21 October 2009

A hard-learned lesson

It's easy to forget the importance of terrain after experiencing the flat, open ground of Iraq. However, Afghanistan is a different story. The Captains' Journal (H/T Pat O) had an interesting analysis of a very critical error which was made both at Wanat (reported on by Tom Ricks, official Army 15-6 investigation parts 1 and 2) and at the firebase at Contingency Operation Post Keating this past month--the failure to analyze the key terrain in the area.

In both instances, US forces placed bases on low ground. Now, I will say that it's usually a good thing to move away from studying the Fulda Gap-style battle. The Fulda Gap was an area of low ground near the border of West and East Germany (near the city of Frankfurt), which was judged to have been one of the likely approach avenues for Soviet forces should the Cold War have gone hot. US planners noted this low ground as a key avenue of approach based on terrain analysis, which is a skill which has seemed to atrophy in recent years. Indeed, the value of seizing key terrain has not been apparent in Iraq, as that particular country is typically very flat and sandy; immobile fortified permanent bases are simply placed in the middle of the vast Arabian desert solely based on the fact that existing infrastructure was often located there. For example, one of the largest bases in northern Iraq, Contingency Operating Base Speicher, was built on top of the Iraqi Air Force's al-Sahra Airfield.

Says The Captain's Journal on the value of terrain:

We know that the Taliban are going to conduct mass assaults against our positions. We know that they want the advantage terrain offers them. Yet we continue to emplace Combat Outposts manned by platoon-size U.S. forces in the absolute worst locations imaginable from the perspective of terrain. The … worst … locations … imaginable.

Really. What gives? Is this a sickness within the American military? McChrystal’s position, i.e., deploying the troops in population centers, obviously neglects the countryside in a tip of the hat to the (utterly failed) Soviet model. But the answer to failed combat outposts in poor terrain is not to withdraw. It’s to position the outposts on favorable terrain for force protection and garrison them with the right number of troops.

What’s hard about this?

And, says someone even wiser than Herschel Walker (the admin for TCJ) regarding terrain:

Terrain can help put one's army in an advantageous position. But it is superior commanders that puts the advantage to good use by calculating the distance or proximity of dangers and obstructions.

Those who employ this knowledge can win with the certainty of victory. Those who do not employ this knowledge, challenge with certainty of defeat.

--Sun Tzu, 5th Century BCE

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I’m a Vietnam vet. I knew nothing about COP Keating until after the battle. When I saw some of the photos, I said to myself “oh sh*t, I can see why these guys got pounded.” Anytime the opposition can direct fire down on you, you’ve got a big helping of hurt on your hands. On the other hand, it didn’t look like there was much in the way of flat ground, or even a reasonable slope, on which to set up a base in the hills. And locating it too far up the hill would have meant that resupply could probably only be done by helicopter. I gather that that’s not a real solid link at times during the year.

I had some questions, though. Did these guys have listening posts out? Did they do nighttime patrols in the village and in the hills around their base? How was their intel capability within the village? If something out of the ordinary was going on, would they have known about it? How were they keeping an eye on the mosque (which was an obvious rallying point)? Did they set ambushes every night? The impression I’ve gotten is that the answers to these questions might be kinda negative. It strikes me that if they were doing these things properly, it would have been fairly difficult to assemble over 100 fighters without our troops knowing about it.

If you have a base on bad ground, you absolutely cannot sit around and wait for the other guy to come to you. You have to project your eyes and ears outward so you have advance warning. You also have to make the enemy cautious about approaching you. That’s the purpose of foot patrols and ambushes.

In the kind of guerrilla warfare that we’re facing now, the enemy is always going to go for the lowest hanging fruit on the tree. The T’ban undoubtedly spent a fair amount of time observing this base, absorbing what their routine was and then figuring out how they could use the terrain (including the buildings in the village) to their advantage. Had their observation been adequately disrupted, they may well have said “hey, these guys are on their toes — let’s go somewhere else.”

Maybe these guys did everything right, but no matter where you are, it’s natural to fall into a routine — even if you’re being shot at on a daily basis. The enemy will always take advantage of that routine at the worst possible time for you.