Operation Red Wings

“It’s not the critic that counts, but the man in the ring with the blood on his face.”

Several people have emailed me the link to an article in the Captains Journal and asked me to comment. The article is titled: ‘A Marine Corps View Of Tactics In Operation Red Wings‘ and is actually pretty interesting. One commenter told me: “Sounds like you discussing ‘Lone Survivor.’ The critique here is spot on, I believe.  Sounds strikingly familiar, like one of your lectures/posts.”

My intent here is to comment on some of the issues raised in the article, and not armchair quarterback what the SEALs did on that mountain. I wasn’t there, but given that, there are areas in which comment may be constructive. I have also not yet seen the movie ‘Lone Survivor’ although I want to and will so so at some point. But hey, its  a movie anyway, so it doesn’t matter, right?

So, the first thing you need to do is read the Captains Journal article. HERE.

Here is the part of the article with Herschel’s son Daniel’s (USMC) comments, with my comments added in bold:

“This operation should never have come off the way it did.  The Marines don’t take chances.  I saw a room full of Navy SEALs sitting on their assess back at the FOB doing nothing but monitoring comms.  If you set four SEALs down by helicopter, you could have set an entire platoon down.  There was no reason to limit the recon team to four.” No. I will add some detail below on the context of the mission. However a four man team, covert, is fine as a recce team. Setting a platoon down defeats the object of a covert recce team. What is important here is a good plan to get them out if they are compromised. 

“I was on a recon mission in Fallujah, and we had an entire platoon.  We were monitoring a mosque for anti-American messaging, and we were beside a building (abandoned school) that AQ was using to execute leaders of Fallujah.  We were watching the mosque and someone came over comms and said, “Um guys, there are dudes with masks on that just got out of cars with some other dude who had a hood on.”  We started watching them, and sure enough, they were AQ getting reading to execute another elder.  We laid waste to them because we had a platoon, not a four man fire team.  Even when doing recon, we have enough men.  We escorted snipers to their two- or three-day post, and then escorted them back.  We didn’t want our Scout Snipers getting killed on the way to or from their post.” There is a tactical misunderstanding here between the objective of a recon or sniper mission, and the use of security/QRF teams to provide protection to the recce/sniper team.   A platoon is fighting patrol, a four man team is a recce patrol. 

“Alternatively, since you knew comms was going to be bad on the other side of that mountain, you could have set down another team of four SEALs on top of the mountain or near it, who could have then relayed comms to the FOB from the recon team.  We did stuff like that all the time.  There was no excuse to have sent a team of four.  And there was no excuse to have poor comms when you knew you were going to have poor comms.” Again, it is not in the use of a team of four (what’s with the hatred of teams of four?), this comment is more a criticism  of the specific operational planning and the lack of use of a comms rebroadcast/relay team. However, going big early is not always the answer.

“Another example showing that they didn’t think ahead and plan for the worst is …” (and at that point I interjected, “Why wasn’t anyone carrying …”) a SAW (Daniel said)?  ‘Yes’, I responded.  “The fact that they had suppressed, scoped weapons shows that they were not prepared to lay down suppressive fire.  They hadn’t planned for the worst.  Marines plan for the worst.”  Marines are better than SEALs then? Pissing contest anyone? Anyway, moving on: the team were on a covert recce mission. Sure, it’s a matter of tactical opinion if they could have carried a SAW for use in a cover group. Now we are armchair quarterbacking them. They were at 9000 feet, maybe they felt a SAW was heavy to carry for a covert mission at that altitude?

“Furthermore, they were laying around when the goat herders stumbled up.  If it had been my fire team, I would have said “never stop moving, but if you do, then we’re going to dig in and act like we’re going to defend this terrain to the death.”  We would have dug in in such a manner that we had interlocking fields of fire, all built around a SAW where we could have done fire and maneuver.” Can’t comment – was that in the movie?

“Next, about that conversation they had concerning the goat herders.  I would have ended it in a hurry.  I would have popped both goat herders and then popped all of the goats.  They could charge me later, but in the mean time the operation was compromised and it was time to leave.”  (Editorial note: Comments at this article dream up scenarios where they could have taken the “prisoners” with them and avoided all of the problems.  It’s all a day dream.  Attempting to take the goat herders to the top of the mountain would have slowed them and left them in the same situation, as well as told the goat herders that they were unwilling to shoot them, at which point the goat herders would have done the same thing, run down the mountain and tell the Taliban commanders). Never! It is not the job of a soldier to murder non combatants. What is this crazy talk? Mission compromised, extract. Have an extraction plan just for this is contingency. If they didn’t. that was their planning mistake. All I will say, is if this was time sensitive, like the assault helicopters were on the way and Gus Goatherder popped up, then take him into custody until the mission goes in, then release him. 

