In Afghanistan, when the moon sets, watch out, Michael Yon warns:
Last Friday night, the moon phase left Afghanistan in near total darkness. Even with clear skies, the enemy knew that at the brightest moment, the moon would only appear as an irrelevant orange sliver. Such times are called “red illumination,” or “red illum.” Planning calendars in Afghanistan highlight periods of red illum because they hamper aviation.
Even though this is the year 2012, and the Curiosity Rover is beaming images from Mars more than four decades after astronauts first trod on the lunar surface, the moon phase remains important when planning operations. The moment that the nighttime attack on Camp Bastion was reported, the moon phase could have been safely guessed without looking up.
In every respect, Southern Afghanistan is a dark part of the world. Without moonlight, most villages are black at night. The brightest places in the country are our bases. Cultural lights present little danger to Taliban moving at night. Our air assets, including our aerostat balloons, are often their biggest concern.
This war is mature. The enemy knows us, and we know them. After 11 years, the Taliban realizes that most helicopter traffic ceases during red illum. Most birds will only fly for urgent MEDEVAC, or for special operations. The enemy closely observes our air traffic. Operations slow under red illum, so air traffic declines, and the chances of being spotted by roving aircraft are reduced.
There is a misconception that UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) such as Predators can detect everything. They cannot. Their field of vision is like looking through a toilet paper roll. The UAVs are great for specific targets, such as watching a house, but imagine patrolling. It is like trying to visually swat mosquitoes using no ears, no sense of touch, and only the ability to look through a toilet paper roll. You will get some, and miss many.
We only have enough UAVs to cover small splotches of the country, and there are bases, roads, operations, and targets spread throughout Afghanistan and elsewhere that need watching. The enemy can spoof observers by using a “pattern of life” (POL) for camouflage. So even if our UAV operators see apparently unarmed natives moving, it is no guarantee of early detection.
Our UAVs over Afghanistan fly with their strobes flashing to avoid collisions. If a Predator or Reaper crashes into a commercial airliner because it was flying blacked out while staring at the ground, that is a problem. The enemy can see our UAVs from miles away.
A key realization: the enemy uses cheap night vision gear in the form of cameras that have night functions. When our IR lasers, our IR strobes, our IR illumination or our IR spotlights are radiating, they can easily be seen using cheap digital cameras. I recently told this to some Norwegian soldiers, who were as surprised as our soldiers to learn it. I learned this from the enemy, not from our guys. The Taliban even use smart phone cameras to watch for invisible lasers. The enemy in Afghanistan has been caught using cameras for night vision. It is just a stroke of common sense: I have been doing it for eight years since I noticed an IR laser one night in Iraq.
A Norwegian trooper explained that one dark night in Afghanistan, they got ambushed with accurate but distant machinegun fire. When they turned off their IR strobes, the fire ended. When they turned the IR strobes back on, the fires resumed. When they turned them off for good, it was over.
Many of our people believe that the enemy does not use night vision. There was a time when this was true, but the war has matured and this is now false. If your firefly is strobing on your helmet, or if you are carrying a cracked IR chemlight, do not be surprised if you take accurate fire during a black night. When JTACs mark targets with IR lasers, or when aircraft such as Predators lase for Hellfire shots or for target ID, they look like purple or green sunbeams through night vision optics and they are crazy bright. You cannot miss them.
To maximize chances of success for an assault such as that at Bastion last Friday, the Taliban know that it is best to start early, on a moonless night, just after red illum has begun. Other Afghans engaged in normal masking movements can provide POL camouflage. The enemy knows that only “Terry Taliban” is skulking around after midnight, so they start early when possible.
By 7PM last Friday, the night was very dark, and by 8PM, it was thick and black, making it a perfect time to close in on the target. Camp Bastion would appear lit up like Las Vegas, standing alone, glowing like a giant bubble of light in the “Desert of Death.” On the darkest nights, the lights of Bastion sometimes reflect orange off the clouds above, and they can be seen for miles around, causing Afghans to ask why the base glows like the morning sun, yet they do not have a drop of electricity. The days of goodwill and hope are over.
During periods of utter darkness, many of our light-intensifying systems are useless. There is not enough light for them to work with, which is why many aircraft do not fly during red illum. This also affects ground troops whose systems likewise do not have enough light to intensify, and it reduces their air cover, and thus all air and ground operations.