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Arcs of Fire

During my training to become an Infantry Officer, my instructors taught me the doctrine of overwhelming firepower; Under the shield of fire, we would maneuver around and assault through the enemy. Our firepower at hand included heavy artillery, mortars and the M240B machine gun. These weapons rule the battlefield in high-intensity, conventional warfare. But in counter-insurgency, instead of overwhelming the insurgents we overwhelm the population.

The weapons of the military are area weapons with large kill zones. Even the machine gun is an area weapon capable of spraying huge areas with lead. To prevent casualties during training, we may not fire the M240B machine gun within a forty-degree angle of fellow soldiers. The distance between field artillery practice and actual soldiers is so large it’s measured in kilometers not meters.

Where does this leave us? Assume a soldier in Iraq receives fire from a building. His squad will return fire in the general direction of the enemy. The platoon moves into a line next to the squad and provides further combat power with the M240B machine gun I mentioned earlier. A M240B has the minimum of a 30-degree cone of fire. This means that a single insurgent, armed with only an assault rifle, occupying one room in one building can bring return fire on the entire building he occupies. Every round can wound, maim or kill any other occupants in that building.

It is easy to see how innocent civilians die in extended fire fights. Before the surge, and its consequent change in strategy, hundreds died every month in Iraq, The numbers are hard to determine. (Online sources ranging from around nearly 100,000 Iraqis dead to over a million.) Just how many are the direct result of US soldiers protecting themselves from insurgents, we will never know.

Technology will never solve every problem confronting the U.S. Army. In this case, though, continually stressing the use of accurate targeting is a key to winning counter-insurgency warfare. Our Army has changed, let’s hope it continues to learn the lessons of warfare.

One comment

While the surge was a huge factor in reducing civilian casualties in Iraq in 2007, it mainly reduced those perpetrated by Iraqis against Iraqis. The number of civilians killed by U.S. ground troops, particularly in EOFs but also in firefights, fell drastically in early 2006 as a result of new MNC-I orders promulgated by GEN Chiarelli. (Not that that helped us much in 2006.)