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Big Operations versus Regular Patrols

I read a online exchange recently between Abu Muqawama and Colonel Gian Gentile that typifies the ongoing debate over the future of warfare. What I find amusing, though, is the accusation some make that the Army is "obsessed" with counterinsurgency. From my point of view, our doctrine has changed but our mindset has not, especially the mindset of Generals and Colonels raised on war with the Soviets.

The proof is in the pudding. In my experience, when units get downrange, they attempt to conduct large scale battalion-sized operations. While the doctrine is clear, hold and build, maneuver commanders never get to the hold or build parts. They continually run “clearing” operations because they are the most similar to high-intensity warfare.

During my deployment, my battalion conducted a monthly Company or Battalion-sized operation called a CONOP, sometimes referred to as a named operation. Our CONOPs boiled down to a series of company-sized air assaults to cordon and search a village. These looked very good on paper, but what did they achieve?

Ostensibly, the purpose of these missions was counter-force--trying to find the enemy and destroy him. We used helicopters to access regions we could not on daily patrols. By reaching out to these areas, where insurgents didn’t think we would go, we could theoretically surprise them.

Keeping in mind I was a PL at the time, I cannot speak to the strategic success of our CONOPs, I can only speak to how they effected my daily patrols. The air assault to and from the objective usually took about 24 to 48 hours. The preparation took 24 hours. Recovery, another 24 hours. In addition, if we were tasked with the quick reaction force mission, we could not leave our base for another 24 to 48 hours. All told, a CONOP could eat up anywhere from five to nine days; up to nine days I could not patrol my assigned area of operations.

In that time, we left the civilian populace open to insurgent information operations, intelligence collection and general influence, all so that we could fly to remote mountain tops. Whenever we resumed patrolling, the locals and police would always ask, "Where have you been?"

The CONOP does have its place when moving into previously violent areas for the first time. This happened several times in Fallujah, Ramadi and Baghdad proper. But when conducted at the expense of daily security patrols, it compromises the mission. Even in the Iraq examples of Fallujah and Ramadi, we proved repeatedly we can clear objectives, then repeatedly proved we cannot hold or build in those areas of operations. Short term successes, but long term failures.

My daily patrols influenced every aspect of the overall mission: developing the government, collecting intelligence, supporting the local population, providing security and more. Simple daily patrols won’t garner awards, win headlines, or make sexy evaluation bullets yet they beat counterinsurgencies in the long run. Battalion and Brigade Commanders still don't understand this core tenet of counter-insurgency, and the proof is the type of operations they conduct downrange.

(After writing on this topic, Tom Ricks caught this excellent snippet that agrees with my argument.)

six comments

I am right there with you Micheal.

What is the rationalization for the 24-48 hour base restriction?

Matt, the deal is that when you are a quick reaction force, you are the back up. Basically, if anything goes down, you have to be able to move instantaneously, or near that, by vehicle or helicopter to provide additional forces. Normally, it is run by a Company internal plan, during large operations platoons get tasked with it.

Honestly what you just described here is being stretched to thin. You shouldn´t have to sacrafice one mission to carry out another, and that is part of the argument for more troops in Afghanistan. Currently counterinsurgenies classic 10:1 population to soldier ratio is currently unreachable for the US military, and even a 50:1 ration would require 650,000 soldiers. To ever have any chance of reaching anything like these ratios the answer isn´t to send more troops but to make use of the force multiplying capabilities of the Afghan Army and Police count. An effective and professional company that knows the culture and the language doing patrols and dealing with the population can have a broader impact then a whole entire battallion of US soldiers, and would free up US forces for the more conventional operations that make officers feel good about themselves.

Honestly my whole entire brigade was sent down to Iraq when MNC-I required only one or two missions which required a company apiece. It was widely rumored inside our brigade that the unit had deployed simply so that the Colonel in charge could get his star. Whole entire companies of soldiers sat on the FOB and did nothing except garrison BS while only a few of us in a couple of companies did anything remotely resembling constructive, or got attached to other units in other AO´s in Iraq. Most of our trucks with shelters on them (shipped by train and sea from Germany which ins´t cheap) sat in the motorpool for a whole year never getting uparmored or painted tan, basically doing nothing except getting a PMCS every Saturday morning. As a combat support unit we weren´t stretched thin at all, it was complete excess and waste (which I guess is one reason why combat support jobs are becoming more integrated into brigade combat teams and why several large independent combat support units like a Signal Brigade are being closed).

I just read a memoir about a soldier whose platoon had 600 soldiers for 600 square miles, near the border of Iraq. It just amkes you wonder how this war could be so mis-managed.

Eric, I don’t understand how a platoon would have 600 soldiers, I think you must have meant 60. But, yeah a platoon for 600 miles is ridiculous.

As to Chris’s point, its a shame that troops are mismanaged the way they are. Unfortunately, even if the US had plenty more troops to hold ground, they would still waste a bunch of them on meaningless CONOPs.