Friday, December 02, 2011

Wanat, 2011

War is a quarrel between two thieves

too cowardly to fight their own battle;

therefore they take boys from one village

and another village, stick them into uniforms,

equip them with guns, and let them loose

like wild beasts against each other

--Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty
Emma Goldman

Property, the whole thing's about property

The Thin Red Line (1998)

"Echoes from a Distant Battlefield" Vanity Fair writer Mark Bowden revisits the Battle of Wanat this month. Ranger has written on the battle before (here, here and here), and will add a few comments per Bowden's account.

It seems that the Platoon Leader (PL), Lt. Jonathan Brostrom, did not enjoy the full faith and confidence of his Battalion Commander and Company Commander. This is understandable since the Lt. was young and new to real world operations (this is not a criticism of Brostrom but a recognition of the facts.)

However, if Brostrom was lacking (and this is speculation), then the Program of Instruction at Combat Arms Officer's Basic Course must be reviewed.
Ranger does not believe that building a combat outpost (COP) from scratch -- without Engineer support -- in the face of hostile forces was taught to this young officer. (His Ranger school training would not have addressed this contingency, either.)

If true, why didn't the Company Commander, Battalion Commander or Brigade Commander weight this effort to ensure success? Why was Combat Engineer support not tasked to build this COP while the Infantry Platoon provided near and far security?

Additionally, why were the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Marines present not attached or under operational control (OPCON) to the 503rd? This would have provided unity of command at the COP.

As noted, the presence of the Co CDR at the time of the fight is unusual, and his presence would have undermined the PL. The Forward Observer (FO), who assumably was for the organic mortars, should not have been isolated at the outpost. The mortar FO would have been most effectively used if co-located at the Platoon HQ element and operating directly under the PL's supervision.

The FO was fully qualified to coordinate the artillery fire support, but PL supervision would have also been required. Doctrinally, the FO is always with the HQ.
With the FO isolated in a forward position, this was not a coordinated battle.

Even if the FO was a mortar platoon member, he could have coordinated the artillery support for this fight, under the PL or the unit commander. It is not mentioned whether the artillery or mortars fire concentrations for were for pre-planned defensive fires, but it is unlikely; it has never been mentioned.

The FO should have been at the Platoon HQ element also to provide radio redundancy, in addition to being easily controlled by the PL. The Platoon Sergeant should have known this doctrinal fact if the PL did not. Surely the Co CDR should have noted this discrepancy in the task organization of the defense.

Per my previous commentaries, I withdraw my criticism of the time on target that the artillery provided for the defenders. The latest data indicates that six minutes after the first round was fired, the artillery was ready to shoot. The delay was caused by internal Platoon efforts to head count unit members to prevent friendly-fire casualties. The Artillery Unit and the Platoon functioned professionally. My criticism of the choice of round remains: The 155 arty is not the fire of choice for danger close missions, it seems to me.

The unit mortars and M240-40 mm grenade platoon weapons were poorly employed as they were too far forward to provide adequate fire; they were too close and the rounds would not arm (=explode), in effect rendering them non-functional.
Key: The vehicles and weapons systems were unprotected and subjected to direct enemy fire. They were effectively in a beaten zone.
It is also hard to understand why the TOW systems were deployed as anti-personnel weapons. Surely the defenders did not expect the hostiles to be an armored threat (?) All the assigned weapons systems did not operate as combat multipliers; any experienced Infantryman would know that.

Those conclude Rangers comments on the battle.

A curious side observation mentioned in this article is the fact that all land used by the U.S. must be purchased before it can build any COPs, firebases, etc.
How much cold cash has the U.S. paid for this god-forsaken worthless real estate in order to protect the government of Afghanistan from the people of that great nation?

The U.S. did not pay for the land its combat firebases occupied in WW II, Korea, RVN or any other conflict, so why now, and who profits? Who owns the land once we pay for it? Do we get a 100-year title, like in sunny Mexico? It galls to consider that the U.S. pays for the privilege of sacrificing U.S. soldiers for . . .
what? Surely this is a new definition of insanity.

In the Army's report, General Campbell said that death is the inevitable result of ground combat, and that we should not judge the chain of command. Though true to a point, there must be something of value to come from a military exercise.

It is easy to compare the losses in this fight to that of the 22 SEALS
in the Chinook shoot down. A platoon-sized element was left flapping when they were conducting an offensive operation. We place too much faith in air mobility, both defensive and offensive. Wholesale death cannot be written off with a cavalier,
"Well, that's war -- and they volunteered, anyway" (the latter is a big war hawk vindication here in the Swamp.) We at Ranger do not like platitudes.

