Military/Contractor Vehicle Movement in Combat Theaters


By Max Velocity 

The purpose of this article is to overview tactics for movement in lightly armored vehicles in high threat and combat environments, such as the recent Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. These observations will have relevance in future conflicts where such movement will continue to be necessary. The background to this article is the authors experience operating for many years as a security contractor, as well as service in both the British and US Armies, in Iraq and Afghanistan and other theaters. As such, the type of “light armored vehicle” movement intended and referred to is either civilian or military movement in small packets of perhaps three or four vehicles. These vehicles will either be civilian contractor type lightly armored B6 type vehicles, or military light vehicles such as the armored “Humvee” or similar. These vehicle packets could be involved in multiple types of movement such as: site visits, reconnaissance, administrative runs, key leader engagements, transport of personnel and miscellaneous. For this type of mission, the assumption is that with such small vehicle packets the intention will not be to engage with the enemy but will rather be to break contact and extract should the convoy come under contact. It is noted that this approach blurs the boundary between military and civilian, but in fact due to the nature of recent and current operations this is very much the case, due to the involvement of security contractors and the pseudo-military role these organizations have taken on as part of, and auxiliaries to, the coalition force.

The purpose here is not to discuss specific vehicle types, and as such the designation of civilian or military is not really relevant to the article because it is the environment experienced and thus the threat to be mitigated that is the driving factor. When considering vehicles, there is a balance between firepower, protection and mobility. Vehicles can be designed or modified to enhance or limit these factors. An example is the difference between a basic civilian type armored vehicle, which may have no firing ports and therefore no ability to return fire from within the vehicle, or alternatively may have designed firing ports that increase firepower potential but therefore decrease the protection offered; versus a military vehicle that may have a turret mounted armored heavy machine-gun or grenade launcher type weapon, maximizing both protection and firepower. It is important to note that for all these light armored vehicle types, protection is minimal or non-existent against threats such as rocket propelled grenades and penetrator type Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs); these vehicles primarily provide protection against small arms calibers up to 7.62 x 51 (NATO standard) and the effects of blast and shrapnel from limited size IEDs. Survivability at the point of contact is therefore limited and following enemy contact extraction to a secured rally point is a priority.

Mobile vehicle and dismounted tactics is what many soldiers and security operators do and did in Iraq and Afghanistan; either escorting convoys, doing missions and administrative moves, or carrying the personnel that they are tasked to protect. Surviving and reacting to roadside and site ambush and attack were what it was all about. In the early days, circa 2004, many operators had soft skinned vehicles. Rounds go through those like a knife through butter. The only protection is limited to the engine block and the metal part of the wheels. It was possible to add steel plate to vehicles to add protection, similar to “hobo” Humvee’s used by US military at the time. Armored vehicles became the norm later, and really in an environment such as Iraq armored vehicles are required. If you are operating in such a high threat environment, hopefully you have armored vehicles.

If you are moving in vehicle packets then ideally you should not move about with less than three vehicles. This can change in locations which are safer and closer to assistance, an example being Kabul City, where it is not unusual to see one or two vehicle close protection packets. But this is not ideal and if something were to happen, they would be in trouble. Such small details were more a function of resource issues, proximity of reaction forces, and a threat judgment that it was unlikely that something would happen. A two vehicle packet only leaves you with one vehicle if one of the vehicles gets hit or immobilized. Having more vehicles allows you to have redundancy if one of the vehicles is lost. Importantly, it also allows you to create a tactically sound convoy with an advance vehicle, a central or protected vehicle(s), and a rear chase or CAT (counter attack) vehicle. If you have more “clients” (read: protected non-combatants), then you can add protected vehicles in the center and also beef up the front and rear protection accordingly.

Threat mitigation is primary, you must attempt to avoid contact with the enemy if at all possible: Think about advance planning and route selection: vary routes and routines, use back roads avoiding main routes and traffic, maybe even finding some routes cross country if the terrain will allow it. Move at a steady speed on your selected route, using sensible speeds appropriate to the roads and the visibility. Make your speed such that you don’t get surprised going round a bend. Utilize stand-off and observation. If necessary turn around and go another way. Beware of excess speed; it is likely that you will end up going a lot faster if you are on interstate type deserted highways like the type seen in Iraq, but speed won’t get you through the dangers and can contribute to a massive rollover crash if you do get hit by an IED. Even if you do end up going faster because the roads and maybe flat terrain allow it, then make sure you have a reserve of speed to be able to accelerate out of an ambush if it happens. However, due to the constraints of mission and time, it may not always be possible to mitigate in this way. You may be forced to take main roads and be restricted by specific timings due to the requirements of the mission or the client. Realistically you may be moving faster. That is fine; ensure that you have some acceleration in reserve for if the situation takes a left turn.

