Under Fire- Caught in an Ambush

As a graduate of the Ranger School, I have been…

As a graduate of the Ranger School, I have been on both ends of an ambush, directly and indirectly, giving and receiving. It is generally accepted in military circles that there are two types of the oldest tactics known to man, planned and unplanned or hasty/contact ambushes. Ambushes can be force multipliers and are capable of overcoming larger and better-armed units as long as it enjoys the key element of surprise, establishes and maintains fire superiority and contains the enemy within the kill zone. However, ambushes are not impervious and can be defeated with early detection and properly executed fire and maneuver by well-trained and aggressive soldiers or police.

My definition of an ambush is the execution of a surprise attack from a concealed position against an unsuspecting or unaware enemy. It can involve thousands or small elements of armed personnel and can take place anywhere that surprise or subterfuge can be employed. Usually, it commences by an assault by fire followed by a physical assault to ensure total destruction of the enemy, acquisition of intelligence, weapons and equipment seizures and to capture prisoners.

Ambushes take advantage of dominating terrain, but have been successfully executed from ground level and below ground level especially at night, so targets are silhouetted against the night sky.

Ambushes are usually geometric in shape to avoid conflict of fires, but can comply with the randomness of the terrain. However, fields of fire must be established and carefully observed. This is not to say that the enemy is loathe to shoot in each other’s direction, such as in area ambushes, V- and U-shaped positions, but the trajectory of fire may be upward, taking it over the heads on an enemy in defilade.

However, whether planned or hasty they generally fall into categories: L-shaped and Linear. This refers to the main body or those personnel that can saturate the kill zone with their weapons. It does not describe the placement of security and early warning elements in depth or fall back positions and command and control locations.

L-shaped Ambush
Of the two, the L-shaped is the most effective and usually requires some planning and careful selection of terrain. Usually it places the short leg of the “L” on a road, river or trail curve or a building that faces the long axis of a street, so that automatic weapons can fire down the long leg through the column with enfilading fire. In daylight, higher ground is preferred, but at night a defiladed position may be the best option so that opponents are outlined against moonlight or starlight. However, in the age of night vision and infrared technology, “daylight” is available 24/7.

Linear Ambush
Linear ambushes are quicker and easier to set up. They are most frequently involved in ambushes of opportunity or contact ambushes. Linear ambushes establish security positions to protect the flanks of the ambush. Leaders most often place themselves near the middle of the ambush, so they can judge when most of the enemy are in the kill zone. Both ambushes are initiated either on command or if they are compromised. Sustained heavy automatic weapons fire or command-detonated mines and explosives frequently commence attacks in an effort to establish and maintain fire superiority.

It should also be noted that ambushes can also be classified as near or far in relation to the kill zone and established doctrine calls for different actions to survive and possibly defeat them.

A large number of ambushes have been launched against coalition forces and civilian contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of the ambushes have failed against prepared personnel, but many have resulted in assassinations and hostage taking. The majority of these have been mobile ambushes or ambushes against persons in vehicles.

RPGs & IEDs
Rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), static and mobile improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and blocking vehicles have been employed to disable front and rear convoy or patrol vehicles and box the element in so it can be destroyed piecemeal by small arms fire. These ambushes have been hit-and-run, and some have involved follow-up ground assaults. Usually US and coalition forces’ reaction force response is quick enough to discourage the latter maneuver, but ambushes in more remote regions have required units to rely on their own firepower augmented with, weather permitting, close air support.

Raven 42
Perhaps the most famous far ambush (beyond 50 yards) of the Iraqi war took place on March 22, 2005 in a place called Salman Pak, on the outskirts of Baghdad. The scrub land was carefully selected by 40 to 50 heavily armed insurgents who employed the irrigation ditches to set up a roughly-shaped “L” shaped ambush. They also employed an open field, a tree line perpendicular to the supply route and farmhouse to initially attack a civilian tractor trailer supply convoy with sustained automatic and rocket propelled grenade fire.

The 30-vehicle train with third country nationals as truck drivers was escorted by three armored HMMWVs (highly mobile multipurpose wheeled vehicle). Caught in the onset of the 3-minute assault by fire was one of the HMMWVs and three of its on board soldiers were immediately wounded. Adding to the rapid buildup of casualties were the deaths of three truck drivers and the wounding of six others inside their tractor-trailers. The enemy was equipped with handcuffs and it appeared that they wanted to take hostages for ransom or propaganda purposes, such as Internet beheadings.

Call sign Raven 42, from the Kentucky Army National Guard’s 617th MP Company had been shadowing the convoy from its rear and as the assault by fire developed into a ground attack, the three armored HMMWVs that formed the squad rushed forward to the sounds of the gunfire.

As they arrived at the kill zone, approximately 10 insurgents had moved to within 20 meters of the road and the squad opened up with .50 caliber machine guns and MK 19 grenade launchers inserting themselves between the enemy and the trucks. Sensing a new threat, enemy fire was now focused on Raven 42 and off the convoy. Obliterating the enemy assault, the MPs maneuvered through the kill zone and flanked a concentration of insurgents in the open field by turning up a dirt road perpendicular to the supply route. The three vehicles and crews poured heavy and light automatic weapons fire into the exposed enemy with devastating effects. Also on the access road were several sedans with doors and trunks opened to facilitate body snatches and fast getaways. These sedans were eventually destroyed by a .50 caliber machine gunner to prevent their escape.