In closing, when Ranger received his Ranger training in 1968 and '69, he was taught just enough to get himself killed. It appears the Lt. Brostrom learned the same way when he, per Ranger training and spirit, automatically moved to the point of greatest danger. (If any readers have further thoughts on the matter, input is appreciated.)

It is fine to put small units in danger as a magnet for hostile intentions IF they are simply bait, and IF the Quick Reaction Forces (QRF) can exploit that fact and IF the unit has a defensible position and/or an escape route if things go South. This was not the case for Lt. Brostrom's fight.

The men in this fight comported themselves in the spirit of D-Day Bastogne, and should be proud of their fight. It was as desperate as any fight conducted by any Airborne unit of the U.S. Army, in any war.

This cannot be taken from the soldiers of the PL. Ranger wonders why they did not receive a Presidential Unit Citation.

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Blogger FDChief said...

Mortars in light infantry are kind of a problem.

I always felt that we took a step backwards when we went to the light MTO&E. The old WW2 leg infantry units had 60mm mortars at the platoon level, which was fine back when 81s were the fucking combat arm of decision. But when the 4.2" and the 120mm get in the fight the 60mm's are like bringing a knife to a gunfight - enough to make you cocky but not enough to keep you from getting dead.

Add to that that the platoon doesn't HAVE a dedicated FO for their mortars. The PL is, among all the other things he has to do, supposed to direct the fires of his weapons squad. What I found was that generally many young lieutenants tended to forget about the mortars when they actually got engaged. They were riflemen at heart and they wanted to fire and maneuver. We mortars would just usually get dropped off somewhere and had to do what we could to integrate into the tactical plans.

And even having an attached FO didn't always help. They're FA guys and usually their first thought is for the cannons. I don't know how experienced this particular FO was but it does take some learning to site and employ the various levels of indirect fire well, and it doesn't sound like it happened here.

But I'd argue that the FO doesn't always have to be physically co-located with the PL. In fact, given that the PL usually has to be with the most mission-critical element (either the assault force in the attack or the most critical sector in the defense) and the most important aspect of the FO is his ability to have eyes-on the target often the two locations have to be physically separate.

In these buttfuck-nowhere FOB defenses I guess my biggest question would be why depend on a ground FO? An aerial FO would have allowed the big cannons to do what they do best - hit enemy assembly areas and ORPs - and break up the attacks before they began. The U.S. FA has been doing that since the old WW2 O-1 era and we have all these cool gee-whiz UAVs now - what was the problem that prevented an aerial observer in this fight?

Saturday, December 3, 2011 at 9:19:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger rangeragainstwar said...

Chief, your point is taken, but i don't advocate the FO being with the PL. This was lost in translation and editing.
I BELIEVE THE FO SHOULD BE AT THE HQ OR EASILY IN CONTACT WITH SAME.The leader must coord the fire, even if the fo is calling it. A well trained unit will do this as matter of course, but this seems missing in this unit.
The mortars were to far forward to use properly.
When i was 4.2 the fo's had a habitual relationship with the companies. I admit that i have no idea how they do it now.

Saturday, December 3, 2011 at 1:27:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Surely this is a new definition of insanity"

11 years of war (and paying $$ for the temporary dirt under the feet of soldiers?)

Insanity -"Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results" A. Einstein

Sunday, December 4, 2011 at 12:11:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger rangeragainstwar said...

not only are we paying for this dirt, but who gets title,and how much did it cost us in dollars.

Sunday, December 4, 2011 at 2:00:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger rangeragainstwar said...

to me it's a strange idea to bring mortars into a beaten zone. or even within small arms range, let alone rpg range.
i personally like 60mm and 81's. usually you know the crews , and you don't know the arty types-different unit.

Sunday, December 4, 2011 at 2:03:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Ghost Dansing said...

for what it's worth

Sunday, December 4, 2011 at 7:58:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger FDChief said...

Well, I've never had a problem w/ the 81s, but the 60s always seemed to me to be difficult to employ. In the attack you had the problem of having enough rounds and/or getting the rounds to the guns at the right time and place. In the defense your range was awful short - as you point out, it's hard to get a small mortar out of the range of a good rifleman.

They seem to work best when they can shoot-and-scoot, and you lose that in the defense. The only way I can see to make that work would be to have several mortar pits connected by covered trenches so you would keep the enemy guessing where you would fire from.

But, again, the big-picture problem seem to be that there was no effective defensive fire plan; no FPF, no nothing. The U.S. Army has always been constructed around its indirect firepower, whether it is tube artillery, MLRS, or CAS. So when a defense lacks that, as well as effective on-call fires you gotta wonder what the hell happened, to the organic mortars as well as the DS/GS/GSR fires.

