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My (Unoriginal) Solution to Kill More Bad Guys

Last Wednesday, I said I would provide a solution to the “killing more bad guys” problem, and I explained the difference between security operations and counter-force operations. On Monday, I explained why the U.S. military fails at offensive operations. Today, I provide the solution.

What is that solution? In three short words: tiny unit patrolling. Or as it used to be called, long range surveillance (in the world of military theory, you have to coin new words to stay relevant). In the special operations world, this is called special reconnaissance. Whatever the terminology--in addition to conducting local security patrols, training the Afghan security forces and developing economic capacity--America needs to send out very small teams of skilled, light infantrymen to recon enemy positions, and kill insurgents using air and fire support.

What’s keeping us from doing this right now? Force protection, maybe the biggest buzz word developed during the war on terror. In terms of patrolling, this usually means mandating that all patrols have a minimum number of people, vehicles or specific weapon systems, as I mentioned on Monday.

Most force protection requirements ruin or eliminate the element of surprise. I can’t get into specific numbers. Just know that mandating a specific (usually large) size, precludes effective offensive operations. Size does not equal surprise.

Thus, the most effective form of offensive operations Afghanistan is lost. When we sat at the KOP wargaming the war in Konar province, we always came back wishing we could use tiny unit patrolling. In my conception (and I made up the word to describe a technique we wished we could use), four to six man teams, without body armor or helmets, in full ghillie suits and camouflage only armed with M4s would move out deep into enemy held countryside.

These units would ambush the Taliban insurgents that have freedom of movement around our US COPs and FOBs. For me, this is the untold story of Afghanistan. Right outside U.S. COPs and FOBs the enemy can maneuver as much as he wants. In Konar province, abutting Pakistan, the enemy moves between sanctuary and the battlefield with regularity, and we don’t have an effective method to stop him.

These teams would avoid ambushing units themselves--they would call in field artillery and air support--and would use concealment for force protection. These missions would be more dangerous than twenty man patrols in the short term, but would save lives in the long term.

Of course, a four-man patrol would have to have other ways to protect itself. A quick reaction force would be on standby. Ideally these patrols would have close air support, field artillery, and maybe even AC-130 on standby. (Yes, this means that the regular/conventional Army needs more AC-130s.)

Two possible counters. First, didn’t tiny unit patrolling cause the disaster of Lone Survivor nee Operation Red Wings? It did, and that is probably part of the reason why minimum patrol sizes started. And that will happen long range surveillance missions. However, the SEAL Team probably should have inserted by foot as opposed to helicopter, and they needed working radios. Second, don’t Special Operations guys do this anyways? Yes and no. What I really want to see is regular, conventional units return to this method of offensive operations. With Ranger School, Recon Surveillance Leaders Course and Snipe School, our regular infantrymen (especially scout platoons) are more than capable.

With tiny unit patrols nee long range surveillance patrols, we could finally start ambushing Taliban logistics elements moving from Pakistan into Afghanistan. We could, with limited manpower, start killing the enemy the way Bing West and “war-is-war”iors want, without risking the local population or eliminating Rules of Engagement. It’s a win-win.

Except for the Taliban, they would lose.

fifteen comments

I like the emphasis in this post that this strategy should be used in addition to COIN strategies.

Love this post. Now, we’re starting to talk the same language.

Except, I would suggest that you read Bing West’s “The Village.” You might reconsider your thoughts.

For further insights on recon and small unit patrolling see also,

Bob Andrews “The Village War: Vietnamese Communist Revolutionary Activities in Dinh Tuong Province, 1960-1964.”

David Donavan “Once a Warrior King: Memories of an Officer in Vietnam”

The Village by Bing West does a pretty good job of highlighting how this can be done effectively, albeit in the context of Vietnam where the issue of force protection was different.

I agree with the Operation Red Wings assessment. Great point. Dropping in a small force by helicopter is like dropping flyers that US soldiers are in the area. What about a night-time jump insertions? Rangers, SEALs, and SOG are jump certified, right?

Another reason the tiny unit patrols may not occur is because of PR. Losing an entire team of four to ambush for some reason sounds worse than losing an entire humvee to an IED. The resulting line on page twenty of the local newspaper is catastrophic mission failure vs tragedy.

