Operation Rock Erebus and the Principles of Contemporary Warfare

 

 

April 27th, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Order of Battle

US Forces

  • Able Company 2/503IN 173rd ABCT (ABN)
    • 50 personnel w/ 12 vehicles, standard infantry small arms w/ two dismounted 60mm mortar systems
  • Destined Company 2/503IN 173rd ABCT (ABN)
    • 20 personnel w/ 4 vehicles, standard infantry small arms w/ OE254 radio retransmission station equipment
  • Fusion Company 2/503IN 173rd ABCT (ABN)
    • Approx 20 personnel w/ 4-5 specialized logistical vehicles, standard small arms.
  • Route Clearance Package, unknown engineer unit
    • Unknown number of personnel split between three separate packages, various specialized mine detection vehicles, standard small arms.
  • S. Army Special Forces ODA (unknown numbers)
  • S. Navy SEALs Team, (unknown numbers)
  • S. aviation assets, (unknown numbers), including A10 Warthog Close Air Support planes, Kiowa Scout Helicopters, and Apache Gunships

Taliban Forces

  • Approximately 200-500 fighters, armed with a variety of Soviet produced small arms including AK47s, PKM medium machine guns, DsKA heavy machine guns, RPG rocket systems, Recoilless Rocket Systems, at least 25 emplaced IEDs, multiple 107mm rocket sites and 82mm mortar positions.

 

Operation Rock Erebus and the Principles of Contemporary Warfare

 

In an effort to bring modern counter insurgency operations into the limelight, we will be breaking down and assessing Operation Rock Erebus. Rock Erebus was a multi company mission that occurred in 2012 in the Wardak Province of Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom XII-XIII. Spearheaded by Able Company 2nd Battalion 503rd Infantry, (Aco. 2/503IN from henceforth) and assisted by Fusion and Destined Companies of the same battalion as well as multiple special operations units, Operation Rock Erebus is a prime example of a relatively “simple” mission which became extremely difficult and drawn out due to complications on the battlefield and ended up becoming a multi-day journey which resulted in the crippling of Taliban infrastructure and personnel in the battlespace. By comparing the recollections of many primary sources from the operation and evaluating them alongside centuries old treatises on warfare as well as modern doctrine, we will be able to determine what went right, what went wrong, and how the men of 2/503IN were able to fight through the fog of war and complete their mission.

In August of 2012, nearly one hundred US soldiers and attachments convoyed out from their combat outpost in order to retrieve one of their fellow platoons and move them out of an otherwise hostile area. Being an administrative move with relatively favorable conditions, the mission was expected to last only eighteen hours, consisting of a fairly straight forward convoy operation. As with any mission the U.S. Army conducts, the planning process began well in advance before soldiers ever left the COP[1]. Following the U.S. Army Ranger Handbook, a renowned tactical manual adhered to by all contemporary Army leaders, the planning process began with a WARNO[2]. The WARNO is a very simple “head’s up” containing vague details which can be used to begin generalized preparations for the mission. In the case of Aco. 2/503IN, the reception of the WARNO stirred them into motion, preparing ammunition, sustainment equipment, vehicles, and conducting pre-combat checks. For Rock Erebus in particular, the WARNO was received well in advance of the mission by an order of many weeks, leaving the CoIST[3] cell plenty of time to evaluate intelligence available from within the region.

The CoIST cell began accumulating reports and producing data packages to brief the unit leadership on potential threats. Specialist Umholtz, the team leader in charge of the cell relayed that “We had plotted within 10m all of their heavy weapons, and about half of their IEDs. We even plotted their ingress and egress routes and where they would concentrate the majority of their assault forces.” [4]. Using mixtures of satellite imagery and verbal briefings, the CoIST cell further educated the leadership on the extreme risks that the Lawar River Valley, as well as Chak District Center itself had to offer.

While concrete evidence would be impossible to find, it is likely that the Taliban within the Chak area had learned of the mission planning through informants within the ANA[5] units located on the Able Company COP. This assumption seemed fairly accurate due to the noticeable increase in weapons and Taliban fighters who began streaming to the valley. SPC Umholtz noted “We had intel that they had around 100 IEDs pre-made, 2-3 DsKAs, 1-2 SPG-9s, 30-40 RPG-7 launchers, 5 82mm mortar systems, 1 VBIED, 1-2 14.5mm HMGs and 100-300 fighters. Almost 70 IEDs were either found or struck, 2 DsKAs were used, 1 SPG-9, at least 30 RPG-7 launchers, 2 82mm mortars, and around 150-200 fighters with small arms.”[6] While this was a much larger and more well-equipped force than Able Company leadership had additionally expected, no additional preparations were made to accommodate the increased level of threat. In fact, the CoIST team reported that many of their threat briefings were essentially “blown off” by Able Company officers.

