TCS Daily

Technique and Technology in Fallujah

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - November 9, 2004 12:00 AM

"Darkness is a friend to the skilled infantryman"

-- B. H. Liddell Hart, Thoughts on War

For the Islamofascists, who for months have held sway in the headlines with car bombs, kidnappings and beheadings, these will not be good days. Or nights. That's guaranteed.

Events in and around Fallujah are tumbling down swiftly, chaotically, right now. It is difficult to sort out what is actually happening, but as all of us, at our computers or our televisions around the world, watch this battle unfolding, here are some miscellaneous points about technique and technology that will "marginalize" the terrorist forces.

Eyes In The Sky -- It is not clear whether the "insurgents" in Fallujah have fully grasped the fact that they have been constantly watched over the past few months and are being watched now, from above. The absolute American control of the air over the city is having a devastating effect on the terrorists' ability to move. They are apparently attempting to use tunnels, but we are on to this game.

Wisely, we have already seized the main hospital in Fallujah, which was the staging area last April for constant Al-Jazeera TV propaganda about dead and wounded "civilians." During the April fighting the terrorists used ambulances and school buses to move fighters from point to point. Any vehicle that moves now inside the city will be subject to withering fire from attack helicopters and MC-130 gunships.

On television Monday I saw some Arabic television footage supposedly from inside Fallujah, showing a kid with a kafyah wrapped over his face and an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) launcher on his shoulder.

Now there's a way to die in Fallujah.

When this young man fires this RPG, whether by day or night, he will pretty much have committed suicide. RPGs leave an unmistakable signature -- a backfire blossom of dust and smoke -- that will trigger murderous counterfire.

The Marine and Army ability to counter with tremendous firepower combined with control of the virtual "high ground" makes any engagements involving guns extremely problematic for the insurgents.

"Backpack airplanes" are another piece of technology that may be playing a role in giving American forces the upper hand in Fallujah. These small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can be carried in two backpacks, assembled in minutes (they're made of a composite material that looks a lot like plastic foam) and launched by hand. Marines used them to good effect during the fighting last April.

Equipped with a small television camera and powered by an electric motor, these small planes (weight about 5 pounds, wingspan 45 inches) can give commanders on the scene a quick look at the other side of a building or a hill or screen of trees. Difficult to see or hear during fighting, these UAVs can stay aloft for up to an hour, sending back real time video of the battlefield as much as five miles away. Field commanders can watch the action on a back-packable television receiver.

Eyes In The Night -- That the attack on Fallujah began at night is a play to one more advantage of the Marines and Army. If you've been watching the troops preparing for this battle you've seen those big black goggle-like devices on their helmets. Those are their night eyes -- one of the big reasons for the exceptional night combat capabilities U.S. troops have displayed in the Middle East.

Inside these goggles is an image intensifier tube -- a triumph of microtechnology -- comprising three main parts. These are a photocathode, an MCP (microchannel plate) and a phosphor screen, much like a little TV screen.

The photocathode "pulls" any available light, no matter how weak or even unseen to the human eye -- distant stars, a sliver of moon -- and converts this light energy into electrical energy (photons become electrons). These electrons leave the cathode and enter the MCP, a quarter-sized disc containing more than 10 million "channels."

The electrons bounce off these channel walls, creating more electrons with each bounce. This vastly multiplied electron power then strikes the little phosphor screen and on it the soldier sees the dark image (a sniper on a distant roof, a movement in a doorway) which entered the photocathode now intensified to a level of brightness that makes it visible.

Everything glows with a greenish light, but it's visible. Tanks, helicopters and other weapons systems are also equipped with night vision equipment. The Al-Qaeda fighters may have some night vision equipment. Old Soviet-made systems have been available as surplus for a long time, but it is unlikely that it is in general use.

Incidentally, night is really night in Fallujah. Electrical power to the city has been cut off for several weeks. Any electrical lighting available to the insurgents is coming from gasoline-powered generators, which produce great heat signatures for U.S. smart weapons.

Snipers and 360 Security -- The terrorist forces have some able snipers, as the Marines learned last April. Every effort is being made to obviate their operations with both technology and training. The Marines and Army have sonic and laser technology that can almost instantly pinpoint a sniper after his first round. But in street combat, where there is gunfire from multiple sources it does not always work.

So countersniper work on a noisy, active battlefield continues to be more an art of vigilance than a triumph of science. Marines are constantly trained and reminded to maintain 360-degree security as they move in the battle environment.

This so-called "back clearing" requires extraordinary nerve and discipline. If you are at the "back" of a circle and your buddies are taking and returning fire at the front, the impulse to take your eyes of your sector and help return fire is overwhelming. But your unit's safety from a sniper or a new source of fire depends upon you keeping your back to the action and your eyes on buildings or terrain in your area of the security circle.

The availability of attack helicopters and armor means that, when necessary, rather than pick off a sniper the Marines or Army can call in firepower to destroy his immediate "environment," be it an apartment or a whole building.

This is why the insurgents made use of mosques and their minarets as sniper nests last April and are probably doing it again. The Marines were reluctant to return fire on these targets because of the inevitable orchestrated Arab reaction against the "desecration" of some "religious site."

It is almost certain that at some point in this battle the news media will be hearkened to some confrontation involving one of Fallujah's many mosques or holy sites. However unsatisfactory it is to weather these propaganda storms, let us hope we will have the ultimate satisfaction of having killed the killers inside the "site."

The coming days promise to be ugly, confused, rife with rumors. There will be mistakes on the part of Coalition forces -- some possibly costly in casualties. And despite the ascendancy of American battlefield technology, the depths of the Islamic radicals' treachery may still hold surprises. But the "Islamic Republic of Fallujah" is now drowning appropriately enough in its own blood.


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