And what about our reliance on contractors? About half of the people on the plane I was on to Iraq were contractors, and I'm not sure how much we'll be able to count on contractors in areas where we can't provide security like we do now.
Michael's Dispatches23 Comments
- Published: Monday, 08 October 2012 14:02
08 October 2012
Terrain is the single most important factor in combat.
During the early days of the wars, back when everyone seemed to know we had won in Afghanistan, testimonials streamed from the battle zones about how badly the deserts treated our super-gear.
Batman could only dream about the techno-wonders we complained about. But we pleaded that the high temperatures, moon dust, and that terrible Brownian Motion could be the undoing of our high tech. (Send more money.)
Yet, no Einstein was required to see that the commotion over climate and dust avoided a few important realities; Iraqis and Afghans have lived there beyond the frayed edges of history, and today their televisions, motorbikes, and cars work, despite the sand and heat. Their helicopters still fly. Their AK-47s still burp flames and hot metal. (Yes, the Taliban really did have high-performance aircraft working.)
Eventually we stopped crying about the gear. Many of our own training centers are in U.S. deserts, and we have many times fought in deserts, yet somehow we still fielded gear that we said has difficulty in deserts. (Send more money.)
The truth is that desert terrain and weather have provided the finest moments for gadget warfare. Any major defense contractor purveying the modern high-tech would want to exhibit them on the perfect stage of Afghanistan, or against the Iraqi Army, so easily detected in wide open spaces, and hit with precision weapons. Our ships did not face major threats from high-tech missiles, or even basic sea mines, which still in 2012 remain serious threats.
In Afghanistan, what looks so wonderful against a low-tech enemy in made-for-Hollywood terrain will not shine brightly in triple-canopy jungles, or even in the dense forests of the Appalachians, or in the thick Florida swamps. Deserts are the last place to complain about our gear.
This dispatch is not an attempt to perturb military policy. Shelves of books already have been written by more qualified others, spanning many wars and generations. If performance is any measure, they did little good.
Yet it is vital to put some of these recent observations on paper while the memories remain fresh. These notes will not help the current military, any more than reading glasses and books will help an illiterate Afghan farmer who for seventy years has been set in his ways. But they may be of some use to rare historians, and the curious, who years later, wonder why we fumbled so in Afghanistan. These notes might be of value to some as-yet unborn commander, and provide insight to our political and military failure against enemies who easily should have been defeated.
This dispatch is not comprehensive. It represents a weekend of effort. A small donation for posterity.
With some exceptions, the Afghanistan battlefields are mostly treeless, even bald. Advanced optics of many sorts can see for miles. Today, some optics are outfitted with software to highlight potential targets. So, there you are, using a thermal imager, when a little box appears. It draws your attention away from the warm haystack, to something manlike under sparse trees. Not only does the imager enhance the eyes; it also tells us where to look, and the precise coordinates of the object of attention.
At night, low humidity, crystal-clear skies, and practically zero light pollution allows operators to easily identify targets.
The logistics to Afghanistan are hard, expensive, and fraught with international politics. But after the supplies land in Afghanistan—especially in the south where most fighting occurs—logistics become easy (if still wildly expensive due to aircraft and fuel costs). Much of the supplies are parachuted to minor bases, or delivered by helicopter, or by trucks, which often are destroyed. The major bases have large runways. All of our ammunition and sensitive items are flown into Afghanistan. I once flew from Kuwait to Bagram on a C-17 (costing about $200m per) with a full load of 155mm ammunition.
We have created a virtual (if small) country within Afghanistan. Our virtual country is completely electrified except at tiny outposts. Most of the troops and contractors have running hot water, sewerage systems, and on some bases, pizza delivery and laundry service. There is WiFi, cell phone service, excellent gyms and many if not most troops who deploy to Afghanistan actually gain weight. (This is untrue for combat troops, who often skinny up.) There is FedEx and DHL at the major bases. Helicopters or trucks deliver mail to minor bases.
Most Afghans have no electricity. Their villages are dark. Our bases stand out like spaceships in the night. The Afghans have asked for years why we are able to quickly electrify our bases, but cannot electrify a village just outside the wire. They only expect these things because they were promised.
For years, we said we had to guard Kajaki Dam because the Taliban would destroy it. Which makes no sense. The Taliban controlled the dam for years and never destroyed it; their opium farms depend on it, and they hope to have electricity from it. The Taliban had eliminated opium before we came. They outlawed the dancing boys, and executed people for raping boys and girls. Yes, they were savage. Afghanistan is savage no matter who is in charge. President Karzai supported a law that allows a man to starve his wife if she refuses sex. Afghanistan still forces girls to marry men who rape them.
We also said the Taliban will destroy the electrical posts and lines, but this also is untrue. This brief combat video was shot by me, miles down from Kajaki, in the area of Sangin, in Helmand Province.
There were plenty of power lines in the area that were completely controlled by the Taliban. There are only glimpses of power lines in the video, but it is a fact that the Taliban were not destroying them. The video was a composite from different firefights; during the ambush in the open, the two Javelin missiles were used in panic. One shot hit the dirt, which at first I thought must be a hidden position. But video would prove that it was just dirt in the wide open. The second hit the generator. We had no air support because there was a bigger fight going on nearby, and we could hear and see that they needed the Apaches and the rest more than we did.
