Report: Unit's weapons didn't work during convoy ambushBreakdown in basic soldiering skills led to disastrous capture of American POWs
The Washington Post reports tonight
on a report (also reported by the NY Times
and LA Times
) that identifies the main reason why PFC Jessica Lynch and five other soldiers were captured by Iraqi guerrillas on the road to Baghdad -- faulty weapons training and maintenance. The report indicates that soldiers had difficulty firing both their personal weapons (the M16A2 rifle) and their crew-served weapons (the M2 .50 caliber machine gun) at the enemy when fired upon. Few things will end a firefight badly more easily than weapons that won't shoot. Unfortunately, it appears from this report and others that the culprit was poor weapons training and maintenance.
"These malfunctions," the report says, "may have resulted from inadequate individual maintenance in a desert environment" where sand, heat and improper maintenance combined to render the weapons inoperable.Analysis
The report on the incident, scheduled to be released this week, adds new details to the circumstances reported last month by The Washington Post, which described how the 18-vehicle convoy got lost in the southern Iraqi city after its company commander, Capt. Troy King, did not receive word that the larger column it was following had changed routes. The convoy then made several navigational errors, which required the slow, lumbering vehicles to make two U-turns in the middle of hostile territory.
* * *
The unit's 18-vehicle convoy had broken into three clusters as the unit retraced its route. "Most soldiers" in the first group reported that their M-16s malfunctioned as they tried to "return fire while moving," the report said.
When Cpl. Damien Luten, sitting in the passenger seat of a 5-ton tractor trailer in the second group, attempted to fire the unit's only .50-caliber machine gun, it failed, the report said. Luten was wounded in the leg while reaching for his M-16. Spec. James Grubb, in the passenger seat of a 5-ton fuel truck, "returned fire with his M-16 until wounded in both arms, despite reported jamming of his weapon," it said.
The third group of vehicles, which included the Humvee in which Lynch was riding, also had weapons problems.
After Lynch's Humvee crashed, Sgt. James Riley ran with two other soldiers to see if the vehicle's occupants could be saved. His weapon jammed. Riley reached for 1st Sgt. Robert Dowdy's M-16 to use instead. Dowdy had been killed instantly in the crash. Riley ordered the two soldiers with him to take cover and then tried to use each of their M-16s against the Iraqis. "But both jammed," the report said.
* * *
Spec. Joseph Hudson attempted to fire his M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon as he drove a huge wrecker towing a 5-ton tractor-trailer that had broken down. But the weapon malfunctioned. After driving past obstacles and debris strewn in his path, the vehicle broke down on the southern edge of the city as he neared safety. Iraqi forces fired on the stalled wrecker, killing Hudson's passenger, Chief Warrant Officer Johnny Villareal Mata.
* * *
U.S. officials also said recently that Lynch's weapon may have jammed during the ambush. Because she was seated between two other soldiers, however, it is also possible she did not fire it, one Army official said yesterday.
: I'm going to revert back to my NTC Observer/Controller
training to pick out some issues that seem obvious from this story. These may seem like harsh criticisms, but if these things happened during a rotation at the National Training Center, these are exactly the things that would be discussed in the After Action Review
. A causal link exists between each of these failures before combat and what happened in combat.(1) Weapons Maintenance
. Rifles and machine guns require a lot of tender loving care to work properly -- they require even more TLC in the harsh desert environment. Despite popular conceptions, the M16A2 rifle
is a fairly intricate piece of machinery with lots of small moving pieces. It takes regular cleaning and lubrication in order to work. In the California desert, my platoon made a standard practice of field cleaning our rifles once a day -- more if possible. The sand is even more fine in Iraq. I have been told it resembles an awful form of talcum powder that gets in everything. In those conditions, the rifle would need to be cleaned and lubricated more than once a day. The rifle would also need to be protected in some way from the elements, such as with a plastic cap or latex balloon over the muzzle. Leaders must check their soldiers' weapons constantly to ensure this is being done. As the old maxim says: "Soldiers do what leaders check."(2) Lubrication
. It's not enough to clean the M16 rifle, M249
squad automatic weapon, or M2
.50 cal machine gun -- you also have to regularly apply lubricant in order to keep the metal parts moving against each other. The standard military lubricant for small arms is called "CLP
" (See this discussion
regarding CLP at Winds of Change). It worked okay for me in Korea and Texas, but not well. My platoon sergeant (an avid hunter) liked to use special commercially-available lubricants that he knew worked better. Apparently, he knew more than the Army's procurement folks. In the weeks since the war, several after action reviews
have concluded that the Army's standard weapons lube was inadequate for the job in the desert.