He said that they badly underestimated the capabilities of the Afghan fighters.  Those folks were born there, and their lungs are acclimated to the thin air.  Given the weight of the kit they were hauling, it was foolish to think that they could have beaten indigenous men up to the top of the mountain when those men were wearing thin man-dresses and carrying nothing but an AK-47 and a couple of magazines. Can’t comment, haven’t seen the movie yet – was this at the point when the team were trying to E&E? Is it foolish to try to beat the guy to the top of the mountain when to do so will mean you will live? They were in the situation they were in (“it is what it is”), they were trying to survive. If there is fault here, it goes back to the contingency planning on their extraction – but their evacuation ARF chopper was shot down right? That wasn’t in the plan. Shit happens. 

I asked Daniel what the worst case was if an entire platoon of SEALs would have deployed instead of the four man recon team and the Taliban commander wasn’t in the village, and he said “So what?  Take some MREs with you, go into the village, drink chai with the elders, win a little hearts and minds, and get some intel.  Do counterinsurgency, something the SEALs think they’re too good to do.” That wasn’t the mission., The mission was to take out Ahmed Shah. Not accomplished by drinking chai in the village. (Did I mention that Marines were running this mission? More below).

As for the loss of the QRF, Daniel was just livid.  The notion that the QRF lost its CAS to other missions or emergent problems is simply ridiculous.  Losing the Apache helicopters meant exactly one thing.  They lost the QRF.  Period.  If they weren’t dedicated resources, then they never really had a QRF to begin with.  And there was no reason that the C-130s shouldn’t have been refueled and circling above-head the entire time.  They dropped the four man team out there without the right support, without the right weapons (no area suppression weapon), without good comms, and finally, without applying classical infantry tactics. This is the interesting bit, that I will talk about below.

“I’ve seen it before.  The CO didn’t want to hear about problems because they’re all playing the ‘my dick is bigger than your dick’ game.  They sent a SEAL team to do what they should have sent classical infantry to do.  They should have sent in a Marine Corps infantry platoon, or if you want to go all spec ops, send in Marine Force Recon. Ditto, below.

“Or if you don’t want it to be a Marine Corps operation, send in the Rangers.  I understand that SEALs are pretty bad ass.  If you have complex HALO jumps and frogman operations, or hostage rescue, they are the guys to call.  But they don’t do classic infantry fire and maneuver, and that’s what was needed that day.  The Rangers are pretty bad ass too.  Send them in.  They know how to do fire and maneuver, set up interlocking fields of fire, develop enfilade fire, and so on.” This is the sweet spot. More below.

“I patrolled with SEALs once in Fallujah when they were looking for a HVT.  They have this attitude that ‘We’re SEALs.  We don’t need anyone or anything else.’  But that day they did.  They needed infantry, and command should have sent in enough men to prepare for the worst.  They took chances, and good men died as a result.” Ditto, below.

HERE is the Wikipedia article on Operation Red Wings. Below are some background quotes:

The 3rd Battalion of the 3rd Marine Regiment (3/3), which deployed to Regional Command (East) (RC(E)) (which included the Kunar Province) in late 2004 to conduct stability and counterinsurgency operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, identified a number of operational barriers due to Special Operations Command doctrine for the battalion’s counterinsurgency work in the area. These barriers included non-sharing of intelligence with the battalion and non-disclosure of impending raids by special operations units in the area. To mitigate these problems, 3/3’s staff developed an operational model which integrated special operations forces units into their operations, allowing the sharing of intelligence between the battalion and special operations forces as well as maintaining solid operational control of operations with integrated special operations assets and units by the battalion. Operations that 3/3 conducted based on this model proved successful in disrupting ACM activity. The first of these, Operation Spurs (named after the San Antonio Spurs basketball team), conducted in February 2005, took place in the Korangal Valley, in the Kunar Province’s Pech District. Spurs utilized Navy SEALs for the opening two phases of this five phase operation. Similar operations that followed included Operation Mavericks (named after the Dallas Mavericks basketball team), in April, 2005, and Operation Celtics (named after the Boston Celtics basketball team) in May 2005.[16] These operations, all of which included Navy SEALs, were conceived and planned by the battalion, with the specifics of those phases involving Navy SEALs being planned by the SEALs. Each operation lasted between three and four weeks.  3/3 planned and executed approximately one of these operations per month, maintaining a consistent operational tempo. The culmination of 3/3’s efforts was the April, 2005 forced surrender of a regional (and national) “high value” target, an ACM commander known as Najmudeen, who based his operations out of the Korangal Valley. With the surrender of Najmudeen, ACM activity in the region dropped significantly. Najmudeen’s surrender, however, left a power vacuum in the region.

