2005 Afghanistan Op where SEAL RT was destroyed-MCGazette


running up that hill
Jan 3, 2007
in Wonderland, with my Alice
Operation RED WINGS
A joint failure in unity of command

by Col Andrew R. MacMannis & LtCol Robert B. Scott

In March 2002, Operation ANACONDA was conducted in southeastern Afghanistan. It was joint combined, and involved both special and conventional forces. It was a primary discussion topic for U.S. Army and U.S. ir Force leaders immediately after and was a topic at the annual Army/Air Force warfighter talks.1 Of primary concern were command and control (C2) and unity of command used during ANACONDA. Less than 3 years later, 2d Battalion, 3d Marines (2/3) participated in a smaller operation in eastern Afghanistan that included the same types of forces and encountered the same problems. Although operating in a joint environment is now the norm, Operation RED WINGS shows that we continue to have much to learn.


In the early and mid-1980s the failed Iranian hostage rescue attempt and Operation URGENT FURY in Grenada illuminated weaknesses in multi-Service operations. In response, the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 was signed into legislation forcing the Services to “enhance the effectiveness of military operations.”2 Since then the joint world has slowly embraced the obligation and moved forward. Joint publications dictating joint doctrine were initiated in the 1990s. Today hundreds of publications have been approved with many more in the works.

Planning for Operation RED WINGS began in early June 2005. The intent was to demonstrate an ongoing, aggressive mindset to local Afghani forces and the anticoalition militants (ACM) while seeking to destroy ACM elements in the Korengal and Matin Valleys. Connected by a common ridgeline, the valleys were chosen because of their history as a safe haven, and recent intelligence indicated a buildup of ACM. Additionally, a key leader of the ACM, considered a high-payoff target (HPT), was operating in the area. The estimated number of ACM would require ground forces to sweep both valleys and the ridgeline.

Command Relationships

Keys to success would be killing or capturing the HPT and clearing the ACM from the area. Battalion operations leading up to this were designed to generate intelligence on the HPT in order to determine his location before executing a surgical strike. He was known to randomly sleep in different villages and different houses. It would be necessary to force his movements, narrow down his location through intelligence, and strike before he moved again. Following the strike, the battalion would engage in kinetic and nonkinetic operations in order to demonstrate to the population that the Afghan National Government, in concert with coalition forces, could and would project its power.

Although 2/3 had an organic capability to accomplish these tasks, the use of U.S. special forces operating in Afghanistan would enhance capability and the chance for success. Using coalition partners from the Afghan National Army (ANA) also improved overall capability as they assimilate and operate in villages with an increased chance of gaining useful information. To these aims, the planners began to gather the forces desired. Augmentation of intelligence and the ANA proved easy as both were already under the battalion’s operational control or the control of the battalion’s higher headquarters. The request for a more proficient strike capability proved more difficult. The only unit interested was Navy special operations forces (NavSOF) unit, but its participation depended on C2 relationships and approval from the Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF) in Bagram.

Initially Marine, ANA, and NavSOF planners agreed to allow the battalion to control all participating units. When these plans went to higher headquarters for approval, the JSOTF would not approve a conventional force in command of any special operations unit. Although the concept was tactically sound, based on joint doctrine, and desired by the units executing the mission, the JSOTF was adamant that no special operations units would be allowed to be under the control of any conventional force. This unofficial policy eventually led to problems that would be compounded.3

The command relationship that was agreed to and approved allowed NavSOF to conduct independent operations separated by space from all other units in the area until they completed their part in the operation. Marines in their area would come under NavSOF control temporarily while conducting a relief in place. The plan was approved but did not adhere to the principle of unity of command. “Unity of Command means that all forces operate under a single commander [with] the requisite authority to direct all forces employed in the pursuit of a common purpose.” 4 Recognizing that this relationship was not optimal and could lead to problems, a JSOTF liaison team was collocated in the battalion command post in Jalal Abad. Employment of this liaison team attempted to justify and work around the failure to adhere to unity of command. Additionally, the authority and responsibilities of this liaison team were never identified to them or us.

Operation RED WINGS began on or about 27 June 2005 and was a combined forces operation. Operation RED WINGS lasted 1 week and ended in the compromise of the NavSOF team and the eventual downing by rocket propelled grenade fire of an MH–47 with 16 personnel aboard. This crash immediately caused the staff to conduct rapid staff planning and develop Operation RED WINGS II as a sequel. Operation RED WINGS II lasted approximately 2 weeks and was successful in disrupting the ACM’s ability to operate freely within the province while simultaneously supporting the efforts to conduct the recovery of the remains of the personnel.