After shattering some small rocks with the first Javelin (he had two missiles), the Soldier used the Javelin thermal (CLU) and locked his gates onto the heat source from a generator. He and the Soldiers in this image were covering the half I was with, while we ran out of the giant kill zone. The Javelin man launched a top-down attack, making an impressive fireball. Nobody knew what caused the fireball until the villagers (from the place where the gunfire was coming) came to base demanding payment for the generator.
The Taliban seem to think we are their retarded little toys; they shoot us, and blow us up, and then demand we pay for their stuff, which we do. Sometimes the Taliban seem to pity us. Rich, ignorant suckers. The power lines in this dispatch are safely under complete [Taliban] control.
During fighting, combat air support is seldom more than a few minutes away, and helicopter resupply is so certain in Kandahar and Helmand that even a brief contact from the enemy can result in massive return fire. In this brief firefight, we saw approximately a quarter of a million dollars’ worth (depending on which price you cite) of Javelin used to destroy some rocks and a generator. This cost does not include operator training, transport to Afghanistan, and then the helicopter flight to the outpost. More return fire could have been accomplished with RPGs for maybe a hundred bucks.
U.S. and British troops on foot missions sometimes unleash just to lighten the load. Americans are far worse at this than British. Courageous helicopter pilots—at risk of being shot down—will deliver “speedball” resupply on call, and the troops on the ground are easy to find. The pilots can put the speedball at your feet. American troops in Vietnam were notorious for doing the same.
This ain’t the jungle, and the Taliban are not bristling with surface-to-air missiles, and so the airspace is relatively safe, above small-arms range. Occasionally, the enemy uses surface-to-air missiles with success, and they have learned to reasonably match our night vision gear by using cheap cameras set to night mode. We use all sorts of IR beacons that the enemy can see with simple cameras.
For us, targets are easy to identify and mark by air or ground. We even have pricey GPS-guided mortars and artillery that can hit a parked car from miles away on the first strike. Using such gear would be far more difficult in a Louisiana bayou. If we were in a jungle or swamp, the apparent thousands of Javelin missiles that we and allies have fired in Afghanistan would often be impossible to bring to bear. The Javelins are great missiles, when they work, but we use them as fly swatters.
The taxpayers are generous and we waste that generosity self-righteously, with a massive sense of entitlement, which mostly is kept hidden with good PR, and willful blindness from those who foot the bills.
To dare spare any and all expense on the troops is seen as tantamount treason. Some years ago, there was a groundswell to supply troops with inferior body armor called Dragon Skin. The rally cry was that Dragon Skin was more expensive and therefore must be better, and that the military refused to buy it because it was more expensive.
The reality was that Dragon Skin was far more expensive, and far inferior to competitors. After trying Dragon Skin, which some people were buying for loved ones deployed, I refused to wear it in combat, and sold mine. To the Pentagon’s credit, the procurement system worked and the military did not cave to demands to buy the inferior Dragon Skin. The system is not totally broken. There really is some fine gear in use, but the failures are maddening, and this tendency to spare no expense is often used in commission of wanton waste.
In September 2011, I made video of a nearby U.S. strike using 12 GMLRS rockets. The Soldiers had to wait for well over a day—in a very dangerous area where two friendly fatalities (1 U.S., 1 ANA) occurred over two days. Finally came the rockets. About $2 million worth. Their actual cost would be far more if counting air transportation to Afghanistan, and other enormous associated costs, such as maintenance and specialized crews. While approval for the strike was on hold in Kabul, about 120 men waited as sitting ducks. (Many were Afghan Soldiers.)
The target: probably a few hundred dollars’ worth of ammonium nitrate. There were no enemy personnel on target. There were no civilians anywhere around. The target could have been hit within half an hour with a single bomb that already was under someone’s wing. Sometimes you get the impression that the choice of weapons—which was made in Kabul, hundreds of miles away—has nothing to do with the tactical realities.
On that particular mission – there was nothing special about it other than that it will be memorialized here – given that we came in and went out by helicopters, and took a U.S. fatality and one ANA killed, and the extreme costs of wasting Soldiers’ time in Afghanistan, it is not unrealistic to guess that that strike cost at least ten million dollars, or likely far more. There is no way to account for it, but we know that we were burning money at the bonfire of insanity, including a risky nighttime resupply halfway through by CH-47.
It has been estimated that it costs about $1 million to keep a U.S. Soldier in Afghanistan for one year. Let’s make a jagged stab at accounting for that mission, including some of the support, planning, and execution that went into it. Let’s argue that 400 people spent 10 days on it, or 4,000 man days. There was pre-mission planning that lasted weeks for some. Execution. And reset. So 10 days is safe. (Not including the many aircraft that supported us.) Most of the Soldiers involved with the mission did not actually go on it; they were support. That’s about $11 million, plus the $2 million for missiles, not to mention the aircraft, and the peanuts paid as death gratuity for the killed Soldier.
For what? A few hundred pounds of fertilizer. For every dollar we cost the enemy, we probably waste thousands.
It must cost at least a billion dollars to deploy an infantry battalion to Afghanistan for a year. It is hard to imagine it costing less. And this can never account for the casualties on both sides, the worn out and destroyed gear, and the suicide bomber and opium warehouse that has grown under our perceived wisdom. The Afghans, including in most of the worst places, have continuously demonstrated that they will welcome people and protect those who are helping, and they will resist those that they see as invaders. We would do the same.
Earlier in 2011, members of 4-4 Cav were making the normal war porn video of an impending airstrike of an enemy position. The F-18 was amazingly on target. The bomb can be heard roaring in, and then it exploded in the middle of the small base, just behind our Soldiers. It’s all on video. Amazingly, none of our guys were killed, but as I recall from comments (I was not there), two or three Afghan Soldiers completely disappeared. Even more amazing was that the bomb was right on (the wrong) target, and nearly everyone survived to fight another day. This little instance is representative of the war on whole. We are bombing ourselves.
In Afghanistan, low population density of man and beast—along with predictable life patterns—creates minimal bio-distractions. Few Afghans cruise around at all hours. At night, they mostly stay home, or during certain moon phases they work their fields.
As mentioned, few villages have lights. This reduction of randomness allows our sensors to spend more quality time on easily seeable potential targets, while wasting little on chasing battlefield noise. In every way, the signal-to-noise ratio in Afghanistan strongly favors the signal. But even with that low ratio, during broad daylight in perfect conditions, we saw the Javelin fired into the dirt, and minutes later, another Javelin fired into the generator. The broad daylight strike by an F-18 on our own base, which never hit the news. Every time I asked about the F-18 strike, I heard “Investigation is not over yet.”
How did we put a bomb into the middle of a known and established base? Given the importance of using F-18s in Afghanistan, the investigation should not waste months of time. I never did find out what happened, other than that a giant moon crater was put into the middle of a firebase, and that months later they still were wasting time with the report.
The only high noise ratio is coming from our military and civilian leadership.
In Afghanistan, few fights occur in urban areas. In rural areas, our radar and other sensors can positively detect the enemy from so many miles away that the enemy has no idea we are watching. This allows us to hit illiterate teenagers with wildly expensive missiles.
A couple years ago, I went on a mission. The day before, we’d had a sniper team watching our route to the village. Some teenagers started digging near the road and were killed. Turned out they were digging roots of some sort. The village was so remote that our side believed there was no OPSEC violation. In other words, the villagers did not know we were coming. It was said that Americans had never visited the village before. On our first house call, we accidentally shot some teenagers. Sorry about the kids. If that village was not enemy before, it became so after that.
We have outfitted ourselves and our training around fighting in wide-open spaces that completely favor us. In the jungle, the moon is seldom in favor of gadget warfare; the sun’s reflection hardly touches the ground. Even with the greatest sensors, the jungles can be black holes at night. Afghanistan deserts exaggerate our night advantages while jungles can erase them, while exaggerating enemy advantages that depend on man, not machine.
Over the past many decades, we often have fought third-world farmers. In Afghanistan, it is safe to posit that we mostly are fighting small farmers. Many of them have no idea that 9/11 ever happened. They were not our enemies before we came.
During one mission, we took over a farmer’s compound. He was farming grapes, and his harvest was out drying as raisins in the sun. Much ammunition had been fired in firefights, and we needed food and water and ammo, and when the CH-47 came that night it blew away much of his raisins. If the farmer was not the enemy before, he became so the next morning.
During another mission in the same area, there was a firefight and an enemy tracer (maybe from his brother for all we know) ricocheted into the compound into the farmer’s hay. Before it was over, the hay was destroyed. Our guys did not set the hay on fire, but it only happened because we were there. If he was not an enemy before, he became so after that.
Farmers the world around are conservative in every sense. Politically and in action. A wild-eyed farmer with a tendency to roll the dice would soon starve. Third-world farmers stick with what works.
Afghan grape farmers do not have the University of Florida showing them better ways to grow fruit. They do what their granddaddy did. They fight the same way, because it works, and even today, Afghans use the same ambush spots that have been used for generations. And if a bomb killed an American in one spot eight years ago, you can bet that that spot likely has a bomb today, and it probably killed a Russian there decades ago. A statistical analysis of bomb strikes might reveal that in some cases, the same spot killed a half dozen Americans over the years.
They use the same old tricks. A retired Marine EOD specialist recently told me that every year we lose roughly a half dozen troops to the flag trick. The Taliban plant a flag. Troops see it, they want it for a trophy, and they die.
Farmers are tuned in to the land and sky, and they don’t need ephemeris to know what the light will be like that night. In Afghanistan, our less technologically endowed enemies often mitigate our night advantages by conducting major ground attacks during advantageous lunar phases, such as around the new moon, or after the moon sets and before the sunrise.
The famous Battle of Wanat in 2008 is an example. The moon had been bright, but had set at about 1 A.M., giving the attackers time to get into position under blackness. They launched at about 0420, roughly an hour before sunrise. Common sense tactics that predate gunpowder.
Other examples of well-planned ground attacks include the 2012 strike at the Spozhmai Hotel in Afghanistan, or the horrific Mumbai attacks of 2008, over in India. These and many other major ground attacks often unfold around a new moon, or after moonset, unless there is a specific target of opportunity, or special date or anniversary. The point is that the simple enemy uses the moon for night vision, and for cover. The only wild card with the moon is the weather, but then that also affects our sensors.
We are especially in favor of anything that is mind-bogglingly expensive. Take this example of the billions of dollars wasted developing simple uniforms:
“Between 2003 and 2010, the Army spent more than $4 billion developing and producing a new camouflage uniform, the Army Combat Uniform (ACU). It decided on the camouflage pattern before testing was completed. And it began providing the uniform to troops before its Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center finished its evaluation and recommended a different pattern, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Friday.
“In 2009, an Army study found the ACU ‘offered less effective concealment than the patterns chosen by the Marine Corps and some foreign military services, such as Syria and China,’ according to the GAO report.”
NASA sends probes to other planets for less, and NASA is not exactly known for miserly spending. In 2011, the fancy uniforms were falling apart:
This would be like putting the Curiosity down safely on Mars, only to watch a wheel fall off because someone used the wrong sized bolts, and nobody noticed. We can’t be serious about these uniforms.
