Saving Captain Swenson

October 18, 2013

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I was brought to tears Tuesday during the Medal of Honor ceremony in the White House celebrating the heroism of Captain William Swenson and his team in Afghanistan. He was the sixth soldier or Marine to receive the medal for heroism in Afghanistan. All six stories are remarkably similar in that none of these incredibly brave men should have been in a position to have earned the medal. Had soldiers in these engagements been adequately provided with a few cheap technologies perhaps they might have avoided the bloody traps that precipitated their heroic actions.

In his remarks, President Obama noted that the helmet cam video taken of Swenson carrying his wounded comrade to the medevac helicopter was the first to record a Medal of Honor recipient in action. But did you happen to notice in the video the bulky radio stuffed in Swenson’s backpack? This battle was fought in 2009 a time when rag pickers in Mumbai had cell phones. Why can’t our fighting men and women have cell phones in combat?

In his debrief after the action Captain Swenson railed justifiably about the failure of duty officers in the rear to approve the delivery of artillery and air support in the heat of battle. Imagine for a moment that Swenson, like the medevac crewman who took the video of Swenson, had a simple camera on his helmet capable of displaying the ground situation and linked it to screens in the Operations Center. Had the officers in the center seen the action in real time though Swenson’s eyes perhaps supporting fires might have been immediately cleared long before Swenson was trapped in the kill zone. You can buy helmet cams at Walmart.

According to unclassified reports of the battle, an aerial drone showed up over Swenson’s unit five hours after the ambush was sprung by the Taliban. What if our military had been able to deploy enough drones to put a set of aerial eyes over every ground patrol marching into a dangerous and uncertain situation? Surely had a drone been overhead the Taliban would never have dared to open fire.

Swenson’s team walked into a three sided ambush. All five members of Swenson’s lead element, four Marines and a medical corpsman, were killed in the opening exchange of fire. But what if the one of the lead element carried a sensor that detected movement or the metabolic presence of humans nearby? Such devices are easy to develop and the technology has been in use by civilian security companies for years. Again, had Swenson’s team been warned there would have been no ambush and no medal.

The Taliban engaged these Marines from behind the protection of large boulders and stone walls. Swenson was able to keep his attackers at bay only by throwing a hand grenade at them. In 2003, the Army developed the M25 “smart grenade launcher” that uses a laser beam to program a grenade to explode over the heads of the enemy hiding behind protective cover. Such a weapon in the hands of Swenson’s team would have taken out the Taliban with ease. After a decade of development the Army hopes to have the M25 in the hands of troops this year…maybe.

The greatest killer in the close fight is the simple mortar, nothing more complicated than a steel tube that launches an explosive grenade out to a distance of several kilometers. The Taliban used mortars to great effect against Swenson’s team. What if Swanson had had access to a really good “carry along” heavy mortar? What if the mortar bomb had precision GPS guidance such that the first round landed directly on the Taliban? With such a weapon Swenson’s fight would have lasted about three minutes instead of nine hours. Our current heavy mortar, capable of firing precision munitions, was designed by the Finns in 1931, copied by the Soviets in 1940, sold to Egypt in the fifties, captured by the Israelis in 1967 and then foisted on to the American Army in the eighties (You can’t make this up). We developed precision mortar shells for the heavy mortar about twenty years ago but until 2011, had never manufactured them due to the expense. Tell the families of these dead soldiers and marines about expense.

These and other soldier-saving technologies could have been developed and fielded cheaply and quickly years ago. Yet, after ten years of war the ground services, the Army and Marine Corps, remain starved for new, cutting edge life-saving materiel while the Department of Defense and their big defense company allies continue to spend generously on profitable big ticket programs like planes, ships, missiles and computers. Soldiers’ stuff is more Popular Mechanics than star wars. But Captain Swenson and his six Medal of Honor colleagues might have had a better day had the nation spent a bit more to give them a technological edge over the enemy.


Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general, is a former commandant of the U.S. Army War College.


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7 thoughts on “Saving Captain Swenson

  1. And there in lies the problem. Instead of fixing the problem (Staff Officers and NCO feeling compelled to second guess the Soldier in combat), we add more technology, which cannot solve the problem, but addresses the symptoms. Technology is not the be all end all. We must address the human factor and adequately train our leaders so that they develop and display trust in their subordinates, who in turn will trust their subordinates. The “risk adverse” culture is not in the best interests of our country, its military or our Warriors who go into harms way.

