War Stories

Mountain Division of Labor

Why it’s OK to send in the Royal Marines.

Are the U.S. Army’s main mountain troops unprepared? A piece on the American Prospect Web site says so. The story, by senior correspondent Jason Vest, concludes that the U.S. military’s request that 1,700 British mountain commando troops be brought in to help fight in Afghanistan “highlights some real shortcomings in the U.S. Army.” Vest opines that the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, assigned a key role in the recent Operation Anaconda, “does not, in fact, have any particular expertise in mountain warfare.” He observes that while many members of the 10th Mountain have attended a two-week “mountain leader combat” course, and others have attended the U.S. Army’s advanced mountain warfare school, they never do so with their entire unit. And, he adds, the terrain at that advanced school tops out at only 4,393 feet, while “high-altitude combat is defined as over 10,000 feet.” Vest contrasts all this to the requested British Royal Marine troops, who spend 10 weeks a year as a unit in cold-weather training inside the Arctic Circle.

But Vest is wrong on two points.

Effective training doesn’t require absolute replication. Yes, it would be nice if all U.S. infantry units headed for the mountains could train together at 10,000 feet. But it’s not essential. If the soldiers in the 10th have trained over rough terrain and have been put into good enough shape at, say, 4,300 feet, then they’ve got the goods to perform well on such terrains at higher altitudes, if they’re given an opportunity to acclimate. And thus far, there’s no evidence they didn’t do just that. Besides, press accounts indicate most of the Anaconda fighting took place not above 10,000 feet, but somewhere between 8,000 and 8,500 feet. A good example of what I’m talking about is the way the Navy teaches people how to safely jump off a burning aircraft carrier deck. Even though those decks are about 85 feet above the water line, sailors learn to jump just fine using a 25-foot (non-burning) tower. Also, provided that the troops who attend specialized training are encouraged to teach their buddies back at the unit what they’ve learned, a huge amount of the new skill set can trickle back down. Does Vest know that this is precisely the model employed by the world-class fighter-tactics school known as Top Gun?

What part of “allies” don’t you understand? Mountain fighting is only one of  myriad missions assigned to the U.S. Army. So, thank God we have allies like the Brits who have the luxury, by dint of not having nearly so many responsibilities, of being able to send troops off to the Arctic Circle en masse for more than two months at a time. It’s not weakness to make use of them. It’s good judgment. Wartime coalition-building shouldn’t just be political image-making; it should also involve the cool-headed employment of allies’ military assets.