla war, make no mistake about it..fought by hardened islamic zealot guerillas, people who have known warfare for centuries, fighting the armies of Alexander the Great to the Soviet Army (with a little help from the United States) defeating them all in a war of attrition that staggered the imagination. This is not going to be a general essay on the war, there is way too many of them out there (most of them wrote by men with alot of degrees, but zero combat experience.) Instead I want to learn from the particular incident that killed the 30 US Seals (part of a rescue team) in particular, an RPG (or Stinger) attack on a low flying helicopter, which if we look back in history not very far, we can learn volumes. Make no mistake about it, our enemy has succeeded in writing a book of tactics that is successful in creating casualties on our forces..there are some that dismiss these attacks as “lucky”, I would disagree and use history and my experiences to qualify my point.
Mogadishu, Somalia 1993
The infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident that shook America awake we were in a struggle with a determined enemy.. not one, but two, black hawk helicopters (the second helo was a rescue attempt) were shot down by Somali RPG teams. In the end, American casualties were 18 dead and 73 wounded. The essence of this operation was basically a “snatch and grab” aimed at the Habr Gidr clan, headed by warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Initiated primarily by the 75th Rangers and 1st Special Operation Detachment-Delta, with the Rangers acting in a security role and Delta initiating the actual snatch. It was a general tactic to use the MH-60 Black Hawks to “fast rope” the Rangers (Delta typically used A/MH-6M Little birds to deploy on the rooftops) to their security box positions on the street, having the helo sit there for an average of 2-3 minutes while the troops were deployed, a big fat target, sitting static, waiting to draw fire. At these ranges, an un-trained insurgent would fire an RPG rocket (dumb munition, no guidance system) and have good effect on target.
Asadabad, Afghanistan (Kunar Province) 2005
Rescue Mission for Operation Red Wing. In support and rescue of the 4 Navy Seals from Seal Team 10, including the only Lone Survivor, fellow Texan Marcus Luttrell. A total of 16 men were killed in the RPG (or Stinger) attack on the rescue helicopter, 8 Navy Seals and 8 160th SOAR Airborne troops. The target of Operation Redwing, Ahmad Shah, a Taliban Commander was later quoted of saying “”We certainly know that when the American army comes under pressure and they get hit, they will try to help their friends. It is the law of the battlefield.” Those that say our enemy is not organized and are “lucky” in their attacks, might want to take this enemy’s words to heart. They obviously have our reaction tactics charted, like a chess game. More importantly, our RESCUE TACTICS, which all of these incidents have in common.
Kabul Afghanistan, 1986
Operation Cyclone. The CIA program to arm and train the mujahideen to fight the Soviet invasion and onslaught, which began in 1979 and continued until 1989. A major weapon system that the Muj were supplied with was the Stinger missle system, an anti-aircraft guided missle platform, capable of downing helo’s or fixed wing aircraft. The major threat at the time was the Soviet Hind Mi-24 Attack Gunship, which was decimating the civilian population. The Stinger would enable the average Muj fighter with the ability to down these monsters. When the Soviets finally were defeated in 1989, the CIA sought to “buy back” 300 Stingers, at a price tag of $55 Million, but found the majority of these units had either seeped into the heroin/arms black market or disappeared over the border to Croatia, North Korea and Iran, in essence, supplying most of our global enemies with a devastating weapon to shoot down low flying aircraft. There are several theories surrounding the propagation of the Stinger by the Taliban, one suggest the Russian Mafia barters weapons for heroin. Another suggest that through reverse engineering, the Taliban has been able to reproduce a missile that could be fired through the Stinger platform. Current CIA and NSA intelligence reports suggest the Taliban currently has over 100-200 of these missiles on hand and uses them sparingly for high value targets, such as populated military helicopters or low flying commercial airliners.
The current military policy of using slow and loud transport helicopters like Chinooks, that insert troops at low altitude for assault and rescue missions without any type of armed escort, like Apache attack helicopters is a recipe for disaster. Working around the Chinook for years, I can tell you it is no way a “stealthy” chopper..you can hear it coming from 5 miles away. Also, the terrain of the country means a dedicated RPG team or Stinger team could basically set themselves up and be almost horizontal with the slow, lumbering helo and have a “chip” shot. The terrain also offers good cover, like caves and depressions for teams to hide until the last minute. The only way is for Apaches to recon the route, back and forth, with thermal gun sights and root out the teams before they have a chance to set up. Another option is the use of the “eye in the sky”, either through a Predator Drone or Ac-130 Gunship. Understanding that the enemy has our SOP in regards to rescue missions, they know beyond a shadow of a doubt, when one of our units is pinned down or outmanned, we will come running with reinforcements inserted by air (Quick Reaction Force.) We need to change this SOP ASAP.
QRF Insertion Options
There is no easy answer when time is the crucial element in Quick Reaction. When men are dying and the position is about to be overun, the faster the better. Besides the obvious solutions of air support, which we have skimmed the surface of, the other option is starting to fight this war in terms of guerilla tactics (small elite unit action) which was the initial strategy in 2001, but somehow got changed along the way, deciding to use the principal of “troop surge” that had worked in Iraq. I personally feel after the failure of Operation Red Wing in 2005, which we discussed, the Pentagon changed it’s view to a more conventional type of war. The essence of guerilla tactics is doing more with fewer men. Inserting small teams of SF men in MH Little Birds to provide support and extraction for rescue missions is not a novel ideal, but I think it is a more viable solution than putting a platoon+ sized element hanging in the air with it’s fly unzipped, looking like a bullet magnet.
I propose that the job could have been done with half of the men that were there. We are talking the best of the best ..force multipliers. These 30 men which died, could have been inserted in a faster, more efficient vehicle (MH Little Bird). This helo has a lower sound signature and is much quicker to land and take off. There is also the option of a HALO insertion, although not near as fast and typically done in smaller numbers than 10-15 men, typically squad sized, 4-7.
The recent Seal tragedy and the other incidents we discussed magnifies the need for the US to change it’s strategy on troop rescue operations and the way we are fighting this war. We have seen that obviously the enemy uses these rescue operations against us, knowing we will send a large QRF to respond. IMO we need to get back to the roots of the original gameplan to fight this war (massive airpower combined with small elite unit guerilla warfare where a indigenous counter-insurgency population is trained and armed) and away from large troop movements that are predictable.
Stay Dangerous my friends.