Lieutenant Colonel, US Army (Retired), MS, PMP, LSSMBB
RANGERS IN COMBAT - Excerpt
Needless tragedy and loss of life occurred on Roberts’ Ridge. Inexplicably, the lessons that should have been learned from Task Force Ranger’s experience in October 1993 failed to be applied and executed by the Special Operations Command nearly a decade later in March 2002. The failed lessons ran the gambit from intelligence shortcomings and personnel equipment discrepancies to communications deficiencies, misutilization of airpower and Quick Reaction Force (QRF) confusion.
Here are some comparisons as I see them:
Somalia: Failed to note the sharp increase in the purchase of thousands of rocket propelled grenades (RPG) by Somalian warlords on the black market and the weapon’s intended use to bring down the Special Operations Black Hawk helicopters over Mogadishu as demonstrated by the downing of a 10th Mountain Division Black Hawk prior to the Task Force Ranger battle.
Afghanistan: Failed to note the fortification and occupation of the Takur Ghar Mountain peak, just 50 yards or so above the recon team’s insertion point at Helicopter Landing Zone (HLZ) Ginger even though Takur Ghar Mountain was a strategic position bordering the area of operation (AO) of Operation Anaconda.
Somalia: Rangers deployed late in the afternoon after hours of delays without the night vision devices (NVD) and water they’d need later as they fought throughout the evening and early morning hours.
Afghanistan: The Rangers of Razor 02 first found themselves overburdened and hampered by bulky cold-weather gear and unsuitable desert boots they were wearing as they struggled up the mountain to the crash site only to join with the survivors of Razor 01 and freeze throughout the remainder of the day as temperatures plummeted below freezing. This mismatch of equipment was further compounded by the ‘soldier’s load’ that was too heavy a burden to carry at such oxygen depleted altitudes.
Somalia: Though communications were satisfactory between ground and airborne elements, those on the ground—Ranger and Delta—had great difficulty communicating between themselves for each operated with different systems. This difficulty was further compounded by the fact that while significant parts of the battle devolved into isolated and relatively individual combat only the Delta operatives were outfitted with a personal communications device whereas Ranger communications only propagated along the chain of command and not down to the individual member of squad.
Afghanistan: From the start, the QRF encountered serious communications problems, relying primarily on line-of-sight type of communications rather than SATCOM—satellite communications. Poor communications led to a critical misunderstanding regarding an “offset”—an alternate LZ—that resulted in Razor 01 flying directly into the ambush at HLZ Ginger. Furthermore, there was a complete loss of communications between Razor 01 and Razor 02 prior to the ambush, even though they had five different communications systems aboard each helicopter. Adding to the confusion, when both teams were finally on the ground they had no ability to communicate with the SEAL Team of Razor 04, the very element they had been dispatched to rescue.
Somalia: AC-130H Spectre gunships were located nearby in Djibouti and still under the operational control of the Task Force Ranger commander, Major General William F. Garrison. Though the total flight distance was only 680 miles or so as the "crow flies" and, thus, only a few hours away their heavy and desperately needed suppressive firepower was not ordered on station—a flight pattern—over the embattled task force.
Afghanistan: Though Operation Anaconda was that conflict’s most important engagement, and despite having ample air power available in support of it, too little of it was directed to assist the embattled QRF on the summit of Takur Ghar Mountain, just minutes away by air. When Close Air Support (CAS) was finally provided, the QRF had no laser designation capability to guide precision munitions and had to work through a complicated aiming process that still left them exceptionally vulnerable to their own ‘dumb bombs’ exploding around them.
Somalia: Lieutenant Colonel Bill David, battalion commander of 2/14 Infantry and the ground commander of the QRF, was left scurrying not only to learn of the mission Task Force Ranger had embarked upon hours earlier, but, even worse, he and his men were left begging, cajoling and threatening Pakistani and Malaysian commanders to gather a large enough armored force to smash their way into the center of a hostile Mogadishu after learning of Task Force Ranger’s desperate straits.
