The Future of the Combat Outpost

From Tet during the Vietnam war to the present day, our enemies have intuitively grasped that the key to defeating the US lies not so much in success on the battlefield, but in eroding popular domestic support of US campaigns. In virtually every battle the US has fought in the last 50 years, the US has been able to seize terrain virtually at will, and inflict casualties on its enemies at ratios from 10-1 to 100-1.  In a strictly military sense, we’re unbeatable.

But unless and until the US is willing to reduce the lands of its enemies to utter wastelands, the enemy has only to remain a viable threat, and wait until the US forces inevitably return home. They then resume their campaign to overthrow any existing regime, and establish themselves as the ruling power, and in the process, crow about their victory of the the evil forces of America.

For a couple of reasons, such as media bias, as well as access to information, US victories over the forces of darkness receive far less coverage than US defeats. Accordingly, our enemies strive to defeat US forces in any venue, regardless of any tactical or operational military significance those operations may have.

In any counter-insurgency campaign, the first and most important objective of our forces is to secure the local population. That means US forces have to be co-located with them. Given the small numbers of troops we can commit at any one time and place, this necessarily means only small units can be positioned in most towns and villages, at most a company, but more commonly a reinforced platoon.  These forces are positioned in what are, in Army jargon, “Combat Outposts,” or COPs. Ideally, COPs are located close enough to be mutually supporting, either by fires or maneuver. Sadly, geography often means that isn’t possible.

Further, the small numbers of troops available to any COP means the commander is faced with the challenge of sustaining a viable defense of the COP, while also needed to get outside the wire. There are two reasons he needs to go out. First, the force MUST engage the local population. US forces must provide, and be SEEN to provide, physical security against insurgent forces, support host nation civic institutions and security forces, promote infrastructure development and generally “show the flag.” Further, US forces have to patrol within their areas of influence to deny enemy forces safe havens, and provide early warning of any impending attacks on their COP.  In Iraq, during the surge, the COP was part of an “ink blot” strategy in which a COP would first provide security for itself, then the immediate surrounding area, then through the use of offensive patrolling and attacks on insurgent hide positions, expand its region of security and influence. Obviously, the more terrain you secure, the more troops you need.

Hunkering down in FOBs and COPs just isn’t an option. Before the surge, US forces often didn’t have the manpower to get out among the population to the degree needed to establish control over any area greater than their compound.  But these compounds still needed to be supplied with fuel, food, ammunition, spare parts, and personnel. This lead to supply convoys having to travel through areas that US forces could not secure. Logistical units, those least suited for combat operations, became the focus of insurgent attacks, both from IEDs and from ambushes.  When your entire fight comes down to securing your supply lines solely to support bases which exist only to protect themselves, you’re fighting a losing battle. The initial impulse is to consolidate your forces in order to shorten your lines of supply and reduce the vulnerability of your supply lines. But granting an insurgent force a safe haven is a losing proposition.

Eventually, the Surge allowed US commanders enough manpower to both establish an interlocking network of COPs, and the forces to operate outside the wire to provide security to neighborhoods, villages, towns and entire cities.

Similar, though not identical, circumstances are in effect today in Afghanistan. There are combat outposts scattered throughout areas occupied by US forces.  While the Taliban forces have little chance of defeating US troop units on a large scale, that doesn’t mean that they cannot conceivable mass sufficient forces to defeat a platoon COP. Militarily, the destruction of one US platoon doesn’t mean much. The Taliban would not be able to retain the position. They’d be exposed to destruction by US forces. But that isn’t their objective, is it?   The blow to domestic American political support for operations there would be worth almost any price the Taliban paid. The secondary effect of showing the local population that the US was unable to guarantee their security would be an added bonus.

Via War News Updates, we find this article from Wired that discusses insurgent attempts to overrun one US COP.


Twice in the span of a month, the Taliban has unleashed human waves on one of the U.S. Army’s most isolated Afghan outposts. Twice, the American soldiers guarding the tiny fort have beat back the attackers, killing scores of extremists while suffering no losses of their own.

The U.S. troops’ skill, and luck, have been remarkable. They’re going to need both, as more large-scale attacks seem likely.