People have worn clothes for thousands of years, and yet the Army sends pants to war that fall apart. This substandard uniform rips open even in favorable, dry conditions when there are perfect laundry facilities on the bases. What are we going to do in jungles with no laundry?
There was a time when the Army’s seal of approval on boots probably meant you had a great pair of boots. These days, I would ignore Army gear and head for the North Face catalogue. Outdoorsmen no longer care what the Army thinks about gear. Soldiers, when they are allowed, use civilian boots, magazines, and countless other items that are substandard in the military inventory.
Please excuse my tone. This is for posterity, which historians can read long after we all are gone.
Even if the camouflage uniforms were invisibility cloaks, we cannot hide. We spent tens of billions of dollars on our giant MRAP trucks, which stand as tall as African elephants. African elephants are the heaviest land animals on earth. The MRAP weighs more than three times an average adult.
Unlike agile elephants, MRAPs are like gigantic turtles that can hardly leave the roads. Sometimes they leave the roads by just falling off of them, something I have never seen happen with a car. You are just driving down the road and suddenly the MRAP rolls off because it collapses the surface.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates did a great job of bashing the system on the head and getting the MRAPs fielded in record time, but then we took it too far and used them for missions for which they were not designed, and they have replaced most other battlefield land transport for combat units.
The Pentagon loves to tout MRAP’s bomb resistance. They better be resistant! Predicting MRAP routes is little more difficult than predicting trains. Paradoxically, by making them more bomb-resistant, we make them more bomb-prone.
Surely, it takes more explosives and effort to destroy an MRAP with a bomb, but it takes little to blow out the tires, or block it and destroy it with recoilless rifles or fire. The Pentagon only advertises the part about it withstanding the bomb, while avoiding how easily the enemy stops the MRAP, and then hits the dismounts with other bombs. That we know their tactics does not mean they stop working. The enemy knows we use airstrikes, but they still work.
Heck, nobody needs enemy to stop an MRAP. Too frequently they stop spontaneously with mechanical problems, or they get stuck in mud puddles. They are so tall that occupants sometimes get electrocuted by power lines. They are so top-heavy that they roll frequently, and so heavy that they often crumble rural roads, or flop over into irrigation ditches, where the occupants drown.
In 2010, I heard a distant explosion and turned to see the mushroom cloud. A car bomb had just hit an MRAP on a bridge, blowing the MRAP off the bridge, killing a U.S. Soldier and wounding others. Luckily they landed in a dry spot.
Bomb-resistant does not mean attack-resistant, and they are not really bomb-resistant; Iraqis could take them out with the small EFPs, but luckily the Afghans seldom use them. The 82mm recoilless rifle, common in Afghanistan, will take it out instantly.
It is as if we have invented a shotgun-resistant pigeon, and we force the pigeons to walk down the roads. The pigeons can now take a shotgun blast, but they no longer can fly, so the hunter just shoots them twice and kicks them into a ditch.
Despite that deserts favor wizardry, we somehow are managing toss out our advantages. Thick jungles, on the other hand, favor man, not machine. As one retired SAS soldier likes to say, “The jungle is the great equalizer.”
In jungles, much of our gear will not work, or only with low efficacy. So forget the gear. But our troops spend huge amounts of time training with techno-gear, and not enough time on basics. Ask ten combat troops to find north using the stars on a clear night, and most of them cannot find it. An Afghan farmer can find it in five seconds.
You will have no problem finding thousands of U.S. troops who spent weeks in expensive parachute training, at great costs, when parachuting is not part of their jobs. In our badge-hunting culture, this waste is sold around confidence building (which can as readily be done in other ways that actually increase core proficiencies). You will find no problems listening to special operations people who complain about spending so much time parachuting, when they practically never parachute into combat, wasting time on high-flying stuff instead of simple tactics. The Taliban never parachute. This is a good thing; they might buy old airplanes and parachute suicide attacks into our bases.
A jungle warfare instructor in Brunei recounted how one of our most elite commando units, from Fort Bragg, got lost in the Borneo jungle during combat tracking training. Their GPS systems did not work under the triple canopy. They reverted to the analog compass and map—something that they should be expert at—and got lost.
In Afghanistan, much of the fighting occurs in tree cover no denser than pomegranate groves, which for a point of reference, is about as thick as untrimmed orange grove or apple orchard. The MRAPs cannot go in there, and so our guys wear spine-crushing gear in sauna-like conditions. The humidity in the Afghan deserts is normally low, but under those trees the humidity and heat will knock a fit man down. Many of the jungles are like this day and night. While the enemy is less armored, he is more agile and mobile, so he has more stamina and hit-and-run power.
In Afghanistan, we sent troops into rough mountains, against men who are half mountain goat, while wearing heavy body armor. Later we abandoned outposts that earlier we had touted as crucial. After we retreated, we said they were not that important, and the Taliban staked their flags and made the videos.
As for the smaller whiz-bang stuff, in jungles, night vision gear (NVG) will often become worthless. Vegetation often is so close that anything that you might spot is already close enough to smell or even spit on.
Even in good conditions, thermals work only so-so in the jungle, and not all of the time, and then often only at close range. The Javelin missiles we love in Afghanistan will be outclassed by simple RPGs in the jungle. Again, by the time that something is close enough to see, you are standing on it. Or it is standing on you.
