By lex, on August 8th, 2011
Special Operators, like the 22 Navy SEALs who died Saturday in the pre-dawn raid on Tangi Valley in Afghanistan, typically do not rely on overwhelming firepower to achieve their objectives. Instead, they rely on the six precepts Admiral Bill McRaven outlined in his excellent book “Special Operations“: Simplicity, security, repetition, surprise, speed and purpose.
The combination of these attributes offer SOF what McRaven calls, “relative superiority”: Highly motivated, lightly armed forces moving with a combination of speed and stealth can catch a more heavily armed force psychologically unprepared for combat, inflicting damage disproportionate to their numbers.
In many, if not most, bug-hunts in the Afghan wilds, high value targets are snatched without even a shot being fired.
But sometimes things go sideways, and you send in the Quick Reaction Force (full link behind WSJ subscription wall):
This time, said a local villager and Afghan officials, the operation quickly ran into trouble as a Special Operations strike team tried to sneak up on the Taliban gathering thought to include a high-value target.
One local resident said Taliban fighters in groups of five to 10 fighters have been routinely patrolling every village in the area since the conventional U.S. forces pulled out. Saturday’s meeting, he said, included two midlevel Taliban commanders: Habib Rehman and Saif ur Rehman, both of whom had recently returned from Quetta, Pakistan, home of the Taliban leadership.
The Taliban patrol spotted the U.S. troops and identified them as Americans as the forces crossed a river near a cluster of three villages in the valley. Taliban fire kept the Americans pinned down and exposed, said an Afghan official briefed on the incident.
As the operation unraveled, the U.S. team called for help.In response, the U.S. command scrambled the Navy SEALs, backed up by Air Force tactical controllers and Afghan commandos as a quick reaction force. They rushed onto the Chinook and flew into the firefight, said a U.S. official, who added that the Chinook was approaching the landing zone when it was hit. Afghan officials said a Taliban insurgent who was hiding in the area fired the RPG that brought down the chopper.
Relative superiority diminishes rapidly with time, since the longer the strike force is pinned down, the more time for enemy forces to become alerted and oriented to the fight. The initial team could hope and plan for surprise, but would not count on it. Their QRF would know that they were coming into a hot landing zone, with no real hope of surprise.
And yet they went anyway, to our tragic loss.
Up until Saturday’s, the greatest single blow suffered by the SEALs was inflicted in Operation Red Wing, when eight operators were killed alongside eight Army Nightstalkers attempting a QRF rescue of LT Michael Murphy’s four-man team in Operation Red Wing.
I freely acknowledge that I’m well out of my swim lane here, but I question the wisdom, if not the bravery, of putting lightly armed QRF SOF into hot contact, while understanding that there is no one the members of DevGru trust more than their own teammates. If it wouldn’t make sense to plan a mission like this against an alerted target, why would it make sense to do so as a branch plan when things head south?
Which in turn raises a question: Where was their air? Attack helicopters, UAVs and strike aircraft ought to have been hammering every building, culvert or scrub brush that was a source of fire and which was not friendly. The pinned down team should have been surrounded by an outwardly growing ring of airborne fire.
Perhaps there were too few air assets available in theater to support the mission, what with all the other operations going on. Perhaps.
But the QRF who went in were too few to fight, and far too many to lose.