Friday, April 2, 2010

The Weakness of Taliban Marksmanship

talibanReuters Taliban fighters training in Afghanistan in 2009.
Af-Pak

Last week, At War opened a conversation about Afghan marksmanship by publishing rough data from several dozen recent firefights between the Taliban and three Marine rifle companies in and near Marja, the location of the recent offensive in Helmand Province. The data showed that while the Taliban can be canny and brave in combat their rifle fire is often remarkably ineffective.

We plan more posts about the nature of the fighting in Afghanistan, and how this influences the experience of the war. Today this blog discusses visible factors that, individually and together, predict poor shooting results when Taliban gunmen get behind their rifles.

It’s worth noting that many survivors of multiple small-arms engagements in Afghanistan have had experiences similar to those described last week. After emerging unscathed from ambushes, including ambushes within ranges at which the Taliban’s AK-47 knock-offs should have been effective, they wonder: how did so much Taliban fire miss?

Many factors are at play. Some of you jumped ahead and submitted comments that would fit neatly on the list; thank you for the insights. Our list includes these: limited Taliban knowledge of marksmanship fundamentals, a frequent reliance on automatic fire from assault rifles, the poor condition of many of those rifles, old and mismatched ammunition that is also in poor condition, widespread eye problems and uncorrected vision, and the difficulties faced by a scattered force in organizing quality training.

There are other factors, too. But this is enough for now. Already it’s a big list.

For those who face the Taliban on patrol, the size and complexity of this list can be read as good news, because when it comes to rifle fighting, the Taliban – absent major shifts in training, equipment and logistics – are likely to remain mediocre or worse at one of the central skills of modern war. And the chance of any individual American or Afghan soldier being shot will remain very small. The flip side is that parts of the list can also be read as bad news for Western military units, because Afghan army and police ranks are dense with non-shooters, too.

Limited Appreciation of Marksmanship Fundamentals

Let’s dispense outright with talk of born marksmen. Although some people are inclined to be better shots than others, and have a knack, marksmanship itself is not a natural trait. It is an acquired skill. It requires instruction and practice. Coaching helps, too. Combat marksmanship further requires calm. Yes, the combined powers of clear vision, coordination, fitness, patience, concentration and self-discipline all play roles in how a shooter’s skill develop. So do motivation and resolve. But even a shooter with natural gifts and strong urges to fight can’t be expected to be consistently effective with a rifle with iron sights at common Afghan engagement ranges (say, 200 yards or more, often much more) without mastering the basics. These include sight picture, sight adjustment, trigger control, breathing, the use of a sling and various shooting positions that improve accuracy. (For those of you in the gun-fighting business, forgive this discussion; many readers here do not know what you know.)

Related skills are also important, the more so in Afghanistan, where distances between combatants can be long and strong winds common, especially by day, when most Taliban shooting occurs. These skills include an ability to estimate range, to account for wind as distances stretch out and a sense of how to lead moving targets — a running man, a fast-moving vehicle, a helicopter moving low over the ground. And there are many more.

We noted last week that our discussions about Taliban marksmanship rely on what can be seen and heard of incoming fire; this is because we don’t embed with the Taliban. Without being beside Taliban fighters in a firefight or attending their training classes, it can be hard to say exactly what mistakes they are making when they repeatedly miss what would seem to be easy shots, such as Marines and Afghan soldiers upright in the open at 150 yards. Two things are clear enough. First, for combatants who become expert shots, the skills that make up accurate shooting have formed into habits. Second, many Afghan insurgents do not possess the full set of these skills. This is demonstrated by the results, but also by a behavior easy to detect in firefights: they often fire an automatic, which leads to the next point.