Almost simultaneously, the middle HMMWV was hit by an RPG and the gunner rendered unconscious. Other soldiers dismounted their vehicles to fight, while top gunners continued to tear up enemy ranks. Three were hit and wounded by return machinegun fire. The driver of the middle vehicle saw them fall and sprinted back to the rear HMMWV to get its turret-mounted SAW working again against the enemy. The squad’s medic rushed into the fray and started to administer combat life-saving techniques to the wounded while under fire. In the interim, the stunned gunner regained his senses and again ripped into the enemy with his .50. A pair of dismounted non-commissioned officers (NCO), which included a female team leader with her M4 and M203 grenade launcher charged the nearest ditch and cleared it with close-quarters combat, returning to other HMMWVs in her team for a hasty resupply of ammunition that was all perceptively preloaded in the same vehicle location.

The female NCO personally accounted for several enemy combatants and was thusly awarded the Silver Star for gallantry. However, as she returned to the trench line, she was fired upon by an insurgent that was hiding behind one of the disabled vehicles. The gunner in a nearby HMMWV saw this, but because his machine gun oriented in another direction resorted to his M9 Beretta and connected with a five-round volley. With MK 19 40mm rounds suppressing fire from the rear of the open field, she plunged back into the fight.

As the nearby trench was being cleared with grenades and small arms fire by the combat couple, the medic and another soldier treating the wounded received sniper fire from the farmhouse. The medic, who had reluctantly received recent familiarization firing with the AT-4 rocket launcher, with the other soldier both accessed the portable missiles and nearly simultaneously destroyed the building. The male and female “Army of One” continued to neutralize their immediate opposition until all trench line movement ceased. However, a solitary RPG grenadier exposed himself for a shot at the trio of HMMWVs and was dropped with a single M249 head shot from the revived gunner who has augmented his .50 with the lighter automatic weapon.

At one point, the resilient gunner was firing both weapons, one in each hand in different threat directions. This soldier further displayed his initiative, by driving his HMMWV a further 100 meters on two flat tires to a more favorable position to complete the destruction of the getaway vehicles. By now, the vehicle was no longer operable, spraying oil everywhere, but the soldier remounted his .50 and concentrated on the engine compartments of all seven enemy cars. As reinforcements arrived, firing tapered off and the consolidation phase commenced.

Final score for this highly successful counter-ambush action was seven Americans killed and three wounded during the initial phase of the ambush, three wounded during the counter actions by Raven 42, 26 insurgents KIA with four wounded and one captured. A significant amount of light, medium and heavy weaponry, ammunition, rockets and hand grenades sufficient to strongly oppose an infantry company were retrieved from the battlefield.

Lessons Learned
Knowledge/Intelligence: Know your enemy. Study his tactics and techniques. Develop intelligence sources and make every effort to acquire pro-active information. Trust your instincts and intuition. Use intelligence and knowledge of enemy to avoid contact, unless the purpose of the operation is to find, fix and destroy the enemy.

Look for signs of an ambush, such as things out of place on the route. Be aware of the lack of people, especially children where they usually are playing or greeting the patrol. Photograph the terrain and reference the file before leaving on a patrol or on another type of operation. Note any changes in anything or anyone.

Training/Preparation: When not operational, train, train and train, particularly in counter-ambush drills. Conduct live fire exercises as often as possible. Modify testing and evaluation, and augment patrols and convoys within reason, with as many automatic weapons as possible. Fire superiority is a key survival element. Ammunition takes precedence over everything else.

Communications equipment is next in importance and should be redundant. Harden/armor all vehicles and train drivers in evasive driving techniques. Preferably, employ bullet and mine-resistant vehicles for convoy operations. Drivers should be constantly  looking for escape routes or sanctuaries.

Disciplined execution: Be flexible but maintain proper intervals between personnel and vehicles making it difficult to fix the majority of your unit in the kill zone. All personnel, especially point and rear security elements, must be talented and habitually alert for signs of a potential ambush and react accordingly. Don’t fall into routines. Vary timings of routes and movement. Habitual activity will get you killed. Recon by fire in areas considered free fire zones. Hose down likely ambush sites in an effort to have the enemy disclose his location prematurely. Use helicopters to recon the route ahead.

Locate the sources of fire quickly: return fire and exit the kill zone as quickly as possible. If this is not possible, attempt to do the following: A) Near ambush: Return a heavy volume of fire and attempt to assault frontally, through it. Any man can initiate the action. B) Far ambush: Return fire and attempt to fire and maneuver against one of the ambush’s flanks. Personnel executing an ambush are very sensitive to being outflanked or enveloped. If that is not feasible, attempt a controlled retrograde movement employing over watches to defensible terrain. Any man can initiate the action. Use smoke to mask movement. Riot control agents are an option. Speed is relative; carefully hurry!
C) Employ all available supporting arms. Know your location at all times and have some ready means of visual identification available. Conduct a map reconnaissance and identify likely ambush locations. Establish pre-planned artillery concentrations along your route. D) All unit members must know the plan and aggressively execute it.

Final Notes
Honestly, a great deal of luck helps one survive a well-planned ambush, but I believe that luck is the byproduct of good planning. The important thing to do when caught in an ambush is to act and do something quickly. Under a great deal of pressure, training will take over and your reactions will be automatic.

Keep your head, return as much fire as you can muster and move out of the kill zone. Destroyed vehicles must be temporarily abandoned and survivors placed in other functioning vehicles to be evacuated. Be prepared for major traumatic injuries so that troops are kept alive for the “Golden Hour.” Always have a casualty evacuation plan as part of your plan. Unless your adversaries are totally incompetent, you’ll probably need it.

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