Wednesday, August 31, 2011


fungible: adj; being of such a nature that one part or quantity may be replaced by another equal part or quantity in the satisfaction of an obligation.

That's how Adm McRaven describes special operations forces and more importantly, the decision to use the counter-terrorism SEAL Team Six to back up the Rangers last month. The result was the deaths of 17 members of the elite Navy Seals, 5 members of a Naval Special Warfare unit that supports the Seals team, 3 members of an Air Force Special Operations unit, 5 members of an Army helicopter crew, 7 Afghan commandos and a civilian Afghan interpreter.

The new commander of Special Operations Command is facing criticisms from both special operators and military strategists about last months raid. Admiral McRaven is holding to "fungible" as justification for putting an elite team as back-up. Yes, the SEALs can do this but is this the best use of their skills? The questions McRaven is dodging is when the mission was being planned, why did the planners go with an elite team to back-up the Rangers? There are many other units (with more firepower), as well as artillery units, that should have been in the planning process. Perhaps a limiting factor was no other units were available to back-up the Rangers. If so, why send them in to what appears more and more to have been an ambush.

In addition to the 38 lives that were lost, the US Special Forces community lost many seasoned operators. You can't just run out and replace that kind of skill set.

I also wonder if the planners did not get snookered into thinking the Rangers would be meeting a much less lethal force. Gen Custer is remembered for the Battle of Little Bighorn. Most high school students, if they study the battle at all, will simply say Custer and his forces were annihilated. What they don't realize is that Custer was a veteran of the Civil War and Indian Wars. He was a West Point graduate, a good strategist and field officer. There were numerous errors but it came down to under-estimating the threat. Custer split his forces up and failed to consider the superior numbers and firepower of his enemy (the Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux had Henry repeating rifles. The soldiers had single shot carbines).

President Carter learned the risks associated with using helicopters to attempt an infiltration of special operators to rescue the American hostages in Tehran. Eight helicopters came in from the USS Nimitz. The fine sand caused one to crash and another to turn back. Six helicopters reached therendezvous point. The decision was made to abort the mission. A hot refueling (engines running) on the ground (very dangerous!) was attempted between the C-130 refueler and one of the helicopters. A combination of wind and sand caused the helicopter to crash into the C-130. Both aircraft were lost and 8 Americans were killed. The remaining helicopters were now stranded without fuel.

Military officers and senior NCOs study these events and yet we continue to repeat the same mistakes. Inserting or extracting troops with helicopters is always risky. Helicopters transition from "aircraft" to "ground target" quickly. It is at those times the mission is at greatest risk to mortar or artillery fire. Bombard the landing zone with artillery and mortar fire and you may score a hit. The Chinook in this case fell victim to that other weapon, the shoulder launch surface-to-air (SAM) missile. The same tactic that brought down Soviet Mi-24s in the Afghanistan and US Blackhawks in Somalia. It will continue to be an effective tactic for the foreseeable future.

Admiral Defends Use of Navy Seals Unit in Fatal Raid -

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