A comment from a reader named ‘Jackal’. Extremely timely, relevant, and very important. Read and heed folks, it’s spot on.
And if you don’t know much about Rhodesia, pick up a few books on it; many parallels can be drawn between what happened then and what’s happening in America today.
Jackal… 1RLI Support Commando and ‘C’ Squadron SAS 1977-79
Study I consulted on…
The study of Fire Force Tactics employed during the Rhodesian War
(This article was published in the Marine Corps Gazette March 2000 issue)
By Major Jon Custis, USMC (now Colonel): Project Manager at the Marine Corps Programs Office, Naval Air Warfare Center-Training Systems Division.
This study provides valuable lessons for unit commanders and highlights the advantages inherent in an air-ground task force.
The reconnaissance team’s SALUTE (size, activity, location, unit, time, equipment) report was concise: An estimated 15 guerrillas occupying a makeshift bivouac site 10 kilometers to the east of the village serving as the primary nongovernmental organization feeding site. Armed with new weapons and wearing fresh uniforms, the guerrillas appeared fatigued (due to the previous night’s forced march from the border) but in high spirits. The recon team first spotted the group as it moved along a stream bank then turned and disappeared into a stand of trees. Smoke from a cooking fire drifted into the heavy morning air, confirming their presence.
The heliborne company commander put the finishing touches on his operation order and made it to the confirmation brief at the prescribed time. His plan seemed simple enough; the company would land 4 kilometers away, and conduct a movement to contact to within 500 meters. Two rip platoons would envelop the position while the third platoon, machinegun, and mortar sections provided support by fire.
He finished his portion of the brief relatively unscathed, until the Marine expeditionary unit (MEU) commander cleared his throat and asked, “Captain, what is your contingency should you get to your assault position, only to find that the guerrillas have moved on?”
This hypothetical scenario highlights the dilemma faced by every heliborne unit commander. Should he put his forces into action directly on the objective, or land them some distance away and rely on stealth and surprise? Each option has its own advantages and disadvantages, and the decision is made more difficult if the opposing force is highly mobile.
Landing on or very near an objective, en masse, does afford the unit commander more control if his unit moves into action immediately. Unfortunately, this practice could subject the unit and its assault support aircraft to hostile fire if shock and fire superiority are not achieved. The noise of the approaching helicopters would also provide warning of an impending attack, allowing the enemy unit time to flee.
Choosing a landing zone some distance away from the objective may mask the sound of the approaching force. The tactical situation, however, can change dramatically in the time required to complete a foot movement that ends with forces positioned to conduct the final assault.
Are heliborne unit commanders restricted to merely these two options? This article proposes that all infantry officers would benefit from a study of ‘Fire Force’ tactics employed during the Rhodesian War (1962-80). While the lessons to be learned do not merit a doctrinal change for all combat operations, they do illustrate the efficient use of limited resources and manpower against a particular type of enemy. Additionally, they provide the tactical foundation for a third option should vertical envelopment tactics be required against unconventional forces in a counterinsurgency environment.
Chimurenga-War of Liberation
The political history leading up to the Rhodesian War is too lengthy to detail in this article, but a brief background is in order. By the mid-1960s, Great Britain had decolonized much of Africa. The white minority of Rhodesia, led by Prime Minister Ian Smith, refused to concede to black majority rule. On 11 November 1965, Rhodesia issued a Unilateral Declaration of Independence and broke away from Britain. In the face of this ‘rebellion’, the British Government succeeded in securing United Nations-imposed sanctions against the white minority regime.1
Initial guerrilla activity aimed at destabilizing the Smith government was low level and mostly ineffective until 1973. In that year, increasing numbers of insurgents from two Communist-supported factions began to infiltrate into Rhodesia from enclaves in Zambia and Mozambique. Initial actions centered around attacks on soft targets like white-owned farms. By 1974, insurgent forces had moved to a Maoist ‘hearts and minds’ campaign, consolidating positions in the rural peasant areas. Juxtaposed against the insurgent forces were the 12-month conscripts and regular volunteers of the army, air force, and police units. Some units, like the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI) Regiment, were exclusively white. Others, like the Rhodesian African Rifles (RAR), were comprised of African troops led by white officers.
