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I an ex member of both 7 and 8 Squadron's of the Rhodesian war spending most of my operational time on Seven Squadron as a K Car gunner. I was credited for shooting down a fixed wing aircraft from a K Car on the 9 August 1979. This blog is from articles for research on a book which I HAVE HANDED THIS MANUSCRIPT OVER TO MIMI CAWOOD WHO WILL BE HANDLING THE PUBLICATION OF THE BOOK OF WHICH THERE WILL BE VERY LIMITED COPIES AVAILABLE Contact her on yebomimi@gmail.com The latest news is that the Editing is now done and we can expect to start sales and deliveries by the end of April 2011

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Fireforce Rhodesia another perspective

Today's Military History Lesson: Fireforce extracted from Defense Tech.org

The Rhodesian Security Forces were arguably the most effective counterinsurgency units in modern history. Rhodesia, a former British colony (now Zimbabwe), unilaterally declared independence from the Crown after a disagreements on a power transition from European colonists to the Africa majority. A fifteen year long Bush War followed, between the Rhodesians and two African nationalist movements: ZIPRA, led by Josh Nkomo and backed by the Soviets, and ZANLA, led by Robert Mugabe and backed by the Chinese. The Rhodesians, the target of the first UN economic sanctions, were backed by no one except apartheid South Africa.

The security forces, therefor, had to cover the area of the size of Texas with highly limited resources and manpower (there were approximately 275,000 white Europeans and 7 million Africans living in Rhodesia during the war). Using South African supplied Alouette helicopters and DC-3 Dakotas (some airframes veterans of Operation Market Garden and D-Day), the Rhodesians developed a highly effective technique of aerial envelopment called the "fireforce" (see photo above).

A fireforce consisted of several "sticks" of troopies, usual one stick of 4 men per helicopter or 5 sticks of 20 men per Dakota. The choppers were designated either K-cars (a command car armed with the fireforce's commanding officer and a heavy machine gun) and G-Cars, which carried the combat sticks. Fireforce teams were largely drawn from the highly elite Rhodesian Light Infantry -an all European commando outfit- or the Rhodesian African Rifles, also a highly effective COIN outfit, this one all African with European officers. The typical Fireforce was one Dakota, 3 G-cars, one K-car, and modified Cessna called a Lynx (used for close air support). Hawker Hunter jets were also used.

The Rhodesians guided Fireforces onto terrorist (or Terr) targets using mostly human intelligence, stemming from the highly effecitve Selous Scouts (a pseudo infilitration unit which employed "tame" terrorists), observation posts, and spies run by their Central Intelligence Organization or Special Branch of the British South African Police. Once a group of Terrs was located, a Fireforce was dispatched through local Joint Operational Commands (JOCs).

The first wave of a fireforce consisted of eight sticks (also called "stops," in that they "stopped" terrs from escaping into the bush), with the K-Car always the first responder. The K-Car's gunner flushed Terrs from their positions -usually a local village in one of the Tribal Trust Lands- while the Fireforce commander evaluated logical escape routes. Once established, G-Cars or Daks dropped troops onto their stop positions, with their troopies quickly forming a sweep line (four men spaced approximately 20 meters from each other). The stops locked their targets into place, while the Lynx dropped frantan (napalm) on the fleeing terrs.

The Fireforce tactic resulted in remarkably lopsided kill ratios in favor of the Rhodesians, while enabling them to patrol vast swaths of territory with a relatively small number of soldiers. Unfortunately for the Rhodesians, their combat prowess didn't translate into political effectiveness, as they won every major engagement from 1965-1980, but lost the war. Still, their skillful use of airpower as an envelopment technique was as groundbreaking as it was deadly.

--John Noonan

June 18, 2009 04:38 PM | Contingency Ops |
LEP, I think the difference is that with the Rhodesians, it actually worked.

Posted by: Chris C at June 19, 2009 02:23 PM

Quoth one Rhodesian Light Infantry soldier, circa 1978: "Had we been fighting the Viet Cong, we would have lost this war years ago."

Posted by: Chris C at June 19, 2009 02:01 PM

I do not see the "unique" aspects of the Rhodesian vertical envelopment tactics. The French had tried similar anti-guerilla tactics with larger paratroop drops from fixed-wing aircraft against the Viet Minh in Indochina. The tactic could work against small guerilla formations. It was a different story if the French paratroop forces faced larger enemy formations with heavy weapons, and the operations took place in adverse weather that hindered both air resupply and close air support by piston-engine fighter aircraft. The French also used vertical envelopment tactics with helicopters during their Algerian counter-guerilla operations.

