Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Which part of Shape, Clear, Hold, and Build are these guys doing?

The London Daily Telegraph today reports on a British unit called the Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF) in Helmand, incidentally under the eye-catching headline "Taliban Fly Bloodied British Uniforms as Warning." The article focuses on a raid by BRF troops on a small compound where Taliban have been reportedly spotted, mentioning how the British troops were stopping vehicles leaving the area and collecting biometric data on military-aged males. (I gather the drivers of those vehicles are responding to ISAF's call for civilians to evacuate the Marja area in advance of Operation Moshtarak, but I suppose that's only peripherally relevant.)
The force attacked the Taliban position, killing a commander and two fighters. “What we have to do out here is kill low-level commanders, that’s the key. But we are not some hunter-killer force, we are here to find the enemy, gather information and then it’s up to others what to do with it.”

The Daily Telegraph joined the BRF for a mission into an area, whose location cannot be disclosed, that is known to harbour Taliban commanders and bomb-ferrying routes. Setting out in a fast-moving column of Jackal off-road vehicles that, while vulnerable to bombs, can drive across difficult terrain avoiding ambushes, we left in darkness using night vision goggles to navigate.

Mounted with grenade launchers and .50 calibre heavy machine guns, the Jackals swept through to a compound where intelligence had suggested arms were hidden. Accompanied by Afghan commandos, the soldiers found an AK47 and Makarov pistol and the compound owner was detained. In another home, three pairs of handcuffs, a cosh and binoculars were found in a haystack.

Along a narrow dirt road, BRF soldiers stopped vehicles driving close to the area targeted by Operation Moshtarak.
But here's the real money quote:
The 100-strong BRF, which is similar to the Parachute Regiment’s Pathfinders, was formed specifically for the six month tour and takes in men from 12 different regiments who have passed a selection course that has a 50 per cent failure rate. “We operate behind enemy lines where ground holding troops cannot go,” said Capt Robin BourneTaylor, a BRF troop commander. “Our job is to disrupt, screen and find the enemy.”
I'm not sure exactly how this differs from what SOF are doing, particularly when Capt BourneTaylor draws a distinction between his men and "ground holding troops." What exactly constitutes "behind enemy lines"? Does this mean that they're capable of swift raiding in places that would draw more resistance if slower-moving, heavier forces were to enter the area?

Listen, I think we can go beyond the COIN buzzwords and understand that there are things going on that might not seem to fit the template. I'm not willing to go so far as Ex and offer up a blanket condemnation for anyone who's talking about chasing bad guys. But really, this sort of raiding -- what's being accomplished? That house where they found an AK and a Makarov and detained the owner... isn't it possible that this is the proverbial one weapon per house for self-defense?

And what of "what we have to do out here is kill low-level commanders, that's the key"? Is it, really? He goes on to note that this isn't really their job, that they're just an intelligence-gathering force. Well, ok, but are they doing intel-gathering for more hunter-killer raids? It's fine to collect intelligence that informs offensive and kinetic operations, but (and this all links back to the Flynn report from last month) there's a difference between what they're calling "mapping the human terrain" and collecting strike-targeting data.

So I guess the answer is that these guys are doing what's called IPB -- intelligence preparation of the battlefield, "a systematic, continuous process of analyzing the threat and environment in a specific geographic area. It is designed to support staff estimates and military decision making. Applying the IPB process helps the commander selectively apply and maximize his combat power at critical points in time and space on the battlefield" -- in an enemy-controlled area in advance of an offensive there. Which is to say that they're shaping the battlefield for the Clear portion, I suppose, if we're being charitable.

Am I reading too much into this? I don't want to be the guy who objects just because people are using the wrong words, or failing to echo BG Nicholson's repeated refrain that "the people are the prize in counterinsurgency."

14 comments:

  1. I don't know a great deal about this force (although I am going to try and embed with 4 Mech Bde's equivalent force next summer), but it is filling a pretty routine role, it seems to me. Every echelon wants a SOF-like asset to do raids and take the fight to the enemy when the fight needs to be taken to the enemy, and to knock out the people it identifies as insurgent leaders (each echelon will identify different people).

    At the upper tiers of command, you can actually use SOF. USF-I and USFOR-A have (and MNF-I had) tactical control of JSOC task forces and used them to fill this role. MNC-I had tactical control of three white SOF tasks forces (and by extension the ISOF they trained), and those were the hunting-raiding force for the corps level. Similarly, the division-level Regional Commands in Afghanistan, and their partnered ANA corps, have a form of tactical control over the commando kandaks, and by extension the three white SOF task force that go along with them.

