Operation Red Wings

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Operation Red Wings, the SEAL mission that led to Lone Survivor, started out as a Marine job, Ed Darack notes:

2/3′s planners took the Stars model and, based on Westerfield’s intelligence reports, developed an operation named Red Wings — also named after a hockey team, the Detroit Red Wings.

The plan would have a six-man Marine Scout-Sniper team walk under cover of darkness to the first of two designated observation posts near the summit of Sawtalo Sar (MAP), from where the Marines could get “eyes on” individual target structures within each of the NAIs, positively identify Shah and his men, and then radio the exact location of the targets. The main assault would occur at night (for maximum surprise), and as intel evolved with the development of the operation, that night looked more and more like one with virtually no lunar illumination (late in the month of June, 2005), requiring the battalion to utilize the aviation assets of the 160th Special Operations Air Regiment (Airborne), AKA “The Night Stalkers.” The main assault would have a team of twenty Marines from 1st Platoon, Company E, 2/3 raid the identified target structures, inserted by MH-47s of the 160th, while a company sized element would provide outer and inner cordon, they too inserted by MH-47s of the 160th. After taking down Shah’s cell, Marines would remain in the area for weeks, undertaking a variety of presence missions (general patrols, medical capability, and general humanitarian assistance), and then wind down the operation. This was similar to the Stars model, only they would simply task a SOF aviation element, not a ground element.

However, during the time when 2/3 was relieving 3/3, other command echelons were turning over — commands at the senior level of the coalition in Afghanistan, including both conventional forces and of special operations forces. The new special operations task force commanders adhered to a much stricter interpretation of special operations doctrine, and would not allow 2/3 to have access to special operations aviation assets unless they included a SOF ground unit for the opening phases of the operation — and handed command and control over to SOF during these first phases. In order to proceed with the operation, the battalion was forced to include a special operations ground unit. Conventional Army aviation assault support (troop and equipment transport) available to the Marines in their joint environment could not, by doctrine, operate in those low lunar illumination conditions, otherwise, the Marines would have used conventional aviation and maintained solid command and control over all phases of the fully conventional operation.

As a result, the battalion kept their overall plan, but the surveillance team of the initial phase would not be Marine Scout Snipers walking in under cover of darkness, rather, a four-man Navy SEAL reconnaissance and surveillance team, who chose to insert by helicopter (at night) to a location within just one mile of a populated area (although sparsely populated, populated nonetheless). This was a substantial deviation to the plan, as the original reconnaissance and surveillance team for Red Wings was to be a standard Marine Scout-Sniper team “plussed up” with two other Marines for added security, and battalion planners felt that a helicopter insert would compromise the mission by revealing coalition force presence in this area. The plan then had U.S. Navy SEALs conducting the direct action portion of the raid with U.S. Marines undertaking the cordon portions of the operation. The Marines would then continue with their original plan after the raid.

Herschel Smith’s former-Marine son, Daniel, feels that the operation should never have come off the way it did:

The Marines don’t take chances. I saw a room full of Navy SEALs sitting on their assess back at the FOB doing nothing but monitoring comms. If you set four SEALs down by helicopter, you could have set an entire platoon down. There was no reason to limit the recon team to four.

A former Army Special Forces weapons man points out that this is a line-soldier’s (or Marine’s) point of view:

This is the line soldier’s profound ignorance of two things speaking. One, is what all those SEALs (or SF, CAG guys, 160th dudes, the TF duty senior CC and PJ, etc) are doing at those FOBs. One of their major duties is tracking ops and clearing fires. Think of that, for a minute. Clearing fires — telling air or artillery that, “Yeah, you can blow that grid square to Kingdom Come, our guys are definitely not there.” You have literally seconds to make that call. You might want to have somebody on that other than a lance corporal. Another is liaison with sister sources. Darack makes clear that the Marines did not care to operate under SOF control, they just wanted to take the TF 160 aircraft, something they needed because they’ve botched aircraft procurement and most of their rotary-wing aircraft are 1950s designs that are sucking wind at Afghan altitudes, and their ships and pilots can’t operate in restricted visibility.

The only aircraft they have that can approach the Chinook for lift, and that beats it for speed, is the highly capable Osprey, and the USMC is extremely timid about exposing those to enemy fire. (We don’t think powered-lift aircraft are any more vulnerable to fire than normal helicopters, but a combat Osprey loss would be a PR disaster for the USMC, quite unfairly but there it is). We’re not sure they even had Ospreys in country in 2005.


Daniel, in his personal experience, does not understand the difference between recon and long-range recon, which the Army and SF have called things like LRR, LRP, LRRP, SICTA, and SR over the years. The principal difference, in tactical terms, is that a Marine unit like Daniel’s, like any combat unit, normally pushes ground recon patrols only to within its area of influence. A commander may push them out to his whole area of interest, but he’s accepting that they’re beyond the reach of his fires if they get into the $#!+.

In the interests of force protection, the commander may enlarge that patrol, but there’s a tradeoff: a larger recon patrol brings back less ground truth than a smaller one. A platoon patrol is thirty-plus guys with heavy packs, machine guns, and maybe even an attached mortar or two. They can fight if they’re seen and engaged; what they can’t do is hide.

A platoon-sized patrol has the stealth of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, elephants and all. Accordingly, a large, powerful enemy can still surround it and defeat it in detail, if it is beyond the range of friendly fires; a small, elusive enemy (the use case in the mountainous, forested Kunar province region at hand) can simply melt away while the platoon is paused waiting for the platoon sergeant to send up the count at every danger area.

In SOF doctrine, a strategic reconnaissance patrol goes deep, alone, and fundamentally unsupported. SF, SEALs, and other sophisticated US SOF are accustomed to going 1000 kilometers or more into a denied area or, if you will, “behind enemy lines.” If they get into a fight, their tactic is to call for extraction, run, and engage the enemy to delay his pursuit.

In the Vietnam war, long range patrols and particularly the SOG patrols into areas that were truly denied, both de facto and de jure, had an option that not only frequently allowed them to break contact and extract, but even to break contact and continue mission. That was the toe-poppers (M14 antipersonnel mines) or booby-trap-rigged Claymores (M18/M18A1 command-detonated mines hooked up to a tripwire) on their back trail. Many of the guys who survive today from SOG were saved by that very tactic. These defensive mines were forbidden by the staff judge advocates and they were actually collected from US SOF years before Operation Red Wings.


  1. Toddy Cat says:

    “These defensive mines were forbidden by the staff judge advocates and they were actually collected from US SOF years before Operation Red Wings.”

    So the weapons that could have saved these guys were denied to them by uniformed lawyers? Well, that sounds like the USA that I know and love…

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