3/3 tracked a number of known ACM groups they determined to be possibly seeking to fill the power void in the region. The battalion began planning a new operation, tentatively called Operation Stars (which was named after the Dallas Stars professional hockey team (3/3’s battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Norman Cooling, hailed from Texas, hence most operations being named after Texas sports teams)). Stars, like the other operations before it, focused on disrupting ACM activity, although due to Najmudeen’s surrender, this activity had dropped and specific groups proved difficult to pinpoint.In May 2005, the Advanced Party of 3/3’s sister battalion, the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Marine Regiment (2/3) arrived in RC(E). Since before deploying to Afghanistan, 2/3’s intelligence officer, Captain Scott Westerfield and his assistants, had been tracking a small cell led by a man named Ahmad Shah, based on intelligence sent back by 3/3’s intelligence officer. Shah was from a remote region in Nangarhar Province, which borders the Kunar Province. Shah, they determined, was responsible for approximately 11 incidents against coalition forces and Government of Afghanistan entities, including small arms ambushes and improvised explosive device attacks. By June, 2005, 2/3 had relieved-in-place 3/3, and had taken the Stars concept and developed a comprehensive operation, an operation they called Operation Red Wings, with the goal of disrupting Anti-Coalition Militia Activity, with an emphasis on disrupting Ahmad Shah’s activities, which were based near the summit of Sawtalo Sar.

Further intelligence, including human intelligence and signals intelligence indicated that Shah based his insurgent / terrorist operations out of some small structures outside of the village of Chichal, high on the slopes of Sawtalo Sar mountain in the upper Korangal Valley, approximately 20 miles to the west of Kunar’s provincial capital, Asadabad. Using imagery Intelligence, taken from a UAV on June 17, 2005, Westerfield identified likely structures used for housing his team, IED making, and overwatch of the area below, for IED strikes. The intelligence staff identified four Named Areas of Interest, or NAIs containing specific structures in which Shah might be using. These Named Areas of Interest and specific buildings were determined by analyzing and processing a number of instances of a variety of intelligence, including signals intelligence, human Intelligence, and imagery Intelligence. Westerfield and his staff determined that Shah and his men had been responsible for approximately 11 incidents against American, Coalition, and Government of Afghanistan entities, including IED strikes and small arms ambushes. They determined that Shah and his men would be occupying the area of Chichal in late June, a time of low lunar illumination. The operation would require a helicopter insert of forces to cordon the area and search for Shah and his men, and they sought to conduct this operation at night, after positive identification of Shah by a Marine Corps Scout / Sniper team, which would walk into the area under cover of darkness some nights before.

As with 3/3 before them, 2/3 sought to use Special Operations Forces assets for Red Wings, but unlike 3/3, they sought only the use of Special Operations Aviation assets, specifically, MH-47 Special Operations Aircraft of the Army Special Operations Command’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) (SOAR(A)), and not ground forces. The command from which 2/3’s planners requested this, however, CJSOTF-A, or Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan, refused this request, stating that in order for Red Wings to be supported with Special Operations aviation, the battalion would have to task the opening phases of the operation to Special Operations Ground Forces for the opening phases of the operation, with Marines of 2/3 acting in a supporting role. After the initial phases of Red Wings, then 2/3 could be considered the lead, supported element. The battalion agreed to this, realizing, however, that this unconventional command structure defied a fundamental tenet of successful military operations – “unity of command“.The operation was presented to a number of Special Operations units working in the area for possible “buy in.” U.S. Navy SEALs from SEAL Team 10 and SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1 expressed interest.

Insert, compromise, and ambush of SEAL reconnaissance and surveillance team:

Late in the night of June 27, 2005, two MH-47 Special Operations Aircraft of the Army Special Operations Command’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) (SOAR(A)) approached Sawtalo Sar. As one of the aircraft performed a number of “decoy drops” to confuse any possible enemy on the ground as to the specific purpose of helicopters, the other inserted, via fastrope, a four-man Navy SEAL reconnaissance and surveillance team in a saddle between Sawtalo Sar and Gatigal Sar, a peak just to the south of Sawtalo Sar. The insert point was roughly one and one half miles from the nearest Named Area of Interest. The team members were team leader Navy Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy of SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1 (SDVT-1), based out of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; Petty Officer Second Class Danny P. Dietz from SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 2 (SDVT-2), based out of Virginia Beach, Virginia; Petty Officer Second Class Matthew G. Axelson from SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1 (SDVT-1); and Navy Hospital Corpsman Second Class Marcus Luttrell, of SEAL Delivery Vehicle Team 1 (SDVT-1). After moving to a pre-determined, covered overwatch position, from which the SEALs could observe the Named Areas of Interest, the team was discovered by local goatherds. After determining that they were civilians, and not combatants, Lieutenant Murphy had them released, according to rules of engagement.