FYI…Here’s an expanded playbook for the current discussion. It’s the outline of how my unit conducted COIN in my village that I’m eventually going to finish and publish.

Phase One: Fighting For Intelligence to Overcome the Information Gap
1A. Reconnaissance Guidance
1B. Reconnaissance Pull- A Process of Discovery
1.B.1 Map Reconnaissance
1.B.2 Aerial Reconnaissance
1.B.3 Ground Reconnaissance
1.B.4 Route Reconnaissance
1.C. Defining the Environment
1.D. Course of Action Development

Phase Two: Forced Initial Entry to Establish a Foothold
2.A. Shaping Operations
2.B. Psychological and Deception Operations
2.C. Clearing Operations
2.D. Establishing a Patrol Base in Zaganiyah

Phase Three: Destroying the Enemy Infrastructure and Support Networks
3.A. Population Control Methods
3.A.1 Restricted Motor and Foot Traffic
3.A.2 Curfews
3.B. Enemy Counter-Attack
3.B.1 Deep Buried IEDs
3.B.2 Ambushes
3.B.3 Complex Attacks on Patrol Bases
3.B.4 Acts of Intimidation on the Populace
3.B.5 Kiowa Down
3.C. Dismantling the Shadow Government
3.C.1 Counter-IED
3.C.2 Beheadings
3.C.3 Strategic Negotiations
3.C.4 Land Reform
3.C.5 Al Qaeda Walmart
3.C.6 Coercive Civil Affairs
3.D Tipping Point
3.D.1 Killing the Bombmaker
3.D.2 Exploiting Counter-Intelligence Networks
3.D.3 Proper Detainment and Interrogation Techniques
3.E. Insurgent Break Point
3.E.1 Reduction in Violence
3.E.2 Killing and Capturing the Enemy
3.E.3 Displacement of Enemy Leadership

@ Mike F – yeah, the three previous posts built up to this post. I thought you’d lie where we were going with it.

I’m going to put “the village” on my reading list.


You were spot on. Also, I’m not sure if I told y’all this or not, but Donovan’s book is his story of recon in a patrol base except he wrote it as historical fiction not a memoir. It’s probably my favorite book from the Vietnam War.

I used Andrew’s book for my essay, The Break Point.

Good books all around. Keep blogging, and I’ll keep reading!!!

What’s Donovan’s book’s name?

Again, this is one tactic to use amongst many. I think Mike F’s playbook shows that you don’t use just one tactic to win. Its a process, and it is continual and it takes years.

This is just one technique that would pay dividends in Afghanistan, especially the mountainous areas, that I never really saw executed.

David Donavan “Once a Warrior King: Memories of an Officer in Vietnam”

Michael, you may want to hold off on this one a bit. When I first read it, it literally threw me back into my patrol base. It’s that good.

The Vietnam similarities are apt, I will try to get to the book recommendations. Part of this idea came from reading “Steel My Soldier’s Hearts” which talked a lot about doing long range ambushes. (Though virtually none of the other parts you must do in a counter-insurgency.)

And I am really interested to read your playbook/memoir/work MikeF. That seems to me exactly what commanders need to do in COIN: approach the problem with a variety of solutions/TTPs with a mind toward long term solutions. Too often units get stuck doing the same thing, and routines get soldiers killed and don’t help win.

So with that in mind, this post advocates for one technique amongst many. But it is a technique that in the mountainous parts of Afghanistan we definitely aren’t using enough.

I’ll hopefully have it complete this year. Ultimately, it’ll be a chapter in a dissertation. The fighting was the easy part. The more difficult tasks came after the violence ended.

My question then, since we have been talking about Afghanistan, has the violence ended yet? Or has it ended in parts of the country, and do we have the knowledge to prevent future outbreaks of violence?

I change my mind on Afghanistan everyday.

But… but… if we were to conduct tiny unit patrolling, how would we maintain a 3:1 superiority ratio over the enemy?

Very interesting topic – we have come full circle from where we were in Vietnam – I commanded a LRS Detachment in Helmand in 2005 – the problem in Afghainstan is visibility and distance – you cannot “hide and sneak around” with any great success – and once you are discovered you need a large QRF on standby to support the team in contact. I agree that this concept could work – but the support needed is immense – once Red Wings went south in 2005 – this ended all talk of small teams. We went at PLT strength and tried some unique approaches, especially near Sangin, which worked well.