  2. The shortcomings in Afghanistan that led to the tragic outcomes in this 2009 ambush are less about systems and capabilities and more about doctrine, TTPs and leadership. We have plenty of outstanding capabilitis in the hands of soldiers today. The question then, why was this unit moving without pre-planned fires, without direct-support cannon artillery utilizing Excalibur? Why wasn’t rotary wing or fixed wing on-station? What contingencies had been planned for actions on contact?

    At least what did come out of this tragic engagement is evidence that we still produce corageous Soldiers and Marines who are innovative and willing to act in the face of grave personal danger.

  3. Helmet cam so the staff guys could see what was happening — as opposed to getting Swenson’s reports — that would have made all the difference. More crap to carry with them on top of their 100lb load. That’s what they needed. A $M gun to shoot a grenade to do exactly what Swenson did by hand. Couldn’t be that more infantrymen would be a better use of the money.

    This kind of technology-centric baloney plays great with everyone except those who have been in combat. The fact is that Swenson had more firepower and intelligence support available to him than anyone could need or use. His chain of command didn’t back him up quickly or effectively, for which they were reprimanded — they should have been court-martialed. But that would mean that a General would get a black mark. And hey, a technologist/company man would be probably have been put in his place. The generals don’t deserve the Soldiers they have.

      1. Ryan,
        While I agree that comments shouldn’t need to devolve into ad hominem attacks, in this case, any General who isn’t offended by the situation leading up to Captain Swenson’s Medal of Honor battle, and the subsequent attempt by General Petreus to bury his award, either doesn’t understand the situation, or doesn’t have the best interests of our soldiers at heart. Martel’s comments hit the nail on the head, the firepower to solve Captain Swenson’s situation was readily and immediately available. The authority to employ that firepower was denied by a chain of command that wasn’t at risk and was indifferent about the men that were at risk. This isn’t a situation that requires more technology, it’s a situation that requires a purge in Army leadership.

  4. I shudder at the mention of additional equipment for men to carry and the concept of technologically-driven solution(s) to enemy contact. While respecting MG(R) Scales’ service to our nation, I politely and fundamentally disagree with portions of his statement. My 12 years of combat arms experience does not match his 34 years in uniform, however I would submit the idea that technology can ameliorate every awful situation in the field is incorrect.

    I completely agree with his discussion regarding the prioritization process of different platforms, and what receives funding to ultimately end up employed against enemy forces. Counter-Insurgency isn’t sexy, and does not create factories in Congressional districts. I would certainly endorse having better technologies in military hands instead of spending copious amounts of money on unlimited high visibility projects. However, that is a separate issue from the thesis of technology as a solution during enemy contact.

    As it stands now, with all the advancements and new gadgets that the defense industry has churned out, more Infantrymen in a squad are monitoring devices to find IEDs, locate enemy radios, and jam enemy cell phones than there are men employing their primary weapon. I would bring up the use of detection dogs; a distinctly non-high tech asset, that have once again proven their historical value.

    The enemies we fight are not stupid. They, like good students of history, understand all too well that super expensive high technology ‘solutions’ employed by their opposition can readily be countered with a shift in tactics, techniques, and procedures whilst one waits to exhaust the society who sent their armed forces into combat.

    We must remember the lessons of the past if we are to succeed in combat operations of the future. I would respectfully submit that the notions of ‘send a bullet not a man’, and the concept of technology as a panacea for contact with the enemy are two ideas which will not best serve those who are sent to fight our wars.

  5. I just stumbled across this, but I do have an answer on two items.

    “…rag pickers in Mumbai had cell phones. Why can’t our fighting men and women have cell phones in combat?”

    Very simple. Those rag pickers aren’t running their own cellular network. Our fighting men and women, outside of garrison and CONUS, are not operating where Verizon, AT&T or even the U.S. Army has any infrastructure to provide cellular service. You aren’t going to “roam” onto 3rd party let alone enemy controlled services. Cellular also operates only under benign conditions where even innocent interference is legally prohibited. Is that a characteristic of any operational environment where you would stake your life, under fire, on that comms technology? No robust infrastructure (from a provider that allows you access) and the slickest, smartest cell phone is a small, lightweight brick. If you really need a demonstration of that, take a drive deep into the NTC, 20 or 30 miles from the nearest highway (and cell towers) and give me a call.

    “You can buy helmet cams at Walmart.”

    Yes you can, but you can’t transmit that video even 5 feet let alone 5 or 10 miles. It has no RF capability, and the RF needed to transmit video is back to that bulky radio stuffed in the backpack. Unless of course you happen to be operating within 2-3 miles of a cell tower of a usable service provider and there is no interfering RF.