The Oct. 7 and Nov. 8 assaults on Combat Outpost Margah, in remote Paktika Province on the border with Pakistan, came almost exactly a year after one of the biggest pitched battles of the decade-long war. An October 2010 attack on COP Margah by hundreds of Taliban foot soldiers wielding rockets and AK-47s resulted in a lopsided tactical victory for the Americans. More than 90 Taliban died in a counter-barrage of gunfire, helicopter-fired missiles and satellite-guided bombs. As in the recent assaults, no Americans died — though the fighting left deep psychological scars.

If Army forces can keep the Taliban at bay for as little as 30 minutes, they can call upon massive amounts of firepower to support them, and break the back of the enemy’s assault.  But relying on luck isn’t what we are paying our military leaders for.

ADP 3.0, the Army’s capstone doctrine publication, foresees a future battlefield where combat will take place across a spectrum from low-level civil disturbances, to small scale insurgency, to mid-intensity conflict*, all simultaneously in a single theater.  As such, it is almost inevitable that any future theater the US deploys to will see distributed operations that include numbers of small troop formations establishing COPs.

Back in 2008, at what came to be known as the Battle of Wanat, the enemy was able to seize the initiative and inflict significant casualties on a US platoon as it was establishing a COP. A combination of geography, lack of troops, bad weather, and lack of early warning lead to the loss of 9 US soldiers lives, with many more wounded.  The Rand Corporation, a think tank with a long history of providing analytical support to the US defense industry, has provided a “hot wash” review of the situation at Wanat, and offers a look at potential solutions that the leadership on the ground faced there.  The document is a 36 page .pdf, but the meat of the document is only about 15 pages. I’d encourage you to download it and read it for yourself.

While most of the proposed solutions to the tactical problems described are technical, the fact is, the answer is, as always, in leadership and training. Small unit leaders such as platoon leaders, must be trained and capable of applying METT-TC analysis and implementing troop leadership procedures to prepare for operations in remote locations in which supporting ISR assets, fire support, and reinforcement from other units may not be close at hand. Leaders at company, battalion, and brigade level have to be aware of the difficulties they are imposing on these small detachments. They have to have a plan in place to support them. In fact, they’d better have a strong plan in place to determine whether establishing a COP at a given location at a given time is a wise use of their limited resources, or whether operations elsewhere should be used first to facilitate follow-on operations with a greater chance of success.

*Mid-intensity conflict being what we think of as traditional war, force on force, organized army against organized army. High-intensity war being reserved to describe nuclear war.

8 thoughts on “The Future of the Combat Outpost”

  1. One strategy that was at least partially successful in Vietnam was Mike Forces. A similar solution was used in Korea with the Katusa forces.

    This is just me spitballing here but I think is I was in charge I would recruit locals into the US Army as an auxillary force for a 2 year term. I would put one or two Special Forces guys at a COP with a platoon of local strikers. Split an A-Team across a 6 COP area. Of course they would have to be thoroughly vetted but it would increase integration with the locals and and extend forces. It would really be nice if we could send potential NCOs back to the states to go thru branch schools and then work a deal for them to transfer to the Afghan Army at increased rank after their two years were over. Boot strap the process. The important thing is they would be in the US Army subject to the UCMJ getting the same pay. Build loyalty thru exposure.

    1. Interesting concept. Less the SF part, who knows, it could be workable. I acknowledge that it is a traditional SF role; however, given their increased operational tempo, and the regular army’s growing role in security force assistance, this would easily be a conventional force role.

    2. I’ll have to give that concept some thought. But off the top of my head, one difference is that in both Korea and Vietnam, we were invited into support an existing allied government, so the appearance of occupation and hence collaboration were lessened. But it is certainly worth burning up a few brain cells thinking about it.

    3. If we are going to engage in “nation building” then something along those lines needs to be done. They need a core of people that look to the nation rather than tribe or clan. It will involve some people getting out of their comfort zone, but doing what we are doing now will simply result in leaving behind a small group of dependents that will be swallowed whole by the islamocrazies when they take over again.