Afghanistan Though Captain Nathan Self and his men were the designated QRF, Special Operations Command seemed not to have placed as significant a priority on its overall command and control responsibilities, inclusive of critical staff support, as it should have provided. Ordered into the air from Bagram, Razor 01 and Razor 02 flew the 100 miles to Gardez with little situational awareness (SA), much less any situational understanding (SU). That should not have occurred given the aerial observation platforms that were available within the region.
Solutions to these issues are both systemic and command related. Intelligence failures continue to be plagued less by inadequate intelligence gathering and more by poor intelligence analysis—whether it be Somalia, the events of September 11, 2001, Afghanistan or Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq. Each was a failure of analysis combined with a lack of vision to perceive our enemy’s potentials and capabilities. A greater focus within the intelligence community as a whole may be achieved by an accountability of analysis that are glaringly in error—an action that seems to never take place at any level, tactical to strategic. Too often when a mistake is identified, it is shuffled off to the side or buried under paragraphs of obfuscating explanation. In the future, the intelligence community and our national leaders need to start developing a backbone that allows them to not only identify minor and major mistakes but to also investigate why the mistake occurred and who was responsible for the breakdown.
There are those who would claim that such ‘finger pointing’ serves little purpose other than intimidating and placing fear in those who have failed to perform properly and may, ultimately, stifle the process rather than reform and energize it. In perspective, though, which is the greater sacrifice: to feel intimated or fearful enough to focus on reducing failure or to be dead or mutilated as a result of that intelligence failure? Everyone in the military or intelligence community faces various forms of risk and failure. Some, however, have much more to lose than others. If members of the intelligence community are not up to the task of minimizing failure with insightful and accurate data analysis, then they need to find a new profession.
Unfortunately for now, given the poor history of intelligence fidelity, the consumers of such intelligence need to always view intelligence with a certain amount of circumspection. And, furthermore, Soldiers should never place their security in the hands of analysts who will never have to suffer from their own mistakes. Always anticipate and prepare to respond to the unexpected, no matter what an intelligence report states.
Special contingency equipment like cold weather gear and supplies like MREs, power bars and water, should be kept in small preconfigured loads contained within a few duffle bags that can be easily carried by helicopter. At the objective, these duffle bags can be kicked off the aircraft to be used later in the mission, left behind for future recovery or just discarded. As for the soldier’s load, leaders, good leaders, directly supervise what their subordinates carry. Excessive weight wears down and significantly hampers an infantryman’s combat effectiveness. A good place to start when learning how to tailor the soldier’s load more appropriately is Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Millen’s excellent tactical book, Command Legacy.
Given the technological superiority of this nation, the communications shortcomings continually demonstrated at the tactical level, especially by Special Operations Forces, are simply irresponsible—or worse. If communications is still such an issue with America’s most elite forces, imagine the plight of the average ground troop! This nation can communicate with satellites that are hundreds of millions of miles away on the fringe of our Solar System or with Rovers on Mars and yet two of our helicopters, each carrying five separate communications systems on them, cannot communicate with each other when only miles away in a mountainous environment? There is something seriously wrong with that. It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to fix that with the installation of SATCOM systems within the helicopters, especially those Special Operations aircraft that have the potential to serve as QRF platforms.
Air Supremacy has been a hallmark of American military might since World War II, and, this supremacy will most certainly continue in the foreseeable future. With such supremacy, especially in low intensity conflicts such as Afghanistan, there are few if any reasons why continuous close air support (CAS) with precision guided munitions cannot and should not be on call 24/7 for Special Operation Forces that literally operate on the fringe...or behind enemy lines. The combination of this CAS and the equipping of the QRF with laser designators for guidance of precision munitions would eliminate the need for ground observers to dangerously ‘adjust fire’ of attacking aircraft. Given the nearby air resources committed to Operation Anaconda and the lack of any similar ongoing life and death struggle as that faced by the beleaguered Americans on Tkar Ghar Mountain, one must surmise that the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) lacked a clear focus of what its true priority should have been at that specific point in time.
