Combat, the Ground Truth: Risk, Maneuver and Positional Warfare
This is a great article from our friend Pete. Frankly, we expect to hear as much heartfelt agreement on this as we do people slingin' hate. One thing you can say about Nealan - he will definitely stir some shit (though to be honest, he's making an articulate point out of the sort of profane complaints we've heard before, and sometime made outselves). Preach on Brother Nealan!
Risk, Maneuver and Positional Warfare
by Peter Nealen
“Shoot, Move, Communicate.” That’s been the mantra for the infantryman for years. So how come we do so little of the second one?
I’ve been in several firefights downrange. In every one, we held our position and shot back at an enemy that maneuvered freely around us. On the first day on the ground in Helmand, we were actually taking fire from three directions, and were effectively pinned for several hours. During a firefight in open country in Zaidon, Iraq, we were actually told by our commander to stay put, rather than try to close with the enemy.
I initially thought this might just be symptomatic of the platoons I was a part of, but perusing a lot of the helmet cam footage available online, a pattern does emerge. There is some maneuvering being done for better cover or lines of fire, but to actually fix, close with, and destroy the enemy, there is very little.
I have several theories as to why this is. A couple of them are interlinked. They come down to weight, risk aversion, and a loss of basic infantry skills due to either complacency, too much other stuff to train, or both.
Weight. The average grunt now carries anywhere from ninety to one hundred twenty pounds of basic kit, ammo, weapon, comm, and sustainment. All of this is now viewed as essential, and is often part of theater-wide SOP. There are those who will argue that if you have a problem doing the job with all that weight, you just need to increase your PT. I would argue that such an attitude falls under the purview of an old saying that I learned when I first got to Recon: “It’s easy to be hard. It’s hard to be smart.”
When you are carrying over half your bodyweight everywhere you go, and the enemy has just himself, a shalwar kameez, and his rifle, he has the advantage in maneuverability, regardless of how strong you are. Add in that he knows the terrain far better than you, and you are at a serious disadvantage.
This leads into the Risk Aversion piece. A good chunk of that weight is body armor. More and more has been added over the years, to the point that even without plates, the newer Marine Corps OTV is almost impossible to move in. Armor does save lives, I won’t dispute that. I have a buddy who is only alive because of his ESAPI plate. But at what point does it become counterproductive?
Take a look at the pictures of Marines in the island hopping campaign in World War II. Look at them in Korea and Vietnam. Most of the WWII Marines are carrying a rifle, a cartridge belt, canteen, E-tool, and not much else. By today’s standards, they are completely underequipped. Yet they dug probably our most fanatical and skilled enemy out of their holes and utterly defeated them. Yes, they took losses. That’s the nature of warfare. Show me where our risk-averse, no-losses-if-at-all-avoidable strategy has actually won us a war.
Finally, complacency, and the corresponding loss of knowledge and skill that was part and parcel of being an infantryman for decades. For much of the last decade, most of the fighting took place in Iraq. I will be the first to say that the Iraqis have some weird ideas about warfare. Inshallah seems to be their primary operating principle, which makes a lot of them sloppy. Their marksmanship tends to be very poor. As a result, we found we didn’t have to do a lot of advanced sort of stuff to beat on them. This has already turned into a rude awakening for some units who transitioned from Iraq to Afghanistan, and found that the Pashtuns are far more adept militarily than the Arabs.
Just because your enemy at the moment isn’t doing that well is no excuse to get sloppy, but it’s happened. Are your TTPs really much more than “turn and shoot everything at the guys who just took you under fire?” How often do you concentrate on movement techniques in training? How often do you really study tactics and put them into play in your training?
A lot of this boils down to a leadership issue, and it’s one that I don’t think is going to be solved from the top down. NCOs, it’s going to be on you. It’s going to be on the squad and fireteam leaders to take whatever down time your guys have during the work day, and go out in the parking lot, the football field, or the hills or woods outside your company area, and practice this stuff. You don’t need anything fancy. Just practice the tactics. If you get a chance, try some team-on-team exercises, preferably with simunitions. You’ll work out tactical weaknesses pretty quick that way.
None of these problems are going to be solved overnight. Some of them may well not be solved until we find ourselves faced by a war that cannot be muddled through like we’ve muddled through Iraq and Afghanistan. A war that we have to win, no matter the cost.
Because if we get sloppy, the cost is going to be higher than we ever want to pay.
About the Author: Pete Nealen is a former Reconnaissance Marine, a combat veteran and the author of Task Force Desperate. He's savvy enough to want to write for Breach-Bang-Clear and bad ass enough that we let him. Read a review of his book here: http://reflexivefire.com/2013/01/23/book-review-task-force-desperate/