Asymetric Warfare Group


August 08, 2005

New unit sending soldiers to study insurgent tactics

By Greg Grant
Special to the Times

Having concluded that Iraq is the training ground where insurgents hone their craft for use against American forces elsewhere, the Army has created a new special missions unit to study insurgent operations and tactics.

The Asymmetric Warfare Group will dispatch four-man assessment teams to Iraq to find out what works in irregular warfare and what doesn’t.

“The asymmetric warriors of tomorrow are learning their lessons today, and they’re taking notes,” said Col. Robert Shaw, commander of the AWG. “We’ve got to get out of reaction mode and into predicting,” he said, “because what happens in Iraq, those same tactics, techniques and procedures pop up somewhere else in the world.”

What used to be labeled “low-intensity conflict” by the U.S. military is now called asymmetric warfare: where an enemy pursues unconventional tactics to nullify America’s decidedly high-tech advantages. The military’s high-tech revolution, the centerpiece of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s transformation efforts, has run into the reality of a less-than-revolutionary war in Iraq.

The fighting on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan tends to focus less on technology than on firepower, where firefights tend to be fierce and not at standoff ranges preferred by U.S. soldiers but in engagements where combatants are separated by only a few feet.

By January, Shaw hopes to have six four-man assessment teams in Iraq, analyzing insurgent tactics and then feeding that information back to a concept integration squadron. His teams will then shape the Army’s training and doctrine to incorporate the latest battlefield trends. And they’ll try to change the mind-set of conventional soldiers deploying to Iraq or Afghanistan to prepare them for the asymmetric battlefield.

Shaw’s elite unit will number no more than 200 people, and Shaw will hand-pick every one of them. He’s looking for soldiers with combat experience, language skills and special operations backgrounds.

“This unit has to be the most flexible unit in the Army,” he said.

But more than anything, he’s looking for exceptionally bright soldiers who can think on their feet. Candidates will be put through a rigorous, multiweek assessment course to determine if they have the skills and intelligence Shaw seeks. So far, the response has been positive. Shaw said a major even took herself out of the astronaut program to try out for the group.

The AWG is critical, said Brig. Gen. Joseph Votel, because what U.S. troops are experiencing in Iraq and Afghanistan is a harbinger.

“What we are seeing is the warfare of the future,” Votel said last fall when describing the formation of the new AWG. Votel is commander of the Improvised Explosive Device Task Force, which eventually will be part of the AWG.

America’s enemies have memorized one maxim: Don’t take the U.S. military on in a stand-up fight. Instead, lure soldiers into close-in firefights in prepared terrain where the advantages that accrue from technological superiority and American firepower are less pronounced.

A small group of military analysts and active and retired military officers have for years tried to awaken the Pentagon to the realities of what they label “fourth-generation warfare.”

“The problem isn’t technology or equipment. The problem is we don’t understand how to fight this kind of war,” said Bill Lind, one of the leading voices of the group.

As evidence, Lind points to the fighting in Iraq, where the guerrillas’ most lethal weapons are the omnipresent rocket-propelled grenade and crudely constructed IEDs. The high-tech U.S. military, with its computers, airborne sensors and spy satellites has little counter against these low-tech weapons.

Shaw said he sees asymmetric warfare as a predominantly intellectual versus technological challenge.

The AWG has tapped into experiences other nations, including Israel and Sri Lanka, have had with suicide bombers to try to come up with answers to the rash of such attacks in Iraq. The group will also look at the possibility of future biological or chemical attacks.

“You’ve got to look at the threat today and where it can go in the future, to study the insurgent groups, see what they’re doing,” Shaw said. “We’ve got to get out of reacting and into predicting, he said, and hopefully “identify the area that will be the next Iraq or Afghanistan.”

The genesis of these smaller groups such as the IED Task Force and the AWG — which operate outside the traditional Pentagon bureaucracy — was an October 2003 memo from Rumsfeld. In it, he questioned the ability of an institution as big as the Defense Department to react fast enough to new threats and suggested new organizations are needed.

Greg Grant covers the Army for Defense News.

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