Skip to comments.Britain's elite commandos lack the right altitude to take on Al-Qaeda
Posted on 03/24/2002 1:03:34 PM PST by H.R. Gross
Britain's elite commandos lack the right altitude to take on Al-Qaeda
Billed as crack mountain troops, the marines lack the training for the task ahead, writes their former instructing officer John Barry
Some time soon, but not too soon we hope, those members of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda who have stayed for the fight will be squinting through their sights at a new enemy: 3 Commando Brigade and the boys of 45 Commando Royal Marines.
As they wait and watch and shoot, they may have time to ponder why this new force has replaced the last one they encountered the US army in differing forms, from mountain troops to various incarnations of special forces, with their assembled ranks of multinational allies.
If they had seen last weeks newspapers or heard any gossip from local informers, they would be falling off their sandals in whatever passes for mirth among that bleak band at the Wests received wisdom. Wednesday March 20: The Ministry of Defence said that the Americans had specifically asked for the Royal Marines because of their mountain warfare capabilities. American troops have had problems fighting at high altitude. If this is indeed what the Ministry of Defence and the Americans said or thought, then it is folly of the highest order.
Apply a little rigour; try scepticism - or even some common sense: are Americans, in some way, physiologically different from Britons? Are our mountains bigger than theirs? Is there any rational reason to suppose that our boys will be fleeter at 12,000ft than theirs? The answers are no, no and no. Only one thing can equip men to live and fight at altitude and thats altitude at least a month of it.
The Afghans have it in spades, with mountains up to 24,557ft; the Americans have it at home in plenty, if they want it (up to 20,320ft) and we have it not at all (4,406ft at home or 15,808ft for the tiny percentage of 3 Commando Brigade who have trained in the Alps).
So which fool is it who says our boys will skirmish and dash and dot it, rock to rock, with any greater alacrity than the Americans? Who is it that serves this drivel to us and on whose authority? I help to pay the bill. Id like to know.
Ill accept that 45 Commando, to a man, can hop the heather at sea level with the grace of 1,000 startled stags; but unleash them at Bagram airfield (at roughly 7,000ft), give them a 30- second run and ask how they feel and they will answer, if they can answer, a breathless knackered.
Ask how many of the new deployment have ever been above 10,000ft, let alone trained and spent time there. I will bet my credibility and my military pension on no more than 50 out of 1,700.
Then ask Lennox Lewis whether the altitude matters. He turned up to fight in Johannesburg (at about 5,000ft) a mere two days before the bout and was knocked witless by a journeyman slugger who had done some homework and got there a month earlier. A punch knocked Lewis out, but it was altitude and ignorance that undid him.
So will somebody assure us that our ability to fight at altitude was not the reason for our invitation? Were not up to the job not yet awhile, not for a month or more. The enemy can fight and is already somewhere near the top of the hill. We start near the bottom.
Theres yet more unreason. We are told that 45 Commando are the worlds best, the toughest of the tough. How do we know? They havent fought anyone for 20 years (the enemy then were conscripts, dragged from sunny Argentina and dumped in the sub-arctic Falklands; deserted by their officers, their morale in their boots). Such a claim is arrant twaddle. My heart says theyre the best. My head can only hope they are. We simply dont know.
Of more certain standing are the arms they will be carrying. I read this week that we have formidable weapons. Well, our rifles are M16s, which are good, and SA80s which, now that many millions have been spent by Heckler & Koch in rejigging them, are serviceable we hope. They have yet to be tested in that peculiar snow/dust environment.
The other side have AK- 47s, which are better. Others have singled out our 105mm howitzers for loyal praise. These are helicopter-portable weapons and can get places, one marine explained this week. What he would have liked to have said, had he not been constrained by considerations of morale and politics, is that the 105mm, for all its accuracy, is a pea-shooter that delivers a twopenny-banger-sized plop.
What he really wants is the American 155mm howitzer with a bang three times as big. But the trouble is that our helicopters cant lift them. Instead, we will have to rely on the Americans to back us up from the air. Even then, evidence from Operation Anaconda suggests that it takes more than big bangs to discomfort or dislodge the heavily entrenched Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters from their stone camps and caves.
It is what we are not being told that I want to know. Why, really, are we being called in? What is it that we think we can do that the Americans cannot? How long are we going for? The answers are far from certain, but idle boasts about our forces capability serve no favours in the long run, even if they ease the political mood back home.
Im sure 45 Commando are, by any standards, good. Maybe they are the best. They will shoot straight, they will be well trained and well led. They will fight. In any even half-conventional battle at normal altitudes I would back them heart and head against anyone. But what they need now is time: time for the boys to breathe thin air; time for their red blood corpuscles to multiply as their bodies acclimatise, a bit of time before they start up that hill.
