A Rifleman's War

Arrow 4

Civil Affairs
Verified SOF
Oct 13, 2010
Bush Valley
A Rifleman’s War

Jeffrey Wall

I recently returned from leave to discover that the Battle Command Knowledge System (BCKS) had linked to an article about what really happened at the Battle of Wanat in Afghanistan. I read the article with serious focus as things relating to my profession are of interest to me.
Having been around a bit longer than the average guy in the Army, I though some introductory historical perspective might be helpful. One could make comparisons of the fight at Wanat to both the Defense of Rorks Drift 22 – 23 January 1879 in the Transvaal (134 men of primarily the 24th
Regiment of Foot [South Wales Boarders] against the two day, one night multiple human wave assaults by the Zulu Impi [3000 – 4000 men] that had not been engaged at Isandlawana) and/or the Defense of Beechers Island 17 – 19 September 1868 outside of what is now Wray Colorado (Major Forsyth USA and 48 Army Scouts engaged by Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors – whose numbers vary, but no less than 200 Plains Indians, some report as many as 700).
In common with the Battle of Wanat, both of these historical cases saw "western Soldiers" engaged by an outnumbering enemy considered to be less sophisticated and/or well equipped than the soldiers were. In all three instances, the "western soldiers" were victorious – that is they were not overrun but in all three cases it was a very close run thing. A primary distinction however could be said to be the presence of supporting arms at Wanat that were not available at either Rorks Drift or Beechers Island.
While Rorks Drift can be viewed simply as a "Holy Cow, there are a lot of those guys" type of fight in that they had no other option but to fight as hard as they could, Wanat and Beechers Island have as a common theme the Army’s struggle to find a way to fight a counterinsurgency campaign. The struggle against the Plains Indians has the aspect of a settled, agrarian society in conflict against a warlike tribal society - as does the Battle of Wanat, which saw Soldiers of a settled society pitted against a warlike tribal society of Pashtuns. Moreover, Beechers Island resulted from an experiment to see if fighting the Plains Indians "the Plains Indian way" would work for the Army. Essentially this was a "Let’s use a hit and run raid" against the Indian’s methodology.
It didn’t work too well then and obviously something didn’t work well at Wanat. We will explore this writer’s opinions as to what didn’t work well starting now…
What did work well at Beechers Island was the fact that the Army Scouts – chosen men – were all expert riflemen and they used their skills (starting with Major Forsyth’s opening head shot on
an Indian) throughout the fight to successfully standoff multiple assaults by mounted warriors from improvised defensive positions. They didn’t have such a technological advantage that they could fire indiscriminately; they had to aim their rifles. And no supporting arms were available.
So where am I going with this?
Simple. Afghanistan has become a rifleman’s war.
Because we are fighting a counterinsurgency campaign against a tribal warrior society we have and increasingly continued to limit the use of supporting arms. Machineguns are even proscribed in villages and cities for fear of inflicting innocent civilian casualties.
The result is that we must rely more and more on our riflemen to engage and defeat the enemy. We know that 52% of the fights in Afghanistan begin at 500 meters and go out from there.
Recent publications by Dr. Lester Grau (Foreign Military Studies Office) indicate that a majority of the fights in Helmand Province are between 500 and 900 meters.
The problem is that we don’t teach soldiers to engage with their rifles at those ranges any more.
If Major Thomas Ehrhart’s monograph "Increasing Small Arms Lethality in Afghanistan: Taking Back the Infantry Half-Kilometer"1 is correct, the Army gave up teaching marksmanship as a primary Soldier skill in 19582
, then thinking that all future wars would be waged either atomically or by armored forces where infantrymen would mop up, engaging at close range a defeated and demoralized enemy who had been pulverized by supporting arms and armor.
No one anticipated a counterinsurgency campaign against mountain and desert tribesmen in the Hindu Kush Mountains and deserts of Afghanistan.
Vietnam tended to reinforce the misconception of rifle marksmanship being of secondary importance as much of the fighting there was at close range – either because of the thick vegetation and/or because the enemy grabbed us by the belt buckle3
and engaged at such close ranges that we could not bring our supporting arms to bear. By the way, this is essentially what happened at Wanat. The "Anti Coalition Forces" (ACM) came in close with superior numbers to try to deny us the use of supporting arms.
Again, back then no one anticipated a counterinsurgency campaign against mountain and desert tribesmen in the Hindu Kush Mountains and deserts of Afghanistan.
1Increasing Small Arms Lethality in Afghanistan: Taking Back the Infantry Half-Kilometer
, A Monograph By Major Thomas P. Ehrhart United States Army Approved for School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, AY 2009
Ibid., 16
3Steel My Soldiers Hearts, The Hopeless to Hardcore, Transformation of the U.S. Army, 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry Vietnam
, Col David Hackworth and Eilhys Englandm, Rugged Land Inc., 2002
Page 2 of 6 September 9, 2010 smallwarsjournal.com © 2010, Small Wars Foundation

