One thing that Americans excel at is high-technology and perhaps nowhere do we enjoy the application of technology more than in the context of war. I’ve written about this topic previously and how it hurts the Special Forces mission or how it hinders our espionage efforts, which was why I was interested to come across a war college paper about the limitations of technology in the battle of Takur Ghar, which was a part of the larger Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan.
During the operation at Takur Ghar, it was decided to insert MAKO 30 which was a seven man reconnaissance element consisting of five SEALs and one Air Force combat controller. MAKO 30 was to infiltrate Takur Ghar and establish an observation post where they would be able to observe Al Qaeda fighters moving through the valley. Another call sign, MAKO 21 would also insert and link up with an existing observation post at another location.
MAKO 30 initially decided on an offset infiltration, landing somewhere further down the mountain and climbing up to the observation post. Not hanging around the Landing Zone (LZ) after a helicopter insertion is something that American soldiers learned very quickly when the military began using helicopters.
The MAKO teams came to trust and rely on the incredible fire support of the AC-130 gunship, but also came to rely on the impressive sensor suite onboard the aircraft. Using the sophisticated optics and sensors onboard the aircraft, the SEALs requested that the AC-130 do a flyby of their planned observation post at Takur Ghar to see if there were any enemy positions in the area.
Al Qaeda positions on Takur Ghar went completely undetected by the AC-130’s thermal cameras due to these bunkers being blanketed under two feet of snow which camouflaged their position to the naked eye as well as disguising thermal signatures. Meanwhile, MAKO 30 was having a hard time getting off the ground and also having air coverage from AC-130 during their infiltration due to technical mishaps beyond their control and other American soldiers in contact with the enemy calling for airstrikes.
Growing concerned that there would not be enough hours of darkness left to infiltrate into their observation post from the landing zone, the MAKO 30 team leader requested a delay in the operation. The SEAL Task Force reminded him of the importance of the mission and the team leader requested a shorter off-set infil which would mean less time to climb to the top of Takur Ghar. The MH-47 pilots and aircrew noted that the only other suitable place to land was actually right on the top of Takur Ghar. The MAKO 30 team leader agreed.
Army officer Andrew Milani writes, “the MAKO 30 team leader knew he was violating a basic tenet [of recon missions by directly infiltrating onto the observation post] but chose to do so confident that the AC-130U would confirm the lack of enemy presence Takur Ghar. The team had been employed on other missions and was confident in the ability to leverage the considerable resources of the Joint Special Operations Task Force.”
Under pressure, the MAKO 30 team leader made the best decision he could based upon the information he had at that time, attempting to balance the perceived importance of the mission with sound tactical planning. The AC-130 made a scan of the mountaintop and detected no enemy presence, but then was pulled off the mission to respond to troops in contact at another location. MAKO 30 decided to infiltrate without having air cover.
As the MH-47 neared the landing zone, they could now easily detect signs of human presence in the area, but before a further decision could be made they came under RPG fire. In the ensuing chaos, Navy SEAL Neil Roberts fell from the ramp of the helicopter, dropping 5-10 feet into the snow. Amid the confusion, Roberts was left behind while the pilots attempted an emergency landing further down the mountain side.
The firefight and combat actions that went on for the next 24 hours in an attempt to rescue Roberts cost seven Special Operations soldiers their lives. For years, many speculated that Roberts died from the fall, an unlikely event from a fall of ten feet, into several feet of snow, while wearing protective gear such as a helmet. Years later it came to light that Roberts was killed by the enemy.
Another aspect of the over-reliance on technology comes from the Predator UAV’s over Takur Ghar. Officers stationed hundreds of miles away in Oman were watching the predator feed and thought they had better situational awareness that the ground force commander who could actually see Takur Ghar from his command vehicle. This lead a higher HQ element in an entirely different country to take command of the recovery operation away from their own ground force commander.
The reality is that the JSOTF (Joint Special Operations Task Force) in Oman was getting grainy Predator footage. For many years, those who viewed it believed they saw something completely disconnected from reality on Takur Ghar. At Robert’s memorial service, his deputy commanding officer told those in attendance that Roberts single-handedly charged enemy bunkers on Takur Ghar, expending all of his ammunition and hand grenades, fighting literally until the last bullet. This was factually incorrect, and battlefield commanders were misunderstanding or willfully misinterpreting the Predator footage to see what they wanted to see. Based on anecdotal evidence, this re-interpretation of events displayed on UAV footage is a phenomena that continues to this day.
MAKO 30 and the crews of the MH47 and AC-130 aircraft made difficult decisions under combat conditions. Playing armchair general or lecturing brave men about how they zigged when they should have zagged is pointless and vain. However, a review of what went wrong and how it can be corrected in the future is worthwhile for the sake of mission success and the safety of our troops.
While some may take away from this account that technology is bad, full stop, the reality is somewhat more complicated. Older Special Forces soldiers may decry anything that uses a battery and muse about the good old days when their radios used tubes that would survive a nuclear blast; but the fact of the matter is that special operations personnel cannot ignore technology. To do so would mean that the enemy would quickly outpace us, an enemy that has the same access to instantaneous worldwide communications that we all do in the modern world.
Instead, the solution lies in a hybrid of methodologies that fuse the old and the new, old school tactics and fieldcraft that augment cutting-edge technology but without becoming so reliant on these tools that we disregard the time-tested tenets of warfare.
Images courtesy of the Department of Defense