Looking at this weeks photographs of fresh-faced lads, their green berets folded with cock-skewed elan across the forehead, evoked a full hearts flush of fond memories: how I wish I could be with them. But I also wish someone would tell it straight.
I want nothing more than for my concerns to be proved wrong, as old farts often are; wrong like Tony Benn on the Falklands; wrong like Denis Healey on the Gulf war. Plain wrong.
John Barry is a former commanding officer of the Mountain and Arctic Warfare Cadre, responsible for training 3 Command.
The Mountain Leader Class 2 (ML2) course is open junior officers of the Royal Marines and other ranks who have passed their Junior Command Course i.e. have been promoted to corporal or soon will be. All will have of course passed the Commando tests in their initial period of training (about 15 months for officers, half that for other ranks), and many will have gone on to gain other qualifications, like sniping, anti-tanks or mortars.
ML2 training takes about eight months and is considered some of the toughest in the British military. The course starts in September and the first week is spent on the selection phase, at Stonehouse Barracks in Plymouth. Those who are accepted go on to a couple of weeks of climbing in Cornwall, especially on cliffs, and including free climbing (without ropes) at night.
Candidates often spend 12 hours a day climbing at this stage. In October the course moves to Wales, for practice in climbing larger mountains. This month also sees the survival course on the Isle of Islay, off the west coast of Scotland, and the first period of resistance to interrogation (RTI) training.
In November the candidates begin to combine mountain work with patrolling and raiding. December sees more climbing and preparation for the next phase in northern Norway. Shortly after Christmas the course moves to the rugged and freezing terrain of this area. Here the initial emphasis is on snow and ice climbing techniques and Arctic survival and navigation. Although all candidates would have gone through Arctic Survival and Arctic Warfare training during previous service in Norway, they are now also learning how to instruct on these courses.
Candidates could now probably find themselves more often than not 10 000 feet (3000m) up in the mountains, with the temperature dropping to -40 F at night (including wind chill factor ). In February it is time for long distance skiing under the supervision of Norwegian Army instructors. All candidates must qualify as Military Ski Instructors.
Before the final exercise in March they are given seven days to prepare. The eleven-day exercise itself involves the four-man patrols ski-marching and climbing up to 40km a day, to carry out a close target reconnaissance and attack and then exfiltration to friendly territory. They will have covered about 300km by this time. All are eventually " captured " and go through the second RTI period. The course ends in April with 3 weeks of pathfinding on Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland. The pass rate is sometimes as low as 20%.
After qualifying most ML2s will return to duty with a Commando, some will be attached to Army units and a few might join the Recce Troop. Every sub-unit in 3 Commando Brigade of company, battery or squadron size has a Mountain Leader( usually a corporal ) attached, who is responsible for mountain and arctic warfare training. MLs are also highly sought after to provide the leadership in each Commando's own Reconnaissance Troop.
NCOs may now wear the branch Specialist Qualification badge, " ML " surrounded by a wreath. This is worn on the left cuff of No.1 Dress (" blues") and Lovat service dress (" greens "). RM officers do not wear SQ badges.
Corporals wishing to gain promotion to sergeant in the branch must pass the ML1 course. Officers are not considered to have time to attend this course. Prospective ML1s must have passed the Senior Command Course at Lympstone. They begin their training in September by instructing the early part of the ML2 course.
They also go to Wales, to improve their own standards in climbing. In November they are detached to Commando units for assessment as instructors by qualified ML1s. This continues the next month with preparation for 3 Commando Brigade's annual Norwegian exercise. January and February are spent in Norway itself, with the candidates training the members of their units, especially those new to the brigade, in arctic warfare and survival, and generally assisting in the exercises.
In March they join the ML2 course for the final exercise, mainly as patrol commanders. ML1 candidates continue on to Ben Nevis for practice in route selection and navigation. On completion of the course ML1s will be able to wear two stars above the SQ badge. Most become members of the permanent ML cadre.
I was with 45 at Condor 30 yrs ago, it gladdens my heart to see the quality of leadership has not changed over the years.It remains to-day as it did then, piss poor.
Also, how about blood doping? There are only a few of them after all.
Don't know about the oxygen bottles, I would have thought the mountain troops were acclimatised (the Mountain and arctic warfare cadre definately are) to the heights. One things for definate though, 'don't f**k with the Royal Marine Commandos'. I had a Training Corporal at ITC Catterick last year, who had passed the all-arms commando course at the Royal Marines Lympstone, He'd go out on runs with his dog, and by the time he'd finished running, the dog needed to be carried.
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