In heavy vegetation, IED jammers are not useful because the enemy cannot see far enough to use command-detonated IEDs. As in Vietnam, IEDs will mostly be victim-operated, and in many places, nearly impossible to search for with anything other than your eyes and tactical experience.
UAVs are useless in many circumstances with thick vegetation, and whereas we are blessed with mostly clear skies over Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, jungles are often covered with clouds. Not that the clouds matter; the optics cannot see through vegetation.
As for helicopters, Kiowa Warriors and Apache gunships that provide so much cover in southern Afghanistan will be largely negated in jungles. In the mountainous regions, they have little stamina. They will not see the jungle floor under triple canopy or thick forests. Our Vietnam veterans can fill in the blanks on this. They already have in many of the books I have read.
In Afghanistan, we have worn out our less than 100 HH-60G helicopters used by Air Force “Pedro,” which at more than $40m per aircraft are strategic assets. We wore them out while they took up slack from Army Dustoff MEDEVAC, aircraft that cost about 1/4th the cost of an HH-60G. I have flown on missions with Pedro that amounted to little more than milk runs for patients who were in no danger, at bases that were secure. This would be like the Post Office delivering mail using Ferraris. The closer you look, the less sense it makes.
If the Post Office determined that it wants to raise stamp prices to $10 per letter, we would become suspicious of their spending wisdom because we know it can be done for less. But when the military does it, we cow down to their omniscience and right to our last drop of gold, and we write the check.
We send the Dustoff helicopters on MEDEVAC missions, often requiring Apache escort, simply because we refuse to remove the Red Crosses and put machine guns on the Dustoff birds. This causes MEDEVAC delays, and requires more fuel and helicopter support when we are perpetually short of helicopters in Afghanistan. Fuel can cost literally hundreds of dollars per gallon. At that price, how much does it cost to even start an Apache?
Our Army lies, claiming that it must wear the Red Crosses in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, when anyone who is tracking on the facts knows this is untrue, and in fact that we perpetually violate the GC in our method of use of the Red Cross. We are as guilty as the enemy for using ambulances to deliver military resupply. Don’t let anyone kid you on that. We go nuts when the enemy uses ground ambulances to deliver supplies during combat, yet we do the same with helicopters. If we simply remove the Red Crosses and add guns, all tactical, legal, and moral obligations would be met, and we would save lives and money.
Under jungle canopy, the satellites are not entirely useless: they can help predict the weather, and help with communications. But you still need a line-of-sight gap in jungle canopy, and it must align with a satellite or relay aircraft.
In jungles, tactical communications will be impaired. Even during broad daylight, a company commander can have a hard time controlling his platoons, and platoon leaders struggle to control their squads. The jungle can be so thick that just a short distance away, friendly forces will be invisible even in daylight.
Jungles abhor American gadget warfare, and strongly favor people who live there.
In the open spaces of Afghanistan, highly trained snipers with whiz-bang stuff can kill enemy a mile away. Deep in the jungles, a far shot might be fifty meters.
Personal weapons: the lasers and gadgets stuck to rifle rails are deadweight with batteries. They get caught in endless wait-a-minute vines. It can be better to strip off the gadgetry, and to use iron sights, but many of our troops these days are no longer comfortable with iron sights.
In the jungle, many tactical firefights will be at close range, as they were in urban combat of Iraq, and as they were in Vietnam jungles. It will often be hard to see targets even in broad daylight. Gun gadgets offer serious advantages in Afghanistan, as they did in Iraq, but in jungle, surgical accuracy can be less important than reliability and power.
Who has the real advantage? The guys riding elephants, or the guys riding horses?
Despite all our new gadgetry, Americans should be under no illusions about America’s ability to fight in the jungles and swamps of Africa, Asia or anywhere. If anything, we are less capable now than ever before.
While our young people are playing video games, their young counterparts in jungles and deserts around the globe can navigate using the stars, the sun, or the flight of birds. They can go for months without comfort and never notice, because they are comfortable. They look poor, and they may seem uneducated, but these people are part of the terrain. To underestimate them is to die.
We have heard the lies that we never lost a tactical engagement in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. This goes against all common sense, and simple experience for those who truly fought there. We lost tactical engagements every week—and in fact probably every day—when IEDs destroy elephant trucks and wound and kill troops and the enemy gets away cold.
We lost nearly an entire Marine squadron of Harriers, just weeks ago. The idea that we do not lose tactical engagements in Afghanistan is fantasy island. How did we lose an entire war, as in Vietnam, without losing a single battle? It’s all a lie.
But Americans in denial will say of Vietnam, “That was just a policing action.” Vietnam was a war that left about 60,000 Americans dead, along with perhaps a million others, and demonstrated fully that America could be defeated on the battlefield, which contributed to our current war in Afghanistan.
For our part, instead of using our gear to accentuate the use of basic tactics, we use it as a crutch to replace basics, and it is obviously not working.
After thousands of years, terrain remains the single most important factor in combat. We drifted away from the basics, bought into the wow factor, and are being beaten by farmers using tactics as old as war.
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This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoMichael, those are insightful observations. Some folks will cry that you're not supporting the troops, but suggesting that the military should use some common sense and simple, reliable weapons instead of gee-whiz gadgets is a positive thing for the country AND the troops. I still don't understand why we don't just copy the RPG and issue them by the truckload. Then, too, the problem may not be so much the military as it is the defense industry and it's incestous relationship with the military. They'd rather get big, fat contracts for fancy stuff that expands R&D budgets instead of just manufacturing low-tech gadgets that actually work.