REDWINGS II Operations

Within hours of being inserted and during daylight hours, the reconnaissance element reported contact with a request for help. No location or specifics were given before the transmission stopped. Immediately the SOF liaison cell convened crisis action planning with NavSOF, Marine, and conventional aviation representatives present. The recommended solution requested JSOTF aviation to take additional NavSOF into the immediate vicinity of the suspected location while Marines, with conventional aviation, concentrated efforts to the south. Apache support would be provided for both recovery forces. C2 would be executed from the Marine combat operations center (COC) with the liaison element controlling the NavSOF efforts and the Marines controlling the Marine effort. The rules for engagement and criteria for landing were agreed to. The JSOTF approved of this plan, but this concept again failed to follow joint doctrine. The composition of forces was designed for the best chance of success, but the C2 was not. The plan called for two separate forces, flying on aircraft from two separate units and geographical locations, supported by Apache helicopters from another unit with no relationship between forces and no one commander with authority over all forces. The JSOTF would not place forces under Marine C2, and they did not have the capability to execute effective C2 over forces larger than their own.

As the NavSOF recovery element arrived in the vicinity of the reconnaissance team, one of the recovery force aircraft was shot down. Complete knowledge of events and decisions that led to the catastrophe will never be known. What is known is that the reinforcing NavSOF element did not wait for Apache escort and made a decision to attempt an insertion in what must have been perceived as an urgent requirement for support by the reconnaissance element in contact with enemy forces. Because the weapon used to shoot the helicopter was unknown, all aircraft and airborne units returned to their respective bases until another recovery plan was prepared. C2 cannot be directly blamed for this catastrophe, but it did compound the situation. The force that was shot down was directed, in planning, not to land unless the lives of the reconnaissance force necessitated immediate support. It can only be surmised that the need to land was evident. The NavSOF recovery element was not talking directly to the JSOTF liaison cell and neither was the aircraft. Therefore, the intent of the action was not passed to one commander who may have had a better situational awareness of all forces and support available to assist in the action. It was apparent after this catastrophe that the liaison cell was not seen by the recovery force as the authority to command this response force. The problems encountered by the C2 relationship were recognized in the Jalal Abad COC by all forces involved, but instead of correcting the C2, JSOTF elements continued to operate under separate command guidance.

Concurrent to the planning and execution of this response force, additional organizations were invited to monitor and provide assistance should it be needed. These organizations included other government agencies, other coalition forces (OCF), and additional SOF collocated in Jalal Abad. After the first recovery force was shot down, and without situational awareness of the condition of the force (alive or dead), additional crisis planning was renewed. Critical to our planning was the inability of conventional air attached to Operation RED WINGS to conduct night flying.

Within hours of renewed planning, OCF planners took the maps and organizational planners they wanted, moved to their own planning tents, and began planning without an invitation to the conventional forces already providing forces and C2. A U.S. Central Command (CentCom) joint special operations area (JSOA) was drawn on their maps, and the OCF took control of all events within the JSOA. Although the conventional forces, and even the OCF planners, were not able to confirm approval of this change of command structure for many hours, the OCF planners were directed by their higher headquarters to continue planning. Finally, unity of command was designated within this JSOA. CentCom had authority over the JSOA, but CentCom did not delegate C2 to any one unit involved or exercise C2 during the remainder of the operation. As stated in Joint Publication 0–1 (JP 0–1), Joint Warfare of the Armed Services of the United States:

Unified action begins with unified direction. This is normally accomplished by assigning a mission or objective to a single commander, and providing that commander sufficient force, other resources, and authority to accomplish the mission or objective. The relationships between and among force elements follow a set of principles to establish a chain of command, facilitate the best possible utilization of all available capabilities, and ensure unified action in mission accomplishment.5

This failure to delegate or exercise C2 led to many more difficulties in the recovery of forces and completion of operational objectives.

