Nothing Learned from Black Hawk Down

     Despite all the hoopla and public acclaim surrounding Mark Bowden's best-selling book and the recent Hollywood movie, nine years later Army Rangers still do not have light tracked Armored Fighting Vehicles (AFV)s organic to them to prevent another "Blackhawk Down!" incident where their ground maneuver on foot and in rubber-tired trucks is stopped by ambushes and roadblocks. The world is urbanizing, yet the US army and marines still spend billions of dollars on vulnerable rubber-tired armored cars, hoping a computer screen inside will somehow "mouse-click" mental firepower to protect them.  

  Click to see next page    While I thought the book was okay, when I read the Pentagon supported the film and all the brass loved it, I knew the PR lying machine had kicked in to make a disaster a victory in order to preserve the status quo. The Rangers, Delta and 10th Mountain Division troops fought hard and did well with what they had on hand, but their officers screwed up by placing them in such a precarious position in the first place. 

      Even worse, Army officers continue to place their men in precarious positions in Afghanistan because they refuse to admit their mistakes and learn the proper lessons.  A few years ago, the whole Somalia adventure was rightly considered an embarrassment and no one talked about it (like the Beirut truck bombing which killed 241+ marines and forced America out of Lebanon in a major foreign policy defeat).  Now Army Generals have turned the October 3, 1993 firefight into a bold "victory" by focusing in on the existentialist human dimension where the positives of human courage shine at the expense of real lessons learned. We must not be forced out of areas of vital national security interest due to military incompetence demonstrated by facts like these: 

1) Tracked armored vehicles were needed to punch their way through to Task Force Ranger?

      Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and the Clinton Admin didn't want to "send the wrong message" to the civilians of Somalia and denied requests by UN Commander General Montgomery for 70-ton M1 Abrams tanks and 33-ton M2 tracked Bradley  This was after CENTCOM Commander, Marine General Hoar pooh-poohed and stalled Montgomery's requests for armor support for days. This left soldiers "hanging in the breeze" without the necessary force mix to handle the job, and one of the dead Rangers' father was rightfully angered at this and publicly criticized President Clinton. The Somali civilians the Clinton team wanted to appease got gunned down by the hundreds because our men were not shielded by armored vehicles while doing the mission and had to use firepower as their defacto "shield". 

      Pentagon Generals now argue they "won" the battle by killing over 1000 Somalis, many just civilian bystanders.  If killing Somalis was the goal, they could have just called in USAF B-52 heavy bomber air strikes with no U.S. forces on the ground.  However, the goal was to capture enemy leaders; something air strikes cannot do.  Even if Les Aspin had allowed armor to be sent, they wouldn't have arrived in time on ships or by flying them in by USAF transports one or two-at-a-time. The Army could have flown in 10.5 ton M113A3 Gavin light tracked AFVs by USAF C-130s within a day if truly needed. They had hundreds in the Persian Gulf region. These are versatile, small, agile and well-armor protected when fitted with RPG-resistant appliqué' armor and gun shields

      If General Garrison thought armored vehicles were essential, he shouldn't have done the raids until they arrived.  But he did not wait for armor because like many officers imbued with lightfighter and SOF ethos, he looked down upon soldiers who operate armored vehicles.  Using armored vehicles was not a "favorite" way of doing things in the Rangers, and still is not today. Other elite units use light tracked AFVs to create shock action and protect their men (like the Israeli paratroopers at Entebbe) Fast forward to today's "war on terrorism"; with M113A3 Gavin type AFVs, the Rangers could have held that southern Afghanistan airfield after their parachute jump and conducted mobile blocking operations along the Pakistani border to prevent Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists from escaping.

      There were PLENTY of allied forces with light and medium armored vehicles already in Mogadishu on 3-4 October 1993.  The problem was that NONE belonged to Task Force Ranger or the 10th Mountain because of inadequate U.S. Army force structure.  Although the Pakistanis had tracked M-48 tanks and M113A1s, and the Malaysians had wheeled Condor APCs, TF Ranger leaders didn't ask them for help until three hours after the problem began. Since they were UN troops who didn't like the raids, they had to get the political okay first. General Garrison should have got that approved long before the raid.  When the "shit hit the fan", the U.S. forces had to spend 8 hours begging for armor support that should have been sitting REDCON 1.5, under TF Ranger C2, ready to roll.

GIF Photo     The Army has the 101st Air Assault Division in Afghanistan today conducting raids similar in nature, and they have no tanks or even armored personnel carriers for back-up.  (actual photo left)  It could be "Blackhawk Down!" all over again.  The Army has a M113A3-based Immediate Ready Force in Europe ready to fly into Afghanistan to support the 101st, but General Shinseki will not allow it to go because if Congress saw light tracks accomplishing the mission, it would learn we don't need to be wasting billions of dollars on planned purchases of inferior LAV-III armored cars. 

2) Every time we hear an infantryman talk about what went wrong on 3 October, we hear them talk about how the Delta and the Rangers "should've gone in with more body armor, ammo, water, rations, NVDs" etc, etc, etc". In a fast snatch operation, the Delta/Rangers (save the dummies that left their body armor back plates) had the right soldier's load. They didn't need the extra BS slowing their 1-2 mph mobility.   These folks are clueless about the nature of modern combat, where a few pounds of extra gear can slow your speed down enough that an enemy can aim and hit you with an automatic weapon. 