And what about our reliance on contractors? About half of the people on the plane I was on to Iraq were contractors, and I'm not sure how much we'll be able to count on contractors in areas where we can't provide security like we do now.
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoWhat amazing photographer for the pix of the sky and the huge weapon. I couldn't tell if he was posted on top of a tank or?
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoThis is a dispatch that needed to be written. Our military hubris is built on a foundation of sand. Our most recent conflicts have been in environments that favor our "strengths" and against foes that is relegated to fighting with weapons from 50 or 75 years ago. But as Michael points out, those strengths become weaknesses in other environments and against other foes.
Other issues are related to the cultural desire to avoid US military and civilian casualties at all costs. This has led to force emasculation as combat leaders must ask permission from JAG lawyers before being allowed to act. Didn't we have the rear echelon guys directing the war in Vietnam?
Some daring brass should require a war game be fought where the blue forces have to leave all their battery powered behind and turn off the GPS based weapons and tools. I predict the results would not be pretty, but would be insightful for those willing to see our vulnerabilities. Basic skills have atrophied and must be rebuilt in our force.
Keep up the good work, Michael!
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoMichael,
I wholeheartedly agree with the bulk of your message. We must get back to basics. We waste the vast majority of our training time on bullshit. I've complained about this many times, but superiors (BN and above) simply don't listen.
However, I must take issue with two statements you made.
1. The opium trade was smaller under the Taliban, but it continued, and they profited from it.
2. The Taliban executed others for raping women and boys, but they also executed the women, and raped plenty of women and boys themselves. In fact, a captured letter from Mullah Omar instructed Taliban members to "stop taking boys without beards into your quarters".
Like most religious fanatics, the Taliban have one set of rules for themselves, and a separate one for everyone else.
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoMichael, when you write, do you take into account that you are fighting on a front of the war: the media/propaganda front for influence over public opinion? You state you are writing for posterity, but the enemy will read it too, right now. I wonder what their response will be. Perhaps you are hoping our civilian and military leaders will see it too. I wonder what their response will be. Your intentions are honest, just as those whose poor judgment resulted in all the mistakes you outlined in your article were (mostly) honest and well-intentioned. I hope your good intentions translate into positive results.
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoI doubt that the current leadership will pay attention; these are the guys still doing all this. Dempsey today is trying to give General Ward a hug instead of a demotion for misappropriation of funds. I have little faith in our current senior military leadership.
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoScott, I'm from Russia and from the military, that probably makes me "an opfor", enemy. Our country, previously known as USSR, also went through Afghanistan campaign, under very different circumstances though. Soviet experience told that there were not enough precise hi-tech weapons to effectively defeat Mujahedeen weapon caravans, mountain caches and strongholds. So, probably, best approach is to rationalize use of hi-tech and lo-tech but effective weapons, as Michael actually suggests.
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoI am from the military too, an old Marine. While I do want us to get our strategy and tactics right, that is not my focus here. My question is how we get the "propaganda front" right, how we can best use the first amendment to our advantage, not to our detriment. You helped make one of my points, that the enemy is listening, for you call yourself "probably" an enemy. No doubt our actual Taliban enemy is listening, too. Do they think our public discussions a form of weakness, or strength? Do they see public opinion as a detriment to their goals, or as an aid in their acheivement? Does it matter what they think? I ask because I don't know the answers. I do think we here at home can cause or prevent casualties, depending upon how we do this, so getting it right is life-and-death important.
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoI might sound arrogant, but guess I know their way of thinking: they knew, from the very beginning of campaign, that the time is on their side. They knew that when war will come out of fashion, with too big costs or too much coffins covered in star-sprangled banners, it will be over. And as time goes by, they feel that their chances to take back country grow, that's what matter for them.
As for propaganda, many people here expect your next president to play "Iraqi card" once again with A-stan - declare end of mission and leave country in disarray, with all conflicts unsolved, new ones added, leaving PMCs here and there to protect interests. For Russia it would mean new bigger drug caravans from Middle Asia, unrests in republics with Muslim population, etc. Nothing good really.
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoYou make excellent points, without a trace of arrogance. They make me think of two things: Whose side time is really on, and what They (the enemy) knows vs. what They don't know. Short-term, time does seem to be on their side. Those of us with short-sighted, pragmatic, political goals, and no sense of history, seem to have the upper hand at the moment. This will cost lives, as well as lesser aggravations. What the enemy doesn't understand, however, is just how large a nation we are, especially in spirit. We tend to come late to our resolve, and thus absorb more punishment than we ought before we retaliate. Lately (last 60 years) we also seem to have become mediocre about winning decisively as well as following up, i.e., winning the peace. If this proves to be a trend borne of failure to think as clearly as we used to (I'll put it that way to sum up a lot of details), we have a problem. But I believe optimism is appropriate: We are capable of electing competent civilian leaders, and our military can develop commanders who win in the field and who have the political skills necessary to prevail in the Pentagon. Short term, competence comes and goes, and it costs lives when it goes. Long term, the bad guys don't have a chance, and they haven't a clue as to why.
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoI am reminded of a bunch of relatively "cheap" Christmas lights and ornaments suspended in mid air, with no tree to actually rest on; merely hanging around for their own sakes.
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoOur war colleges should be handing out the Art of War to every incoming officer and our troops should be drilled in the basics covered in the tome. 8)
We have history as a learned projector of the truth yet our politicians and commanding officers are locked up in a technology fugue and cannot see the forest for the trees :-?
