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Why Overwhelming Firepower Backfires

Overwhelming firepower. No other phrase describes U.S. Army tactics, operations and strategy better. And while it sums up perfectly how the U.S. military can destroy any challenger in the world on a high intensity battlefield, it is also why America struggles with counter-insurgency.

When a unit gets attacked, it responds with all available weaponry. For a platoon, this means two machine guns and then the full firepower of any squads in contact: M-4 rifles, M230 grenade launchers, and squad automatic weapons. If it is a mounted platoon, they will fire hundreds of 5.56, 7.62, 40mm explosive grenades and .50 caliber machine gun rounds at the enemy.

But the most dangerous weapon of all is the platoon leader’s hand set connected to his radio. On the other end of that radio are three different sources of firepower. First,  the artillery of the U.S. Army: mortars, tube artillery, or rocket propelled artillery. Second, Close Combat support helicopters armed with 20mm rockets and 30mm cannons. Third, Close Air Support, the Air Force, armed with guided bombs, aerial artillery from AC-130 Gunships or gun runs from A-10 Warthogs. In rare cases the Army can even use naval bombardment or cruise missiles.

In counter-insurgency warfare, only one characteristic of these weapons matters: no weapon, no matter how “intelligent,” avoids killing women and children. (I use women and children to impart the gut impact of the death of noncombatants on local populations.) No weapon can distinguish between noncombatants and insurgents. In asymmetrical warfare, the enemy lives, operates and fights amongst civilians; his camouflage is blending into the society.

Even with technological advancements and their best intentions, U.S. soldiers on the ground cannot control the explosive fire power of those rockets, bombs and shells. An artillery shell could land within three meters of where we intend it, the explosion still casts shrapnel around a 100 meter area. Everyone within 50 meters of the blast will get, quite literally, obliterated. People within 100 meters will get severely wounded. Buildings next to the target will fall down, crushing whom ever is inside. Even helicopter gunships can have trouble scaling back the destructiveness of their 20mm rockets and Hellfire missiles; once a helicopter begins strafing along a line, it can only do so much to distinguish between civilians and legitimate targets.
When we created the most lethal fighting force on the planet, we created one that cannot effectively fight counter-insurgencies. At the lowest level, tactically, having the best offense in the world achieves nothing. The U.S. Army has made huge strides in restricting its fires into civilian populations, learning counter-insurgency and adapting new weapon systems. Unfortunately, when all your weapon systems were designed for a different style of war, there is only so much change you can make.

nine comments

How, then, would you suggest a unit engaged by insurgents respond to an attack? I’m not arguing in favor of indiscriminate fire, just looking for your alternative.

You stated the problem and the result but what is the solution?

Great points, and I totally agree that opinions need to have solutions not just gripes about the problem. As a contributor, I can say that I have hundreds (I’ve counted) articles on solutions to this problem, or, better said tips for waging better counter-insurgency. This article introduces one of the many problems.

As for possible solutions to your scenario Will, the best solution in most Army cases is to not win the fight. It is situation dependent, (METT-TC in Army lingo) but it seems like most fights the Army gets in it tries to win, when winning causes you to lose in the long run.

As for overwhelming firepower , the key is to not create weapon systems like this in the future. My favorite weapon in the platoon was the M14. It could reach out and touch someone at 800 meters with no chance of unintended casualties. More weapons like that—longer range, low rates of fire—are what we need. Also, developing non-lethal weaponry that are cheap, effective and widely distributed would be very useful.

Guys, thanks for the comments and please remember to tell your friends.

I would have to agree that the “one shot, one kill” method would probably be the most effective, but how many soldiers are capable of making that shot, let alone really willing to?

Also, if you aren’t going to win the fight, what should you do then?

As valuable as a quality sniper is, the concept of platoons entirely composed of snipers sounds unplausable. Rather, what may be a step toward progress is an evolution of the modern standard issue assault weapon to incorporate a sniper function when the situation allows. But eliminating burst fire weapons, while diminishing collateral casualties is likely to increase in our own forces. What you want, what you all really want is an end to casualties on either side and from what I remember of playing snipers only in halo is that single shot kills are difficult and don’t bring hostilities to a halt.

To all, I was hesitant with this article, as I am with a few others, because I know they are controversial. However, I love the feedback and this dialogue.

@Rod- One other point about the M14 as my favorite weapon: it was around in WWII. We don’t need new weapons, just better training.

@Will- To win a counter-insurgency, we just don’t fight; we win with Key Leader Engagements, Humanitarian Assistance and building up the local security forces. Those aren’t sexy missions, but effective ones.

@Matty P- Yes, Matt I agree. The infantry platoon will always have machine guns of heavy to light caliber, and I don’t disagree. My fundamental issue is that we rely on those machine guns to solve all our problems. We need more M14s (the one in my platoon was not theater equipment not organic to the platoon) and dramatically more training for our marksmen. And, even though a platoon will have machine guns, it needs to courage to not fire them.

I appreciate the comments and I will continue explore this topic and would love to hear more of your thoughts.

First, the M14 has been around since Vietnam, not WW2. As a history major you should know that.

I think soldiers are very good at laying down a lot of lead but not hitting much. I agree that force should be a last resort and is not the way to win an insurgency, but when it is time to pull the trigger our soldiers need to be able to more accurately engage their targets. I guess I am advocating better marksmanship training.

Not just better marksmanship training but better operational planning to ensure a minimum number of civilians in operational areas.

@Will- I stand corrected. When I researched it on the wiki page I mistook “modifications to the M1 in WWII” and thought that meant it had been around since then. But, since the M1 was the basis for the M14, its origins do come from there.