Michael's Dispatches

Ground Sign Awareness: What is this about?


IMG 4840-1000Emplacing "IED" at night. It was dark but the sensitive camera got the moment.

08 September 2012

The first week of Ground Sign Awareness (GSA) training with the Norwegian Army is finished.  One more week to go.  We are not actually learning combat tracking, but GSA.  GSA is like the alphabet needed for the language of combat tracking.  For the most part, good GSA and other military tactics will catch most bombs that are hidden in Afghanistan.

This must be stressed: most bombs are NOT caught by dogs or billion-dollar gizmos.  Most bombs are caught because some 19 year-old Soldier says to himself, “If I were going to kill me, I would do it right here.”  And he looks, and spots the bomb, or more likely he spots something that does not feel right, so he calls back and someone is sent up and finds it.  We know that most bombs are emplaced at night.  It is very difficult to dig in a bomb at night, then lay out the trigger and wire (some are just pressure plates), and not leave obvious ground sign.

Please try this in your backyard in broad daylight.  Take a one gallon milk jug, or a two liter soda bottle, and try to bury that in your backyard, and hide a couple of hundred meters of wire to the trigger point.  If your backyard is not that big, just keep going until the neighbors start yelling at you to stop digging in their yard.  If they call the cops and you get arrested, it’s all good training for Afghanistan, because if you get spotted doing this in Afghanistan, the result might be a JDAM bomb, a Hellfire missile, or a Marine sniper.

Try it in broad daylight with no time limit.  If you don’t get shot at by your neighbor, or arrested by the police, you are good to go.  But now invite a combat vet from Afghanistan and ask him to search for anything unusual in your backyard, and he likely will spot your bomb.  (If he is Ground Sign Aware and a real vet.)

You can hide it, to be sure, but even in broad daylight you will leave a lot of sign that a trained person probably will spot.  And if you try to hide your sign by brooming or erasing somehow, it will only make it worse.  The trained person will see that you tried to hide your sign, and that is a major red flag.  For the trained person, it will be like looking at a chalkboard with a big erased spot that clearly had something written on it.  He can no longer read the words, but he knows something was on there.  Trying to erase sign typically makes more sign.

So the tracker or GSA Soldier does not see your footprints or other sign, but you are probably not fooling him.  In fact, you might be alerting him that you hid something, and that is what he needed to know.

This must be taken into military context.  We know that Afghans (and Iraqis before) have habits when laying bombs, and they know we know their habits.  The Taliban are smart, but let’s face it, there are only so many good ways to ambush someone, and these things were well known thousands of years ago.  They know.  We know.  We know they know.  And they know we know, and blah blah.

They know we like to ambush them in channelized spots.  We know they like to ambush us in the same spots.  We know the types of terrain they like to hide bombs in.  We know they typically (but certainly not always) do it in places where you naturally will go, such as the corner of a building, or by a window, or a doorway, or in a culvert.

There are not too many guys who can hide a few hundred pounds (to kill an armored vehicle) of explosives in a culvert without leaving a terrible mess.  And we know they like culverts.  And so our guys watch those choke points, but when you are walking on missions or in villages, there are thousands of places, and so the troops have to quickly think like the bad guy and look.  If you constantly are looking for ground sign, your brain might overheat and burst into flames.  And so during some times you might keep your GSA eye-sensors on low power.  Constantly alert, but not overanalyzing.  But then, due to your superb military training and combat experience, as you enter an area where you know the enemy is likely to pull something (because you would do the same), set your GSA sensors on high, and you check for everything.  If the enemy has hidden a bomb, he might still get you, but the chances are very high you will spot something.

I don’t know the figures but would guess that a Soldier who is well trained with GSA will spot 90% of the bombs.  And if all the other troops are also highly trained with GSA (which they are not), then that 90% would increase because someone else might catch it.