The idiocy continues as long as we think we are invincible :eek:
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoAs addendum to my last comment I forgot to add, that I see one the most glaring faults of our military is that the military has become so politicized as be very near it's Communist enemies of the Cold War era, with central planning and execution of combat operations controlled by political sensitivities rather than practical knowledge of warfare and combat operations!
This awful trend Michael so well lays out, will continue until we purge our military ranks from top to bottom of the politicians and suck-up brown nosing officers and NCO's :-x
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoI read at least a half dozen first hand (single source) reports every day to know that your "day's wait" had to be an exception. Just today, an Afghan unit "reduced in place" IED and drug cache. They normally ask us to do it, EOD shows, blows, and we move on. If you care to share the MGRS, I can probably tell you why in this ONE case you had to wait a day (assuming I can sanitize for OPSEC reasons). Det cord and C4 isn't that difficult to find if you have the right friends.
The picture of the MRAP clearly goes over a culvert with what looks to be a 5 foot drop. Whether at COPs or HQs, I see those go out the front gate and come back all the time. Can you take it up crazy slopes? No. It has an indicator inside when you're exceeding the allowable slope. Factor in an inexperienced driver and it's obvious. In your example there's no way to know. To imply you'd rather be in a trike than an MRAP....well... right, ok.
Yes, their drug cultivation has to be higher because we're screwing them to the wall every corner they turn, making $$ hard to get. We bust their couriers, their labs, their money stashes, etc.
Scott's sorta along the same track I'm thinking. Your post really doesn't help much except the people who always moan and complain, but it does give comfort to the enemy. AQ TB, HiG, whomever, can print this out, say, "Look, this is a former Special Forces infidel who says your trike is better than their tank [they call our MRAPs tanks] and that they are fools. They can not win. Their equipment is worn out... yada yada yada." Now, the 13 yr old who's been watching them get their butt handed to them in a hat suddenly thinks, "Yeah! I will go strap on this IED belt and walk into a wedding party!! Allah willing, we will win"
Which sorta brings me to the end of my reply, and likely the end of reading the dispatches. Thank you Michael for the insightful postings back in 2004 on Iraq. Thanks for them around 2006-2008 as we needed to adapt COIN and bring Petraeus back.
It's been really enlightening until about a year ago. Good luck with future trips and maybe I'll start reading again if you start posting about the Mexican drug war (first hand reporting).
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoJohn --
I realize this dispatch will hurt the feelings of people who are in denial of what has been happening in Afghanistan. If you think the Taliban are not aware that they are winning, you are tuned into a totally different war.
A couple of this: You mentioned that the MRAP "clearly goes over a culvert." There was no culvert there. Not sure where you see one in that image because it does not exist.
The more than day wasted for the GMLRS strike was during this mission.
You have often mentioned reading reports, and I believe that you were at KAF. I am curious about your experiences in Afghanistan.
What provinces have you been in, and when and for how long? How much time do you spend off of base out with the Afghans? Am curious if your experiences are based on reports, or on rummaging around in the villages and on the battlefields.
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoJohn --
You mention that Det cord and C4 isn't hard to find. I am starting to doubt that you go on a lot of combat missions. We had EOD out there, and I think if you paid attention to what is written, this clearly was a helicopter mission with 120 people. Combat units don't go on missions like that without EOD. (In my experience.) The EOD guys decided it was smarter to back off and do some other kind of strike. We did have two fatalities in two strikes in the vicinity.
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoMichael, that's what I thought. No offense, but the brass has no reason to listen to you, me, or any other stranger with an opinion. Were I a respected, reputable, observer of the Afghan situation, I would look for the best spot to focus my effort to make my opinion felt. I would find the one guy (general, congressman, diplomat, etc.) with whom I could be most effective, and speak to him in private. The alternative - having it out in public - is a judgment call. Can one generate the same influence by ginning up public pressure? Will the bad guys be encouraged by the pessimism, or will they be perplexed by the novelty of free people expressing themselves without fear of reprisal? You stated you are interested in donating to posterity, so I guess I am on the wrong track in bringing this up at all. But I don't understand your motive. You've been "donating" since 2004, mostly focused on the events you witnessed, not yourself as messenger. Now you seem to have given up, like those "good" soldiers you wrote of earlier who got out instead of driving on. Now you seem to just want to be able to say "Historian, we blew it and you heard it from me first" or "Future commander, take heed of my wisdom, don't end up like Gen. X." Frankly, it sounds both arrogant and defeatist.
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoScott,
I am not defeatist, just arrogant. I am still fully engaged in my profession as a writer. The military and the politicians have bungled the war. This war is in the 12th year, and we are doing worse now than ever.
Lies are expenses. Truths are investments. To pretend this will end well would be an expense I will not bear.
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoI was reading this to my wife and she commented..'in other words we are in trouble when we go to war with China'
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoMichael, well said on several points. But to elaborate on the wiz-bang techno-gear, the same can be said of the Department of Homeland in-Security and other Law Enforcement entities. All this high-tech gear is good when it works, but buying it just to buy it, and relying on it rather than proven and time tested basic training tactics gets people killed.
The technology mentality our military is following, along with civilian LE organizations is reminiscent of the intelligence lapses during the Carter administration. History is repeating itself.
When will we learn?
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoa great article Michael, very interesting and informative.Sadly the people who should read this do not. As I have said before about American Army Generals, "Lions led by donkeys"
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoGreetings Michael, I have been a fan of your photographs and dispatches. I would like to ask you what you think is a great starter for a beginner like myself. I have been looking at the Lytro camera and mirrorless cameras as well. Anything advice would be great! Thanks and keep safe!