Using 18 rounds or less, attain battlesight zero for a rifle by achieving five out of six rounds in two consecutive shot groups within a 4-centimeter circle.
In either case, near or far, we now must rely on our riflemen to do the work. The trouble is they are not trained for it. Employed as I am at the California Pre-mobilization Training Assistance Element on what is known as Team Rifle, I am one in a squad sized unit tasked with training California Guardsmen (and those of other States who come through here) in rifle marksmanship as well as the M9 pistol and the machineguns M2, M240B, M249 and Mk19. We are most frequently given one day to present Preliminary Marksmanship Instruction (PMI) and 4 or 5 days on the ranges for all of these weapons – with1 day on the rifle range. According to 1st Army standards we are to – ideally - train a rifleman going to war with 58 rounds of ammunition – 18 to zero4
and 40 to qualify on the "Pop up Target Range".
Let me say that again – 58 rounds.
What is not trained when Soldiers are sent to war after having fired only 58 rounds? Well let’s see – long range marksmanship, range estimation, the effects of wind and gravity on trajectory, short range marksmanship, gun handling skills such as rapid magazine changes and enough practice to cement these skills - all things that might help in Afghanistan.
In the civilian world one might call this "criminally negligent".
In his seminal workA Rifleman Went to War
, Captain Herbert W. McBride noted that trained riflemen observed the battlefield for targets, found them and engaged them while untrained riflemen simply put their rifles up over the lip of the trench and pulled the trigger. He further noted that it was the untrained rifleman who usually ran out of ammunition while the trained riflemen did not. Captain McBride also noted that he was shooting rifles in earnest by the age of 12 and shot them with regularity all of his life but it wasn’t until he was in his thirties that he would dare call himself a rifleman as he felt he had not yet attained sufficient knowledge and ability – 18 years of nearly weekly practice before he would dare claim to be a rifleman. [Hmm, that’s food for thought about what it really takes to be good with a rifle.] If you are in any way associated with infantry combat and have not read Captain McBride’s book, you really need to.
So we are sending Americans off to war with minimal rifle marksmanship training to engage an enemy on his turf with inadequate skills.
Inadequate skills you ask? Can’t be! Consider: The popup target qualification course is all fired with a battle sight zero out to 300 meters. No allowance is made for wind other than "hold a little this way or a little that way." No training in reading the wind is given, no formulistic method is taught for wind estimation or how to calculate a wind adjustment even though the rifle itself has a half a minute of angle windage adjustment capability. Worse still is that many Soldiers don’t even attempt to shoot the 300 meter targets preferring to save those rounds to ensure a hit on the closer range targets. They have no idea what adjustments need to go on their rear sights to engage at 400, 500 or 600 meters. What we have then are soldiers whose effective engagement range capability (call it the EERC) is 200 to 225 meters.
You remember earlier I noted that 52% of the fights in Afghanistan begin at 500 meters?