The planning process continued through all other appropriate phases until the plan was finalized and ready to put into action. Initial plans would have the joint Able, Destined, Fusion, and Route Clearance Patrol elements move together in vehicles from COP Dashe Towp[7], south along Highway 1, eventually cutting west over the poorly maintained Chak Highway which would take them to the men of 2nd platoon, Aco. at Chak DC. Along the way, multiple security and communications checkpoints would be established. Destined Company would be the first element to break from the column, stopping one quarter of the way to the objective in order to establish a communications relay point so that the rest of the convoy could continue talking to the TOC[8] at Dashe Towp.

Continuing on, the Able Company element would be the next to pull away from the convoy, establishing an ABF[9] which overlooked Chak Highway directly in the center of Lawar Valley. From here, the Fusion company and RCP elements would continue clearing their way to Chak DC, eventually linking up with 2nd platoon, Aco. and turning around. On the way back, all elements would fall back into the column, eventually terminating the mission once they arrived back at Dashe Towp. The mission was expected to take 18 hours from start to finish.

From the outset the mission went well and began on time. The joint-convoy made it to Chak Highway with no issues and emplaced the Dco. element. Destined Company established a successful radio-relay site and the rest of the convoy continued on without them. Within an hour of leaving the relay site, the RCP discovered the first Improvised Explosive Device alongside the road. Several hours went by as they went through the proper disposal procedures, and the IED was eventually control-detonated and the convoy was able to continue. Within an hour of finding the first one, a second IED exploded under the lead vehicle of the RCP, destroying the boom-arm of the head scanner vehicle with no casualties except for the truck itself. The second scanner vehicle was brought to the fore, and the column continued. Within three hours of the first, the second scanner vehicle hit an IED, again destroying its boom-arm. Being the last scanner vehicle in the column, the convoy was unable to continue further without risking loss of life, and so a radio transmission was sent out which ordered forward a second Route Clearance Patrol, with two more scanner vehicles. At this point, the mission had already exceeded its initial 18-hour forecast.

As soon as the second RCP arrived the convoy continued forward. Driving through the night, multiple more IEDs were discovered and command-detonated until finally an unlucky Fusion Company vehicle took a direct hit. The convoy halted again as the vehicle’s five occupants were extracted and medically evacuated via helicopter, luckily suffering no loss of life. The convoy continued until it reached a stretch of road which required dismounted soldiers to conduct the IED scans, the roadway itself being surrounded by wooded areas. Aiding the dismounted soldiers was a TEDD[10] handler and his dog. Leading the patrol through the wood line, the TEDD notified his handler that he had discovered an IED. The handler, seeking to the safety of the following patrol began to notify them to back away. As he did this, the “sitter”, (the trigger-man responsible for detonating the IED manually), detonated the IED in an effort to destroy the dismounted element. The element and handler were far enough away from the explosion to go unharmed, but the TEDD was killed immediately in the blast.

After an unsuccessful hunt for the sitter and the medical evacuation of the TEDD handler and his fallen K9, the mission continued. “In the dreadful presence of suffering and danger, emotion can easily overwhelm intellectual conviction, and in this psychological fog it is so hard to form clear and complete insights that changes of view become more understandable and excusable.”[11] Clausewitz speaks vividly of the psychological fog which accompanies battle. Even in this precursor to the true action of Rock Erebus, the fog had already begun to settle over the convoy as they persevered through a seemingly endless night, still miles from their objective.

The Able Company ABF position was eventually reached with no more trouble. The trucks split off from the remainder of the convoy, (the Fusion and RCP elements), and took up their overwatch position over the Lawar Valley and Chak Highway, scanning through night vision devices for threats. As the Fusion/RCP element entered the valley, gunfire immediately erupted from the surrounding foothills. Taliban fights engaged the vehicles from distances so close that the Able Company ABF position was rendered useless, as their guns would risk hitting the very soldiers they were attempting to save. A second Fusion Company truck was taken out of action as the result of an RPG[12]and eventually caught fire, the crew escaping back to other vehicles relatively unharmed. The ambush raged on throughout the night until eventually friendly AWT’s[13] arrived on the scene, their rocket and chain-gun fire driving away the surviving Taliban fighters. The convoy continued on and Able Company settled in for the evening of security details.

As the Fusion and RCP elements arrived at Chak DC and prepared to help 2nd platoon leave, Taliban mortar positions began bombarding the tiny COP in an effort to wound and obfuscate their efforts. During this barrage, Staff Sergeant Estrada, a 3rd platoon non-commissioned officer who was attached to 2nd platoon, received severe shrapnel wounds to his legs requiring him to be MEDEVACed[14] away from Chak DC before the element was even able to leave. The joint-2nd platoon/Fusion/RCP convoy eventually lined back up and exited the COP together, making their way through the miles of road back towards the Able Company and Destined Company positions.

Meanwhile at the Able Company ABF, remaining Taliban forces began to sporadically harass the entrenched soldiers. At around midday a single mortar round impacted within 50 meters of the Company Commander’s truck, with little effect. Later that afternoon, an IED emplacement team attempted to bury an IED in broad daylight just below the furthermost gun-truck pulling security in that area. After a brief communication with the Company Commander, the gun-truck fired a short burst, killing the leader of the IED-team and sending the rest running towards cover. After this incident, the area quieted temporarily.