We know for a fact that in Afghanistan, the guy who gets blown up is often far back in the file.  Often, the guy that gets hit is not the point man, and I would argue that he probably is not the point man, but I do not actually know.  But then after he gets hit, we know that other bombs are highly probable, and the enemy likely tried to predict the casualty collection point, and where people would go to pull security, and where any MEDEVACs might land.  This is all basic stuff, but we still often miss the ground sign and we have secondary casualties despite that the first bomb just got someone.  This is important.  We know that in Afghanistan that the guy who gets blown up often is not the point man.  He’s more like man five or man twenty.  This happened last year during a mission with 4-4Cav when a Soldier far back in the file was killed.  It was dark so he probably could not have spotted the sign, but just a day later, on the same mission, an Afghan Soldier stepped on a bomb in broad daylight and was killed.  There is no way on earth, unless the enemy had a flying carpet, that they could hide a bomb in that village without leaving sign in the moondust.  Well, we can think of a few ways to reduce the sign, but let’s not give the enemy any hints.

Most enemy bombs in Afghanistan are made from homemade explosives.  Their homemade explosives are not powerful like factory made explosives.  And so their bombs are big.  Often they use those big yellow jugs that every recent Afghanistan combat veteran is familiar with.  If you are not familiar with these yellow jugs and are heading for a combat tour in Afghanistan, you soon will be familiar with them.  They look like this:


In most places of Southern Afghanistan (where we take most casualties), it will be very difficult to hide these jugs without making a mess.   Try it at home.  Now that you have tried to emplace a jug in broad daylight, try it at night without using any lights.  Bring at least two other people to help so that they also are leaving sign.  Every jet or aircraft that you see fly over, and every vehicle you may hear, might be your last.

You are in combat.  You are hiding a bomb.  If you mess up, your own bomb will kill you.  If our Predator or Apache or A-10 spots you digging in that bomb, you will be killed.

Do not waste time.  Get that bomb in there and get out.  Our guys are up above trolling just for you, and they kill people like this constantly.  They had their sleep and their coffee.   They have a full tank of gas and they have incredible optics and they are looking just for you.  If you can see a star in the sky, our guys can see you from miles away and you will not hear or see them.

See that hilltop that is two miles away?  It has a group of US Marines with thermal optics, and they just spotted your signature and you don’t know it.  When our Apache pilots see you digging at night next to a road that our guys are about to drive over, our pilots are conferring and lining up for the kill.  A 30mm cannon is pointing right at you.  Dig in your bomb and get out.  If you wait, you will fail your mission.

Some people say the Taliban are cowards for laying bombs.  When our guys are looking for you, it takes guts to lay that bomb.  Got to respect that.  The Taliban try to be fast.  Do you think you can do this in the dark without a light without leaving ground sign?

But let us assume that the Marines are not on that hill, and aviation did not get you, and you successfully placed your bomb.  You made a big mess, and headed home for tea.

Now comes our guys.  They are on foot.  It is first light and the sun is coming up and the sun is in perfect position to spot the mess.

Ten troops walk by and nobody sees it. Number eleven is not even glancing at the ground because he thinks if someone were going to get blown up, it would have happened already.  He is scanning for farside ambushes.  He gets blown up, and a farside ambush kicks off.  Or, more often, our guys do actually spot it because they are watching, and do not get blown up.

A problem is that our guys have to spot it every time, and the enemy only needs to get lucky once.  However, for every bomb our guys catch, the enemy has to sneak out there again, and take a chance with aviation and other assets.  The more bombs our guys spot, the more bombs the enemy needs to lay to make an outcome, and the greater chance we have to kill them during emplacement.

And that is what this is all about.  Not getting blown up, and killing the enemy.

The company who runs this training for various militaries: http://www.pencari.co/p/h/Home//21/