    Echelons below this do not have SOF to employ, except in rare cases (as in Ramadi in 2006 and Sadr City in 2008, when SEAL task units were put under the tactical control of Army brigade commanders). In the early years in Iraq, divisions often deployed with a divisional cav squadron for just this purpose (like 1-4 Cav in 1st ID in OIF2). In 2007-8, it was fairly common for a division to designate one battalion or eveb brigade as its "above ground" force -- there were a lot of battalions to go around.

    What about at the brigade level, though? In the Marine corps, this is not a big problem, as far as I can tell, since Recon battalions or elements of them can fill this role nicely. For example, TF Raider with the MEB in Afghanistan, which I think is sort of a mirror force to the BRF described in the article. Army brigades have a harder time of it: unlike a legacy brigade, a modular brigade does not have a Brigade Recon Troop built into it, which can be problematic. The same is true of British brigades - the brigade does not have a company or troop built in for this purpose, so it has to create one ad-hoc. (Some allied contingents in Afghanistan, such as the Dutch, use their national-level SOF for this purpose, deploying a company or so of them along with their PRTs and battle groups and TF HQ, but I don't think the UK has that luxury - while casualty reports suggest that their SOF do frequently operate in Helmand, my understanding is that, like the British SOF task force that operated for years in Iraq, the British SOF task force in Afghanistan is under the tactical control of the JSOC task force.)

    At battalion level, there are as many solutions to this as there are battalions, it seems like. I have embedded with an infantry battalion that used its scout platoon as a dedicated raiding ("TST") force, another infantry battalion that rotated the mission among the platoons of a particular company, and an armored cavalry squadron that had converted its howitzer battery into a standing TST force.

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  2. Fracturing the insurgent network also is part of the fight. See "Phoenix."


    SNLII

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  3. ", ok, but are they doing intel-gathering for more hunter-killer raids? "

    Kitson on line one. MAJ Kitson on line one.

    Come on, dude.

    SNLII

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  4. Fracturing the insurgent network also is part of the fight. See "Phoenix."

    Sure, I get that. That's why I did all that equivocating and stuff, saying that I understand offensive operations and all that. Love fracturing the insurgent network.

    But is that really happening here?

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  5. 'or failing to echo BG Nicholson's repeated refrain that "the people are the prize in counterinsurgency."'

    Who said BG Nicholson is right? The "people" were the prize in Vietnam, too, but the USMC rightly identified VCI as the crux of their problem, and realized that mitigating or rolling back the creature should be the focus of their efforts.

    Infrastructure can be degraded by several means: Separating the "people" from the insurgent physically by "strategic hamlets," dispossession, et al; direct action assassination, counter-intel "flipping" of operatives or efforts that sow confusion while doing all three, in re Kitson's pseudo-gangs; educating, coercing using more gentle forms of susasion such as bribery to get people to rat out the cadres; cutting off the vital inputs the infrastructure needs to survive (money, intel, arms, et al).

    I've never been sold on the efficacy of a lot of direct action, but I can't say that fracturing the networks by taking out certain nodes is a bad way to use resources.

    It depends on the nature of the conflict, right? There isn't a cookie-cutter approach to this.

    SNLII

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  6. There likely are several uses of this commando team, Gulliver. IPB, sculpting the battlespace before larger operations, fracturing the cadres who have remained in place to degrade the infrastructure, sow confusion in the rear of the enemy's front.

    All might be good, but some aspects might be more valuable than others.

    On principle, I refuse to read what Exum is saying about it because he doesn't know any more than you or I do about the specifically clandestine nature of these operations. As a former DA Ranger, however, his overall concern might have some merit.


    SNLII

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  7. Every echelon wants a SOF-like asset to do raids and take the fight to the enemy when the fight needs to be taken to the enemy, and to knock out the people it identifies as insurgent leaders (each echelon will identify different people).
    In my opinion, the capability that a SOF or SOF-like unit brings to a BDE is nothing special. I never saw an ODA do anything that a decent Infantry Platoon couldn't do (that includes my third rotation, deploying with a JSOTF). What an ODA brings to the table is a ton of capabilities largely resulting from flexible use of funds, more direct lines to approval authorities/release authorities, significant expertise and support at the FOB and AOB, and bunch of other goodies that conventional units lack. To take an ODA and plug it in to a BDE seems to be a waste.

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  8. Oops. Just to clarify - those capabilities only exist when the ODA is part of the JSOTF. Detach it and hand it over to a BDE and all you've got are 12 guys with cooler gear.