As night fell, the joint convoy drew close to the ABF position. In preparation for their linkup, the Able Company element had moved back down the hillside to a connecting road, ready to pull just behind the joint convoy for the return journey. In nearly the same spot as before, the returning convoy was again ambushed, this time from as close as 15 meters away. Specialist Cory Cynowa, the driver of the lead 2nd platoon vehicle recounts that “We were engaged by RPG’s, recoilless rifles, mortars shooting both HE rounds and illumination rounds, (to better give our position to the enemy), At least one DsKA, and a slew of AK47’s and PKM’s. Rough enemy numbers were over 100, with many of them closing within grenade range of our trucks. The first RPG proved effective to hit a truck in our convoy, injuring an entire truck of our soldiers.”[15]

Clausewitz’s fog intensified during this moment. Among those wounded in the 2nd platoon truck was the Forward Observer, Sergeant Sean Prestley. SGT Prestley was specially trained to direct air assets as well as ground-based artillery fires, a crucially needed task during an ambush such as the one they were embroiled in. With SGT Prestley unable to communicate fully on the radio, the task fell in the lap of Corporal Michael Hedge, an infantry team leader with no real experience in coordinating fire missions. Relying on his previous training and with the aid of others in his vehicle, CPL Hedge was able to successfully direct nearly 10 A-10 gun-runs, as well as coordinate the fires of multiple attack helicopters which had arrived on the scene. These accurate fires eventually broke the spirit of the attackers, allowing the 2nd platoon element to take advantage of the brief respite and push forward out of the ambush area.

As the 2nd platoon joint-element moved forward, the Able Company ABF trucks fell in behind, and the convoy moved towards Dashe Towp. Finally linking up with Destined Company, Taliban forces continued engaging the convoy in sporadic running gunfights which were either quickly dealt with by 2/503IN machine gunners, or alternatively by the AWT assets which were closely monitoring the convoys progress. The convoy ultimately returned to COP Dashe Towp. Specialist Umholtz indicated that while friendly costs were heavy, the enemy forces encountered also suffered severe losses. He says “Being in the TOC and having our section keep track of everything that happened, the final count on friendly casualties was 22 wounded with 2 being severe that resulted in amputations. Confirmed enemy KIA was 32 and 1 high value target. Our estimates were around 90 EKIA and 40 EWIA while reports from locals were over 200 and intercepted Taliban reports were that they lost 150 and 4 leaders, and 30 wounded along with all their heavy weapons systems.”[16]

While U.S. casualties were high for an operation of this size, the damage done to enemy forces within the area was immense. For the following 7 months of the deployment, no other major Taliban action was attempted. Estimates indicate that the bulk of the regional Taliban fighters, as well as their leaders were killed throughout the course of Rock Erebus, crippling their overall fighting ability for quite some time.

The soldiers of the 2/503IN didn’t accomplish this task by accident. While handicapped by the poor reception of intelligence reports displayed by commissioned officers involved in the planning process, and while dealing with the proverbial fog of war at nearly every turn, what set the men apart from their opposition was superior training. One common factor among the paratroopers present on the battlefield is that the vast majority of them had been preparing for war for nearly three years before they ever stepped foot in Afghanistan. Nearly one quarter of the soldiers had already deployed to a combat zone previously, some as many as six times. This compendium of experience and practiced expertise allowed the soldiers to flexibly respond to the situation as it unfolded, in spite of the many disadvantages they might have faced.

Time tested doctrine was another aspect that the 2/503IN benefitted from. The planning process adhered to by the core leadership of the unit is both simple, but all encompassing. The totality of the planning process ensured that no matter what unplanned events occurred, there was nearly always some sort of backup plan to refer to. This doctrine also enabled combined arms actions to take place in an efficient manner. Coordinated support between aviation and ground elements, via both radio and pre-planned phase-lines aided the unit as it faced down the guns of the multiple ambushes.

The planning process aided the unit in less visible ways as well. Multiple kilometers from where 2/503IN was slugging it out with Taliban fighters, multiple other skirmishes were being fought. By incorporating nearby Special Operations units into their planning, 2/503IN received their assistance. The Special Operations units, including elements from the U.S. Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces, (Green Berets), established blocking positions on each end of the Lawar Valley. Using terrain to their advantage, the SOF[17] personnel conducted their own ambushes, killing a large amount of Taliban fighters and effectively denying their ability to maneuver towards the fight further into Lawar. Had these blocking positions not been established, it is highly likely that the full Taliban force could have amassed itself against the convoy, swinging the battle in their own favor as opposed to the actual outcome.