    4. Speaking only for Iraq here, there are several fundamental problems with this approach. First, with the local nationals providing part of the support. We started to apply this concept, to a limited degree, in 09 after the June 30th expiration of the SOFA, even a little before that. I remember that patrols were preferably conducted with an IP presence. After June 30th, we were not allowed outside the gate without IPs. The issue that was faced, though, was that IPs are from the local area. They know everyone and everyone knows them. There was some slight mitigation to this in Mosul, but it was still a common issue. This meant that the IPs didn’t really want to help us out as they knew we were eventually going to leave (a theme that I have seen played out by sheiks while we were closing our base out last month). The better IP units for conducting joint patrols were a paramilitary group, but they were not serving the function that they needed to serve. It was more a stop gap since no one wanted the IA in the cities, especially with the USF there, but they still held the fundamental problem that the IP would return to the local populace. Where we were secured by FOBs and COPs and COBs, they had their house with family.

      The other problem in this chain of discussion was the concept of nation building. This is a challenge because Iraq isn’t like most nations. The tribal thing is huge here. Even Saddam, at the heights of his power, couldn’t ignore tribal politics. Without the adequate infrastructure, the locals turned back to their tribes and sheiks.

  2. Reading this brings to mind the army’s current initiative to reinforce “the Squad” as “the decisive force of action” or some such verbiage. As I am currently TDY at Benning, I am seeing it everywhere. The basic premise is that at every echelon from platoon and above, the US Army has a substantial overmatch against any enemy. However, at the squad level, we currently do not. Research at least through the current wars indicates that the squad is in a reactive mode in 80% of events, and the Maneuver Center of Excellence / TRADOC want to make the squad as lethal as other echelons. Significantly, they want to do so through “the human dimension” as opposed to more technology, which is the right call. BTW, Brad, despite your recent disparaging comments on the MCoE, I have become a believer in the last week. I am thoroughly impressed with what I have seen and heard down here. The OSUT facilities I visited at Harmony Church for 19D Scouts a couple of days ago were unreal. (I was actually within maybe 200m of where I did OSUT in ’86 while you were already crowing about the Old Army….)

    1. My disparaging comments about the MCOE were twofold. One, the traditional mostly good humored banter between infantry and armor. The other is the jargonization of so many elements of the Army. Does everything have to be a “Center of Excellence?” Why can’t it be the “Center and School” like it used to be? I’m actually OK with the “Maneuver” part. Though I’d prefer the Infantry and Armor Center and School as a name.

      Having said that, I actually support the idea of more closely integrating the two branches, with the caveat that light infantry specific skills must not be shunted aside.

      Re: the squad as the decisive force of action… heh. Suuurre.
      Man for man, sure, our troops are better trained and equipped. But they are also less mobile by virtue of that equipment. Further, there’s a strong aversion to risk (as a means of minimizing casualties). It’s pretty damn rare you hear about a squad going through the squad combat drill and deciding to lay a base of fire with one time and moving with the other to assault through a position. Platoon and company leadership just isn’t going to let a squad leader have that long a leash. How often are platoon level COPs sending a squad sized ambush out to likely avenues of approach?

      You’re correct that the human dimension is the correct approach, as there’s only so much technology can do in a squad level fight, or even at the platoon level, once it has come to close combat. The Rand Report stresses early warning and long engagement ranges for a reason. Once you get inside about 200 meters, it almost doesn’t matter what you’re armed with, technology as a force multiplier fades.

    2. well, I concur on the name thing. I personally think several of them are more akin to centers of mediocrity…. I think it is indicative of the army’s whole trend towards adopting business/management ideas and verbiage. I am constantly hearing terminology such as “best practices” or “terms of reference” thrown about by mid- and senior leadership that make “us” sound more like managers. I have been paid to be a Leader ever since I walked out of the E5 board in 1988, and will never consider myself a manager.
      If I had some of “The Squad” literature in my room, I’d write some of it up, but it is all in the car. You are correct in saying that squads are not doing independent operations, but nonetheless, it is appropriate to pay them some increased attention. When that squad flanks out to the right, it is independent. When 1st squad pushes through 2nd squad and goes upstairs, it is independent. When the IED pops on the third truck and 1st squad is isolated on the far side…. ad infinitum. Given continous war for the duration of every squad leader’s term of service, there are some incredible leaders out there, but these junior leaders have missed out on the academic development and leader training opportunities that SL’s traditionally got. Another focus is on better-integrating attachments into squads, such as humint collection teams.

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