Thursday, December 23, 2004

Force Protection

The AP headlines: "Iraq Bombing Represents Security Breach," and ledes with this:

The suspected suicide attack inside an Army mess hall in Iraq represents a breach of the most basic principles of military security and points to significant weaknesses in the screening of Iraqis who are allowed onto the base, experts say.

"This is an incredible occurrence, that someone could have come in undetected with some kind of bomb,'' said Mitch Mitchell, a retired Army officer who helps design security training for the military. "It blows my mind that force protection on the base is that poor.''

More from Mitchell later in the article:

Mitchell and other experts said it was obvious the military was not taking basic protective actions for U.S. troops in Iraq. On most bases, troops have their meals in large dining hall tents like the one attacked Tuesday, for example, instead of in small, scattered groups. That presents a tempting target for insurgents, Mitchell said.

This emerging theme of knocking the Army's force protection measures is not surprising, but as anyone who has ever spent an extended period of time wearing a full chemical protective suit will tell you, correct defensive posture is a tricky thing.

Commanders have to determine the proper level of protection, knowing that unnecessary precautions are a hindrance to efficient operations and make life much harder on the troops.

I discussed the latest on the Mosul attack with my roommate over lunch in our "large dining hall tent," and while I am surprised and saddened by this attack, it hardly "blows my mind."

The attack certainly points out vulnerability, and defending against suicide bombers is a real challenge. The volume of traffic coming on and off our larger bases is massive, and many local contractors and Iraqi Security Forces are included in that number.

A scenario in which a terrorist infiltrates an ISF unit and gains legitimate access to a base only to blow himself up is definitely feasible, and we must continue to work to thwart such efforts. However, I do not see this attack as damning to the Army's force protection efforts.

Claiming that areas where troops gather are vulnerable is a no-brainer; the question is what to do to mitigate that risk.

To follow Mitchell's advice and have Soldiers eat in "small, scattered groups," is simply not realistic. This attack in a crowded dining tent produced about 100 casualties. Therefore, we must limit the number of people allowed to eat together to less than 100. The number killed was between 20-25, so we should make our "small, scattered groups" less than that number as well in order to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

To serve a large base, with a workforce of about 5000 (or even a small base of 1000 people), three meals a day and have them eat in groups of less than 20 verges on the impossible.

I believe that this attack will cause us all to be more cautious and observant, thus making future attacks of the same kind much more difficult, similar to the lack of hijackings post 9/11.

We should also be proactive in seeking new ways of preventing suicide attacks, possibly by using new search techniques or explosives detection technology (a subject on which I am completely ignorant) at the gates.

However, to eliminate the threat, the only lasting solution is to eradicate the root cause. To that end, our current plan of empowering the Iraqi people to be responsible for their own security and pursuing the goal of a freely elected government is, I believe, the best path.

Update: Bookworm comments on a NYPost article that points out the increasing desperation of the insurgents.