While the planning process and established military doctrine obviously aided the outcome of the U.S. forces, the lack of doctrine and training among the Taliban fighters clearly negated many of their manpower advantages. Napoleon’s 11th Maxim of Warfare reads “To direct operations with lines far removed from each other, and without communications, is to commit a fault which always gives birth to a second. The detached column has only its orders for the first day. Its operations on the following day depend upon what may have happened to the main body. Thus this column either loses time upon emergency, in waiting for orders, or it will act without them, and at hazard. Let it therefore be held as a principle, that an army should always keep its columns so united as to prevent the enemy from passing between them with impunity.”[18] Taliban communications during the multiple skirmishes in Rock Erebus were nearly non-existent. Relying on poorly functioning civilian radios or verbal commands, Taliban forces split in order to attack targets of immediate opportunity.

By splitting their forces and being unable to communicate effectively with individual elements, Taliban commanders lost tactical momentum in their various forays against U.S. elements. Had the Taliban adhered to existing and widely available doctrine and improved their communications, greater weight of concentrated manpower could have been inserted into their individual attacks, vastly increasing the firepower capable of being leveraged upon the convoy. Taliban forces had far superior positions in most cases during the Operation, and harnessed the element of surprise and preparation, however these elements were negated by the non-existent coordination between their individual operational elements, a flaw which was seized by U.S. commanders on the ground.

In summary, rigidly enforced doctrine and superior individual levels of professionalism and training allowed the men of 2/503IN to seize moments of opportunity throughout Rock Erebus. This ingrained flexibility, when pitted against an untrained and poorly arrayed enemy force, proved to cut through the fog of war and mitigate or eliminate the many hurdles of combat which presented themselves throughout the operation. Operation Rock Erebus, while simple in its original intent both succeeded in its original retrograde mission, as well as effectively eliminated enemy combat power for the foreseeable future within the area of operations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Bonaparte, Napoleon. “The Military Maxims of Napoleon.” The Military Maxims of Napoleon. Accessed April 26, 2018. http://www.military-info.com/freebies/maximsn.htm.

Clausewitz, Carl Von. On War. Edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton,

NJ; Princeton University Press, 1976.

Colunga, Nicholas.  “Operation Rock Erebus Interview.” E-mail interview by author. Jan. & Feb. 2018.

Cynowa, Cory. “Operation Rock Erebus Interview.” E-mail interview by author. Jan. & Feb. 2018.

Prestley, Sean.  “Operation Rock Erebus Interview.” E-mail interview by author. Jan. & Feb. 2018.

Umholtz, Andrew.  “Operation Rock Erebus Interview.” E-mail interview by author. Jan. & Feb. 2018.

United States Army Infantry School. Ranger Training Brigade. Ranger Handbook. Fort Benning,

GA.: The Brigade, 2006.

United States. Department of the Army. The Infantry Rifle Company. Washington, D.C.:

Headquarters, Dept. of the Army, 2006.

 

 

 

 

 

Compiled Primary Source Interviews

 

 

Specialist Andrew Umholtz

Operation Rock Erebus/Chak DC Retrograde Interview Questions-August 2012 OEF XIII

-What rank and position did you hold during the operation?

I was a SPC, acting CoIST (Company Intel Support Team) squad leader with 2 11Bs and 1 35F under me.

 

-What previous combat or training experience did you have before this operation?

We had been in country for a couple months, as well as around 4 Grafenwoehr and 1 Hohenfels rotations, and a pretty good train up just in general.

 

-What was your involvement with the operation?

I, along with the rest of the CoIST team, had a hand in the planning of the operation, kept track of all SIGACTs (significant actions), any intel reports, and I ran all the UAS (Unmanned Airborne Systems) for the mission. I also kept Able 6 informed of all movement as well as threat vectors. I also assisted the JTAC in calling in CAS during the mission.

 

-What do you recall of the planning process leading up to the operation? Do you feel that the planning process on your level, (whatever that was), could have been improved? If so, how?

Since we were in charge of the enemy situation in the planning we spent weeks going through Gbs of data and tried to map out all likely and potential locations for weapons systems, personnel, and IEDs. We had plotted within 10m all their heavy weapons, and about half their IEDs. We even plotted their ingress and egress routes and where they would concentrate the majority of their assault force. We sent it out to all the PLs and PSGs for each platoon going on the mission and to the TOC at COP Chak, but once everything was finished it was clear that not a single one had read it.

 

-In a paragraph or two, could you recount the general timeline and memorable events of the operation from your position?

SEALs and 2 SF ODAs inserted the night before on avenues of advance from the North and South to keep reinforcements at bay. SEALs claimed to have killed 60 over the next 4 days, with the 2 ODAs claiming 50. They had their own dedicated air assets which they used with great effect with the SEALs killing an HVT with F-18s.

On the way in the Taliban used delaying tactics so that they could amass and arm their fighters, by surface laying IEDs that had gone bad at the beginning while digging in or arming pre-emplaced IEDs farther into the Chak valley. Around choke points they placed RPG teams with some of Black-2s Vehicles being hit over 20 times with RPGs. Once the convoy got to COP Chak they had planned to use all their indirect systems while everyone refueled and rearmed. They seemed to have trouble with their systems as they fired less than a dozen rounds. While this was happening, they were digging in new IEDs and moving their heavy weapons into position. On the return once the convoy was stalled by multiple IED strikes they opened up with heavy weapons to help cover their fighters advancing on the vehicles. Intense air strikes repelled the assault and destroyed their heavy weapons. Predator UAVs spotted them unloading more heavy weapons and with AH-64s destroyed them and their chance for a second assault. IEDs and sporadic RPG, sniper, and indirect fire was all they could muster for the last leg of the egress.

 

-What was the disposition of enemy forces, to your best memory, that you personally encountered or were aware of? (IE what weapons systems were you engaged by, what were their effects, rough numbers of enemy fighters your element engaged or were you aware of being engaged?)

We had intel that they had around 100 IEDs pre-made, 2-3 DsKAs, 1-2 SPG-9s, 30-40 RPG-7 launchers, 5 82mm mortar systems, 1 VBIED, 1-2 14.5mm HMGs and 100-300 fighters. Almost 70 IEDs were either found or struck, 2 DsKAs were used, 1 SPG-9, at least 30 RPG-7 launchers, 2 82mm mortars, and around 150-200 fighters with small arms.

 

-To the best of your memory, what was the end state of enemy and friendly forces at the close of the operation. This would consist of casualties your platoon/section received, as well as EKIA.

Being in the TOC and have our section keep track of everything that happened, final count on friendly casualties was 22 WIA with 2 being severe that resulted in amputations. Confirmed EKIA was 32 and 1 HVT. Our estimates were around 90 EKIA and 40 EWIA while reports from locals were over 200 and intercepted Taliban reports were that they lost 150 and 4 leaders and 30 wounded along with all their heavy weapons systems.

 

-At the close of the operation, what sustains or improves would you have put into place could you go back and do it over?

Make sure everyone gets a full threat brief and every truck an overlay of likely weapons and IEDs. Better succession of JFO duties, and more planning for a multiday operation. And a loosening of the ROE to allow for firing on buildings with heavy weapons systems.

 

-Do you feel that your previous training and/or operational experience fully prepared you for this mission? If you were able to go back and do it all over, would you place emphasis on a specific training topic that would have improved your or your fellow soldier’s performance during the mission?

I feel I was fully prepared for this mission as well as my team, it was just very frustrating to see hundreds of hours of work go to waste when we realized no one paid any attention to our threat briefs as well as causalities that could have been prevented by it.

-What lessons did you personally take from this operation, and if any, how did you apply them to the rest of your military service?

I always made sure to check in with S2 and go over maps for likely avenues of movement and then give my team, or squad. I also always would bring along extra ammunition and water.

 

-What was the effect of equipment on the mission? Were there items or logistical processes that helped/hurt performance during the mission? Were there any changes you would have made, and if so what/why?

Having constant UAS and CAS assets up allowed us to monitor their moments and predict their next course of action. We had some troubles with VHF interference while pulling down their targeting pod data but for the most part we could watch every gun or bomb run. JTAC was swamped most of the mission even with the FOs helping and me running the UAS, so having more than one in the TOC would have helped. We almost ran out of Rip-Its until the cooks brought in what they were hoarding. We kept getting reports from the different sections that they were running out of fuel, ammunition, and water because all the higher ups predicted that the mission would take less than 24 hours while the CoIST team predicted 72 hours and S2 guessed 56 hours.

 

 

Sergeant Sean Prestley

Operation Rock Erebus/Chak DC Retrograde Interview Questions-August 2012 OEF XIII

-What rank and position did you hold during the operation?

I held the rank of sergeant and my MOS was a 13F with a duty position of platoon forward observer (FO)/ joint fires observer (JFO) for 2nd platoon Able Company 2/503d INF (Task Force Rock), 173rd ABCT at Patrol Base Chak. I was also the only forward observer on the patrol base prior to the operation.

 

-What previous combat or training experience did you have before this operation?

I deployed to Afghanistan in support of OEFX with HHC 173rd. During this deployment I conducted fires operations in the TOC prior to joining a Combat Observation Lasing Team (COLT). After redeployment, I conducted multiple training rotations and fire support team certifications (FIST cert) to Grafenwohr, Hohenfels, and other a number of other places in Germany and Italy. I added the joint fires observer course, held by the United States Air Force.

-What was your involvement with the operation?

I served in the Fires portion of the planning/briefing at PB Chak prior to operation. I planned and executed (after predetermining available assets, max ranges for weapon systems, etc) preplanned fire targets with allocated artillery, mortar, close air support, helicopter (CCA), and UAV assets. During the operation, I served as the platoon forward observer for 2nd platoon Able Co.

-What do you recall of the planning process leading up to the operation? Do you feel that the planning process on your level, (whatever that was), could have been improved? If so, how?