Deployed in January 1974, the Rhodesian Fire Force saw its first action on 24 February2. The techniques used to support vertical envelopment evolved over time, and this article details the most successful combination of techniques and assets used to take the fight to Rhodesia’s enemies.
Those enemies, lightly armed with Warsaw Pact small arms, generally operated in small groups of 6 to 12 individuals and attacked targets of opportunity or set ambushes. When engaged by Rhodesian forces, individuals of such groups would ‘bombshell’, scattering in all directions in an attempt to escape. They did so at an average rate of 300 meters per minute.
Fire forces were generally employed in response to three developments. The first would be a reaction to an actual ambush or farm attack. When trackers or cross-graining patrols followed up and made contact, a Fire Force was called in for reinforcement.3 Aerial reconnaissance also detected the presence of insurgents, resulting in a callout. Skilled pilots would recognize a series of radiating tracks, for example, from dense vegetation made by insurgents moving in and out of their concealed camp.4 The highest ratio of success was achieved when Fire Force action was initiated by a listening/observation post (LP/OP). These LP/OPs were established on hills affording observation over known infiltration routes and villages of known sympathizers. Anything out of the ordinary, such as lines of women carrying cooked food into groves of trees or dense bush, received further attention.5
An infantry company of the RAR or a commando of the RLI served as a Fire Force at a forward airfield for an average rotation of 6 weeks.6 By 1977, all of Rhodesia’s regular infantry were trained paratroops and could be deployed by helicopter, parachute, or brought in as reinforcements by ground vehicles. This proved to be a critical capability due to the fact that Rhodesia, for much of the war, was forced to use Douglas C-47 Dakotas of World War II vintage in order to get any unit the size of a squad or larger into action. The main workhorse of the Rhodesian Air Force was the Aerospatiale Alouette III helicopter, modified to carry four troops (referred to as a G-Car) or a 20MM reduced- recoil-cannon (the K-Car).
The Fire Force was, in essence, an air-ground task force. A 1979 Rhodesian Intelligence Corps study concluded that the most successful combination of aircraft was a K-Car, four G-Cars (each carrying four troopers), a Dakota (modified to carry 16 paratroops) and a Lynx (fixed-wing ground attack).7 Since the typical contact pitted a Fire Force against 6 to 12 insurgents, the force level of 32 troopers gave Fire Forces a 3:1 strength ratio on the ground.
The Role of the LP/OP
A typical Fire Force callout began with a sighting called in by an LP/OP. The Fire Force Commander took to the air in the K-Car, which also served as his mobile command post. ‘Sticks’ of four troopers, each stick equipped with a very high-frequency (VHF) radio and 7.62mm FN/MAG (our current M240G), followed suit in G-Cars. If the distance to the target required a refueling stop, the briefing would be held there. This allowed the LP/OP to provide an update on the target’s activity.8 Once airborne again, time was of the essence, and noise was the enemy. The sound of approaching helicopters often gave ample warning and allowed the guerrillas time to flee. Care was taken to approach the target area from downwind, as well as use terrain to mask the sound of arrival as much as possible. The Fire Force Commander also asked the LP/OP when the aircraft could be heard; this averaged about 4 minutes from the target.9 Assuming the insurgents could cover their usual 300 meters per minute, the commander made a time/distance calculation and adjusted his plan accordingly.
It was critical that the personnel manning the LP/OP had excellent map skills. The terrain in operational areas was generally savanna broken by cultivated farmland, low hills, and intermittent streams. The LP/OP was required to identify and brief to the Fire Force Commander all prominent terrain features and their relationship to likely avenues of escape (generally, thickly bushed riverbeds and ravines). Another critical element of information required was the compass heading from the LP/OP position to the target.
