Marines Share Hard-Earned Knowledge

By Michael Peck

Marines fighting in Iraq have concluded that, in order to defeat insurgents, the urban tactics learned in the United States require a substantial makeover.

“The most effective training in this environment is for the squad leader to sit down with his squad and talk,” wrote a group of Marines in a report titled “Lessons Learned: Infantry Squad Tactics in Military Operations in Urban Terrain During Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah, Iraq.”

The Marines belong to a scout-sniper platoon from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.

The report, written by a sergeant, a corporal and two lance corporals, offers, in bits and pieces, a glimpse of the insurgency that Marines encountered in Fallujah in November 2004, when they fought Operation Phantom Fury.

These Marines quickly discovered that tactics that they had learned before going to Iraq—such as house clearing, breaching and fire support—required considerable overhaul.

“Traditionally, the top-down assault is taught as being the most ideal method for clearing a structure … Realistically, this may not be the best option for the infantry squad,” the report said.

Starting with the top floors may surprise the enemy and allow a Marine squad to cut off escape routes more easily than going in through the ground floor. But it also makes it tough for a squad to pull out of the building.

“Momentum must not be lost,” warned the Marine snipers. “Marines have been left behind in houses because the momentum was lost.”

Breaching tactics also were adapted to the environment, the squad members explained. “An important principle in breaching that was learned is that the Marine making entry is never the breacher … The breacher should always fall in the back of the stack and never go in first.

“Marines have died because they followed their own breach,” said the report. The Marines also asserted that speed is the most significant factor in breaching a building. “If one method of breaching is not working, then the breacher must quickly transition to a different type. Standing in front of a door and beating it with a sledgehammer for 10 minutes is unacceptable.”

In situations when immediate fire support was needed, tanks always won over aircraft, the report said. Snipers praised the support their regiment received from tanks and from infantry teams that were armed with .50-caliber machine guns and Mark 19 grenade launchers.

“Fixed-wing close air support is an enormous weapon that has great effects on the ground. The major problem with it is the amount of time it takes to get bombs on target,” said the report. “It took entirely too long for bombs to be dropped when Marines were in contact. The minimum safe distance of the ordnance was too great in order for even the block to be isolated, and that allowed the enemy to escape countless times.”

Attack helicopter support was “extremely timely, but the effects on target were not extraordinary. The Hellfire missiles that were used did not bring down entire structures, but they did do some damage.”

Another lesson for the squad was the importance of staying together. Often overworked and under pressure to hurry, some squad leaders split their units in two. “They did this to move faster through the houses because they were tasked with clearing a lane that may have contained up to 50 or 60 houses,” the report said.

But this leaves the Marines vulnerable. “Commanders should not put stress on the squad leaders to clear at a speed that would force the squad leaders to split their squad,” the Marine snipers warned. “Tactical patience must be exercised at every level.”

The Marines concluded that they were facing an impressively shrewd enemy. “Overall, the enemy has adapted their tactics and techniques in order to maximize their strong points and hit Marines when they are the most vulnerable,” report said. “This is common sense, but it must be said … In military operations in urban terrain, it only takes a miniscule amount of intelligence in order to create massive amounts of casualties.”

While Iraqi insurgents became skilled at using improvised explosive devices, the Marines were no slouches either when it came to rigging explosives. The report described four types of IEDs that the Marines used in Fallujah:

• A homemade fuel-air device, called “House Guest,” consisting of propane tanks detonated by C-4 explosive. Placed in a central hallway, it was used to bring down an entire house. To work, the propane tanks must be full.

• A 1/8 stick of C-4 used for breaching interior and exterior doors. The Marines, who dubbed it “Eight Ball,” liked it because it blasted open a path without using up too much explosive.

• A 60 mm or 81 mm white phosphorous mortar round, wrapped three times with detonation cord and a 1/4 or 1/2 stick of C-4. It was used to burn insurgents out of houses.

• Old-fashioned Molotov cocktails were made from one part liquid laundry detergent, two parts gasoline. They also were used to burn insurgents out of houses.

Offering advice to other Marines preparing to fight in Iraq, the 3/5 snipers stressed the importance of learning basic urban-combat techniques, such as covering danger areas, prepping rooms with grenades, operating in pairs and moving stealthily through ground covered with broken glass.

They also emphasized the value of “initiative-based tactics,” such as covering immediate danger areas, eliminating threats, protecting buddies and being prepared to adapt. “There are no mistakes when clearing a structure in combat, only actions that result in situations—situations that Marines must adapt to, improvise and overcome in a matter of seconds.”

The information in the report, the Marines said, “was learned through the blood of the infantry squads in 3/5.”

The Marines classified their opponents as either guerrillas—who want to fight another day—or martyrs, whose aim is to kill as many Americans as possible before they die. Though both groups use similar tactics, a major difference was that the martyrs fought from fortified positions while the guerrillas did not. On the other hand, guerrillas always have an escape plan while the martyrs do not.

“The egress routes the guerrillas use are preplanned and well-rehearsed. They move in groups and withdraw perpendicular to Marines’ forward line of troops,” the report said. “Their movement is through windows of houses, down back alleys, and from roof to roof (only when obscured from Marine over-watch positions). The routes minimize exposure in the streets.”

Another bit of wisdom from the 3/5 snipers is to keep the enemy guessing. “Vary the method of entry into the structure; lead by fire then don’t; assault top-down then bottom-up; don’t use the same entry point every time; throw a fragmentation grenade on the middle roof then assault bottom-up. Avoid patterning by all means.”


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