As with most missions, preplanned targets and fires were planned and coordinated with appropriate assets along the route taken. I believe we were allocated 1 M777 howitzer (155mm) that was ranged very far away (15+ km) and the M120 mortar system (120MM) on PB Chak along with various air assets (A10s, AH64s). The battalion recon platoon (scouts) were attached for this mission and inserted to provide overwatch of the patrol with a JTAC. The route clearance would clear the route while the combat logistics patrol (CLP) helped with the retrograde. The mission was estimated to take 24 hours, however it took much longer than expected due to all the IEDs the insurgents in the area dug into the route.

In a paragraph or two, could you recount the general timeline and memorable events of the operation from your position?

The mission was taking much than expected due to the route clearance patrols (RCPs) encountering and hitting so many IEDs. In total, it took 3 RCPs to clear the route both ways and they hit or encountered around 25 IEDs. After clearing the route the first time (to allow the CLP to retrograde patrol base Chak) we were to convoy back with the RCP and CLP, after they refueled, back to COP Dashe Towpe. The insurgents immediately dug IEDs back into the route, bringing the convey back to a standstill. After about 2-3 hours we began to be shot at with small arms, RPGs, and recoilless rifle fire sporadically. At first, they shot 2 RPGs or recoilless rifle rounds at the vehicle myself and 3 others were in and missed the one shot and hit with the second round (shot about an hour or 2 after the first one round) which was immediately followed by a barrage of small arms and machine gun fire. We immediately dismounted, while friendlies engaged the enemy back. We eventually got A10 support on station to engage and suppress the enemy.

-What was the disposition of enemy forces, to your best memory, that you personally encountered or were aware of? (IE what weapons systems were you engaged by, what were their effects, rough numbers of enemy fighters your element engaged or were you aware of being engaged?)

I believe it was estimated anywhere from 100-300 fighters were in the area. We were engaged by small arms, machine gun, and RPG/recoilless rifle. PB Chak was also engaged with mortar fire from the enemy. At the time, it was believed around 150 people were in the area engaging the convey. The truck sustained a flat tire and the fire suppression system went off, but otherwise it could still drive.

-To the best of your memory, what was the end state of enemy and friendly forces at the close of the operation. This would consist of casualties your platoon/section received, as well as EKIA.

From what I recall, there was around 20 EKIA from engagement above (I believe the number ended up rising). In total around 20 friendly WIA (from the entire mission). From my platoon, all four members in the vehicle received wounds and was awarded Purple Heart medals.

-At the close of the operation, what sustains or improves would you have put into place could you go back and do it over?

Sustains – The unit provided us a lot of support in terms of assets provided (aircraft, personnel, etc).

The BN operations officer and FSO were both directly brought to PB Chak to help plan and execute the operation.

Improves – During the planning, time should have been taken into consideration more. It was estimated to take 24 hours to complete the whole operation. But, we knew prior that the road going into the valley would have a lot of IEDs and would take time to clear all those. It took the RCPs and CLP around 48 hours to just get to the patrol base and another 24 hours once we joined the convoy (after the RCP and CLP refueled) before we got to COP Dashe Towpe.

Better, less restrictive ROE to engage the enemy without having to pass information up through different channels for approval due taking away valuable time on the battlefield.

-Do you feel that your previous training and/or operational experience fully prepared you for this mission? If you were able to go back and do it all over, would you place emphasis on a specific training topic that would have improved your or your fellow soldier’s performance during the mission?

I do feel that I was fully prepared for the mission. The unit always placed an emphasis on being ready and doing your job when it came down to it. I feel and put complete faith in the fact that everyone in my unit was prepared and executed their jobs as they should have and to the best of their abilities. Repetitive training gets to the point where it is muscle memory so when the moment comes, you just react without thinking.

-What lessons did you personally take from this operation, and if any, how did you apply them to the rest of your military service?

I learned you must always remember nothing ever happens how it is planned, you have to adapt and overcome.

-What was the effect of equipment on the mission? Were there items or logistical processes that helped/hurt performance during the mission? Were there any changes you would have made, and if so what/why?

There were many vehicles that were disabled in the convoy and the result was more had to be brought in to tow or help. Also, having 1 RCP was not enough because more was eventually needed. Possibly clearing the route prior to this mission and have constant UAV or aircraft surveillance to prevent insurgents from digging IEDs back into the road could be a change to be made

 

 

Specialist Cory Cynowa

 

-What rank and position did you hold during the operation?

Private First Class, Operated as Driver of the Lead Vehicle of the Able Company 2nd Platoon element

-What previous combat or training experience did you have before this operation?

Live exercises in hohensfels Germany, Daily training in garrison and on deployment, combat experience included daily firefights while operating out of the Chak DC Patrol Base

 

-What was your involvement with the operation?

I was the lead vehicle of the 2nd platoon element, My duties involved driving the vehicle during combat to better allow gunner access to the enemy elements, assisting my TC (SPC hedge) with his medevac calls and a10 run guidance, returning fire to the enemy, and handing ammo to the gunner (PFC Bruckenstein)

 

-What do you recall of the planning process leading up to the operation? Do you feel that the planning process on your level, (whatever that was), could have been improved? If so, how?