Lubricant: Soldiers provided consistent comments that CLP was not a good choice for weapons maintenance in this environment. The sand is as fine as talcum powder here. The CLP attracted the sand to the weapon. ?
Soldiers considered a product called MiliTec to be a much better solution for lubricating individual and crew-served weapons.
Various current and former military officers echoed this report, saying that CLP was one of the worst lubricants the Army could buy for the desert:
"The CLP and Breakfree brand oil the military purchases is worthless," said Aaron Johnson, a 10-year veteran of the Army and Army Reserve, and author of a DefenseWatch guest column on the Army M9 sidearm "How to Save the M9 Beretta"; June 16, 2003). "I'm sure large amounts are acquired [by the Army] at relatively low cost, but that's why it should be done away with. That oil is too rich, and has little effectiveness at keeping weapons clean."
"The troops will tell you, CLP attracts dirt and grit," Johnson continued. "It is also so thick it can reduce recoil speed, resulting in stoppages. It thickens in the cold, and when in hot weather areas it is usually attracting dust and sand."
In an e-mail forwarded to DefenseWatch, retired Lt. Col. Robert Kovacic, who works for a defense contractor in Kuwait that trains U.S. military units, echoed Johnson's remarks. "I can say with complete assuredness, from many, many observations of training exercises], that CLP does not work. I did not use it at Fort Polk (cause it did not prevent rust)... I don't care what the government says... and it sure as hell does not work here."
What is bewildering to veterans such as these is that there is a product that has proven effective in desert combat. MILITEC-1 Synthetic Metal Conditioner, manufactured by the company of the same name, has been approved for Army use and is already widely used by the U.S. Coast Guard, FBI and a host of other federal police agencies. But the Army apparently is still shipping CLP en masse to the troops and has resisted ordering the synthetic lubricant, forcing unit commanders to pay out of their own pockets to acquire it.
The problem, Kovacic said, is that the Defense Logistics Agency allegedly refused to ship MILITEC to a number of units heading for combat in Iraq, despite previous approval of the product for Army weapons. "So, if front-line commanders order this product," he asked, "where does DLA have the authority to stop shipment? It is the brigade commander's butt in battle and if he wants to use a different lubricant, because the government stuff does not work, he can't"
Once again, our soldiers went into harm's way with lousy equipment because the procurement system failed them. There is some irony here, in that the original M16 rifle went into combat in Vietnam with many flaws that were learned at the cost of American lives. Today, we appear to have the best military in the world. Yet we are forced to learn lessons about our equipment the hard way.3. Weapons Training
. Weapons maintenance and lubrication are often a function of weapons training. Soldiers who know their weapons well will take care of them, because they are familiar with the effects of not doing so. Moreover, at least one part of the 507th Maintenance Company report indicates a probable failure of weapons training:
King [the company commander] then split the company into three groups, according to the Army investigation.
He took Group One, and they fought their way south through the city. Iraqis tried to block their exit with vehicles and debris. "Most of the soldiers in this group report that they experienced weapons malfunctions," the Army said. "These malfunctions may have resulted from inadequate individual maintenance in a desert environment."
But they made it out, and soon joined a Marine Corps tank battalion.
In Group Two, Cpl. Damien Luten "attempted to return fire with the 507th's only .50-caliber machine gun but the weapon failed," the report said. "Luten was wounded in the leg while reaching for his M-16."