3) The Olympic hotel was considered very dangerous because it was surrounded by Aidid gunmen and local informants warned the TF Ranger mission planners there would be trouble.  An RPG had already hit a helicopter several days before but failed to explode, yet planners still did that "fast rope" insertion technique from a hover in the middle of a city without diversionary attacks, smokescreens, or enemy air defense suppressive fires. Actually, three UH-60 Blackhawks were shot down, one crash landed back at the airbase.

      The Quick Reaction Force (QRF) from the 10th Mountain Division wasn't alerted to get ready to save the Rangers until hours after the problem started. The Rangers look down on any unit other than their own and didn't want to ask the "legs" (non-parachute qualified) for help.

Fundamental techno-tactical problems:

SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN - Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) talk with two Afghan locals at the perimeter of a patrol base here December 10, 2001. The Afghans expressed their thanks and offered food, water and any other support the Americans may have needed. The Marines politely declined.   Photo by: Sgt. Joseph R. Chenelly     1. We underestimate our enemy (like the Afghans, pictured right).  We rendered him unsophisticated and incapable of thinking and adaptation in our own minds. ALL human beings are made in God's image and can do great deeds of good or evil.

2. We overestimate ourselves.
This is understandable given recent successes and given the "elitist" mentality in many units.

3. We overestimate our ELINT technology and underestimate the HUMINT network people like the Somali "skinnies" can put up.

4. As a result of 1 and 2 above, we stick to a predictable template.

Retired Colonel and Pentagon gadfly, David Hackworth was right-on about this when he wrote:

"In a battle, fought on 3 October 1993, Major Generals Thomas Montgomery and William Garrison's lack of war-fighting skills caused 18 American warriors to be killed, 100 more to be wounded and our nation to be humiliated. Garrison and Montgomery made every basic error in the book, beginning with not understanding the enemy. They had bad intelligence, were overly dependent on firepower and technology and were arrogant. Nor did they bother to put a go-to-hell-plan in place in case the shit hit the fan. They made the identical blunders that were made in Vietnam over and over for eight bloody years.

Their mistakes were ones that good generals should never make, and because of them, great soldiers paid a terrible price. Besides the big picture stuff they screwed up, they also blew it on simple tactical techniques such as conducting seven raids using exactly the same drill while their the enemy watched and learned their modus operandi.

On the seventh raid, conducted on a hot Sunday afternoon, disaster struck and some of the best warriors America had were thrown into a death grinder. Just as in Vietnam, the enemy worked out our pattern, set up a counter operation, patiently waited for Special Ops warriors to throw their punch and then creamed our good warriors.

5. We did not understand the enemy battle rhythm and went in when the skinnies were high on the drug Kat and and most alert.

6. We had a "Plan A", but no real "oh shit!" plan.
This is the legacy of our methodical battle against "straw men"---a practice learned from the French in WWI.  

Colonel Hackworth wrote about what we need to learn from Somalia:

"As is so often the case in battle, brave men down on the ground and up in the air saved a repeat of another Custer's last stand. But the entire massacre could have been avoided had the generals, both Vietnam veterans, remembered what went down in South East Asia three decades before. Unfortunately, they as most generals - - past and present -- suffered from CRS (Can't Remember Shit.)

After this disaster, we were chased from Somalia, just as we were from Vietnam thirty years before, once again, by mostly barefooted guerrillas, armed mainly with light infantry weapons because American military leaders did dumb things.

The mistakes made in Somalia have convinced me that little was learned from America's 25 year long Vietnam experience. And I fear that there will be more Mogadishu's, more dumb U.S. Army generals and sadly more blood spilled needlessly as we march down a bloody trail into Century XXI.

I believe the majority of the fights our forces will get into over the next thirty years will be Low Intensity Conflicts (LIC) , the irregular kind of dirty little shoot outs such as were fought in the 15th Century, in our Indian wars and most recently in Vietnam and Somalia. But most of these fights will be fought in cities.

With this in mind, here are a few tips for when operating in such an environment:

* Never use trails.

* Always take it for granted that the enemy's watching.

* Always have a go-to-hell plan.

* Never assume anything.

* Always expect the unexpected.

* Talk to the Grunts, they always have the best feel for what's going down.

* Keep operations sledgehammer simple and remember: if it can be f'd up, it will be.

* Train your force like a good football coach. Teamwork is the key and this is done by relentlessly repeating squad drills over and over until they are executed automatically and flawlessly. Then do them again!

And remember, squads who live by the basics of their trade make great Armies; Armies don't make great squads. And these squads must be perfectly trained in the basic fundamentals of the killing trade. And most importantly, NEVER, NEVER be in a hurry. Lastly, I predict that most of future LIC combat will be in urban areas which is the toughest and most costly way of fighting....

     Let's hope the US Army wakes up soon and flies armor into Afghanistan ASAP to prevent: Blackhawk Down II, the Afghan Sequel.

                                                                                        Mike Sparks