“Profile” is a big factor. This refers to the posture that you portray as you are moving around. It mainly refers to high and low profiles, but within that there are nuances of presentation and behavior, which also has implications for professionalism. Profile is also related to escalation of force or ROE guidelines, for instance it may have relevance to the ability to have weapons mounted on your vehicles, and the type, which may then have an impact on the relationship between your firepower and protection situation. Given that armored vehicles are a balance of protection, mobility and firepower, for a “client” vehicle, you would not compromise the protection by making modifications to increase firepower. But for other vehicles, such as the rear gun truck then you needed to modify the vehicle, thus decreasing the protection, but increasing the ability to generate fire. If you are going to maintain an Iraq style high profile security bubble, like the 100 meter bubble, you need the ability to escalate force. This will depend on the relationship between escalation of force guidelines and the threat, in the case of Iraq this was a response to suicide vehicle IEDs. In the south of Iraq, explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) were more of a threat than the suicide vehicle bomb, and in this case alternative tactics were often adopted, such as mingling within traffic and dispending with the security bubble. This was an attempt to mitigate against the initiation method primarily used with EFPs. If you are traveling low profile, then you may be in unarmored vehicles unless you have up-armored low profile disguised vehicles. In this case, your protection is provided by your profile and you may have limited firepower, with the difference that with unarmored vehicles you can generate fire from within vehicles as necessary.

When driving in a high threat environment you need to be scanning the road ahead for possible indicators of an IED or ambush. All the personnel in the vehicle will have assigned sectors and will report back anything suspicious. Keep the vehicles away from the verge and the median, which is the most likely place for IEDs, though don’t discount IEDs under the road or in potholes, and also allows you to stagger any protected vehicles in the center of the formation away from the assessed direction of greatest threat. If you see anything in the road ahead, then you should avoid it, passing back the information on the radio to the convoy. However, be aware of attempts to channel you and you have to make a judgment call. If it looks too suspicious, then don’t even drive past or around it, but stop and either take an alternative route; beware that stopping or diverting you may be the intention of the enemy. In the early days in Iraq, it was considered the thing not to use seat belts. However, casualties were caused due to the road traffic accidents caused by roadside IEDs, which would otherwise be survivable except for the crash; and high speeds used as vehicles sped along trying to avoid ambush. Later, it was considered safe to be strapped in and undo the seat belt if you needed to get out. It is also important to note that all loose equipment inside a vehicle must be lashed down with ratchet straps to strong points. This is so, in case of a crash or rollover, the occupants do not get injured by such equipment flying around. All items such as jacks, ammo cans or other heavy stuff needs to be tied down.

The key thing in an ambush is to get “off the X” as soon as possible. If you have not managed to avoid, and you end up ambushed with no obstruction in the road, then try to speed up and drive through. Return fire from the vehicles if possible. If the way out to the front is blocked, and there is no feasible way forward, or around, or off to the side around the road block, then reverse out. If a route is blocked by light vehicles then you may be able to drive through it and ram vehicles out of the way: the technique is to slow down into low gear to approach the block, then gun the engine at the last minute and push, not smash, the vehicles out the way: strike at the corners to push the vehicles off to the side. If a vehicle is immobilized on the X, then in simple terms you have two options: 1) A rescue vehicle comes back, or forward from the rear, and “cross-decks” the crew, bearing in mind that if neither vehicle is armored, this severely reduces survivability and lessens the protection you have from the immobilized vehicle as you conduct this maneuver; preferably you will have a third vehicle providing fire support during this. 2) The convoy having transited the ambush with the exception of the immobilized vehicle, the surviving vehicles dismount outside of the X and take up a position of fire support while those in the immobilized vehicle dismount and fight back to them using fire and movement. The details will not be covered here, but suffice to say that a series of drills will be agreed and practiced to over the variety of “vehicle immobilized” situations, which will involve variations on “cross decking” and vehicle mounted and dismounted fire and movement.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, various types of both high and low profile movement and operations were conducted. Sometimes, operations in Iraq were conducted low profile. Local operators were trained and used in advance vehicles to spot threats down the road. When operating low profile, a lot of care has to be taken with appearance. It is not simply good enough to sit in the vehicle in all your gear; note that however hard you try, unless you are from that region by ethnic descent, the locals will always spot you as westerners as soon as you get close. But a little disguise works most of the time at a distance and reduces attention. If you are operating low profile, you have to remember that you cannot have stand-off distance and you cannot keep vehicles away from your convoy packet. This means that you have to mingle and merge with the traffic; low profile may reduce your risk of insurgent attack, but we were engaged once by an Iraqi police machine gunner at a police checkpoint and another time by a National Guard turret gunner who was firing at traffic to keep it back as his convoy came down the on ramp to ‘Route Irish” in Baghdad, which is the BIAP road and in his defense it is notorious for suicide vehicle bomb attacks. However high profile will not always save you from friendly fire: our team was engaged and “lit up” in Fallujah by the US Marine Corps while moving in high profile SUVs.

