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Getting Around the Rules of Engagement: Observer Training

(Real quick: technical issues stopped this post from going up last Thursday. We'll be back on schedule this week.

Two weeks ago, I looked back at some of my earlier posts on the Rules of Engagement. One post described techniques US Soldiers use(d) to skirt the RoE in Iraq. Today I describe a technique used in Afghanistan.)

In Afghanistan, the Rules of Engagement are simple: soldiers can only shoot at targets they can see, targets that are directly threatening their lives. Putting it simply, this sucks. Ask any Afghan combat veteran. In that rugged countryside determining the exact location of the enemy, or even seeing him, verges on impossible.

Soldiers presented with tough ROE, and tough fighting conditions, often find work-arounds. In Afghanistan, they developed “observer training.”

“Observer training” means someone--the Forward Observer, the Platoon Leader or even just Soldiers--calls a fire mission, then the artillery or mortars fire that mission. If you are off target, you correct until the rounds go right where you need them to go. It is a vital skill for Soldiers, and has been since World War I.

In Afghanistan, many units realized if they called up a mission as “observer training” they could fire at suspected enemy locations. Now, these areas had to be empty of civilians, or at least not populated areas, but they could have rounds fired into them.
Here’s an example of abusing “observer training.” Armies have been intercepting radio signals since World War I. And shortly after they started intercepting them, they learned to find the direction they were broadcast from. The US Army can figure out the location of insurgent radios; many times, we can come close to pinpointing the locations of insurgent command and control (C2) cells.

Yet, that isn’t, in most cases, positive identification. Especially, if they are far out of range from the actual battle, all we know is a location is broadcasting. If a battle is going, and the right code words are being used, then we are close to a positive identification. Unfortunately, we still aren’t there, and that is why units conduct “observer training.” Using hunches and suspicions, and labeling their actions “observer training,” units can get away with firing at the enemy (or what they suspect is the enemy).

But all of this misses the most important point about using "observer training" to fire on suspected enemy positions: it does not work. Firing at unknown locations in the hopes of killing enemy based on scant intelligence does not work. In Afghanistan, our Army frequently protects itself with firepower, even though this makes us weak in the long run.

three comments

I don’t think a lot of people in the military understand the absolutely devastating effect of all this weaponry. Some weapons, bombs, missiles, guns are lethal beyond description.

That description extends to the grief and anger that the death of a loved one creates. If you guide an artillary shell, and it kills someone’s son, brother or father, they will never support us. And a Soldier will probably get killed.

Ok, so this has been one of my more favored blogs as of late, but this post doesn’t make any sense to me. At first you say that observer training is a vital skill to have and has been since World War One. Then, at the end, you say that observer training doesn’t work. Not to mention that the last paragraph seems to come out of no where and is supported with no evidence. I don’t even know why it’s there. Unless you meant observer training as a way around the RoE? I’m not trolling, I’m just not sure if I understand your point. It feels disjointed.

@Walrus- OK I think I just didn’t do a good job explaining my argument, and I appreciate the feedback. I am also going to rewrite the last paragraph to reflect the changes.

To be clear, I am addressing to things: the first is Observer Training—which is training Soldiers to call for fire. In other words, coordinating with artillery and mortars to bring their firepower to the battle. This is a necessary and vital skill for Soldiers, especially in Afghanistan.

The second thing is when units say they are conducting Observer Training as a way to skirt ROE issues. In this case, units fire rounds on suspected enemy locations, but call them up as observer training missions. A subset of this is when units fire on suspected positions believing they are egress routes or OPs, but have no intelligence to back this up.

We appreciate the feedback though and like it when our readers keep us honest.