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Afghanistan: When the Moon Sets, Watch Out

Chinook at night seen through night vision green

18 September 2012

UPDATE:  Comments from original post are archived here:

Last Friday night, the moon phase left Afghanistan in near total darkness.  Even with clear skies, the enemy knew that at the brightest moment, the moon would only appear as an irrelevant orange sliver.  Such times are called “red illumination,” or “red illum.”  Planning calendars in Afghanistan highlight periods of red illum because they hamper aviation.

Even though this is the year 2012, and the Curiosity Rover is beaming images from Mars more than four decades after astronauts first trod on the lunar surface, the moon phase remains important when planning operations.  The moment that the nighttime attack on Camp Bastion was reported, the moon phase could have been safely guessed without looking up.

In every respect, Southern Afghanistan is a dark part of the world. Without moonlight, most villages are black at night.  The brightest places in the country are our bases.  Cultural lights present little danger to Taliban moving at night.  Our air assets, including our aerostat balloons, are often their biggest concern.

This war is mature.  The enemy knows us, and we know them.  After 11 years, the Taliban realizes that most helicopter traffic ceases during red illum.  Most birds will only fly for urgent MEDEVAC, or for special operations.  The enemy closely observes our air traffic.  Operations slow under red illum, so air traffic declines, and the chances of being spotted by roving aircraft are reduced.

There is a misconception that UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) such as Predators can detect everything.  They cannot.  Their field of vision is like looking through a toilet paper roll.  The UAVs are great for specific targets, such as watching a house, but imagine patrolling.  It is like trying to visually swat mosquitoes using no ears, no sense of touch, and only the ability to look through a toilet paper roll.  You will get some, and miss many.

We only have enough UAVs to cover small splotches of the country, and there are bases, roads, operations, and targets spread throughout Afghanistan and elsewhere that need watching.  The enemy can spoof observers by using a “pattern of life” (POL) for camouflage.  So even if our UAV operators see apparently unarmed natives moving, it is no guarantee of early detection.

Our UAVs over Afghanistan fly with their strobes flashing to avoid collisions.  If a Predator or Reaper crashes into a commercial airliner because it was flying blacked out while staring at the ground, that is a problem.  The enemy can see our UAVs from miles away.

A key realization: the enemy uses cheap night vision gear in the form of cameras that have night functions.  When our IR lasers, our IR strobes, our IR illumination or our IR spotlights are radiating, they can easily be seen using cheap digital cameras.  I recently told this to some Norwegian soldiers, who were as surprised as our soldiers to learn it.  I learned this from the enemy, not from our side.  The Taliban even use smart phone cameras to watch for invisible lasers.  The enemy in Afghanistan has been caught using cameras for night vision.  It is just a stroke of common sense: I have been doing it for eight years since I noticed an IR laser one night in Iraq.

A Norwegian trooper explained that one dark night in Afghanistan, they were ambushed with accurate but distant machinegun fire.  When they turned off their IR strobes, the fire ended.  When they turned the IR strobes back on, the fires resumed.  When they turned them off for good, it was over.

Many of our people believe that the enemy does not use night vision.  There was a time when this was true, but the war has matured and this is now false.  If your firefly is strobing on your helmet, or if you are carrying a cracked IR chemlight, do not be surprised if you take accurate fire during a black night.  When JTACs mark targets with IR lasers, or when aircraft such as Predators lase for Hellfire shots or for target ID, they look like purple or green sunbeams through night vision optics and they are crazy bright.  You cannot miss them.

To maximize chances of success for an assault such as that at Bastion last Friday, the Taliban know that it is best to start early, on a moonless night, just after red illum has begun.  Other Afghans engaged in normal masking movements can provide POL camouflage.  The enemy knows that only “Terry Taliban” is skulking around after midnight, so they start early when possible.

By 7PM last Friday, the night was very dark, and by 8PM, it was thick and black, making it a perfect time to close in on the target.  Camp Bastion would appear lit up like Las Vegas, standing alone, glowing like a giant bubble of light in the “Desert of Death.”  On the darkest nights, the lights of Bastion sometimes reflect orange off the clouds above, and they can be seen for miles around, causing Afghans to ask why the base glows like the morning sun, yet they do not have a drop of electricity.  The days of goodwill and hope are over.

During periods of utter darkness, many of our light-intensifying systems are useless.  There is not enough light for them to work with, which is why many aircraft do not fly during red illum.  This also affects ground troops whose systems likewise do not have enough light to intensify, and it reduces their air cover, and thus all air and ground operations.

Last Friday was dark without infrared spotlights, or IR illumination fired from cannons and mortars. It is not always a good idea to fire those around major airbases.  And besides, the spotlights and illum rounds have limitations and cannot see around contours.  Thermal imagers work during complete darkness but they cannot see into hidden gullies.  Ground surveillance radar (GSR) and other sensors are of limited use, especially when the enemy uses masking POL.  All of these systems work together, and they can be helpful, but they can be foiled through experience and subterfuge, especially when our forces are complacent in the armored cocoons of the mega-bases.

Camp Bastion is set far back in the desert as a security precaution.  Approaches can be seen for miles.  Consulting Google Earth and other imagery might lead you to believe that there is no approach that cannot be observed.  This is true when the air assets are up, and it is true up close whether the aerial surveillance platforms are up or not.  But the desert is not flat like a billiard table.  We all know what water and wind can do to terrain.  The surface is closer to a waffle than to a pancake.

I scouted around Camp Bastion more than six years ago, before the camp was up and running, and since that time I have flown low-level there on many occasions.  Many ripples and folds provide cover from direct observation from the base perimeter.  The micro-terrain might not be obvious from Google Earth or from maps, but there are dead-space approaches that locals can use.  Afghans have long been expert at traveling unseen in what appears to be wide-open territory.  This is one of their strengths, and it has been described in accounts of war after war.  Just as navies can hide in the open seas, Afghans can hide in treeless deserts, unless aircraft or roving patrols detect them.

The Taliban’s major vulnerability is our mastery of the air, but if they can negate it, we are approaching tactical equality because they have home turf advantage, and they have lived there since antiquity.  Local Afghans have had six-years since Bastion was built to map ingress and egress routes, and to probe ISAF defenses and reactions.

This morning, four days after the attack, ISAF HQ in Kabul announced that they had arrested one of the Taliban leaders behind Friday’s attack.  According to ISAF, they nabbed him in Nad ‘Ali district.  This district is a green zone about sixteen miles from Camp Bastion.  Some of the closest built-up areas contiguous to Nad ‘Ali are just a handful of miles away from Camp Bastion.  If the enemy were coming to shoot rockets or mortars at Bastion with the intention of escaping, the hazard would be high, depending on ISAF rules of engagement. But attackers who are prepared for a one-way trip have demonstrated that they can achieve success.

Last Friday, a few hours after sunset, the Taliban struck at about 10PM. They killed two US Marines, one of them a commanding officer, and they wiped out roughly 8 percent of our Harrier jet force.  Harriers are no longer manufactured, so these aircraft cannot be replaced.  Scratch one squadron, and now the military must reallocate aircraft to cover the deficit.

The enemy fooled all of our high-tech gadgetry with training, observation, intelligence, terrain, planning, rehearsal, and audacity, using basic military tactics that were perfected long before anyone reading this was born.  Persistence and luck was also a key factor: the Taliban have attempted similar attacks at different bases in the past with poor results. The Taliban only have to be lucky once. We have to be lucky all of the time.

The Taliban destroyed six jets, damaged two more possibly beyond repair, leaving Marine VMA-211 squadron with only two aircraft, and they killed the squadron commander.

All of this by Taliban who likely never served in any military.  If they did serve, they joined up, they got some good training, and then they put it to use.

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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