Upon arrival of the Fire Force, the LP/OP marked the target with a flare or tracer fire. The K-Car entered the target area first, flying in from behind and over the LP/OP on the briefed heading.10 Considering the orchestration required to manage all of his moving parts, the Fire Force Commander did not want to waste time finding the target during talk-on. Professor .R.T. Wood writes:
Ron Hint, a somewhat flustered territorial sergeant, of the Fifth Battalion, the Rhodesia Regiment, pointed his pencil flare projector and informed the incoming K-Car just behind him: “Marking target NOW!” The pencil flare refused to ignite. Coolly observing the sergeant’s agitated efforts, the K-Car pilot laconically commented from above: “Don’t worry. I can see where your finger is pointing.”11
Once certain of the target, the Fire Force Commander marked it with a smoke grenade or white smoke generator, and set his plan into motion.
Stop Groups and Sweep Lines
The K-Car pilot pulled the aircraft up and into a 60-knot orbit at 800 feet. He and the Fire Force Commander would select the kill zone into which the enemy could be driven, identified where the G-Cars would drop ‘stop groups,’ and planned dummy drops and the positioning of the paratroop drop zone. The goal was to take advantage of the shock from the initial air strike of the K-Car or fixed-wing aircraft. They would also select a rendezvous point for the helicopters to meet with vehicles of the reinforcing ‘land-tail.’
As the G-Cars arrived, the K-Car pilot directed them to prescribed ‘stop’ positions on the escape routes and orbited them individually. If the enemy was spotted, the four-man stick was deployed and then became a stop group. If the enemy proved elusive, the stick remained airborne and available for redeployment. The G-Cars remained in the area to reposition stop groups or evacuate casualties until it came time to refuel. This was accomplished back at an airfield, or at the rendezvous point where the land-tail had brought forward reinforcements, fuel, and ammunition.12 One G-Car remained aloft on the edge of the battle to accomplish any number of tasks. Perhaps the most important one was to act as a reserve command post if the K-Car had to transfer the Fire Force Commander and depart for fuel, or became damaged by ground fire.
Once the escape routes were sealed, the paratroops were flown in to sweep the area. They drove their quarry into the open to be dispatched by the high-explosive shells of the 20MM cannon aboard the K-Car, or into the ambushes set by the stop groups. If insurgents escaped the net closing around them, trackers were used to identify the direction of flight. The Fire Force Commander then leapfrogged stop groups ahead and placed them on the route to cut the guerrillas off.13
Command and control of every Fire Force action was made possible for a number of reasons. First, the Fire Force Commander remained aloft in the K-Car. This allowed him to develop the situational awareness required to keep stop groups and sweep lines from blundering into friendly kill zones. Secondly, the Fire Force Commander had VHF communication with all units through effective radios. If communication was lost, every effort was made to replace the radio with the spare kept in the K-Car, or unite that group with one that had a functioning radio. Finally, Fire Force troops observed very fundamental rules that often resulted in the loss of men when violated.
The first rule was to sweep downhill-never uphill. The second was to never sweep into the sun. The third was to always sweep from cover into open ground-never from open ground into cover.14
Such rigid rules may cause proponents of maneuver warfare and the ‘strategic corporal’ to bristle. It is evident however, that given the terrain, enemy, and friendly situations, they worked. An essential foundation of Fire Force tactics was the fact that the commander was not to expect independent action from units on the ground. Strict guidelines proved to be the best way to de-conflict fires in such a fluid situation.
Though history has shown that body counts can be misleading when used as indicators of success, a comparison may provide perspective. In just 9 months of Fire Force operations in 1979, RLI forces engaged and killed 1,690 insurgents. In all 9 years of the Malayan Emergency, British Special Air Service troops accounted for only 108 of their enemy.15
The Rhodesian Government eventually took the view that its military effort was doing little more than stemming the tide. A cease-fire was negotiated in December 1979, followed by all-party elections in March 1980. Robert Mugabe, head of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), was elected to the presidency. Rhodesia’s name was subsequently changed to Zimbabwe.
