Did Fratricide Fears Stop Fire Support at Ganjgal?

The Ganjgal 15-6 investigation levels some pretty heavy blame on the battalion command for being absent during the key moments of an ambush of Army and Marine trainers that left five Americans and eight Afghan soldiers dead. Officers in the battalion TOC failed to “competently track the battle and synchronize efforts” to provide fire support to the ambushed troops, it reads. Timely indirect fire support was not provided, even though repeated calls went out for just that.

The issue of fire support is a big one here. Only four artillery salvoes were fired in the first minutes of the operation and then all other requests for fires were denies. According to reporting by McClatchy’s Jonathan Landay, a field officer in one command post denied fire support because of a lack of “situational awareness” of friendly locations and the location of a village nearby.

The report notes that the ambushed troops blamed the lack of fire support on Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s tactical directive restraining the use of artillery and air strikes. The report says that was not the case.

It’s likely that fear of fratricide was a bigger concern to the fire support officers in the battalion TOC and at higher headquarters than fears of killing civilians. The report repeatedly criticizes the lack of situational awareness of the battle at all echelons.

A good example of the difficulty in getting clarity on a dynamic situation is provided by Josh McLaughlin, at the al Sawha blog site, who recounts a story from 2008 when he was in Iraq serving as the Task Force Fire Support Officer in a TOC when a platoon from his battalion was hit by a complex attack.

Gun runs by OH-58 Kiowas were not enough to run off the insurgents so the soldiers on the ground called in an air strike on a mosque from which they were taking fire. They decided to drop a 500 pound bomb from a pair of F-16s overhead. McLaughlin explains what happened next:

“We checked and re-checked the engagement location with the ground elements, running their grids through our targeting systems to ensure we were about to target the correct building (in this case a mosque). After doing this multiple times, attempting to confirm visually through our sensors, we finally received clearance to engage. As the F-16 began its final run-in, we were told by the powers that be to abort the 500 pound bomb drop. Hellfire strikes from the OH-58s coupled with advancing US and Iraqi elements were able to finally gain control of the situation.

As the event culminated, I sat and watched in amazement as the elements on the ground cleared a different mosque than the one we had seemingly confirmed a dozen times over. The grid my team in the TOC was provided with over and over again was not the location the ground element was clearing. My Fire Supporters in the TOC took the grid from the ground element and the building description and found a match. What we did not realize is that there were multiple mosques in the area matching the description, and one of them was too new to be on our newest and most up-to-date imagery.”

Even with aerial drones orbiting the battlefield they were still unable to get the fire coordinates right. Now think of troops in contact and frantic radio calls and absent officers and no overhead surveillance. I can understand the reluctance of officers to start calling in strikes when they don’t have a good handle on where the good and bad guys are.

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