RED WINGS lasted 31/2 weeks. Execution of objectives was accomplished through mutual agreement and coordination of individual units in the JSOA. U.S. conventional and ANA forces moved down both valleys sweeping north to south to relieve pressure for OCF and JSOTF to conduct search and rescue efforts around the crash site. Conventional forces eventually linked up with OCF and SOF, conducting several reliefs in place, supplying each other, and providing collocated mutual security. One week into this operation there were four different units collocated at the crash site. Three of the units were accountable to and reported to a different higher headquarters. The defense of this site was jointly cooperative with no common commander in country. This arrangement appeared successful since there were no more casualties; all of the bodies were recovered along with one live member of the NavSOF reconnaissance element. But there were seams in the organization that the enemy could have easily capitalized on.

The Aftermath

Two seams that were evident to the forces on the ground were the C2 of indirect fires and deconfliction of moving forces within the JSOA. Over the remainder of the operation, conventional forces brought an indirect fire capability that ranged support for all forces in the JSOA.

Deconfliction of fires with aircraft and forces on the ground was not accomplished in any one C2 center. The first call for fire while in contact took over 1 hour for approval. The process never improved over the duration of the operation. This important function was accomplished through individual leaders and controllers. Responsibility for deconfliction of indirect fires was assigned to one OCF individual with one radio who had to ask collocated individual unit leaders for force dispositions. This one individual had neither training nor experience in deconfliction of indirect fires. The OCF refused to use the conventional forces fire coordination center, a combat experienced organization trained for this purpose. Recognizing possible issues with approval of timely fires, conventional forces conducted multiple daily calls for fire to ensure the deconfliction process was practiced for a goal of timely fire support. Only once was fires approved and executed in under 1 hour.

Over the operation’s remaining week, deconfliction of forces was conducted informally. Conventional forces visited every village in the JSOA without any formal control measures from the JSOA controlling organization, and no forces were ever placed under the command of the JSOA controlling organization. There were attempts by conventional forces to adjust the dimensions of the JSOA to formally control movements of forces. No planner in Jalal Abad ever understood the rationale behind the dimensions of the JSOA, which led to confusion throughout the operation, but all requests for modification were denied with no explanation. Conventional forces swept both valleys and the ridgeline as planned and requested by OCF but without any formal approval by doctrinal C2 methods. Failure in the timely deconfliction of fires and formal control of forces highlights the command’s inability to use force capabilities in a complementary fashion in this joint operation.

This group effort violated the unity of command principle. The common commander of forces was located in Tampa, FL. Not even the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan had authority over all forces involved. Although cooperation and a unity of effort were used, this was not optimum. The arrangement did not provide the best utilization of forces or the coordination necessary to control those efforts. The argument that unity of effort was an acceptable principle used as a replacement to unity of command rings hollow as “that effort does not replace a team effort under one commander.”6 Operation RED WINGS was never controlled by one organization. Deconfliction of fires and forces was ad hoc at best, and any success can be attributed to unit cooperation and not to the command structure. In this joint/combined environment, doctrine and principles were ignored. Amazingly Operation ANACONDA
3 years earlier had many of the same issues.

After ANACONDA there were articles, discussion seminars, and general officer meetings to discuss failures, and yet we seem to have ignored lessons learned. Operation REDWINGS’ effectiveness as a joint operation was limited primarily because the principle of unity of command was ignored. In the future the unit that can best execute C2 of the operation must be given that responsibility irrespective of Service cultures or a unit’s qualifications. Clearly, we have a long way to go for that to happen.

1. Jumper, Gen John P., USAF, Chief of Staff, Operation
Anaconda: An Air Power Perspective, Headquarters,
United States Air Force, Washington, DC, 7 February
2005, p. 120.
2. Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization
Act of 1986, Washington, DC, p. 2.
3. This policy first became known in March 2005 by
BG James Champion, USA, Deputy Commanding
General, Combined Joint Task Force 76, Afghanistan,
at a briefing by 3/3 and was again reinforced through
the senior NavSOF planner from his higher headquarters.
4. JP 0–1, Joint Warfare of the Armed Services of the United
States, Washington, DC, 14 November 2000, p. B–2.
5. Ibid., p. V–8.
6. Field Manual 100–5, Operations, Department of the
Army, Washington, DC, June 1993.

Col MacMannis was the CO, 2/3. He is currently
assigned to the Joint Staff J–5 (Plans).
LtCol Scott was the battalion XO, 2/3. He is
currently the CO, 2d Battalion, Recruit Training
Regiment, Marine Corps Recruit Depot San