Best Defense

A Marine’s Afghan AAR (V): Learn how to patrol, dammit

  Here CWO2/Gunner Keith Marine gives a memorable lecture on patrolling, and nearly runs out of letters in making his points. Read it now and believe it later: We have to get back our patrolling capabilities.  Ninety percent of everything we do is patrolling but we aren’t good at it.  The Iraq experience has done ...

An Afghan man and child walk past US Marines of 2nd Battalion 2 Marines of 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade on patrol with Afghan National Army soldiers in Mian Poshteh in Helmand Province in Afghanistan on November 24, 2009. US troops make up the majority of the more than 100,000 international troops stationed in Afghanistan to battle Taliban-led insurgents who are trying to topple the Western-backed government in Kabul and expel foreign militaries. AFP PHOTO/Manpreet ROMANA (Photo credit should read MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images)


Here CWO2/Gunner Keith Marine gives a memorable lecture on patrolling, and nearly runs out of letters in making his points. Read it now and believe it later:

We have to get back our patrolling capabilities.  Ninety percent of everything we do is patrolling but we aren’t good at it.  The Iraq experience has done some good things for our Corps but it has diminished our patrolling capabilities.  Our NCOs’ experience in Iraq has fostered a sure knowledge that the double column is the preferred formation and moving along roads is acceptable, which are exactly the wrong things to do.  Right now we operate at an acceptable level but with some focused training we can limit our casualties, while killing more of the enemy.  Everyone can spout 5-3-5 rules but few know what it is and even fewer practice it.

A)   Each patrol needs a viable mission that accomplishes a needed task.  Going here because we went over there yesterday is beyond stupid and you are failing as a leader with that reasoning.

B) Go through the orders process in its entirety when able.  At a minimum do route planning and brief an order covering Situation (past 24 or 48 hours and other patrols) Mission (what, where and purpose), Execution (intent, where you expect to make contact or find IEDs and actions when that happens, IA drills for contact, IED strike, Medevac, and cover formation types – where you will satellite/guardian angel, wedge echelon etc).

C) Do a confirmation brief with the platoon commander.

D) Conduct Initial and Final Inspections. 

E) Use an Initial Rally Point inside the wire to conduct your final inspection, do last minute rehearsals or rehearsal of concept drills, final com checks, get in your initial combat formation and be counted out of the wire by the APL – use your APL, most of the Marines now days don’t even know what that is.

F) Point men need to be trained along with flanks.  Use a dual point system – one guy looking close for IED threat and one far scanning tree lines.  Walk at a pace that facilitates your mission, not which gets you back to the patrol base quicker.

G) Take security halts and observe your surroundings frequently.  Have one of your patrol elements set up in observation covertly while the other element moves into the village.  Watch the actions the locals do.  Want atmospherics, see if there are runners or people move towards the patrol to greet them.  If something happens, this observation team is already set as a base of fire.

H) Investigate what is happening.  Marines often see locals doing routine tasks, like pumping water or kids playing, when if they investigated vice just continuing to patrol on by, they would see the hole perfectly shaped for an IED amongst the playing children dug by the guy with a pick axe being shielded by the pretty kids playing in the road.  The Taliban are masters at using the obvious to deploy IEDs right under your nose.

I) Use deception.  Send out two patrols at a time in different directions, and then have one circle back.  All too often we rotate patrols in and out.  The Taliban quickly figure out that if the patrol just went west, he has complete freedom of movement to the East.

J) Use Satellites, traveling and bounding over watch and a variety of formations to match the threat. 

K) Do not set patterns.

L) Stay the fuck off of roads and trails.  I believe that every casualty our battalion has taken from IEDs, with the exception of two incidents, has been on a road or trail and it has been at times when the Marines were not required to be on the road or trail as part of a sweep/clearance mission.

M) Use rally points.

N) Use the appropriate formation to be in the most advantageous position to immediately gain the initiative and kill the enemy.  We are very lacking in this area and a lot of our squad leaders just don’t get it.  Use TDGs and a variety of training scenarios to get them up to speed and understand a variety of terrain and tactical based scenarios.

O) Crossing Linear Danger areas is a lost art, especially when a patrol will walk three hundred meters along a canal to find a foot bridge to cross it – terrible at setting patterns, just walk through the water but set up near and far side security first and use a variety of techniques so you don’t set patterns.

P) Communication Procedures need work.  Rehearse them and have competent Marines on the radio.

Q) Proper dispersion.  Make sure it’s enough to mitigate the IED threat but not too much where you are not in a position to get combat power where it needs to be.  If you have to do ten “I’m up they see me, I’m downs” prior to getting your weapon into action, your spent before you go into the assault.  It’s all fun and games when someone is shooting at you via pop shots at 300 meters, a completely different story when you have a few machine guns hammering down on you from less than 100 meters.

R) Individual movement and actions such as using available cover and making eye contact with the guy behind you every ten steps or so.

S) Stay in zone a while.  We have become too bogged down with timelines.  More often than not, the Iraq standard of four hour patrols is the constant.  One platoon commander had his guys doing 12 hour patrols.  Initially, when I heard about it, I thought it was stupid.  After visiting the patrol base and going on some of his patrols, I realized he was a genius.  He solved several problems at once.  His Marines automatically set up to observe areas because they had to in order to rest.  They spent a good deal of time speaking with locals, because it’s another way to rest.  They moved slowly and deliberately, because the Marines realized iPod time doesn’t come until that 12 hours is up.  They covered their entire AO almost daily and 24 hours a day.  Marines had enough time to focus on patrol prep.  There is a lot of ways to accomplish your mission and you have to try a variety.  Change things up and never count anything out.


Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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