Man at His Best

The US Army Is Putting More—Not Fewer—Troops In The Line of Fire In Iraq

But this might not be a bad military strategy.

BY ROBERT BATEMAN | Apr 24, 2016 | Culture


Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter popped into Baghdad on Monday with a surprise: a commitment to send a "small number" of additional troops to support Iraqi forces in the fight against ISIS and related forces.

The actual number—more than 200—is not all that significant. What is significant is the equipment they will be bringing with them and the new instructions for American troops in Iraq.

Eight AH-64 "Apache" helicopters represent a remarkable improvement in firepower, as do the limited number of HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System). Perhaps more importantly, American advisors will be working with the Iraqis below the Division level for the first time in years. We would not commit U.S. troops to potential ground combat without sufficient firepower—the Apaches and HIMARS—to get them out of trouble if things go all pear-shaped.

At the Division level, it is almost impossible that advisors would see any direct combat themselves. Unsurprisingly, this reduces US casualties to nearly zero (not counting accidents and mishaps). But it also makes it more difficult for experts in Special Forces teams teaching combat skills to capitalise on their expertise at the lowest level. 

Which leads us to the corollary observation: with some reliability, we can begin to expect casualties to rise among American forces.

The arrival of an additional 217 men and women—aviation-maintenance troops, a few pilots, some artillerymen, and an unspecified number of Special Operations forces—will bump the number of those officially assigned to Iraq to just over 4,000. It's a relatively small increase, but one that will likely bring them into direct fire fight. Serving at the Battalion (roughly 400 to 800 men and women) and Regiment (two to four battalions) levels will mean combat—no way around that.

(Remember, the U.S. Marine killed a few months ago in Iraq was not killed by direct fire, but by mortar fire lobbed into his base.)

The Iraqi Army's problems of late have not been related to planning or logistics, like one wrestles with at the Divisional echelon (a Division is generally between 10,000 and 20,000 men, depending on the army and the era). Its problem is closer to the cutting edge: Front-line troops (and their leaders) have not been up to snuff.

This, of course, has been massively frustrating for the American advisors.

For starters, US Special Forces—the Green Berets—excel at training at the very lowest levels, building up individual and small-unit fighting skills. But to keep Americans out of direct-fire danger, they are limited to training bases or dealing with the majors, colonels, and generals at Division (or higher) levels. To really help the fighters at the sharp end of the stick, you need to train them at a basic level and work with them in the field. That cannot be done from the rear.

And even if the Iraqis needed trained staff officers at the higher levels, Special Forces are not organised or equipped to train them. Each SF team is made up almost exclusively of non-commissioned sergeants and only one, relatively junior officer. Indeed, it's possible he or she never worked in an American division. Tough to teach others what you have not been taught in your own army, let alone seen. 

This decision to allow American trainers to operate at lower levels may well put more Americans in more danger, but at the same time, it also capitalises on the forces' real strengths and directly helps the Iraqis succeed on the ground. The political wisdom of this decision is another thing entirely.

From: Esquire US.