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Vehicle Movement in High Threat Environments

Mark Richards

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Mark Richards has served in both the British Parachute Regiment and the U.S. Army Reserves and also as a high-threat security contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the author of ‘Rapid Fire! Tactics for High Threat, Protection and Combat Operations’ under the pen name ‘Max Velocity’.
Richards, Mark, “Vehicle Movement in High Threat Environments”, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No. 2, Fall 2012, pages 16-18.

The purpose of this article is to overview tactics for light armored vehicle movement in high threat environments, such as the recent Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. These observations will have continuing relevance in future conflicts where such movement will remain necessary. The type of light armored vehicle movement under discussion is that of small packets of perhaps three or four vehicles such as: site visits, reconnaissance, administrative runs, key leader engagements and the transport of personnel. The assumption is that if the convoy is attacked the intention will be to break contact and extract, rather than stay and fight. This applies to military small team moves as well as those in civilian-type armored vehicles, such as military close protection teams. It also applies to private security contractors acting as auxiliaries to military operations and conducting similar high threat movement.

The purpose is not to discuss specific vehicle types, but the high threat environment experienced, and therefore the threat to be mitigated. When considering vehicles, there is a balance between firepower, protection and mobility. Vehicles can be designed or modified to enhance or limit these factors. An example is a basic civilian close protection type armored vehicle, which may have no firing ports and therefore no ability to return fire from within the vehicle. The middle ground is a vehicle with designed firing ports that increase firepower potential, but which breach the armor and thus decrease the protection offered. Compare this to vehicles such as US Army ‘Humvees’ with, perhaps, an armored turret-mounted heavy machine-gun or grenade launcher type weapon, maximizing both protection and firepower.

The balance of these vehicle design factors will have a practical impact on the drills used by the teams, and this is a case of adapting response drills to available capabilities. For all these light armored vehicle types, protection is minimal or non-existent against threats such as rocket propelled grenades and penetrator type improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They generally provide protection against small arms calibers up to 7.62 x 51 (NATO standard) and the effects of blast and shrapnel from small IEDs. Survivability is therefore limited, and following enemy contact extraction to a secured rally point is a priority. This would potentially be followed by the activation of quick reaction forces in support or casualty evacuation assets as required. It is true that if the desire exists, these vehicles can, and historically have, remained on the contact point to engage with the enemy. However, the key point here is that the mission of these small teams involves the intent to break contact.

Mobile vehicle and dismounted tactics is what much of operations and movement in Iraq and Afghanistan was about: escorting convoys, conducting missions and administrative moves, or carrying protected personnel. Surviving and reacting to roadside and site ambush and attack were key skill sets. In the early days, circa 2004, many operators had soft skinned vehicles. Small arms fire penetrates those ‘like a knife through butter’. Effective protection is limited to the engine block and the metal part of the wheels. It was possible to add steel plate to vehicles to add protection, such as the ‘hillbilly’ or ‘hobo’ Humvee’s used by the US military at the time. Armored vehicles became the norm later, and ultimately in a high threat environment such as Iraq armored vehicles are required for survivability.

Vehicle packets should consist of not less than three vehicles. However, this can change in locations which are safer and closer to assistance, an example being Kabul City, where it is not unusual to see one- or two-vehicle close protection packets. But this is not ideal and if something were to happen, they would be in trouble. Such small packets were more a function of resource issues, close proximity of reaction forces and a threat judgment that it was unlikely that something would happen. A two-vehicle packet only leaves one vehicle if one is hit or immobilized. Having more vehicles allows redundancy if one of the vehicles is lost. Importantly, it also allows a tactically sound convoy with an advance vehicle, a central or protected vehicle(s), and a rear chase or counter attack (CAT) vehicle. A larger convoy can add protected vehicles in the center and also beef up the front and rear security accordingly.

Threat mitigation is primary; avoid contact with the enemy. Think about advance planning and route selection: vary routes and routines; use back roads avoiding main routes and traffic, even using appropriate cross country routes. Move at a steady speed on the selected route, using sensible speeds appropriate to the roads and the visibility. Make the speed such that you don’t get surprised going round a bend. Utilize stand-off distances and observation. If necessary turn around and go another way. It is likely that you will end up going a lot faster if you are on interstate-type desert highways like those seen in Iraq, but speed won’t get you through the dangers and can contribute to a massive rollover crash if you do get hit by an IED. Even if you do end up going faster because the roads and flat terrain allow it, then ensure a reserve of speed to be able to accelerate out of an ambush. However, due to the constraints of mission and time, it may not always be possible to mitigate in this way. You may be forced to take main roads and be restricted by specific timings, due to the requirements of the mission or the client.

‘Profile’ is a big factor. This refers to the posture that you portray as you are moving around. It mainly refers to ‘high’ and ‘low’ profiles, but within that there are nuances of presentation and behavior, which also have implications for professionalism. Profile is also related to escalation of force or rules of engagement guidelines. For instance, it may have relevance to the ability to have weapons mounted on your vehicles, and the type; which may then have an impact on the relationship between firepower and protection. Given that armored vehicles are a balance of protection, mobility and firepower, for a protected vehicle you would not compromise the protection by making modifications to increase firepower. But for other vehicles you may need to modify the vehicle to increase the ability to generate fire, thus decreasing the protection. If you intend to maintain an Iraq-style one hundred meter high profile security bubble, you need the ability to escalate force as appropriate. This will depend on the relationship between ‘escalation of force’ guidelines and the threat. In the case of Iraq this was mainly a response to suicide vehicle IEDs. In the south of Iraq, explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) were more of a threat than the suicide vehicle bomb, and in this case alternative tactics were often adopted, such as mingling within traffic and dispensing with the security bubble. This was an attempt to mitigate against the initiation method primarily used with EFPs. If you are traveling low profile, then you may be in unarmored vehicles unless you have up-armored low profile covert vehicles. In this case, your protection is provided by your profile and you may have limited firepower, with the difference that you can generate fire from within unarmored vehicles if necessary.

When driving in a high threat environment scan the road ahead for possible indicators of an IED or ambush. All the personnel in the vehicle should have assigned sectors and will report anything suspicious. Keep the vehicles away from the verge and the median, which is the most likely place for IEDs, though don’t discount IEDs under the road or in potholes. If the suspicion is for IEDs under the road, the options are to continue and risk it, or go slowly and search. Stagger any protected vehicles in the center of the formation away from the assessed direction of greatest threat. If you see anything in the road ahead, then you should avoid it, passing back the information on the radio to the convoy. However, be aware of attempts to channel you and be prepared to make a judgment call. If it looks too suspicious, then don’t even drive past or around it, but stop and consider taking an alternative route. Beware that stopping or diverting you may be the intention of the enemy. In the early days in Iraq, it was considered acceptable not to use seat belts. However, some casualties were due to the vehicle crash caused by roadside IEDs. These would have otherwise been survivable were it not for the crash, due to the high speed used as vehicles tried to avoid ambush. Later, it was considered safer to be strapped in. All loose equipment inside a vehicle must be lashed down with ratchet straps to strong points. This is so the occupants do not get injured by equipment flying around after a crash or rollover. All items such as jacks, ammo cans or other heavy equipment should be tied down.

The key thing in an ambush is to get off the contact point (the ‘X’) as soon as possible. If you are ambushed with no obstruction in the road, then speed up and drive through. Return fire from the vehicles against positively identified enemy. If the way out to the front is blocked, and there is no feasible way forward or around, then reverse out. If a route is blocked by light vehicles then you may be able to drive through it and ram vehicles out of the way. The technique is to slow down into low gear to approach the block, aiming to strike at the corners of the vehicles to move them off to the side. Gun the engine at the last minute and push the vehicles out the way. If one or more of your vehicles become immobilized on the X, then in simple terms you have two options: 1) a rescue vehicle comes back, or forward from the rear, and ‘cross-decks’ the crew or 2) the surviving vehicles transit the ambush site and dismount outside of the X. They take up positions of fire support while those in the immobilized vehicle(s) dismount and fight to them using fire and movement. A series of drills will be agreed and practiced over the variety of ‘vehicle immobilized’ situations, which will involve variations on ‘cross decking’, vehicle mounted and dismounted fire; and movement.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, various types of both high- and low-profile movement and operations were conducted. For low profile operations, local operators are trained to use advance vehicles to spot threats down the road. To successfully operate low profile, care has to be taken to reduce your noticeability. Note that however hard you try, unless you are from that region by ethnic descent, the locals will always spot you as westerners as soon as you get close. But a little disguise works most of the time, at a distance, and reduces attention. If you are operating low profile, remember that you cannot have stand-off distance and you cannot keep vehicles away from your convoy packet. This means mingling and merging with the traffic. A low profile may reduce your risk of insurgent attack, but I was once engaged by an Iraqi Police machine gunner at a police checkpoint, and another time by a National Guard turret gunner. However, a high profile will not always save you from friendly fire: our team was engaged in Fallujah by Coalition Forces while moving in high-profile armored sports utility type (SUV) vehicles.

The high profile version is exemplified by experiences during a year in Fallujah. The client was military and we operated in high profile SUVs and also ‘Reva’ armored personnel carriers purchased from South Africa. The Reva had two turret guns on top and we mainly used them for moving around Fallujah itself. Elsewhere, we used SUVs. The vehicles were fully marked up with luminous tape on the windshield and the same warning signs that Coalition military convoys used: ‘Stay back 100m’. Operating high profile like this allowed us to move as a self-contained packet and keep a one hundred meter bubble around us to keep the suicide vehicle IEDs back.

However, if you are high profile you are asking for insurgent attention. As an example, our administrative runs back and forth to the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) from Camp Fallujah along ‘Route Mobile’, which is like an Interstate highway, were notorious for enemy contact. Particularly dangerous was the area between Abu Ghraib and the ‘strip wood’ where a palm wooded area crossed the road. The main threat here seemed to be small arms fire, with teams battling it out with insurgent gun teams placed off to the flanks of the road. When in the Reva’s, the double turrets made it easy to return fire. The armored SUVs were a different matter because you cannot fire out of them without modification. We had replaced the rear doors on the lead and chase vehicles with a metal door with a firing port. In the trunk was a rear facing seat where the rear gunner would sit. This would allow the front and rear vehicles to engage the enemy, but the sectors of fire were restricted to the rear and as far to the sides as the gunner could bring the weapon to bear. Other units had addressed this with modifications such as side firing ports and even gun turrets on the roof. The gunner was equipped with an M4 for legal firing of accurate warning shots (per escalation of force guidelines), but the weapon of choice in a contact was a squad automatic weapon (SAW - M249) with a box of 200 rounds. Once contact was initiated the SAW would attempt to get the angle on the enemy and suppress them as the convoy attempted to drive through the ambush.

Other times, complex ambushes would be experienced and survived, mainly due to the enemy’s incompetence. Armored glass would routinely need replacing after hits and damage on missions. However, occasionally it would go wrong. There were a steady number of casualties. We took casualties and sustained fatalities, and friends were killed on other contracts elsewhere. A fair number of casualties were caused by EFPs, which often were survived by the victims who tended to suffer traumatic amputation of the lower limbs. A correctly sited EFP could put its strike right through the front cab of an armored vehicle, while leaving those in the back unharmed. Mitigation here is primarily avoidance, which is not always achievable depending on the constraints of the mission.

Afghanistan is such a desolate and backwards place, especially Helmand Province, that it is hard to adopt anything but a high profile. Whatever you are doing you will stand out. Due to the nature of the rural terrain and fighting many protection operations had to be conducted in close cooperation with the military. Suicide bombers were a problem and armored vehicles were a necessity: on one occasion, a suicide bomber threw himself on the hood of one in Lashkar Gah but the vehicle armor was not breached. Movement in Helmand was a combination of ground moves in armored SUVs as well as movement in military vehicles and convoys, and also the use of military helicopters to reach some of the remote and outlying locations. Transport helicopters are vulnerable and were targeted by RPGs. Conditions in Afghanistan are so rudimentary that you are really camping out in buildings and compounds.

In conclusion, there are important lessons to be learned for small team movement in high threat environments. Suitable drills and tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) need to be developed by teams in order to mitigate threat and increase survivability. Such drills and responses will be determined by the threat, equipment and weapons available, and the political and legal framework of the operation. Those TTPs must be practiced to a high level so that they will work under the pressure of enemy contact, immobilized vehicles and casualties. A sensible approach to such movement operations would consist in advance of good planning, to include up to date intelligence, deception planning and avoidance type risk mitigation. Avoid pattern setting and routine. While on mission, good tactical movement, route selection and formations will reduce risk. Following enemy contact, the value of training and drills will prove invaluable. In case of contact or casualties, an effective communication system to an operations center which can deploy a timely quick reaction force and casualty evacuation assets in support can make all the difference to survivability. Small packet vehicle moves will not have the combat power to assault the enemy and following contact; they must break contact. They should then move to a rally point to consolidate, and treat and/or evacuate any casualties, before either returning to base or continuing with the mission.