Small Wars Journal

The Battle of Wanat and small unit distributed operations

The RAND Corporation plans to publish a series of reports on small unit operations in Afghanistan. The purpose of its project is to improve the performance and reduce the risks to small units that are tasked to operate independently in ambiguous or hostile battlefield environments.

RAND chose the now-famous 2008 battle at Wanat in Afghanistan’s Nuristan Province, as a case study for its first report in this series. This battle, which involved a surprise Taliban assault on a platoon-sized temporary and unfortified vehicle patrol base, resulted in nine U.S. soldiers killed and 27 U.S. and Afghan soldiers wounded. The combat outpost was abandoned soon thereafter.

RAND’s report has used computer-aided design and mapping software to redraw the terrain around Wanat in order to study lines of sight and direct fire available to both sides, identify dead space, display routes of Taliban approach to the objective, indicate the reach and limits of U.S. sensor systems, and other important tactical considerations of the battle. In future reports, RAND hopes to explore how better sensors, improved external support, and modified combat outpost tactics could improve performance and reduce risk for these and other distributed small unit operations.

Like all battles, the Wanat engagement had many idiosyncratic factors. However, the study of this battle, and engagements at other platoon and company-sized combat outposts, will be important for Army and Marine Corps leaders well after Afghanistan. Both services will likely count on small unit distributed operations not only during future stabilization missions, but also during offensive and defensive operations. For example, the Marine Corps will likely plan to use air and ground mobile distributed infantry units during extended advance force operations prior to the surface landing phase of amphibious assaults.

The Battle of Wanat and similar engagements show that independently operating small units require reliable ISR support and local security. Distributed units will count on reliable and responsive fire and logistics support. They will need organic sensors that can survive under fire. Technological developments will bring rapid changes to mobility, electronic warfare, direct and indirect fire, situational awareness, and many other factors. The development of modern distributed capabilities is likely just beginning and there will be much opportunity for interesting experimentation in the years ahead.

Click here to access the RAND report.