 

No, my tasking was to essentially follow behind the RCP convoy, Phaselines were explained adequately

 

My only improvement would be training on the MATV that I would be driving for the first time ever during the retrograde

 

-In a paragraph or two, could you recount the general timeline and memorable events of the operation from your position?

 

We Exfilled from Chak DC as soon as the RCP finally arrived to the Patrol base. Over the next 3 days we slowly navigated the 12 miles to arrive at COP Dashe Towpe to link up with company elements.

The most memorable event was the first night at the village of Lawar, the 7 trucks of 2nd Platoon, Able Company were engaged by a company-sized element of Czechneyan Taliban. As lead vehicle, I was responsible for navigating as much as possible to allow for other trucks to get out of the linear danger area of the road we were on.

 

-What was the disposition of enemy forces, to your best memory, that you personally encountered or were aware of? (IE what weapons systems were you engaged by, what were their effects, rough numbers of enemy fighters your element engaged or were you aware of being engaged?)

 

We were engaged by RPG’s, recoilless rifles, mortars shooting both HE rounds and Lum rounds (to better give our position to the enemy), At least one dishka, and a slew of AK47’s and PKM’s. Rough enemy numbers were over 100, with many of them closing within grenade range of our trucks. The first RPG proved effective to hit a truck in our convoy, injuring an entire truck of our soldiers.

 

-To the best of your memory, what was the end state of enemy and friendly forces at the close of the operation. This would consist of casualties your platoon/section received, as well as EKIA.

 

Friendly forces did not experience any deaths to my knowledge(with the exception of a bomb dog),however we received roughly 10-12 casualties across the convoy, half of which were from the initial RPG blast that started off the engagement. EKIA was confirmed more than 40, including one HVT, but further investigations estimated more than 100 enemy fatalities.

 

-At the close of the operation, what sustains or improves would you have put into place could you go back and do it over?

 

More vehicle training, at times our trucks were in linear danger areas between two buildings and drivers had no training to know that they should move in front of buildings.

 

-Do you feel that your previous training and/or operational experience fully prepared you for this mission? If you were able to go back and do it all over, would you place emphasis on a specific training topic that would have improved your or your fellow soldier’s performance during the mission?

 

Our CROWS systems were completely worthless, if we could have had some CROWS operators trained, we wouldn’t have had SOP’s that consisted of gunners jumping on top of maxxpro’s to fire the guns.

 

-What lessons did you personally take from this operation, and if any, how did you apply them to the rest of your military service?

 

In this operation I learned to coordinate troop movement, as well as the disorientation that casulaties can take (such as CPL prestley moving aimlessly between our trucks after being blown up)

 

-What was the effect of equipment on the mission? Were there items or logistical processes that helped/hurt performance during the mission? Were there any changes you would have made, and if so what/why?

 

Equipment was shoddy at best, because of the poor upkeep of DVE’s(if they were present at all), our trucks were constantly running into buildings at night. My truck for instance, had to use the gunner’s thermal scope to guide us during the darkest parts of night. The largest logistical problem resulted when the first RCP had lost too many trucks and had to wait for another RCP to spot before they could continue on to Chak DC. If I was to change the mission, I would have have had armed escorts Slinghook all of the trucks out of Chak DC in order to save money.

 

 

PFC Nicholas Colunga

Operation Rock Erebus/Chak DC Retrograde Interview Questions-August 2012 OEF XIII

-What rank and position did you hold during the operation?

I was a PFC gunning for truck 2/1A

 

-What previous combat or training experience did you have before this operation?

 

—-Leading up to that deployment we had gone on a few long rotations to grafenwohr and hohenfels where we went through mock missions and did everything just how we would on an actual deployment I.E. react to contact, CQB, Call for fire ect. Our leadership made sure that every SM had knowledge on everyone’s job and not just our PMOS. As for the combat prior to that we had been in a few tics but nothing like the mission leaving chak.

 

-What was your involvement with the operation?

My involvement was to gun for the second truck in the convoy.

 

-What do you recall of the planning process leading up to the operation? Do you feel that the planning process on your level, (whatever that was), could have been improved? If so, how?

I cant remember too much of the planing process other than the mission briefing. The mission was pretty straight fwd drive from point A to point B. In my opinion our leadership did a good job planing with the equipment and personnel we had.

 

-In a paragraph or two, could you recount the general timeline and memorable events of the operation from your position?

From the get go things didn’t go as planned. If i remember correctly we were supposed to leave the19th of August but it took RCP a few days to get there so we didn’t end up leaving till the 21st. The night before we left the crow system that i was supposed be on stopped working for some reason so i was given a MK48 and about 1000 rounds and was told to pop open the top latch and shoot that way since the crow system was down. They finally got to us around mid morning/ early afternoon and it seem like as soon as they did we started taking IDF that was scary accurate that day. We must of taken the first 3 or 4 rounds within a 10 minute window. and when we left it was pretty quiet all up until dawn. Im not sure what the time was when that first rpg was fired at us I just remember hearing a loud boom and opening the top latch and returned fire till we knew what was going on. As all the fighting was going on I remember Prestly running up to our vehicle and Andreen didn’t want to open up the door for him for some reason. Im not sure how long it was but it felt forever since the sun was still somewhat up when it started and it was dark when it ended. I remember the feeling of my stomach sinking hearing that we had about 5 wounded. Two of our trucks went down for sure on top of the other trucks that we had to recover on the way there.

