Infantry: July 9, 2004

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Patrolling has always been the most dangerous job infantrymen do. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, new technology has eliminated a lot of the risk. While lots of training, good leadership and well thought out tactics have always helped, new technology is now making a major contribution. In Iraq, most patrols are at night. Increasingly, daytime patrols are left to the Iraqis, with American troops on call for back up, and UAVs or helicopters overhead to help out. But at night, the better trained and equipped Americans are most active. Every soldier or marine has night vision gear and, increasingly, everyone has a radio. Overhead, there is a UAV with a night vision camera, broadcasting real time video to a commander on the ground who is in constant touch with the patrol. 

Often, the patrols have a list of homes (usually, in the Iraqi style, called compounds) to visit, there to use another new bit of technology. In the last few years, instant explosives and gun use test equipment has been developed. The testing kit, which consists of a white cotton swab and a plastic tube to place the swab in. Then you push a plunger (to release the clear testing chemical), and wait for 40-60 seconds for blue spots to appear on the swab. Blue spots mean residue from recently handling explosives, or firing a gun. That narrows the list of people you then take back to camp for further questioning. Most Iraqis know about the detection kits, and the patrols surround the building they are raiding, ready to catch those who know what will happen when they get touched by the magic swab, and are trying to escape in the dark. But for troops with night vision equipment, there is no dark at night. And since most Iraqi nights are cloudless and full of stars, the night vision gear (which amplifies available light) works very well. 

A lot of planning and preparation goes into each patrol. These operations are handled like the air force has long handled missions by one of their warplanes. Routes are worked out, ones that will avoid known enemy resistance. The objective is carefully examined in advance with aerial photos and other information. The members of the patrol are told what role each will play, and sometimes there are rehearsals (although most of the moves used come from the standard infantry drills all the troops know, and practice regularly.)

The patrols still have to worry about ambushes, especially roadside bombs. But since the Iraqi gunmen have very little (in most cases none) night vision gear, the patrols have a tremendous advantage, and they use it aggressively. Many of the patrols are sent out to set up ambushes, based on information collected about possible enemy operations. While the patrolling is nerve wracking, its not nearly as dangerous as it used to be. Casualties are so low among combat units that the Iraqi operation may be the first one in which the combat troops take fewer casualties than the more numerous support troops. Normally, the combat troops take 80-90 percent of the casualties, but in Iraq, its more like 50-50. Although the combat troops are the ones who go out looking for a fight, they are also best prepared to deal with any violence. 


 


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