In past conflicts, American forces have always been assured that every effort would be taken on their behalf to secure their safety in the face of potential annihilation. Such efforts have even been captured in the film We Were Soldiers where Mel Gibson, portraying Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore—the commander of an infantry battalion about to be overrun by overwhelming North Vietnamese forces—reluctantly calls a “Broken Arrow,” a code phrase that indicates that an American unit is about to be overrun and destroyed [Though this term was misused by Hollywood in the movie—for a ‘Broken Arrow’ is a military code phrase alerting military governors of a nuclear weapons accident/incident—it is the concept that’s important.]. In response, such a code phrase designation would require the chain of command to commit all available airpower in support of that unit’s desperate fight. That would have made a difference on 4 March 2002 in the mountains of Afghanistan. That is what should have happened, and the fact that it did not is inexcusable.
Ultimately, though, the debacle of Takur Ghar was the result of a QRF process that still seems to be as lacking in Afghanistan as it was in Somalia. As critical as it is for those Special Operations troops deployed in harms way to feel that ‘the US Cavalry’ in the form of a QRF will ride to their rescue when needed, SOCOM seems still to treat the QRF as an afterthought. As long as this continues, American soldiers such as Ranger Specialist Jamie Smith, in Mogadishu, and Senior Airman Para Rescue Jumper Jason Cunningham, on Takur Ghar, both KIA as a result of wounds that eventually became mortal over time, will continue to be needlessly sacrificed in service to their nation. Certainly, warriors of the world’s only Superpower will die in conflict, but they shouldn’t die that way. An unnecessary death should be a rare event in our modern army and not a result of inaction on the part of a chain of command sitting safely in the rear.
How do you fix this problem? The solution is one of priority and command emphasis. There needs to be an approach that spells out accountability and staffing in support of the QRF. This approach and model of organization is found in the Army Field Manual in the form of a ‘Rear Area Operations Center’ (RAOC)—an ad hoc organization that is defined but not energized until it is needed. Then it becomes a primary and viable command and staff entity. Nearly every Army field grade officer—the rank of major and above—is familiar with the concept and, thus, should have little problem with planning or execution...if it’s a command priority.
While Takur Ghar was a failure in command, the comradery exhibited on Roberts’ Ridge that cold and brutal March day in 2002 was as exemplary and amazing a display of brotherhood as can be cited in any annals of small unit action. It was a display of brotherhood that can no better be epitomized than by Staff Sergeant Canon’s anxious and impassioned plea to launch his Rangers in support of those Rangers aboard Razor 01 after the lead aircraft disappeared.
“The first bird only had 10 guys on it. That's the bare minimum package. If something happened to them, they need us. We complete the package!"
We complete the package. No matter what the circumstances, no matter what the adversity, no matter what the danger, Canon and his fellow Rangers knew they had to join their comrades to help ensure their safety, and they would do whatever it took to accomplish that objective. It was a bond of brotherhood linked through shared sacrifice and wrapped firmly by the ties of a creed: “Never shall I fail my comrades; I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy; Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission, though I be the lone survivor.”
In 1959, science-fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers, a work that was more renowned for its social commentary and military leadership philosophy than its thought-provoking futuristic scenario of interstellar war against a ‘bug’ race that lived underground. In the culminating passage of the book, the Mobile Infantry are laying siege to a planet when a platoon sergeant and half his platoon disappear into a large hole that suddenly appears below them. The platoon leader, Lieutenant Johnnie Rico, peers into the vast darkness of the unknown into which his men have disappeared and then turns to one of his NCOs, Sergeant Cunha, directing him to take charge of the remaining platoon members—implying that he is to remain above ground and secure the area. As Rico jumps into the hole and begins to work his way down a tunnel in search of his missing men, he hears Cunha behind him, issuing orders.
“Section! First squad! Second squad! Third squad! By squads! Follow me!” and down into the hole Cunha jumps after his lieutenant.
As many times as I have read this passage, that imagery still elicits a chill down my back and a grunt of approval. Heinlein had it right. He had captured the essence of the Brotherhood within the Profession of Arms in 1959 with the fictional Sergeant Cunha’s “Follow me!” In 2002, the reality version of the Ranger Brotherhood was strengthened by Staff Sergeant Canon’s “We complete the package!”
Throughout the war, you were always in my mind. I always knew if I were in trouble and you were still alive, you would come to my assistance.
Major General William T. Sherman (1820-1891)
in a letter to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant