On October 3, 1993, Task Force Ranger, composed of elite U.S. Army, Air Force, and Navy special operations troops, launched a mission intended to capture warlord Mohamed Far Aidid and two top leaders of his Habr Gidr clan. Task Force Ranger consisted of 160 men, 19 aircraft, and 12 vehicles. In a mission planned to take no longer than one hour, Task Force Ranger was to travel from its camp on the outskirts of the city to a burned-out building near the center of Mogadishu where Aidid and his lieutenants were believed to be meeting.
While the operation initially succeeded, the situation quickly spiraled out of control as Task Force Range attempted to return to headquarters. Within minutes, the “one-hour” mission would turn into a deadly overnight rescue campaign that became the Battle of Mogadishu.
One of my favorite movies was Blackhawk Down. I have written before of the Christ-like sacrifice of Gary Gordon and Randy Shugart, Delta Force snipers who volunteered to defend the crew of a downed Blackhawk helicopter, and understood they would probably pay with their lives, which they did. In watching the movie again, I paid attention to the planning side of the ill-fated mission. Our armchair generals in D.C., concerned with PR, decided not to use AC-130 gunships to provide air cover for our troops. Colonel McKnight, who was responsible for ground exfil, was unhappy with the mission planning. When asked why by the command and control officer, whose job was to “supervise” the mission–from high in the air–he said, “no gunships, broad daylight, the one district in Mogadishu where the enemy can field all their troops, what’s not to like?” The C and C officer replied, “conditions are never perfect.” McKnight’s comeback, “from 500 feet in the air, it’s imperfect. On the ground, it’s impossible.”
McKnight is soon trying to evacuate wounded by Humvee, on the ground, through hostile territory. C and C tells him to drive slower. Why? Because of the delay involved with the mission commander having to report to Joint Operations Command (in the U.S), and receive orders back from JOC. Brilliant idea, courtesy of the politicians who liked micromanaging. Civilian control of the military does have some drawbacks.
Whether or not that lesson was learned, many other lessons were learned in the Battle of Mogadishu, the first sustained urban warfare US troops had experienced in many years. It’s easy for current soldiers to see the past two decades of near-constant deployments as the norm. But for troops from the late 1970s until the late 1990s, actual combat operations were rare and brief.
In later operations in Afghanistan, Rangers flew into areas from ships offshore for raids rather than establishing ground bases in or near large cities, such as in Mogadishu. After Mogadishu, Rangers added more close-quarters combat training to their marksmanship drills and strove to have every Ranger certified as a combat lifesaver since the ratio of troops to medics was 48-to-1. They also found problems with planning for contingencies. The Mogadishu raid was expected to be a one- or two-hour operation, so many soldiers brought only a basic ammunition load, no night vision goggles and one canteen of water.
A larger tactical shortfall, though, was more due to operational or even strategic miscalculations. The Rangers had no armored vehicles, and even their Humvees lacked firepower beyond .50-caliber machine guns. They had no grenade launchers, and due to the civilian-packed urban terrain, fire support was limited to close-air support from helicopters.
High level plans lacked thorough analysis, noted another study out of the Combat Studies Institute Press, titled “Understanding the ‘Victory Disease’ From the Battle of Little Bighorn to Mogadishu and Beyond,” by Maj. Timothy Karcher. Karcher points out that Task Force Ranger had six times conducted missions using similar tactics to those used in the Battle of Mogadishu before the incident. That established a pattern that enemy forces could recognize and exploit. “If you use one tactic twice, you should not use it a third time, and the Americans already had done basically the same thing six times,” a Somali militia commander told the Washington Post after the battle.
Even to date, only a handful of battles over the past two decades even come close to matching the sustained intensity of that 15-hour fight in Mogadishu. Most enemy contact in recent years has been through improvised explosive device attacks or short-term ambushes that last minutes before adversaries retreat. Mogadishu was an ambush that went “on for hours.” I will discuss some of the many cognitive biases exhibited by this battle, in a future post.