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Publications – 2004-2010 articles on military technology

Learning From Veterans began as a project I did interviewing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans for my longtime employer, National Journal. NJ relies on subscription revenue and guards its archives jealously, but the editors there have generously unlocked all my articles that draw on these military oral histories and made them available to the public for free.

Since there are so many of these stories, I’ve broken them into several posts by subject area:

- articles on military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq;

- articles on the human cost of the war, from military families to wounded warriors;

- articles on military technology and procurement (in this current post);

- articles on understanding the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, from tribal sheikhs to district police;

- and items on individual veterans, both profiles and extended excerpts of my interviews.

Many stories are listed under more than one category.

Articles on what the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq teach us about developing military technology:


The Afghanistan Air War: close air support for ground troops

September 25, 2010

First, Taliban machine gunners pinned the Americans down. When the patrol took cover, another insurgent targeted the position with rocket-propelled grenades. One round overshot; the next fell short. Before the third hit home, however, two American A-10 ground attack jets roared in, firing their 30-millimeter cannon. Gansberger, an apprentice air controller on his first deployment, had radioed for air support and guided the pilots to the target within minutes. “There was a guy next to me who has since become a really good friend, but I didn’t even know him at the time,” Gansberger told National Journal. “All I knew was, he was a squad sergeant, and he had just had a kid [while deployed]. I knew he had never met his daughter…. And he just turned and looked at me and said, you know, ‘Hey, thanks, man — now I’m going to get to go home and meet my daughter.’ And no paycheck ever in my life has ever felt as good as that moment.”

Army Tries Again For A New Tank: the value of heavy armor in counterinsurgency

August 7, 2010

In Iraq, 70-ton tanks routinely led the way in the worst urban battles because nothing lighter would survive. “We would go out there, and they would hit a tank with an IED, and we would keep rolling, nobody hurt,” said Lt. Justin Seehusen, who led a platoon of four M1 Abrams tanks in the 2007 “surge” into Baghdad. “You kind of expected and almost hoped to get hit…. I knew every time that an IED or an EFP went off near my tank, that that was one less Humvee that got hit.”

The Army Looks Beyond Afghanistan: lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq for Army modernization

December 12, 2009

Technology has changed the tools of war. What seemed revolutionary 10 years ago is now routine: reconnaissance drones such as the Predator; digital Global Positioning System maps in Humvees and tanks; wireless networks linking manned and unmanned vehicles to command posts through electronic displays. But what has not changed is the nature of war: confusing and chaotic. The new technology was “fantastic,” said retired Lt. Col. Steven Russell, who led a heavy battalion in Iraq in 2003 and early 2004 with what were then the latest digital systems. “But it did not replace the need to still close with the enemy and fight.” Lt. Col. Charles Hodges, whose Stryker unit served in Iraq in 2003-04 and 2006, agreed. The new technology allows you to “know where your guys are, but you don’t know where the bad guys are…. While we’ve lifted some of the fog of war, we still haven’t eliminated all of that.”

Army Struggles Toward Goal Of Wi-Fi Infantry: advanced battlefield communications

September 20, 2008

“We’re stuck in the middle; the Iraqi police are shooting at us, as well as the insurgents. We’re separated in two different elements, and we don’t really have radio communications,” Lowe recalled. “But I’m able to see [the other half of the platoon] on Land Warrior.” The buildings between the two groups garbled their voice transmissions, but the relatively small bursts of data to update their digital maps got through. “I dropped a blue icon on a road just south of our location,” Lowe went on, “and that was our linkup point.” Both halves of the platoon converged quickly on the rendezvous – without shooting each other by accident in the dark – and then went on the offensive. Such success stories are why the Army is ordering more than 900 additional Land Warrior kits for a brigade headed for Iraq.

 The Unintended Revolution: generational change and innovation

January 26, 2008

“There are some things the Army does now that we didn’t do when I was younger,” said Col. Martin Stanton, chief of “reconciliation” (among Iraqis) for the U.S. military’s headquarters in Iraq. Young officers and sergeants use chat rooms, online forums, and e-mail to share personal lessons learned with those currently abroad and those preparing to go. Largely as a result, Stanton said, “the difference between us in 2003 and us now is nothing short of phenomenal. People’s familiarity with the ground they’re working on and the [local] people that they’re working with is considerable. You have captains coming back to an area and saying, ‘Oh, I remember you, sheik; remember me?’ “

 Commuting to War: why tactics, not armor, made Humvees vulnerable

March 24, 2007

“We had a 25-mile ride to work,” said Maj. Trent Gibson, the company commander at the time. Assigned to secure the western border town of Karabila, along the insurgency’s supply lines into Syria, Gibson had intended to set up a permanent outpost downtown “and operate from there by foot,” he said. “And then a decision was made, above my pay grade and above my battalion commander’s pay grade, that there would be no bases in [town]. It was considered ‘force protection’: If we were too close to the populace, we would be putting our marines at risk.” In fact, “force protection” may have gotten a lot of grunts killed. For Gibson’s marines, their isolated base was easy to defend, but it was a long drive from Karabila, along only two possible roads. “Before I could get my guys in [town] and dismounted, where they were safest,” Gibson said, “I had to put them on a fixed route in an unarmored or lightly armored Humvee.” The insurgents knew exactly where the Americans had to go — and exactly where to place their homemade mines.

Future Tank: lessons of Iraq for modernizing armored vehicles

September 16, 2006

Ordered in 2000 as an “interim” step toward the FCS, Strykers were supposed to substitute information for mass. They were battle-tested in Iraq, where they came protected not only by their new electronics but also by an extra 2.5 tons of old-fashioned armor. That additional metal made a difference, said Lt. Col. Michael Gibler, who was a battalion commander in the eastern half of Mosul in 2004 and 2005: “Twenty-seven RPGs hit Strykers in my battalion alone; not one of them penetrated.” His unit of 70 Strykers was also hit by 250 roadside bombs and car bombs: “My vehicle was hit by three; my sergeant major’s was hit by five,” he recalled. “I only lost one soldier to an IED. He was exposed in an [open] hatch.”

The Ultimate Smart Weapon: lessons of Iraq for modernizing the infantry

April 22, 2006

When he went through basic training just 10 years ago, recalled Staff Sgt. Howell, the drill sergeants’ mantra was, “Put your head down and walk!” Now an Iraq veteran and drill sergeant himself, Howell said, “the No. 1 thing I stress for these soldiers is, you have to look around. You have to know what’s normal. That way you can know what’s abnormal. So if you come down the road one day and there’s no kids playing where there used to be kids, you get that feeling in your stomach and tell someone, before the attack.”

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