A Frequent Reliance on Automatic Fire

Few sounds are as distinctive as those made by Kalashnikov rounds passing high overhead. The previous sentence is written that way – rounds and overhead – for a reason, because this is a common way that incoming Kalashnikov fire is heard in Afghanistan: in bursts, and high. Over and again in ambushes and firefights, the Taliban’s gunmen fire their AK-47 knockoffs on automatic mode. The Kalashnikov series already suffers from inherent range and accuracy limitations related to its medium-power cartridges, its relatively short barrel, the short space between its rear and front sights, and the heavy mass and deliberately loose fit of the integrated bolt carrier and gas piston traveling within the receiver.

For many shooters, the limitations resulting from these design characteristics are manageable at shorter ranges and with disciplined shooting. In certain environments and conditions, including in dense vegetation where typical skirmish distances shrink, the limitations are easily overcome. Add distance between a shooter and a target, and fire a Kalashnikov on automatic, and the rifle’s weaknesses can emerge starkly. There are reasons for this. One is perceptible to people who are shot at but not struck. When fired on automatic, the weapon’s muzzle rises. Bullets start to climb. At very short ranges, a round from a climbing muzzle might still hit a man. At longer ranges, which are common in arid Afghanistan, the chances of a hit decline sharply. Rounds travel over heads.

For decades, those who have trained Afghan fighters have cajoled, preached and drilled the importance of firing on semiautomatic mode (read: one shot for each trigger pull) for most situations. A Marine lieutenant colonel I served with in the 1980s and 1990s had been previously assigned to Pakistan to train anti-Soviet mujahedeen. His accounts of Afghan and foreign fighters who were impervious to instruction on the importance of single-shot fire would seem to describe many insurgents in the field in Afghanistan today.

Poor Condition of Rifles

While Taliban fighters commonly use Kalashnikov rifles, other firearms are in the mix, including PK machine guns and sometimes Lee-Enfield rifles. After one skirmish in Marja, Kilo Company, Third Battalion, Sixth Marines captured, in addition to two Kalashnikovs, a single-shot 12-gauge shotgun with a collapsible stock and an assortment of buckshot rounds. The shotgun was notable not just because it was a battlefield novelty, but also because it was in excellent condition.

The weapons captured by Kilo Company were of types well regarded for reliability. But reliability and accuracy are different things, and these rifles pointed to another factor influencing Taliban marksmanship. Look below at two weapons that the company’s First Platoon collected during a long, rolling gunfight on another day. Their condition assured that they could not be fired with optimal accuracy.

C.J. Chivers

The problem with the first rifle is easy to spot: it is missing its wooden stock. While this makes the weapon more readily concealable, it also makes it almost impossible for a shooter to hold steady while firing. A shooter who tried firing that rifle from his right shoulder would probably reconsider quickly, as the exposed and pointed base of the receiver would bruise his shoulder muscle. One likely way to fire this weapon would be to hold it away from the body while pulling the trigger.

ak missing screwC.J. Chivers

That is not a preferred shooting position. At short ranges this rifle could still be nasty. It is more than ready for crime. But for a complex firefight at typical ranges against a conventional Western infantry unit? Beyond providing suppressive fire and making noise, it would not be of much use.

The problem with the second rifle is more subtle but still obvious – one of the original screws that affixed the wooden stock to the rifle’s receiver is missing. Its absence allows for wobble. Wobble assures inaccuracy.

Mismatched, Old or Corroding Ammunition

A post here in January, discussed the mixed sources of Taliban rifle ammunition evident in captured rifle magazines.

In February, Kilo Company captured several Taliban chest rigs, which together held many more Kalashnikov magazines. The company allowed an inventory of all of this ammunition and an examination of its condition and head stamps, which usually tell where and when a round was manufactured. The inventory showed that Taliban magazines contained a hodgepodge of old ammunition and rounds of mixed provenance, along with ammunition identical to what had been issued to Afghan government forces.