The new Zimbabwe Army Commander and former guerilla leader, Rex Nhongo, admitted that Fire Force operations in the final war years had killed his junior leaders and trained men at a faster rate than he could replace them. ZANU’s military arm, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army, would have been hard pressed to make it through the 1980 dry season because of Rhodesian Fire Force operations and cross-border incursions.16
Why do the Rhodesian War and Fire Force operations merit further study? As the Marine Corps experiments and prepares for the challenge of the ‘Three Block War,’ it must also keep in mind the fact that future opponents will very likely continue to strike at targets of opportunity. They will attack soft targets and seek to avoid direct engagement with the brunt of Marine ground combat assets until favorable conditions exist.
n any future counterinsurgency operations similar to the Rhodesian War, we can expect guerrilla forces to operate from enclaves in neighboring states. Kosovo and East Timor should come to mind immediately. These insurgent units can be intercepted, targeted, and attacked before they pose a threat to an urban area.
At the least, texts detailing Fire Force operations should be included in the professional military readings assigned at the Infantry Officer, Platoon Sergeant, and Squad Leader Courses. Tactics similar to those employed during Fire Force operations can be utilized, given that similar conditions exist. Again, this article is not an attempt to shift doctrine, but rather to add another tactical tool to an infantry unit commander’s tool chest. Even a single rifle platoon commander could disperse his force sufficiently and increase his odds of capturing or eliminating a small, mobile guerrilla force.
What Is Required?
A MEU composite squadron already provides the fixed- and rotary wing close air support and troop lift assets required to support similar tactics. The MEU itself possesses the full range of highly skilled reconnaissance and scout/sniper assets necessary to identify likely targets.
A reliable and truly effective squad/platoon VHF radio is perhaps the only materiel prerequisite currently unavailable. Without one, none of the communication required to move small, widely dispersed units in concert with each other is possible.
Serious thought needs to be given to what Marines take with them to the fight. Rhodesian troopers had to match the mobility of their quarry with similar mobility. They often dressed in camouflaged T-shirts, shorts, and running shoes, or light boots.17 They carried nothing else beyond the ammunition, water, grenades, medical kit, and rations required for the operation. Regulation denim uniforms would be worn, and light sleeping bags carried, only if they expected to establish an ambush in the vicinity of a contact.18
Unless the enemy situation truly dictates otherwise, ditch the flak jacket and helmet. “A Marine always wears his flak and helmet,” is a common refrain when planning an operation, and usually used as an excuse for ignoring a thorough analysis of the tactical situation. Does the cost (loss of protection afforded by the gear) truly outweigh the benefit of increased mobility and endurance?
The greatest paradigm shift required is a willingness to allow commanders to actually command an action from the air. All too often company commanders are forced to develop situational awareness solely through situation reports submitted by subordinate units. Fire force commanders could talk to, as well as see, their troops. Consequently, they were able to achieve the tempo necessary to outmaneuver and defeat an elusive enemy similar to the type Marines faced during Operation RESTORE HOPE. We would be remiss if we failed to study the modern conflict of the Rhodesian War and ignored the lessons learned.
Thanks again, Jackal.
I’ll add in a few things, to the readers, based on comments from the True Light Infantry post. First things first, I think a lot of folks missed the larger message. It was in part very much a critique of the current state of affairs in the US Infantry, but also a different viewpoint that seems to never get attention- the fact that most of you are not soldiers, and that groups of people who are not soldiers have been beating professional soldiers for a good while now. Second, the nation of today will not be the nation of tomorrow. The regional political landscape ten years from now very well could look completely different, and new nations may very well form as a result of balkanization. That’s not for me to say, but it surely is in the realm of possibility. Regional armies will arise as a result, and many of the challenges the Rhodesians faced will also face the breakaway states. They performed admirably given limited resources and a world who turned their backs on them. Your job is to learn absolutely everything you can now and make yourself and those close to you the absolute best at whatever it is they have to offer. You can win, folks.