Wednesday, June 20, 2007

More questions about vehicle use

The three Canadian soldiers killed in an IED blast early today were travelling by Gator, an unarmoured six-wheel-drive ATV with a small flatbed on the back.

Already, the media are questioning the use of such a vehicle in that area, led by Graeme Smith of the Globe & Mail:

Three Canadian soldiers died this morning when a roadside bomb detonated under a small all-terrain vehicle they were using to ferry supplies between checkpoints.

The explosion happened around 8 a.m. local time, about six kilometres west of Sperwan Ghar, a hilltop outpost southwest of Kandahar city.

That location had been a sleepy observation position for Canadian troops for most of this year, after major battles pushed the Taliban away from the area last year.

Canadian commanders have recently pointed to that district, Panjwai, as a model for pacifying the restive south because the Taliban presence had been reduced to minor skirmishing on the western edge of the district and the newfound peace has allowed the establishment of local government and a flood of aid projects.

Last fall, Canadian troops would only have travelled that swath of farmland in heavily armoured troop carriers. At the time of the blast, however, the soldiers were moving between checkpoints in an open-top vehicle known as a Gator, manufactured by John Deere. The military regularly uses such vehicles within safe areas.

The soldiers were travelling between two checkpoints less than a kilometre apart, a military spokesman said, but visibility in that region is restricted by high walls and other obstacles.

“A determined enemy could evade observation in that terrain,” said Major Dale MacEachern.

In Kandahar, Brigadier General Tim Grant told reporters called the blast “an unfortunate accident” and defended the use of the un-armoured vehicle.

"We look at this as an unfortunate accident. The vehicle was appropriate to the task at hand and the terrain they were travelling in," he told reporters in Kandahar, the southern city where Canada has a 2,500-strong mission.

And so, yet again, we're left second-guessing the choice of vehicles used by our troops.

While it won't relieve the terrible burden of grief the families of the deceased must bear now, the rest of us should remember that the CF doesn't have unlimited resources in Afghanistan. Choices must be made every day on which assets and tactics are best employed for which missions to combat which foreseeable hazards. Those choices are made by every single member of the CF who goes outside the wire, from the Lieutenant Colonel who decides the Battle Group's overall stance and dictates which units go where, to the Private who looks down at the path ahead and decides where to put his right boot next.

The Globe's Smith seems to imply that someone in the chain of command screwed up by letting these soldiers drive an unarmoured vehicle in a dangerous area.

He may be right, which is why BGen Grant said JTF-Afg will review procedures in the wake of this incident:

"We look at this as an unfortunate accident. The vehicle was appropriate to the task at hand and the terrain they were travelling in," he told reporters in Kandahar, the southern city where Canada has a 2,500-strong mission.

But “we will review how the re-supply is done, the equipment that we use and the procedures that are in place. If we determine that we need to change our tactics, techniques and procedures, well do that,” he added.

But here's an alternative to Smith's angle: soldiering outside the wire in Afghanistan, no matter where, is a dangerous job, and these soldiers were simply unlucky. No blame, just victims of cruel odds.

Remember, nobody knows yet how the IED was triggered. If it was a pressure plate, one of the preferred methods these days, it might have been set only to detonate when a vehicle weight went over it - in which case the protection of a LAVIII might not have done these brave souls any good. If such a trigger were to be set at a high enough weight, the safest way to transit the area might have been on foot.

But you wouldn't rewrite SOP based upon that contingency, second-guessing the use of heavily armoured vehicles in favour of light or no armour at all, would you?

The truth is that no one tactic can anticipate every contingency. Sometimes surviving combat comes down to luck. Tragically, these fine soldiers had their luck run out. Rest in peace.

Update: Welcome to the accusatory world of Paul Workman. Why don't we just sack BGen Grant, give Paulie a field commission, and let him decide which vehicles are used for which missions? Let him be responsible for security and reconstruction in an area the size of Nova Scotia, and let him write the letters home to grieving families when tragedy strikes. Maybe I can be the one pulling in the big paycheque standing in front of the camera pretending I know what the hell I'm talking about, while he tries to politely and professionally answer my thinly-veiled accusations of negligence.


Blogger Colin said...

People should keep in mind that the vehicle in question would likely have a ground pressure less than the human foot. Also critics should put on the typical gear of a soldier, add 80lbs of supplies and jog in a dry sauna to figure out why the soldiers use these vehicles. As you said nothing is perfect and war is a dangerous business, if there are lessons to be learned, the soldiers need to hear them and no one else.

4:14 p.m., June 20, 2007  
Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

A friend who has some not-insignificant experience in the Combat Arms once told me that in combat "The exam comes first, and then the lesson." Too true.

The real question here is whether the lesson to be learned is what the reporters are implying it is, or whether it's something entirely different.

4:36 p.m., June 20, 2007  
Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

Meanwhile, David Akin of CTV gives the inside poop on why the medium-sized logistics trucks purchase is bogged down. Reading carefully it would seem that having an open competition might have something to do with it (I infer regional benefits amongst other things). I made a comment.


5:03 p.m., June 20, 2007  
Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

TinyURL for Akin's post:


8:20 a.m., June 21, 2007  
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12:31 a.m., February 20, 2008  

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