Sunday, January 17, 2010


I have an odd sort of love-hate for Michael Yon.

He is one of the few journalists really willing to spend a LOT of time in some of the filthiest ass-end parts of the world finding out what's happening there. He also knows soldiers and soldiering in a sort of latter-day Ernie Pyle way, and I like that.

On the downside, he's a sort of dirty-boot Bob Kaplan, Tom Clancy with a notepad, a guy who's never met gee-whiz cool Aaaaaarmy training he didn't love. He's sort of a man-size eleven-year-old that way, and he commonly mistakes technical and tactical proficiency for strategic and geopolitical competence, and he always assumes that the GI's are the epitome of studly cool and the fuzzy-wuzzies are dirty rats.I love the fact that he has some great pictures and a nice little article about the gunners at FOB Frontenac (although, Mike? That'd be "Cobra Battery, 1st Battalion, 17th Artillery - the 17th Infantry are those guys walking around with the teeny little bullet launchers, remember?).

But as I'm enjoying the pretty night fire pictures I come across this:
"Sometimes the crews fire “H & I” or “terrain denial” missions. Harassment and Interdiction missions are fired at terrain known to be used only by the enemy at certain times, and so anytime the enemy feels like rolling the dice, they can move into that terrain. Such missions also provide influence for “shaping” the battlefield. If the commander is trying to flush the enemy into a blunder—maybe an ambush—or maybe to cut them off from an escape route, he can have the guns pound into a gorge, say, that is used as an enemy route. Or maybe he just tries to persuade the enemy to take a route where we have sniper teams waiting. The battery can be used in many ways that do not include direct attacks on enemy formations."
Yes, indeed.

When I was just a mere slip of a redleg, my FDC Chief taught me that H&I fires in a LIC were the worst way of substituting motion for direction, a bad excuse for shooting unobserved rounds at a grid coordinate, a waste of rounds and a good way of pissing off the locals at you.We did this shit a lot in Vietnam, where my Chief got sick of it. Typically you had no eyes on the "target", which could be a trail junction, the edge of a treeline, a river ford, anywhere. And since you were also typically in the middle of a farming district, these were also typically used by local Romeos slipping out to see their hootchie Juliets, woodcutters, farmers, enemy runners, monkeys, roebucks...just about damn near anything. But the point was that - despite what Yon thinks - you never really knew. It was a statistic, a way that the artillery battalion or brigade could say "We fired XYZ missions on Targets Able, Fox and Whiskey"

I have no idea if H&I fire is any better in A-stan than it was in Vietnam. But the fact that we're doing it at all...?



  1. Chief,

    The few times I've seen H&I in Afghanistan the fires were observed (either directly or via UAV) and were not conducted near civilian populations (think ridgelines above FOB's and mountaintops with good observation). I have no idea, however, if my experience was typical since it only includes six events. It did all seem kind of pointless, though.

  2. Andy: What you saw wasn't H&I, then, really, if there was an observer present. The classic H&I that got such a bad rap in the RVN was usually conducted at night, or in places where having a pair of eyes on target would have been suicidal (think the heart of the A Shau). It was often conducted at night, on the grounds that genuine villagers had no business running around the paddies or jungles at night.

    So what you saw were, in effect, standard observed fire missions fired at a grid coordinate. "Kind of"? That pretty much defines pointless.

    There are reasons for firing a mission when there's no enemy to target - registrations are a good example. And a registration mission would be a good example of a useful mission you could fire to target a piece of terrain.

    But just dropping rounds on a piece of real estate? It wasn't a real good idea then and it isn't really now. In the RVN we had the excuse that there were places we literally couldn't go and had good reason to believe that the VC/NVA were going. But with pilotless drones? We can eyeball every square inch of the place.

    I'm hoping that what Yon was seeing wasn't really old-school H&I. But if he was, that is not a posotive sign for me. It's an old bad habit that the FA needs to roundfile.

  3. Chief,

    I dropped this note off at GFT, but should have put it here...

    Thanks for this post. It is shameful that we are using H&I given our stated "protecting the population" strategy. At least with the (now mostly banned) airstrikes (and ongoing drone attacks), there ARE some eyes on target). Of course, there's no IFF and those IR images could easily be the local Romeos and Juliets. Nevertheless, some eyes on target unlike H&I.

    Personally, I think the underlying assumption of H&I -- they never know when hell will rain down and thus avoid certain terrain -- simply does not hold water. At best, it's thinking about conventional military movement across channeling terrain that provide firing opportunities; good against the hordes of mech inf, not so good against homegrown partisans. It also gives the perception of weakness/cowardice (that big, well equipped army won't fight us man to man? they use the big bombs instead?) And, as you note, it ticks off the locals.

    I've said before, I'll say again. How do you know you're doing real COIN? When the life of any of your troopers matters less than the life of any civilian in the fighting zone. Yes. Even those "males of fighting age" must rank above your soldiers in the protection calculus. Simply put, this is a key difference between Liberation and Occupation. And isn't COIN itself something of a "liberation" operation???

