More Training NewsStand | Sebastian Sprenger | May 26, 2006

Marines with experience fighting Taliban forces in the remote mountains of Afghanistan want the service to improve training for units going to the region so they can better conduct unconventional supply operations involving air drops and pack mules, according to sources and documents.

The recommendation is one of several included in a 14-page report completed in March by officials from the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned (MCCLL), based in Quantico, VA. Officials from the center were embedded with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment in Afghanistan from December 2005 to January 2006.

The unit itself had orders to conduct counterinsurgency operations from June 2005 to January of this year. Its area of responsibility included 13,000 square kilometers -- with mountain ranges that boast peaks exceeding 12,000 feet in elevation.

“Marines need better predeployment training in unorthodox methods of resupply” when operating in this type of environment, Lt. Col. Donald Hawkins, an MCCLL official, told Inside the Pentagon May 22, summarizing the results of the report. Service officials declined to release the document because it contains sensitive information, including locations and other data about equipment used during operations.

In the mountainous terrain of the Afghan hinterland, parachuting packages from aircraft is often the only way to get crucial supplies to forces on the ground, Hawkins said. Using what is called the Container Delivery System, cargo aircraft -- such as the C-130 -- drop special pallets of supplies in the hope that they land somewhere near the unit for which the drop is intended, he said.

These types of air drops were rarely practiced during training for their mission, Marines from the battalion commented in the report, and the process should be better exercised before deploying, Hawkins said.

The price of miscommunication between forces on the ground and the aircrew in charge of the drop is high. When a package misses its target landing area, nearby local villagers often loot the supplies, and sometimes Marine commanders decide against retrieving a stray package because the arduous trip there is not worth the effort, Hawkins added.

To improve the air drop process, Marines from the 2nd battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment recommend exploring the feasibility of using the commercial Sherpa Autonomous Parafoil Delivery System. The Canadian-made technology uses the Global Positioning System to glide within 100 meters of its programmed target spot, according to the manufacturer, Mist Mobility Integrated Systems Technology.

Members of the Marine outfit also reported routine use of pack mules and donkeys to haul equipment into the mountains or to pick up supplies provided via air drops, Hawkins said. Using these animals “requires training and familiarization,” not only in handling them but also in contracting and caring for them, he said.

Marines get mules and donkeys from local villagers when needed, he noted.

One Marine told ITP this week that the battalion used pack mules and donkeys with “varying success,” depending on the weather, distances traveled and weight of the load. The animals were most helpful during daily resupply missions to observation posts located on small mountain tops, the service member wrote in a May 23 e-mail. Those trips usually were made in the cool, early morning hours, using the same path every day, the official added.

“The true drama began when they were utilized to support extended tactical operations over difficult terrain and in extreme heat,” the Marine said. Under those conditions, especially when combined with enemy contact, the donkeys -- not the pack mules -- sometimes “gave up on the mission” and refused to move on, he added.

“In the end, the donkeys were of value in limited situations as they did not possess the [same] endurance [as] mules and in many cases slowed down the Marines in their assaults,” the official said.

Other findings in the Marine Corps report cover training with high-technology warfighting gear.

More specifically, service members who provided input for the document said they need better training with the communications gear available to them in theater.

The equipment available there differs greatly from the gear used during training in the United States, according to Hawkins. As a result, some equipment in Afghanistan could not be used to its fullest capacity, according to the report.

“As the Marine Corps and the Army continue to develop new equipment to defeat emerging threats, the mass fielding of new equipment can place a heavy burden on an infantry battalion,” the report notes. “While the appeal of the gear is always compelling,” the learning curve to use this equipment can be steep, Hawkins told ITP.

The report recommends that the service put in place “New Equipment Training Teams” that teach Marines how to use unfamiliar gear available to them in theater before they begin their missions, Hawkins said. In addition, the training with communications gear should be pushed to lower levels in the battalion command structure than currently practiced, he added.

Elsewhere in the report, Marines emphasized the need for cold weather clothing, giving good marks to lightweight, yet warm, fleece caps and jackets. The document also lauds the utility of light body armor vests because they provide good ventilation during hot days.

But the document stresses the need to wear full flak jackets when driving in vehicles and when the threat of improvised explosive devices is high, according to Hawkins.

In another recommendation, Marines from the unit urge that motorized vehicle training in the United States be expanded to include all types of vehicles typically found in the Afghan mountains.

Marine Corps officials have already started to incorporate the recommendations and lessons learned from the unit’s report into relevant training procedures, Hawkins told ITP.

At the beginning of the war in Afghanistan in 2001, then-Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Jones stood up an organization that eventually became the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned. Initially called the Enduring Freedom Combat Assessment Team, the outift changed its name to the Expeditionary Force Combat Assessment Team following the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom II, which is what the service called operations subsequent to the official end of major combat in Iraq.

The center’s databases hold over 18,000 pieces of information accessible to military users, dating back to Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s. Non-military users may be granted limited access to some of the information.