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    neatir · 9 years ago
    Why would you even try to fight this kind of enemy on the ground when history proves it's not going to work. There are other ways if we really wanted to win. They've drawn us into their type of warfare when that wasn't necessary. You don't let the enemy make up the rules.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Leyla · 9 years ago
      Our guys are in another country where the rules are already different. They aren't trying to take over Afghanistan, just do the right thing by taking out the bad guys. I'm not sure what your point is.
      • This commment is unpublished.
        neatir · 9 years ago
        The point is that nobody has ever won a war in Afghanistan in a ground war. And you can't win a war in a country where you can't tell the enemy from suppossedly innocent people. We have been there 11 years and we are no closer to "winning" than we were on day one. Our great Military men follow orders but we have asked them to do the impossible and they are dying every day for absolutely nothing. This is not an insult to our Military men....it is a declaration that those politicians running the show are willing to sacrifice our men for political reasons and aren't that concerned about our men or about winning. If those people over there wanted to be rid of terrorists themselves they wouldn't be putting on uniforms and then killing our Military men. You tell me.....who is on our side over there and who does care about winning this war....Our Military men on the ground....the ones who are suppose to defend our Constitution and our citizens....and are not suppose to be in the business of Nation building....That will always be a country where evil can survive and do well. You figure it out, Leyla...Have you misplaced compassion .....These terrorist had no compassion on 9/11. They started it...we need to finish it not play games with these anti-western civilation nuts.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    John-Capt in ANG · 9 years ago
    They kill more civilians than they wound coalition. I read the numbers everyday. "LN killed..." "...emplacer EKIA after PTDS spotted him digging.". I liken this to the Bassett Hound that pisses in your living room. He knows better, you scold him, etc, but the next day there he is justpissing again. They've fought all their lives. It's all they know. They are losing but just don't care. When your women are covered, you listen to men moan over PAs all day (and some nights) and all you see is dirty around you... Well.. Let's just say I wouldn't be surprised if there were no Dari or Pashtu words for " middle class," or, "upward mobility."
  • This commment is unpublished.
    singadick · 9 years ago
    @ neatir - back to history 101 for you. The perps of 9/11 were Saudis, not Afgan Taliban. The Taliban are fighting for control of their own country, on their home turf -- strong incentives.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      neatir · 9 years ago
      True...but it was Afghanistan who provided a place for them to strike us from...and that has nothing to do with the fact nobody has won a ground war in Afghanistan. Maybe you are just proving with your comment that our enemy is bigger than just the terrorists in Afghanistan. Maybe our politicians should get the big picture as well as you do. Two arms of Islam...the Militant Arm and the Political Arm. Perhaps a fact you should study up on as well. By the way....where was the Taliban born. Do they fight for their own country? Check it out. Don't make heros out of power seeking murderers.
      • This commment is unpublished.
        Jbark · 9 years ago
        .... "it was Afghanistan who provided a place for them to strike us from". This is true, but only in a limited sense. In a much greater sense, it was the US that "provided a place for them to strike us from".

        Afghanistan does not produce airplanes. They don't produce computers, the internet, cameras, or maps of foreign lands. I'll bet they don't even produce box cutters. Opium is about it.

        We shouldn't trade with these goat humping throwbacks to the middle ages. We shouldn't allow visas or immigration from their lands. We shouldn't train them to fly (no need to learn to land), and we shouldn't let any of them on our airplanes without every ounce of scrutiny we can bring to bear. No presumption of innocence in any dealing with them.

        Benazir Bhutto thought 10% of all muslims support the extremists (this would be 100 million worldwide!). Her end would suggest that she underestimated those numbers, but that's another topic. We should wash our hands of the area and make it known that until these nations clean house on the "10%" bad actors and present themselves as fit for participation in modern life, trade, and travel.

  • This commment is unpublished.
    peter · 9 years ago
    keep it up Michael!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tom Dikel · 9 years ago
    Yes, the politicians are at fault for sending and keeping US forces on the ground in Afghanistan. But don't forget those politicians with all that weight on their shoulders. Certainly not the grunts, but the brass may be perfectly happy to keep troops in a warzone. In their mind, its what the military does - war. In addition, its how you get promoted, how you get credibility, how you sell the need for more money from congress... Meanwhile, grunts die. Like always.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      neatir · 9 years ago
      So I guess you are saying that defending our Constitution and defending our citizens isn't the priority anymore? I agree...If the Military leaders were so interested in fighting though...I got a war to show them on our Southern Border that needs winning But neither the politicians or the big brass seem to give 2 cents about that. We have no Security in Arizona, our Constitution is trampled and we are wondering whose side the Government is on....wait...I take that back...We know whose side they are on.

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