The team, surmising that they would likely be compromised, retreated to a fallback position. Within an hour, the SEAL Reconnaissance and Surveillance team was ambushed by Shah and his men. The SEALs were attacked by RPK light machine guns, AK-47s, RPG-7 Rocket Propelled Grenades, and 82mm mortars. The intensity of the incoming fire, combined with the type of ambush forced the SEAL team into the northeast gulch of Sawtalo Sar, on the Shuryek Valley side of Sawtalo Sar. The SEALs made a number of attempts to contact their combat operations center with a multi-band radio and then with a satellite phone. The team could not establish consistent communication, other than for a period long enough to indicate that they were under attack. Three of the four team members were killed, and the only survivor, Marcus Luttrell, was left unconscious with a number of fractures and other serious wounds. He regained consciousness and was rescued by local Pashtun, who ultimately saved his life, as in his condition, without assistance, he would surely have been killed or captured by the Taliban.


So, to step back from the specifics of the operation for a moment, we see a theme here, something that I have long noticed. You see a dynamic here with the Marines supporting the SEALs in the same way that the Rangers support CAG. But the higher tier units, in this case the SEALs, are calling the shots and playing with all the toys.

There is a reason for special units – it is to select and train people to be very good at specific tasks. These units always tend to evolve their roles. For example, the SAS moving into the counter-terrorism (“black kit”) role and developing it. Navy SEALs moving on from the frogman and underwater demolition role to being very good at dynamic entry/hostage rescue. The thing about special units is that they select and attract a high caliber of individual who then receive a lot of training and can be trained in turn to a high level. There is also an aspect here that involves the politicians who are running the show. We perhaps have an operation that involves actual and political risk. Ok, send in the ‘toppest’ tier super unit you can find. What, the Rangers would do a better job? That’s not the point. Its making politicians happy. This in turn puts all the assets towards the top tier units and allows them to run the show. Political risk aversion.

But really, you should be using the best units for the job. I can’t tell you if the Navy SEAL team did a better or worse job than the scout sniper team that was originally tasked with the recce. Maybe the Marine scout sniper team, having walked in, would not have been compromised? A little more humility and a little less high tech goes a long way. I am reminded of the “super secret hiding positions” used in ‘Team America’!

It’s not about how ‘high speed’ or top tier a unit may be. A lot of it comes down to groupie stuff and the units being untouchable. Lets looks at the CAG/Ranger dynamic. If I wanted a hostage rescued from a building, with perimeter security, then send in CAG with the Rangers on the perimeter.  The Rangers themselves are ‘Special Operations Forces’ and are infantry at a high level. Therefore, if I wanted a company attack or raid, with supporting assets, to go in on an enemy location, I want the Rangers to do it. High level infantry stuff. But high level because it is basics trained at a high level, carried out by fit and motivated soldiers, not because there is anything super secret about what they do.

If it is true that the SEALs lacked basic infantry skills, then that is a big no no. It doesn’t matter what unit you come from, if you are on the ground playing soldiers, you need to have your small unit tactics squared away. This is not ‘special’ anything. It is good solid basics conducted by highly fit and motivated individuals. That is why it is ‘special’. nothing more. This is why you get this disdain by individuals such as Herschel’s son, a Marine, who knows his infantry work. His disdain is for those who think they are too good, who are trying to ‘specops’ their way through, without realizing that what it may take is another box of SAW ammo, and some good solid infantry work.

And of course, this ‘specops’ mentality pervades into the civilian training world,  the tacticool world, and the point is missed by the fanboys.

Good special forces are good not only because they get good at whatever their actual specialism is, but because when they do the more standard infantry work, they do it to a very high level. They may plan a recce patrol, and plan it well, checking equipment, rehearsing, planning and executing with a high level of motivation and attention to detail. It is about quiet professionalism and hard graft, not being super cool. There is no reason that you should be any different in your training.

Whatever the standard of the infantry skills of those four SEALs, and I can’t comment on what it may have been, they were out there, and they fought as best they could. That cannot be criticized. What perhaps can, is the organizational environment that led to them doing what they were doing with the support that they had, or didn’t have.

One thing is for sure, three of them are feasting in Valhalla, brave men all.

Live hard.

Die Free.


Till Valhalla!