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoTomato,
I only deal with professional gear, so I have no recommendations on beginner gear. I would say that some of the best smart phones can be good choices. I only use iPhone and pro gear, while my G11 sits idle.
On Lytro, I have kept an eye on it. The technology has not reached a point where I am will to try it, but when it gets there, it can be great.
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoSounds like you've become tired and jaded. I only spent years in the army in the '60's and based on your comments I don't see many changes. My niece's husband is in for 20 but only because Apache helicopter crew chiefs don't have a bright civilian future. McNamara told us his wiz kids were going win Vietnam for us. Nope. As to winning tactical engagements, I don't even know what the hell that means. When I was in Vietnam we beat the crap out of them in head on engagements but they beat the crap out of us as well. Hueys were a marvelous equalizer whether you like it or not. Personally I don't think ANYONE, actually WON a tactical engagement. If you ever bagged bodies under a flashlight you'd know that. Truth be know we probably did kill a hell of a lot more of them than us. The tactical engagements we for sure lost we're the ones where a IED bike was parked outside mama san's and took a few of us out to stepping on bouncing betty. That'll take the lead out your pencil quick. Talk to us E-5 and below who were in country in 1968 and we'll tell it just sounds like more of he same, a leadership who doesn't have a clue what they're objective is.
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoPacific Waters, far from tired. Completely jaded. Not defeated. Just arrogant.
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoSounds to me like any other American war spectacle. Even the results will be similar. You are in deep trouble when you go to war in Africa. Just saying ...
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoIt is a shame that our commanders and politions refuse to learn from past mistakes. Am I missing some hidden agenda? If you refuse to learn from past mistakes, you are bound to repeat them. Thank you Michael for another fine and well thought out dispatch. Keep your powder dry. Semper Fidelis
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoThe U.S. has always been gear-happy. That has its pluses and minuses, but we have always been thus. It's why we made fairly effective use of artillery in WW1 and WW2, were much better at coordinating air-to-ground action, and among the most thoroughly mechanized.
We like our toys, and we do develop an excessive reliance upon them. And at times our toys aren't really all that great - the Sherman tank in WW2 was seriously inferior to German and British tanks of the era. The M1 carbine was good, but there's a reason we copied the German MG43 light machine gun.
And we've always had folks profiteering on war - my favorite story is the guy who sold a bunch of sickly horses to the Army of the Potomac, then got the contract to get rid of them for the Army, shipped them west and sold them to the Army again. That was in the 1860s.
We keep having to relearn that wars are won by men, not gear. And we'll have to relearn it again.
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoBeen reading Michael's work from the beginning. I've noticed, in the last couple of years in particular, that the photojournalist/reporter has become a critic and a muckraker.
This is the difficult choice laid on every "observer and reporter"...when you see bad sh**, do you just report it along with the other reportable things...or do you become proactive and obsessive.
I'm all for anything that gets rid of the careerists and professional bureaucrats at the top wasting money and lives. I'm all for exposing the politicization of the armed forces and its costs borne by the sons and daughters of our country.
Just hope Michael doesn't become only the shrill voice chronic critic, but rather the instigator of change. That requires more than just electornic criticism in cyberspace.
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoI can tell you from working with Michael over the last year on the MEDEVAC issue, he spends WAY more time trying to get things changed than in griping. He spent many hours working to educate and motivate members of Congress and others to get the Army & DoD of their arses and make needed changes. He supported many individuals who took up the cause in their efforts as well. Unfortunately, at the end of the day politicians have many divergent forces working on them, so change can be painfully won and slow in happening. Keeping the faith that AMEDD and others will make the changes that are so needed if we keep the pressure on them - on the web and otherwise.
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoI'm commenting in context of the first page of this article.
Over the years of reading your critiques of the military, upon reading this article I can't help but think that, the military being what it is, that if they tried to improve upon their short comings, they would go way overboard in the opposite direction.
An organization is only as good as it's leadership. And you cannot always get good leaders where needed most. It would seem to me that it is hit and miss.
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoAs Mark Steyn has written, "Either you can be politically correct or you can be a great power. Not both." The politically correct idea that has been hamstringing our military efforts for decades is multiculturalism - the idea that all cultures are equal, and none better than another. When we cannot say that a culture that forces its women to live in seclusion, only allows them to go out in public with full body coverings, and stones them to death when they disobey is inferior to ours then we cannot implement the strategies and tactics necessary to achieve victory.
Ideas matter. And the ideas a culture accepts shape the battlefield as much as the strategies and tactics of its military elite.
This commment is unpublished.· 6 years agoIt isn't that our leaders have not learned from history but that some of them have learned and are working to help our enemies bring down our military and country (mostly politicians and media). Some are fools and others are traitors. We do have good people, it is just who is in charge?
I was in the Air Force/ECM during the tail end of Nam and we had many of the high tech toys you take for granted today. The simple fact we had such toys was classified. We had smart munitions, IR, and other technologies as far back as the mid 1960's which are still classified. They worked and worked well but when you take the field from the enemy and then the politicians and media make your forces give that field back to the enemy and force you to retake it again at great cost, what advantage does the technology provide? I have learned that, if you put the greatest technology in the hands of fools (politicians and lousy officers and soldiers, not the good ones) they will screw it up every time.
Would we be in trouble if we were to face Russia and China today? It depends on who our leaders and traitors are.
If properly trained and equiped, our soldiers can beat the best, if the idiots running the war let them. We need to focus on getting rid of the idiots so our troops can win wars.