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  9. Schmedlap, I understand that...but isn't one of the big arguments about SF they they're not even really supposed to be very good at direct action like this, even though they have often been used that way in recent years? If you were a brigade commander, I think, you might find an ODA pretty useless unless it was working extremely well with indigenous forces, but at the same time you might think of your own organic BRT as an invaluable scouting/disrupting/DA asset.

    The example that comes to mind is 1/1 AD in Ramadi, whose leaders I have spent a bunch of time interviewing. The brigade commander and all the battalion commanders, and all the company commanders I spoke to, spoke of the BRT as critical, and had even higher praise for TU Bruiser, the SEAL troop that was attached to the brigade to do counter-IED-emplacer, disruption, and overwatch things. (At the same time, some loved and some hated the super-secret-SOF who worked in the area, and all seemed to dislike the Army SF team that was there for a while - but I never spoke with them, only the SEALs, so I don't know their side of the story.)

    As SNLII says, though, it's always different, right? The next brigade to rotate through Ramadi and build on the success of 1/1 AD, 1/3 ID, found the successor SEAL troop to be a distraction at best - to paraphrase the brigade commander, the tactics the SEALs were using were fantastic in the summer and fall but as the situation changed in the spring, they simply were no longer useful. But 1/3 used a mobile, AO-free, combat-focused reserve for its big operations, too - a company from BLT 2/4 Marines that in a matter of weeks fought in all three of the turnstile battalion offensives in east Ramadi.

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  10. This is part of shaping operations. I think every RSTA considered this their primary mission. I know we did. We thought that we would be the FIND function that prepped a denied area through R&S, HUMINT, and other stuff. Instead, we quickly learned that it is too difficult to do target hand-offs in small wars. So, we also transitioned to the occupation phase (Clear, Hold, Build) designated for the infantry/armor.

    “We operate behind enemy lines where ground holding troops cannot go,” said Capt Robin BourneTaylor, a BRF troop commander. “Our job is to disrupt, screen and find the enemy.”
    That could have been CPT Mike Few back in Zaganiyah. I'm very impressed with this unit's attitude. I make this statement because I saw the impact these types of operations can have.
    So Disrupt. When you sneak in behind enemy lines into a good hide site and watch, you get to see how complacent an enemy can become in his rear areas just like our guys are in the FOBs. Class V is transported openly in trucks. Men take their time digging in IEDs.

    They don't know that they're being watched.
    Then you can inflict some psychological damage to their mindset. When you start killing them, particularly when you use indirect fire or CAS, they become scared. They no longer feel safe in their protected areas. We would call this "terrorizing the terrorists." This is not blazen killing of women and children. This is killing armed combatants.

    This psychological message allows you to eventually go in and set a tone that you are omnipotent and omnicient. You are everywhere and know everything. If you eventually occupy, then it helps you to secure the village b/c the enemy becomes more afraid of you than the belief in their cause. This is part of understanding human nature.

    I know some of y'all may disagree with me, but I did this stuff and it worked. And yes, I was just regular army.

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  11. Tintin,
    I doubt don't for a moment that a BDE commander is happy to get a good unit attached to him. There are never enough troops available. I just think, in the bigger picture, this is poor use of an ODA. An ODA can do a whole lot more good when it is part of a JSOTF than it can as 12 more pairs of boots to kick in doors. To put it in mathematical terms, an ODA is usually not a force multiplier when it is attached to a BDE. My opinion, anyway.

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  12. "When you sneak in behind enemy lines into a good hide site and watch, you get to see how complacent an enemy can become in his rear areas just like our guys are in the FOBs. Class V is transported openly in trucks. Men take their time digging in IEDs."

    Do you snap their dicks for not wearing reflective belts, too?

    SNLII

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  13. "Do you snap their dicks for not wearing reflective belts, too?"

    Ha. That brings up a good point though. Later, we had a chance to interview former guerillas that had either surrended or were captured. They broke down most of the make-up, composition, dispositions of the organization and training camps. However, I never thought to ask them about how they maintained good order and discipline.

    With the local populace, the soldiers had immunity. They could go out, get drunk, and rape young women (or boys) without reprecussion. The elders that protested were beaten publically or assassinated.

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  14. "When you sneak in behind enemy lines into a good hide site and watch, you get to see how complacent an enemy can become in his rear areas just like our guys are in the FOBs. Class V is transported openly in trucks. Men take their time digging in IEDs."

    Who are we to argue with complacency in digging in IEDs? It seems to have been spectacularly successful for them.

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