Many in the SEAL community had warned against drawing too much attention to the unit after the raid on bin Laden. Already Saturday, some wondered whether the rocket attack could have been prevented.
Sunday, August 07, 2011
Too Much Chatter
These are dark days in Virginia Beach.
The Old Dominion's largest city is, of course, a Navy town, home to such facilities as NAS Oceana; the Little Creek Amphibious Base and Training Support Center Hampton Roads. Sitting adjacent to the Dam Neck Naval Annex, FTC is best known as the host installation for the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), often referred to by its previous name, SEAL Team 6.
Twenty-two members of DEVGRU, many of them deployed from the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, died Friday night when a Chinook helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan's Wardak Province. At least eight other Americans and eight Afghans were aboard the chopper when it went down, making it the largest loss of life suffered by Allied forces in the Afghan War. The Taliban immediately claimed responsibility, saying they shot down the helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade. U.S. and NATO officials are not disputing that claim.
The other U.S. service members who died in the crash were members of the Army helicopter crew and Air Force combat controllers and pararescuemen, who often deploy in combat with the SEALs. As of Sunday afternoon, recovery operations were still underway. Fighting is reportedly continuing near the crash site, making it more difficult to remove wreckage and the bodies of those killed in the shoot-down.
News of the incident sent shockwaves through Virginia Beach and other communities in the Norfolk region. While the SEALs rarely discuss their duties publicly, many in Hampton Roads know someone (directly or indirectly) who is a part of DEVGRU. And, as the mourning began, some members of the special warfare community were wondering if the incident could have been avoided, according to the (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot:
"Why would you want to bring any attention to yourself?" the former SEAL Team 6 member said. "Team guys just want to go about their business without shining a big spotlight on themselves. Most of them just want to do their jobs and go home."
It's a point that deserves further investigation. At the time of the successful mission against bin Laden's compound, senior U.S. officials agreed that details of the raid would remain secret. But that vow was quickly broken; with 48 hours, operational details of the SEALs mission were making their way into print and broadcast accounts, raising serious concerns about operational security--and the potential safety of SEAL families back in Virginia. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed disgust over the willingness of government officials to discuss the operation with the media.
And the revelations didn't stop there. The current issue of The New Yorker has an extremely detailed article on the raid, offering such revelations as the radio call from the SEAL who actually killed bin Laden ("For God and Country, Geronimo, Gernonimo, Geronimo"), to the tactics used by operators in storming the compound and the weapons they used.
Readers will note that not a single, active member of DEVGRU was interviewed for the article. Instead, the magazine relied on lengthy interviews with former special ops personnel and administration officials. That latter group (presumably) includes those who watched the raid unfold in the White House situation room, via live video and secure communications links from the compound--the same officials who pledged not to disclose the mission's operational details.
It's patently clear why members of the administration wanted to talk to The New Yorker. The article depicts President Obama as cool and decisive in ordering preparations for the raid and giving final approval. With Mr. Obama's job approval numbers dropping like a rock, it doesn't hurt to remind the public of a major triumph in national security.
But did recent disclosures about the bin Laden raid give the Taliban an edge in downing that Chinook? So far, a definitive link hasn't been established. Indeed, our enemies in Afghanistan have been observing our special forces for almost a decade, and they've clearly learned a great deal about our tactics and techniques. We also know that Taliban gunners routinely attempt to engage our helicopters with RPGs, their preferred weapon-of-choice. Unfortunately, the enemy gets lucky once in a while, with deadly consequences for our troops.
Still, we can't completely dismiss the notion that the recent focus on special ops missions has at least affirmed our operational tendencies for enemy planners. For example, The New Yorker piece explains the use of quick reaction forces (QRFs) to supplement the primary team, providing additional airlift and fire support as necessary. When one of the HH-60s crashed while attempting to insert SEALs inside bin Laden's compound on 1 May, a Chinook from the QRF was quickly dispatched to pick up the operators and the chopper crew, once the raid was complete.
Obviously, that wasn't the first time a QRF has been scrambled during the Afghan War, and it won't be the last. But the article confirmed our preference to send in more special forces to aid operators who are in trouble. And sure enough, the Chinook that went down Friday night was delivering SEALs who were going to the aid of Army Rangers, pinned down by heavy fire in Wardak's rugged terrain.
With that sort of information, it would be easier for the Taliban to pick an ambush site, particularly if geography limits ingress and egress routes for our helicopters. Find an optimum spot to engage the initial force (the Rangers), then position RPG gunners along the expected flight path of the QRF choppers. It doesn't guarantee success, but it certainly improves the odds.
All the more reason for senior government officials to keep their mouths shut. The operators of DEVGRU have made more than their share of sacrifices over the past decade, and the coming weeks will be agonizing for the naval special warfare community in Hampton Roads and elsewhere. It will prove even worse if we learn that the careless comments of U.S. officials provided assistance to our enemies.