Skip to comments.Britain s elite commandos lack the right altitude to take on Al-Qaeda
Posted on 03/23/2002 4:03:18 PM PST by Pokey78
Billed as crack mountain troops, the marines lack the training for the task ahead, writes their former instructing officer John Barry
Some time soon, but not too soon we hope, those members of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda who have stayed for the fight will be squinting through their sights at a new enemy: 3 Commando Brigade and the boys of 45 Commando Royal Marines.
As they wait and watch and shoot, they may have time to ponder why this new force has replaced the last one they encountered the US army in differing forms, from mountain troops to various incarnations of special forces, with their assembled ranks of multinational allies.
If they had seen last weeks newspapers or heard any gossip from local informers, they would be falling off their sandals in whatever passes for mirth among that bleak band at the Wests received wisdom. Wednesday March 20: The Ministry of Defence said that the Americans had specifically asked for the Royal Marines because of their mountain warfare capabilities. American troops have had problems fighting at high altitude. If this is indeed what the Ministry of Defence and the Americans said or thought, then it is folly of the highest order.
Apply a little rigour; try scepticism - or even some common sense: are Americans, in some way, physiologically different from Britons? Are our mountains bigger than theirs? Is there any rational reason to suppose that our boys will be fleeter at 12,000ft than theirs? The answers are no, no and no. Only one thing can equip men to live and fight at altitude and thats altitude at least a month of it.
The Afghans have it in spades, with mountains up to 24,557ft; the Americans have it at home in plenty, if they want it (up to 20,320ft) and we have it not at all (4,406ft at home or 15,808ft for the tiny percentage of 3 Commando Brigade who have trained in the Alps).
So which fool is it who says our boys will skirmish and dash and dot it, rock to rock, with any greater alacrity than the Americans? Who is it that serves this drivel to us and on whose authority? I help to pay the bill. Id like to know.
Ill accept that 45 Commando, to a man, can hop the heather at sea level with the grace of 1,000 startled stags; but unleash them at Bagram airfield (at roughly 7,000ft), give them a 30- second run and ask how they feel and they will answer, if they can answer, a breathless knackered.
Ask how many of the new deployment have ever been above 10,000ft, let alone trained and spent time there. I will bet my credibility and my military pension on no more than 50 out of 1,700.
Then ask Lennox Lewis whether the altitude matters. He turned up to fight in Johannesburg (at about 5,000ft) a mere two days before the bout and was knocked witless by a journeyman slugger who had done some homework and got there a month earlier. A punch knocked Lewis out, but it was altitude and ignorance that undid him.
So will somebody assure us that our ability to fight at altitude was not the reason for our invitation? Were not up to the job not yet awhile, not for a month or more. The enemy can fight and is already somewhere near the top of the hill. We start near the bottom.
Theres yet more unreason. We are told that 45 Commando are the worlds best, the toughest of the tough. How do we know? They havent fought anyone for 20 years (the enemy then were conscripts, dragged from sunny Argentina and dumped in the sub-arctic Falklands; deserted by their officers, their morale in their boots). Such a claim is arrant twaddle. My heart says theyre the best. My head can only hope they are. We simply dont know.
Of more certain standing are the arms they will be carrying. I read this week that we have formidable weapons. Well, our rifles are M16s, which are good, and SA80s which, now that many millions have been spent by Heckler & Koch in rejigging them, are serviceable we hope. They have yet to be tested in that peculiar snow/dust environment.
The other side have AK- 47s, which are better. Others have singled out our 105mm howitzers for loyal praise. These are helicopter-portable weapons and can get places, one marine explained this week. What he would have liked to have said, had he not been constrained by considerations of morale and politics, is that the 105mm, for all its accuracy, is a pea-shooter that delivers a twopenny-banger-sized plop.
What he really wants is the American 155mm howitzer with a bang three times as big. But the trouble is that our helicopters cant lift them. Instead, we will have to rely on the Americans to back us up from the air. Even then, evidence from Operation Anaconda suggests that it takes more than big bangs to discomfort or dislodge the heavily entrenched Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters from their stone camps and caves.
It is what we are not being told that I want to know. Why, really, are we being called in? What is it that we think we can do that the Americans cannot? How long are we going for? The answers are far from certain, but idle boasts about our forces capability serve no favours in the long run, even if they ease the political mood back home.
Im sure 45 Commando are, by any standards, good. Maybe they are the best. They will shoot straight, they will be well trained and well led. They will fight. In any even half-conventional battle at normal altitudes I would back them heart and head against anyone. But what they need now is time: time for the boys to breathe thin air; time for their red blood corpuscles to multiply as their bodies acclimatise, a bit of time before they start up that hill.
Looking at this weeks photographs of fresh-faced lads, their green berets folded with cock-skewed elan across the forehead, evoked a full hearts flush of fond memories: how I wish I could be with them. But I also wish someone would tell it straight.
I want nothing more than for my concerns to be proved wrong, as old farts often are; wrong like Tony Benn on the Falklands; wrong like Denis Healey on the Gulf war. Plain wrong.
John Barry is a former commanding officer of the Mountain and Arctic Warfare Cadre, responsible for training 3 Commando
Amen. I have worked with 45 Commando in Norway, and they are excellent. But Barry speaks the truth as one who knows it. No unit can fight effectively at altitude until it becomes acclimatized; let's hope that CINCUSCENTCOM is listening to Barry's sage advice (which General Franks and staff should already understand well). Excellent article...
I have wondered also why our troops are being replaced. I can only guess that they are needed in other 'upcoming' battles in other countries?
I'd be willing to bet that some US Marines are going to start turning up in the next couple of weeks as well.
I thought Blair had already committed 25k troops to the Iraq battle? (..or was that just a request from us?)
Musarraf, in Pakistan, will be assassinated and we will eventually wind up fighting serious battles in Pakistan. It could go nuclear because it seems their atomic scientists and the ISI are in bed with the Al Qaeda/Taliban. In fact, Pakistan may come before Iraq. The purpose of the 'quiet period' right now is to let the missle manufacturers replenish the military stocks. (This conflict will get a lot more serious before it gets better)
I know this is true, I got it from a retired SP4 who used to be Norm Swarzkopf's company clerk and is now a military analyst on CNN.
For if you lie wounded on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to yer rifle and blow out yer brains,
And go to yer Gawd like a Soldier!
Soldier of the Queen.
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