    Anyways, thanks for the post.


  4. Chief,
    The only thing that H&I does is to expend old ,out of date ammo.
    We had stuff made in 1944 and were using it in 70. Just guessing that this is a way to rotate stock.
    I would only use this technique to mask my movements/or to break up suspected assembly areas/ORP's IF an atk were anticipated.
    As SP indicates-you don't win anything when you kill a local out taking a dump.

  5. Chief,

    I admit I don't know much about arty, so let me explain the cases I saw in general:

    1. There's a mountain with a good view that's used on occasion as an enemy OP. We'd go take a look at it, make sure there weren't any sheepherders there and then the Army would drop a few rounds of arty on it which, they said, was intended to keep the enemy forces off the mountain. Now that I think about it, they called these a "show of force" and not H&I.

    2. Fobs get rocketed an mortared. Although we do counterbattery fire, they also drop arty on occasion on known launch points, which are often on some ridge or slope in view of the FOB.

    That's about it, but my window on what arty does in country is pretty small.


    I hope they're not doing that in A-stan. Getting the rounds to the guns probably costs more than the rounds are worth.

  6. Off topic, but a significant story...

    Harpers --

    January 18, 2010


    by Scott Horton

  7. Andy,
    It was a long tail getting them to RVN also.
    Did you ever see the joke/cartoon on the NVA soldier carrying 3 rounds all the way down the HCM Trail and as soon as he gets to his destination they fire up his rounds.? A great statement on the differences of our resupply systems.

  8. Andy: in order of your citations.

    !. This is called a "waste of rounds". If I saw someone dropping HE on an empty grid squre, I'd be impressed with their stupidity, not their force.

    2. These are counterbattery fires, and wasteful ones at that. Just because they're being targeted on what I'm assuming are mostly empty space doesn't change the mission. What it tells me is that a) the FOB is badly placed and has dead space that cannot be overwatched, or b) the FOB has no countermortar radar, or c) both.

    My understanding is that FA mostly does fuck all in-country, and that most of the gunners are walking patrol. This story concerns me a little because it implies that my fellow gunners are relarning old, bad habits...which is the sort of thing that happens when branches get both neglected and misused.

  9. I saw a lot of wasted H&I fire in Nam. When they did not have observed fire missions, both Marine 155 and the Army 175 long toms would shoot a lot of projos towards known or suspected tributary trails coming off of the main HCM trail. It was not dangerous to civilians as there were no villages in those jungle areas - even the Montagnards were gone from those zones. It probably killed a lot of rock apes and an occasional elephant or tiger.

    But what frosted my a$$ was that some of those H&I fire missions were based on unconfirmed intel reports. Many of those reports from humint sources listed grid coordinates that were only guesstimated and were not substantiated by any other sources. The maps we had of the coastal plains and the piedmont were fairly accurate, but the maps of the more mountainous areas were based on French cartography from the 20s and 30s. So any coordinate derived from those maps was suspect. Yet the system was so hungry for targets that they were treated as gospel and fired on. They even did unobserved fire on four-digit grid squares - iron cross it was called.

    Even many many DFs from sigint reports were not that precise depending on the geometry and intercept platform.

    It never ceased to amaze me that artillerymen, who I always considered to be precise mathematicians and who could put an observed round in a pickle barrel or down a smokestack, could be so naive as not to realize that no matter hwo precise their fire was that it did not matter if the coordinates they were firing at were estimated.

    It may be better now with worldwide satellite mapping and GPS. But even with GPS I would still doubt Yon's statement that arty can put a one-shot unobserved excalibur round on a Toyota 25 miles away. Sounds like Raytheon propaganda to me, but I am willing to have my head shaped if someone out there knows better.


  10. jim at ranger said...

    " Did you ever see the joke/cartoon on the NVA soldier carrying 3 rounds all the way down the HCM Trail and as soon as he gets to his destination they fire up his rounds.? A great statement on the differences of our resupply systems."

    I'd heard that, also. However, in 'Bright Shining Lie', Vann claimed that most of the early stuff was brought in from the coast, in coastal freighters. The area is thick with shipping; if a 'small' ship moves inshore at night and drops off a hundred tons of ammo (or boats come out to it), who's to know? Or in the case of a highly bribed S. Vietnamese coastguard, who's to do anything about it?

  11. Barry;

    I suspect that the sea smuggling of arms into SVN happened in one of Vann's earlier tours long before the American buildup.

  12. Yes, but even after the US build-up, there must have been vast amounts of shipping, fishing and coastal traffic. It'd have been hard to keep track of, unless the USN was putting a *lot* of effort into it. I assume that the RVN Navy was proably bribeable.

  13. Mike and Barry,
    Just a guess, but a lot of the NVA/VC supply needs were solved by using US bought and paid for supplies often issued without real controls on end user.
    I'd guess the same in AFGH. Moreso in AFGH than in RVN since the Afghan Army uses a common cartridge and interchangeable RPG rounds that are used by everybody else roaming the country side.