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Volume 3 / Issue 2 / Winter 2016 Military Operations

Page 4

A situation common to infantry veterans of our recent misadventure

in Afghanistan: a squad-sized patrol is trudging back toward their

humble Hesco home, tired and perhaps smelling the barn door after

fruitless hours spent traversing canals or stumbling down hillsides. A

short burst of fire cracks overhead, a little close for comfort. The men

take cover, spread out on line, and scan the arid landscape around

them for a shooter. In spite of their best efforts planning in front of the

COC computer the night before, they are in open terrain, with the

nearest mud-walled compounds nearly a kilometer away. Firing from

a wetted down murder hole a few inches in diameter, the enemy is

nearly undetectable. So the opportunistic Talib on the other end of

the PKM lingers a little longer, expending a few more rounds in an

effort to summon that unmistakable sign of success, the medevac


Our patrol has few good options, especially if it is outside of the

comforting envelope of our now-standard surveillance blimps and

gyrocams. Light or medium machine guns, if brought out on patrol

that day, are highly unlikely to do more than suppress our barricaded

enemy at that range. Maneuvering upon him is probably not wise,

given both the IED threat and his ability to either hop on a motorbike

or stash his weapon and blend in among his neighbors. Snipers

are a battalion asset, and often unavailable. Mortars, artillery, and

close air support all take time to be brought to bear, and, more

importantly, all greatly increase the risk of killing civilians and

alienating the fence sitters among the local populace. In the current

operating environment, we have an intermediate-range precision

engagement gap.

The modern NATO battle rifle (a carbine in many cases) claims a

maximum effective range of about 500 meters, be it M-4, HK-416,

or SA-80.[i] But can we really expect our infantrymen to be able

to consistently kill the enemy at that range? Given often insufficient

marksmanship training, fleeting enemy exposure, a subpar rifle

caliber, and the physical effects of moving to contact under combat

loads that seldom dip below 70 pounds (and can be double that),

the realistic range at which our riflemen will consistently hit the

enemy is probably more like 250-300 meters.

In Afghanistan, at least half of all firefights have taken place beyond

300 meters.[ii] That this fact has not resulted in heavy casualties to

NATO forces is a testament to body armor, dramatic advances in

trauma medicine, and the general lack of Afghan marksmanship.[iii]

The last factor is particularly key. One can be sure that if Western

forces had been fighting even a moderately trained conventional

or unconventional foe (like Hezbollah), losses to small arms and

machine gun fire would have been far heavier.

A clear testament to the intermediate range engagement gap was

provided by a March 2013

Marine Corps Gazette

article. The

authors, a rifle company’s lieutenants recently returned from a highly

“kinetic” summer deployment to northern Helmand Province, laid out

their frustrations with the inability of Marine rifle squads to employ

precision fires against Taliban attacking them with machine guns

or rifles at extended ranges. Non-organic fires took too long to

authorize and bring into action, and the squad and platoon lacked

any organic ability to engage at medium to long range. As the

article’s title plaintively put it: “It’s Not the Artillery’s Fault.”[iv]

The lieutenants’ solution was to equip rifle squads with the Javelin

missile, in lieu of a better option. A top-down attack anti-tank missile,

the Javelin is effective out to 2,000 meters. But weight and cost are

substantial drawbacks. Western militaries are already too far down

the path of trying to solve tactical problems by throwing ungodly

amounts of money at them: $200 million fighter jets for close air

support, $450,000 mine-resistant vehicles for 50 pound fertilizer

bombs. Shooting $40,000 anti-tank missiles at every solitary

“accidental guerrilla” is another unwelcome step down this path.

Gil Barndollar

To cite this Article:

Barndollar, Gil, “The Precision Engagement Gap”,

Military Operations

, Volume 3, Issue No. 2,

Winter 2016, pages 4-6.

The Precision Engagement Gap

UK and US armed forces, by Spc. Daniel Love,

U.S. Army [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons