Friday, January 07, 2005

Patrolling 101


Although I am an opponent of the war in Iraq, I grieve every time I read of another American death. Today's story is, for me, final confirmation of something I've suspected for a long time: Bad tactics are contributing to the casualty count.

The soldiers with Task Force Baghdad were on patrol Thursday evening when their Bradley fighting vehicle hit the explosive, the military said in a statement. Everyone inside the Bradley was killed.

What's wrong with this picture? The same thing that's wrong with just about every other "killed while patrolling" picture. "A soldier was killed while on patrol when his unarmored Humvee was hit by machine gun fire." "A soldier was killed while on patrol when an improvised explosive device detonated underneath the vehicle he was riding in."

Now, don't get me wrong: There is a role for vehicles in combat, and even occasionally in patrolling over large areas (I conducted partially vehicle-mounted security patrols in Saudi Arabia over a perimeter many miles long). But the sheer bulk of the accounts of American military personnel killed in this way tells me that US forces are giving in to the most natural -- and the most dangerous -- tendency: Hunker down and button up. It makes you feel safer, but it's actually a disaster waiting to happen.

Most patrols should be conducted on foot. And patrols conducted by vehicle should be conducted at least partially, and probably mostly, on foot. There are a number of reasons for this.

One is that fighting men on foot can see better, hear better and maneuver better than fighting men holed up inside a tin can with wheels and a diesel engine. I don't know Army doctrine, but "the mission of the Marine rifle squad is to locate, close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver." A 13-man squad -- or a four-man fire team -- is simply better able to detect and react to an enemy presence on foot than from a vehicle. How do you envelop an enemy position with one vehicle? How do you detect that position from inside the vehicle? And how effectively can you dismount and organize to envelop that position when the enemy heard you coming from a mile away and was free to plan his own maneuvers, including taking out the vehicle with you in it or assaulting you during dismount?

And, contrary to instinct, movement by foot is simply safer. Thirteen, or any other number, of vehicle mounted troops are one target, contained within a small area and surrounded by ... shrapnel. Thirteen, or any other number, of troops on foot are individual targets, dispersed over a wide area and able to maneuver individually. An improvised explosive device, as the story above notes, is capable of taking out a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and everyone inside it. Had those seven soldiers been afoot, maintaining a reasonable dispersion for the terrain, it's likely that at least six of them would be alive today. Maybe all seven -- did they miss the IED because of the limited visibility from inside their vehicle?

"The best defense is a good offense" is a tactical, as well as strategic, maxim. Units which skulk behind rolls of concertina wire waiting for the enemy to come to them will find that he does -- at the time and in the manner of his choosing. Units which stick to vehicles in order to achieve a false sense of safety will learn that that sense is, indeed, false. Vehicles are primarily of use in bringing up reinforcements once the enemy has been located, fixed and engaged. Men on foot are more effective -- and less likely to become casualties -- in creating the engagements on advantageous terms, especially against an enemy for whom mortars and IEDs, rather than massed artillery, are the tools of the trade.

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