Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Small unit firefights in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan: Results of a DARPA review

By Zail Coffman Best Defense ASSUALT (Agency for the Study of Small Unit Actions, Literature and Training)  A reader "from one of our formerly rebellious southern states" wondered about comparisons between the last few major conflicts. In fact, a few years ago Jack Stuster and I conducted a study for DARPA to examine the widely ...

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By Zail Coffman

Best Defense ASSUALT (Agency for the Study of Small Unit Actions, Literature and Training) 

A reader "from one of our formerly rebellious southern states" wondered about comparisons between the last few major conflicts. In fact, a few years ago Jack Stuster and I conducted a study for DARPA to examine the widely held belief that surviving a few firefights enhances soldiers' and Marines' likelihood of surviving later, prolonged exposure to combat. The objectives of the study were to test the hypothesis concerning the relationship between experience and long-term survival in combat,  and to identify factors with training implications that contribute to casualties and survival during firefights.

By Zail Coffman

Best Defense ASSUALT (Agency for the Study of Small Unit Actions, Literature and Training) 

A reader "from one of our formerly rebellious southern states" wondered about comparisons between the last few major conflicts. In fact, a few years ago Jack Stuster and I conducted a study for DARPA to examine the widely held belief that surviving a few firefights enhances soldiers’ and Marines’ likelihood of surviving later, prolonged exposure to combat. The objectives of the study were to test the hypothesis concerning the relationship between experience and long-term survival in combat,  and to identify factors with training implications that contribute to casualties and survival during firefights.

We reviewed more than 400 accounts of military firefights, finding 208 that provided sufficient detail for analysis. We formed a database of firefight experience encoded for 88 variables (operational, environmental, outcome, etc.); becoming quite familiar with the genre we came to call "Lieutenant Lit." We also conducted personal interviews and correspondence with a sample of highly-experienced com­bat veterans. The database includes engagements from 1966 to 2009 and includes U.S. Army, Marine Corps, Naval Special Warfare, several actions involving coalition partners and accounts from the Soviet-Mujahedeen war.

Statistical analysis of the data found substantial evidence to support the study’s primary hypothesis. We determined that, on average, mission outcome improves following units’ third firefight and survival rate improves following units’ fourth engagement. In addition, we identified survival factors, casualty factors, and lessons learned from the database of firefight accounts, interviews, and correspondence with subject matter experts. We found five categories of skills, knowledge, and behaviors and listed them in order of their contribution to survival during firefights: Weapons Proficiency, Situational Awareness, Tactics and Drills, Cover and Concealment, and Leadership/Communications. Nothing new (humans have been at this for a few thousand years), but our methods allowed us to statistically determine the criticality of the first four engagements, identify specific examples of the skills and behaviors that contribute to casualties and survival; and quantify the relative significance of the factors and place them in order of priority.

Unfortunately, the research proponents moved on to other assignments and the project was terminated after its initial phase. An article describing the study results was approved for public release and has been accepted by the Proceedings of the Naval Institute but publication has been hanging fire for some months now. Distribution of the project report is limited to US Government personnel.

Zail Coffman, a Vietnam veteran, is a technical writer in Gaviota, California, which, like Dustin Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, you probably have driven through without even knowing it. I know I have.

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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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