The post in January noted that this blog would discuss how mixed ammunition might undermine accuracy. Here’s the short course. Rifle cartridges that appear to be identical but are made in different factories, nations and decades can have different characteristics that affect a bullet’s flight. Different propellants, for example, change muzzle velocities and therefore change a bullet’s trajectory. Moreover, as ammunition ages, it can degrade, especially when exposed to moisture over time and to extremes in temperature. Over many years, the effects of heat cycling – the ups and downs of ammunition temperatures between night and day, and the more extreme temperature swings between winter and summer – accelerate decay and can undermine consistent ballistic performance. And when ballistic performance becomes inconsistent, bullets aimed and fired in exactly the same way do not end up in the same places.

Units that are serious about marksmanship take their ammunition seriously. They train and adjust the sights of their rifles with the same ammunition they carry in combat. They try to store ammunition in ways that keep it clean, dry, and, if not at a stable temperature, at least within a narrower temperature swing.

The ammunition carried by Taliban fighters in Marja showed a wide range of ages and points of manufacture. Sometimes a single magazine would have more than 10 different sources. Many rounds were filthy. Others were corroded. This is not a recipe for accuracy.

Poor and Uncorrected Vision

Next on the list was a matter of public health. Many Afghans suffer from uncorrected vision problems, which have roots in factors ranging from poor childhood nutrition to the scarcity of medical care. One reader submitted a comment as thought-provoking on this theme as anything we might type. The blog defers to the reader, “Rosenkranz, Boston.”

A substantial percentage of individuals worldwide suffer from myopia, which probably is the case among the Taliban as well; in general, the developing world has limited or nonexistent prescription eyewear use, and I think it’s generous to consider Afghanistan “developing.” I doubt the Taliban’s health care coverage, such as it is, has a very generous prescription policy. Additionally, the high altitude of Afghanistan increases the likelihood of cataracts due to increased ultraviolet exposure and again, there are probably limited cataract extractions, Ray-ban or Oakley options as well. Lacking extant shopping malls replete with optical shops and sunglass kiosks, and often squinting, half-blind, and sun burned, it’s amazing that the Taliban do as well as they do.

Thank you, “Rosencranz.”

Using the iron sights on an infantry rifle requires a mix of vision-related tasks. A shooter must be able to discern both the rifle’s rear and front sights (directly in front of the shooter’s face) and also see the target (as far as several hundred yards off). Then the former must be aligned with the latter. This is difficult in ideal circumstances for lightly trained gunmen; for some people with bad vision, it might be almost impossible. Over the years many officers and noncommissioned officers who train Afghan police and soldiers have said that a significant number of Afghan recruits struggle because of their eyesight. The Taliban recruit their fighters from the same population; poor vision can be expected to be a factor in their poor riflery.

The Difficulties of Organizing Training

The Taliban are a far-flung organization, and operate in decentralized fashion. As Afghan and Western troop levels have risen, and as more drones and aircraft have been flying overhead, insurgents have effectively blended into the civilian population. The shift from being an open presence to being an underground force has consequences. The old training camps in Afghanistan long ago disappeared; as a result, opportunities to provide formal instruction to new fighters are not what they were. The Taliban claim to run camps still. That may be so. Their camps are unlikely to be as robust as the network that existed through mid-2001. Areas of Pakistan also provide training sites, but again, the drone presence makes this more difficult than before. And without ample opportunities to train, the Taliban’s rank-and-file cannot be expected to master marksmanship. It is true that war can sharpen the fighting skills of surviving combatants, and so it is likely that among the Taliban there is a core of veteran and more effective fighters. But it is also true that as a combat force is pressured, attrition constantly steals its talent. Over time, without fresh recruits who have undergone sufficient training, a fighting force’s skills, as a whole, diminish. In a long war, it is not enough just to hand out ammunition and guns. History is full of examples.

Fighting on Taliban Terms

Nothing discussed above is necessarily surprising if the Taliban are considered in context. They are an insurgent force, not a conventional outfit supported by the resources of a Western government and economy. Their state of equipment and readiness are naturally lower than those of their Western foes.

Can the Taliban correct all of the problems contributing to their poor marksmanship? To do so, they would have to develop a marksmanship curriculum and the training to support it. They would have to examine their rifles and repair or replace many of them. Ammunition would have to be standardized, and eyesight problems diagnosed and treated. These ambitions have proved hard to achieve in the Afghan National Army and for the Afghan police, both of which have been supported for nearly a decade by the Pentagon. There is little reason to expect any of it to happen. Taliban rifle shooting will almost certainly stay bad.

What does this mean? The previous post ended with a quote about poor Taliban marksmanship from Capt. Stephan P. Karabin II, who commands Charlie Company, First Battalion, Third Marines. This post will wind down with the help of one of his fellow company commanders, Capt. Thomas Grace, of the battalion’s Bravo Company. Captain Grace sent an insightful e-mail here over the weekend. His note summarized many things.

First, a fuller look at his Marines’ experience with Taliban rifle fire.

[Bravo Company] has participated in over 200 patrols and been in countless engagements over the course of six months with actual boots on the ground. We have been in over a dozen actual Troop-In-Contact (TICs) warranting Close Air Support (CAS) and priority of assets because of the severity of the contact or pending contact. The only weapons systems the insurgents were effective with were machine guns, and only at suppressing our movement. We only had one instance where Marines reported single shots (possibly a “sniper” or insurgent with a long-range rifle) being effective as suppression. [Bravo Company] had no Marines struck by machine-gun or small-arms rounds, some really close calls but no hits.

Later, Captain Grace discussed how the Taliban, in spite of such unmistakably poor marksmanship skills, adapted and managed to be a relevant fighting force, and have at times elevated shoddy shooting from harassing fire into part of a complicated and lethal form of trap. Afghans who might not be able to settle into a gunfight against a patrol with superior equipment and training have learned to herd Western forces toward hidden bombs, which the military calls improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.s.

We operated the entire deployment, on every patrol, in the horns of a dilemma. Insurgent forces would engage our forces from a distance with machine-gun fire and sporadic small arms and carefully watch our immediate actions. From day one, at the sound of the sonic pop of the round, Marines are taught to seek immediate cover and identify the source/location of the fire. Cover is almost always available in Afghanistan in the form or dirt berms, dry/filled canals and buildings. Marines tend to gravitate toward the aforementioned terrain features. So what the insurgents would do was booby-trap those areas with I.E.D.s. Whether they were pressure plates or pressure release, they were primed to detonate as Marines dove for cover. Back to the horns of a dilemma. Do I jump for the nearest cover? Run to the nearest building? Jump in the nearest canal? Do I take my chances and stand where I am and drop in place? Not necessarily the things you need to be contemplating as rounds are impacting all around you.

Three of Bravo Company’s Marines were killed, on three separate patrols, as a result of this tactic. The captain’s descriptions, and those deaths, carry an implicit message. Just because a man can’t shoot well, does not mean he is stupid or unable to fight. Western forces might be fighting an enemy with run-down equipment and comparatively primitive conventional skills. But they are fighting people, like themselves, men who think and adjust, and who can force a fight to be fought on their terms.

Again, Captain Grace:

There is no textbook countermeasure against this tactic, only constant attention to your surroundings — up, down, left and right — and over time realizing historical areas of contact and thinking about things from the enemies’ perspective.

That returns this post to its context. For the Taliban, bad shooting sometimes has proved to be good enough. For all of their shortcomings, the Taliban’s level of training and state of equipment have thus far been more than sufficient for waging a patient, low-intensity war for years, and for fighting Afghan government forces, which exhibit similar skill deficiencies. They are also more than capable of exerting influence over the Afghan civilian population, which for an insurgent is a large part of the war.

If you’ve made it this far, you deserve a fresh cup of coffee. Go get one. Check back later. It’s not just the Taliban who struggle to shoot straight. Next, At War will look at the poor shooting skills of the Afghan government troops, and provide an example of wild American rifle fire, too.

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