 

-What was the disposition of enemy forces, to your best memory, that you personally encountered or were aware of? (IE what weapons systems were you engaged by, what were their effects, rough numbers of enemy fighters your element engaged or were you aware of being engaged?)

 

We were being engaged by AK’s, RPG’s and recoiless rifle. Im not sure how many people we were being ambushed by I knew it was a lot from all of the muzzle flashes.

 

-To the best of your memory, what was the end state of enemy and friendly forces at the close of the operation. This would consist of casualties your platoon/section received, as well as EKIA.

—-At the end of the operation we had 4 wounded and im not positive on the number of EKIA ived heard over 25 though

 

-At the close of the operation, what sustains or improves would you have put into place could you go back and do it over?

 

Honestly I wouldn’t change anything but the equipment used both crow systems went down the day before which would of help us tremendously. Nothing ever goes as planned in combat, when our worlds came crashing down everyone did their job and got shit done to complete the mission.

 

-Do you feel that your previous training and/or operational experience fully prepared you for this mission? If you were able to go back and do it all over, would you place emphasis on a specific training topic that would have improved your or your fellow soldier’s performance during the mission?

 

My previous training before that was excellent in preparing me for that mission. Not the training it self but the lessons I learned from my mistakes while training is what prepared me. They taught me to not to worry about the little mistakes and move past them cause the more i focus on the mistake the more panicky and flustered you get.

 

-What lessons did you personally take from this operation, and if any, how did you apply them to the rest of your military service?

 

The lesson i learned is to be thankful for how well we have it. I learned is that nothing will ever go as planned and the more you focus on the negatives of your situation the more its just going to bring you down. Sometimes life is going to throw you curve ball after curve ball and just when you’ve had enough its gonna have you watch your friends get blown up so you to remind you that no matter how bad you have it, it can always get worst so be thankful

 

-What was the effect of equipment on the mission? Were there items or logistical processes that helped/hurt performance during the mission? Were there any changes you would have made, and if so what/why.

Our equipment wasn’t the best. Both of our crow system’s went down the day before and our radios didn’t work very well either. The entire time of our deployment our radios hardly worked ; most of the time we had to relay messages from truck to truck. The changes i would of made would be to change out the crow systems with regular mounted weapons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Combat Outpost

[2] Warning Order, United States Army Infantry School. Ranger Training Brigade. “Ranger Handbook”. Fort Benning, GA.: The Brigade, 2006.

 

[3] Company Intel Support Team

[4] Andrew Umholtz. “Operation Rock Erebus Interview.” E-mail interview by author. Jan. & Feb. 2018.

[5] Afghan National Army

[6] Umholtz, “Interview”, 2.

[7] Combat Outpost Dashe Towp, Able Companies’ primary COP for the deployment.

[8] Tactical Operations Center, a location containing radio, computer, and camera equipment used for monitoring ongoing missions and coordinating those missions with higher elements of command.

[9] Attack by Fire position, an elevated position used for controlling swathes of terrain with emplaced weapons systems.

[10] Tactical Explosives Detection Dog. A dog, typically a Belgian Malinois which is trained to sit when it smells explosive material.

[11] Carl Von Clausewitz. On War. Edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton,

NJ; Princeton University Press, 1976. 108.

[12] Rocket Propelled Grenade, in this case likely one with an armor piercing warhead.

[13] Air Weapons Teams. Mixed groups of Scout and Attack helicopters, (Kiowas and Apaches, respectively), which work in tandem to eradicate targets using missiles and guns.

[14] Medical Evacuation. This is an evacuation conducted by a designated medical vehicle, typically a helicopter or ambulance, as compared to a CASEVAC or casualty evacuation which is done in an impromptu fashion for time restricted scenarios.

[15] Cory Cynowa.”Operation Rock Erebus Interview.” E-mail interview by author. Jan. & Feb. 2018.

 

[16] Umholtz. “Interview”, 3.

[17] Special Operations Forces

[18] Napoleon Bonaparte, “The Military Maxims of Napoleon.” The Military Maxims of Napoleon. Accessed April 26, 2018. http://www.military-info.com/freebies/maximsn.htm.

 

2 thoughts on “Operation Rock Erebus and the Principles of Contemporary Warfare

  1. Hi Jacob, I enjoyed this article–a good run down on a fateful action for sure. . Glad US Forces did not suffer more. USMC 6042 here. Airwinger but as a near-Vietnam era service, I have had a life long interest in smaller unit actions and counter-insurgency. Was wondering if I could ask you some questions?

    David
    david.lisle.rose@gmail.com
    USMCR 1975-1979
    HMM-764

    Like

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