March 12, 2010

"Zero: 79-Alpha, No-Drug Now, Over." "No-Drug Now, out."

One of the things that Michael Yon's latest dispatch shows is that he really has no clear idea about current military operational doctrine. Now, that wouldn't be a failing in 99% of humanity, but his stock in trade is supposedly explaining wars to regular people, so you think he'd be better at it.

Case in point:

Colonel Tunnell said that TF-K Area of Operations is Kandahar, but the specific area around the bridge had been assigned to GDA (RAF), and that when units such as those from 5/2 conducting route clearance, or 82nd Airborne, drive over the bridge, they enter what’s called an “Ops Box.”

In this case, the Ops Box is a transit zone over the bridge. Transiting units radio up to RC-South “CJOC” saying they are entering the Ops Box, and call when they leave.

Yon accompanies this with a Google Earth image of the bridge with a 1km box around it, handily labelled "Ops Box."

Is it enough for me to say that this quote will show to any soldier reading it that Yon has no idea what the phrase "ops box" -- about the most important phrase there is in understanding how NATO and hence ISAF operations come together -- really means? Can I just tell you it's not a little tiny box around a bridge which you "call when you enter and leave?"

No? Okay. Without getting into extensive detail, an ops box is an area with specific rules of engagement, and where certain operational activities (patrols, engagements, shuras, convoys, you name it) are essentially "pre-approved": if you can confirm you're in the ops box, and that kind of operation has been permitted for that ops box, you don't need to reconfirm your authority to operate. It's a hugely important control measure: a geographic and time-dependent "hard left and right of arc" that precisely circumscribes any ISAF unit's currently approved freedom of action. It's not a line that you draw lightly, or without good reason, and is always extensively and thoroughly planned.

Ops boxes can vary widely in size, nature, and intent, but I'll guarantee you there isn't a little tiny one like Yon draws around the Tarnak River bridge. It's related to, but significantly different from, the related terms Area of Operations (AO: the area where your soldiers are likely to be found) and Area of Operational Responsibility (AOR: the area where you are on the hook if something bad happens.)

I suspect what Col Tunnell meant was that that section of Highway 4 between KAF and the city was OUTSIDE his formation's current ops box, which meant all traffic-control and positional awareness for his troops in transit was being performed by another KAF-based headquarters (Aside: Yon says the CJOC (Div HQ)? Really? Every 3-truck convoy is calling into a Div HQ, one responsible for all southern Afghanistan, as they drive down the highway? Hey, I'm not there, but I suspect he missed the point that was being explained to him there, too.), and American units heading up to Tunnell's brigade's area of operations had to make sure that particular HQ knew when they were passing through it and be on the right radio frequency* during their time on that stretch of road. But that has nothing to do with the bridge. Yon was just throwing terms around he didn't clearly understand in an effort to look smart. Didn't work.

From KAF into Kandahar City is a fast ride: an example of the radio communications any passing unit would likely emit as they passed over the bridge would be the voice procedure sample I used to title this post: just an indication that they'd passed a specific midway point, which happens to be near the bridge. The whole trip could take no more than 20 minutes between when you entered the city and when you entered KAF itself. (In my time, "Arches" and "MiG" respectively.)

So even though a full colonel and brigade commander "got out the markers" and took a full evening (which I'm sure he could have been using to fight the insurgency instead) to explain it to him, Yon still couldn't grasp the colonel's point. That's why I'm also a little skeptical when he says it was Col. Tunnell who blamed Canadian BGen Menard for his soldier's death: probably another nuance Yon missed there, as well, and normally full Colonels in any army are too much the diplomats to accuse another country's general officer of negligence in front of a reporter, at least in my experience.

Yon is not a war correspondent, possessed of deep writing or comprehension skills, like a Sheehan or a Halberstam: he doesn't have the chops. He's a jingo, a battlefield tourist, like the young Churchill at Omdurman (and that's a flattering comparison indeed). And like Churchill, his antics are tolerated because they bump up support for the U.S. military at home. But he's nothing more than that.

*As a complete aside, any soldier who drove that road will tell you, whoever answered the radio at the Kandahar PRT at night during Roto 6 (late 2008 to early 2009) had a lovely voice. No idea who she was, but she had me (and everyone else) at "Zero."

Posted by BruceR at 08:11 AM