Thursday, January 13, 2011

Battle Tactics at Wanat, Afghanistan –A Disturbing Lesson

I just received a copy of a U.S. Army report on an attack on OP (observation Post) Topside and COP (Command Observation Post) Kahler in the village of Wanat, Afghanistan, and it is quite disturbing. The tactics employed by the insurgents were keenly sophisticated, reflecting an important upgrade in their fighting capability. That combined in this action with several important mistakes made by over confident U.S. commanders on the ground resulted in our sustaining more damage and casualties then we clearly should have.

An examination of the impact of technology on the defense of Topside and Kahler reveals how the lack of patrolling might have contributed to the poor intel on enemy activity in the area.

It is important to pay attention the things the report says about enemy performance during the battle — at both the initiation of contact and the sustained 3+ hour fight that ensued.
First, there is the ongoing issues regarding M4 and SAW jamming during firefights but the Army has clearly learned its lesson on this one with the incremental improvement program launched this year that will give the M4 full auto capability and a heavier barrel to handle it.

It is significant that investigators concluded the enemy’s tactics were unexpectedly well planned and coordinated. The initial accuracy of fire and the clear tactics of knocking out the US TOW missile launcher and 120 mortar with a blistering crossfire of RPGs were straight from the rule books.

The preparations made by the insurgents at Wanat appear to have been thorough. Troops apparently assembled, received arms and ammunition, and marched to preparatory positions without any problems. In this, they were aided by both the illumination cycle and, critically, the American expectation that any overt action by the enemy would begin with probing attacks.

“… Initial enemy fire was accurate enough to target effectively COP Kahler’s most powerful weapon systems. The TOW vehicle was destroyed by several RPG hits fired at short range. None actually hit the TOW system itself, which theoretically could have been removed from the vehicle and mounted on the ground until the ammunition caught fire. While insurgent fire neutralized the mortars, it also damaged the enemy position in the bazaar.”
The posts were located poorly, allowing observation of the area at great distances through sophisticated devices but they were blind at very close ranges, allowing the enemy to employ tactics similar to the Vietcong “inside the waistband” doctrine. The report’s authors say sure, there could have been more drone passes and eyes in the sky making sure Taliban fighters weren’t snooping into the wire, but the outposts did have high rez thermal cameras, LRAS3 scopes and a “robust SIGINT” capability. Unfortunately, when you don’t have boots on the ground or your OP is in a place where those things can’t see, all the million dollar gadgets don’t help much.

Interestingly, the insurgents fell victim to their usual habits of “spray and pray” shooting — maintaining a volume of fire but not an accurate one. Although the enemy fire’s intensity was high, its relative inaccuracy allowed the Americans to shift troops around the position and reinforce the OP several times. If the insurgents had not been firing from positions so close to the Americans, this advantage in volume would likely have been lost as well. Clearly the insurgents don’t have the time, commitment or wherewithal to become good marksmen. God forbid if they someday do.

Another point was that the bad guys tried to assault the US positions in waves, sending an initial force in with more manpower in reserve to keep the assault going. The investigation found this exposed them to US counterattack and that if the enemy had thrown everything they had all at once, they might have wiped out the both positions.

While the insurgents massed a relatively large force to attack Wanat, not all their forces appear to have been committed at the same time. Had they done so, the effect may have been decisive. Instead, the enemy was able to stay in the firefight for an extended period of time despite the likelihood of incurring significant casualties. This left some of their fresh troops exposed to American firepower when air support and reinforcements arrived.
The insurgents would have been better served to have used their entire force in one massive strike at the beginning of the action. As it was, the survivors were exposed to concentrated fire from Coalition CAS (Close Air Support) as they withdrew from the battle area.

There’s a lot of interesting information in the 270 page report and some serious lessons learned. I will say that after reading the very detailed account of the fight, this event has the makings of a post-9/11 “Blackhawk Down.”

 Live Long and Prosper....

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