Small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades burst around them. Their escape route also was partially blocked. Five soldiers were wounded, including Spc. James Grubb, who "returned fire with his M-16 until wounded in both arms, despite reported jamming of his weapon."
Marines also rescued Group Two.
The M2 .50 caliber machine gun
doesn't just fail -- it fails for a reason. It's one of the most venerable weapons in the Army inventory; its basic design has not changed for decades. The most common reason for failure is the operator's failure to properly set the head space and timing
. The internal parts of the .50 cal have a certain amount of play, and these parts have to be set right
in order to work. If you set the headspace or timing wrong -- or fail to reset it after a while -- the weapon will malfunction. In some cases, this means it will fire one shot and then stop. In others, it may cause the weapon to misfire more severely, or even blow up.
In any case, this is the most probable reason for the .50 cal's failure in the 507th convoy. And it traces directly back to a failure to train the operator on how to shoot the .50 cal. In many units -- especially support units -- .50 cal training is hard to get in peacetime. The ranges are few and the ammunition is usually short, and it's often hard to get the right guy to the range because soldiers are often rotating through positions within a given unit. In combat, all of these are just excuses. The bottom line is that the 507th's convoy didn't have its .50 cal when it needed it, and its soldiers paid the price.4. Land Navigation and Fieldcraft
. It appears that Captain King got his convoy lost in the desert. Either he failed to properly copy the route, failed to follow the route, or failed to adjust the route based on information from his higher headquarters. The results were fatal. Soldiers in the Army don't do enough training on basic land navigation. Indeed, in many units, they simply rely on their Global Positioning Systems
for this skill, as Captain King appeared to do:
The 507th, based at Fort Bliss, Texas, was not a combat unit; its members included cooks, mechanics, technicians and clerks. On March 21, the company crossed into Iraq from Kuwait as part of a convoy supporting a Patriot missile battalion. But early into the deployment, the company's commander, Capt. Troy King, misread his assigned route, the report said.
According to the Army findings, King relied primarily on his Global Positioning System device and an annotated map on which he had highlighted "Route Blue." King "believed in error that Blue was his assigned route," the report said.
King could not be reached for comment Wednesday. A spokeswoman at Fort Bliss said he was on routine leave.
As the convoy sped north, the 507th, with 18 vehicles, "bogged down in the soft sand," the report said. "Drivers from many units became confused due to the darkness, causing some vehicles to separate from their march columns."
And the route King chose, the report said, "proved to be extremely difficult, over rough terrain."
Getting lost in peacetime is embarassing; it usually means you have to buy the beer or do pushups. Getting lost in wartime can be fatal. I learned this lesson in Korea when I misread the terrain once and wound up driving up a long canyon that led straight to the DMZ -- it took an extra 2 hours to back up the canyon and drive home. I never got lost again as an Army officer. My unit, a division MP company
, trained a lot on land navigation because we knew that logistics units like the 507th would rely on us for this skill. As flattering as that was, it's the wrong answer. Every soldier and leader must be capable of moving from point A to point B in a way that gets them there alive. And they need to be able to do it without gadgets like the GPS, at night, with just a map and a compass (see FM 3-25.26
for more on the basics of land navigation) Summary:
I don't want to keep picking on support units, but in this case, I see a trend. Support units work hard in peacetime to keep our equipment running, often to the neglect of their own field training. The result is that they do not meet the standard for basic soldiering and warfighting skills. Of course, they learn through trial and error just like every unit. But the result of waiting to learn these lessons in wartime is that young Americans die as the unit climbs the learning curve. Our Army needs to embrace the warrior ethos in all units -- not just the combat arms -- and it needs to ensure that every unit can fight its way out of an ambush like this one.In the end, none of this may have made the crucial difference and saved the convoy.
War is chaotic, and bad things happend to good units who do everything right. But commanders strive to set their units up for success; to do everything possible to make the fight an unfair one -- for the enemy. Training, maintenance, pre-combat checks, pre-combat inspections, and fieldcraft are what enable good units to execute when the time comes on the battlefield. The 507th Maintenance Convoy failed in these areas, and the effects were devastating.