The high profile version is exemplified by experiences during a year in Fallujah. The client was military and we operated in high profile SUVs and also “Reva” armored personnel carriers purchased from South Africa. The Reva had two turret guns on top and we mainly used them for moving around Fallujah itself, whereas we would travel in the SUVs either back to the BIAP (Baghdad Airport) or out west when we went out on rural missions, or to Ramadi and Al Asad. These vehicles were fully marked up with luminous tape on the windshield and the same warning signs that Coalition military convoys used: “stay back 100m”. Operating high profile like this allowed us to move as a self-contained packet and keep a 100m bubble around us to keep the suicide vehicle IEDs back. However, if you are high profile you are asking for insurgent attention. As an example, our admin runs back and forth to the BIAP from camp Fallujah along “Route Mobile”, which is like an Interstate highway, were notorious for enemy contact, in particular in the area between Abu Ghraib and the “strip wood” where a palm wood area crossed the road. The main threat here seemed to be SAF (small arms fire), with teams battling it out with insurgent gun teams placed off to the flanks of the road. When in the Reva’s, the double turrets made this easy. The armored SUVs were a different matter because you cannot fire out of them. To counter this, we had replaced the rear doors on the lead and chase (not the client) vehicles with a metal door with a firing port. In the truck was a rear facing seat where the rear gunner would sit. This would allow the front and rear vehicles to engage enemy, but the arcs were restricted to the rear and as far to the sides as the gunner could bring the weapon to bear. Other outfits had done things like make side firing ports in their vehicles, even gun turrets out through the roof. The gunner was equipped with an M4 for legal firing of accurate warning shots (per escalation of force guidelines) but the weapon of choice in a contact was a SAW (M249) with a box of 200 rounds on it. Once contact was initiated the SAW would attempt to get the angle on the enemy and suppress them as the convoy attempted to drive through the ambush.

Other times, complex ambushes would be experienced and survived, mainly due to the incompetence of the enemy execution. Armored glass would routinely need replacing after hits and damage on missions. However, other times it would go wrong. There were a steady number of casualties among private security contractors. We took casualties and sustained fatalities, and friends were killed on other contracts elsewhere. A decent amount of casualties were caused by EFPs, which often were survived by the victims who tended to suffer traumatic amputation of the lower limbs. A correctly sited EFP could put its strike right through the front cab of an armored vehicle, while leaving those in the back unharmed.

In Afghanistan, in particular with experiences in Helmand Province, it is such a desolate and backwards place that it is really hard to adopt a profile other than a high profile. Whatever you are doing you will stand out. Due to the nature of the rural terrain and fighting many operations had to be conducted in close cooperation with the military. Suicide Bombers were a problem and armored SUVs were a necessity; on one occasion a suicide bomber threw himself on the hood of one in Lashkar Gah but the armor protected it and the vehicle was not breached. Movement in Helmand was a combination of ground moves in civilian armored SUVs as well as movement in military vehicles and convoys and also the use of military rotary wing transport helicopters to reach some of the remote and outlying locations. Support Helicopters are vulnerable to, and were targeted, by RPGs. Conditions in Afghanistan are so rudimentary that you are really camping out in buildings and compounds.

In conclusion, there is very little different between military and civilian contractor movement in high threat combat environments. Drills and TTPs (tactics, techniques and procedures) need to be developed by teams in order to mitigate threat and increase survivability. Such TTPs and responses will be determined by the threat, equipment and weapons available, and the political and legal framework of the operation.