Sounds like everyone involved gets a no-go at this station.

Sunday, December 4, 2011 at 10:39:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger Lisa said...


Thanks -- it's a powerful coupling of song to graphics.

Monday, December 5, 2011 at 10:32:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger rangeragainstwar said...

I can't find org charts, and even if i did i wouldn't discuss them in detail, but istm that the theater level army is TOT. ds/gs/gsr MAY BE HISTORICAL CONCEPTS.I doubt there is even DIVARTY since the units are arranged/arrayed as SEP BDE's.
I really don't know , but this battle was not weighted for success, and it seems catch as catch can. On the fly defenesive fires are essential, and this fight strikes me as a HASTY DEFENSE rather than a PLANNED DEFENSE.
Thanks for writing.

Monday, December 5, 2011 at 11:32:00 AM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't read Mark Bowden's piece yet but I thought I'd comment on the mortar talk.

When I was in the Canadian infantry (1980s), rifle platoons had a 60mm mortar that we carried around mostly for laying smoke or sometimes suppressive fire when we ran into something. It was all direct fire - theoretically bipods for the 60s were available for times when we went into deliberate defence but I never saw one. The 60s were part of a rifle platoon's kit from after Korea until well into the 1990s. I think they have some kind of flimsy grenade launcher now, with phlogiston-guided rounds that do backflips before they bury themselves in whatever orifice of the enemy's that you've dialed it to hit, but it breaks the moment you take it out of the box and expose it to air and dirt.

Infantry battalions had a mortar platoon - eight 81mm tubes, in two sections of four so when you were on the advance you had one section ready to support at all times. Fine organic firepower and platoon commanders were trained in how to call fire from them. Again, some time in the 1990s the mortar platoons were taken away and given to artillery units. So you multiply some of the problems FDChief mentioned above about the FA types.

Oh, and normally in Canadian practice the FO, if you had one, travelled with company headquarters. I don't see why an FO would be detached to help just one platoon. Perhaps I ought to go and read that piece now....

Monday, December 5, 2011 at 12:58:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger rangeragainstwar said...

i believe the fo was enlisted, and a member of the mortar section. I don't think he was Arty Officer.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011 at 10:06:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger FDChief said...

brtrain: At the time I retired the MTO&E for U.S. light infantry battalions (which is what all the 503rd battalions are; airmobile light infantry) was to have a two-gun 60mm section in the weapons platoon of a rifle company for a total of 6 x 60mm per battalion. the battalion mortar platoon consisted of 6 x 81mm systems.

None of these have dedicated FOs; the mortar section sergeant is supposed to act as the company mortar FDC, so he pretty much can't also be the FO. Battalion mortars usually benefit from having the supporting FA battalion "fire support element" (FSE) co-located with the BN TOC, but this is primarily for clearing and coordinating fires. Typically the maneuver element commander will allocate his artillery FOs to his "main effort", so if this little FOB was considered of any importance it should have had an artillery FO in or nearby.

Typically a company-level FO will be a sergeant, either an E-5 or E-6, with his own RTO.

And I agree that the present disconnected SEP BNs and BDEs make the indirect fire support situation confusing, jim. But I assume that there has to be SOME overall organization; this unit had to be part of AO Something, with a maneuver unit in overall change of the piece of ground the FOB was located on, and you'd thing that this unit (some part of the 101st) should have had a portion of the division's artillery around somewhere. As far as the GS/GSR situation, well...yeah, I'll bet that's a mess.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011 at 3:46:00 PM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent post and comments ... much appreciated! GSJ

Tuesday, December 6, 2011 at 6:52:00 PM GMT-5  
Blogger rangeragainstwar said...

there's play on my Miller/moh art. that you may want to read.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011 at 10:01:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger rangeragainstwar said...

i'd guess gs/ds/gsr are still in play today, but i doubt Div/corps and EAC arty is what we used to have.
I'd bet most guns are in admin storage when the units deploy.
Again these are just hunches.
So i doubt the ability to truly weight the main effort.
We are not arrayed to fight a true air land battle.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011 at 10:09:00 AM GMT-5  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the notes FDChief. Canadian rifle companies did not have weapons platoons in them; depending on what was going on, some crew-served weapons might be attached to compnay HQ and placed where needed.

Canadian practice nowadays is to assemble "battle groups" as needed. A BG is a battalion-sized unit with typically two combat teams (an infantry company grouped with an armor squadron (company)), an artillery battery, and an engineer squadron (company). This is pretty much how things have to be because the Army is so small (everything adds up to a bit less than one division).

- brian

Wednesday, December 7, 2011 at 12:32:00 PM GMT-5  

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