Also, the ZAPRA-ZINLA guerilla groups in former Rhodesia generally lacked modern man-portable A/A weapons such as Soviet-built SA-7 Strella MANPADS or heavy 14.5 mm DshK machine guns. Similarly, these guerilla groups did not have the training or the self-learning ability to counter the Rhodesian vertical envelopment tactics. For example, it would be interesting to know if the Rhodesian forces lost any of their French-built Alouette helicopters to guerilla RPG-7 rocket fire as happened much later in Mogadishu, Somalia, and at what time point in the conflict.

Posted by: LEP1 at June 19, 2009 01:38 PM

@DT: Some were, sure. Remember though, Rhodesia never embraced South Africa's apartheid policies. Their concern, at least at the governmental level, was that if the African majority was to participate in a Western-style democracy, voters needed to first be invested in the nation and democratic system.

So the Rhodesians had two separate voting rolls. The first was the main roll, which was predicated on land ownership or financial holdings (sort of like the American system in its infancy). Naturally, most Africans didn't make the cut to participate in the main vote (only 60,000 or so out of 7 million), but interestingly enough, neither did some whites.

The second roll was for Africans to vote for tribal leaders to represent African interests in Parliament. This was a much smaller roll, with the Tribal Chiefs usually assuming a defacto representation over their respective tribes.

Also, keep in mind that Rhodesian Europeans were watching the rest of Africa disintegrate around them as the colonial powers left. I'm not necessarily saying that they were right, but I do understand if they were scared (massacre of white settlers in the Congo case in point). Hell I'd probably want to secure certain representation in parliament, the military, and the banks before handing over power too.

And DT, our previous commentators are right: many, MANY Rhodesian blacks signed up for the RAR, BSAP, Territorials, and Selous Scouts to protect their villages from the nationalists, who would kidnap men into their ranks, rape their women, and kill anyone suspected of working with the colonists.

Posted by: John Noonan at June 19, 2009 11:22 AM

@ Chris C
"Well trained fireforces could do well in friendly second-third world nations who are fighting insurgencies, however. We should teach the Iraqis this method"

Fireforces would do well in places like the Phillpines, Africa, etc. but not in Iraq, it appears a key part in the fireforces success was napalm, which beside the fact the U.S doesn't use it anymore, which be infective in a place like Iraq.

Posted by: Airman at June 19, 2009 10:38 AM

dt: Given that the Rhodesian forces were 85% black and from 1978 on taking orders from a black President in a 2/3 majority black government . . "racist Rhodesians" is both trite and repugnant to reason.

Posted by: Murray Kruger at June 19, 2009 08:17 AM

Um dt. The RAR and the Selous Scouts were almost completely black units. They fought for Rhodesia.

Posted by: WJS at June 19, 2009 07:11 AM

I think the main point is that the Rhodesians were racist scumbags.

that's why they lost

Posted by: dt at June 19, 2009 03:56 AM

Americans don't need to use fireforce, however I can see a pseudo group like the Selous Scouts being of some use in Afghanistan... the problem is that it's much harder to flip religious zealots than African Nationalists, many of whom were kidnapped into ZANLA/ZIPRA service during the war.

Well trained fireforces could do well in friendly second-third world nations who are fighting insurgencies, however. We should teach the Iraqis this method.

Posted by: Chris C at June 18, 2009 09:32 PM

The problem with today's forces isn't that they're getting beaten in fire fights.

American Marines have been ambushed by superior numbers outside of CAS and can still come out top consistently.

But this won't save you from a roadside bomb while on patrol.

Posted by: fil at June 18, 2009 09:16 PM

Exactly right Alex. Most of the post-war critiques of the Rhodesians' performance centered around their obsession with kill ratios instead of psyops.

This isn't a post on how to conduct COIN ops, however. It's simply a discussion of fireforces as a military tactic. Big difference. Cheers, John

Posted by: John Noonan at June 18, 2009 09:12 PM

apply this to Afgan & Iraq & adapt system for & update for Spec Forces & Regular Forces.
Could be viable.
Replace C47s with C17s, C130s & use estd Gunships & now UAV drones.
Very doable with todays Info Tech Systems in place & have C3I.
Very doable Today with our forces & save lives

Posted by: stephen russell at June 18, 2009 08:10 PM

Evaluating a counter insurgency campaign based on its kill ratio is missing the point of COIN entirely.

Posted by: Alex at June 18, 2009 06:33 PM

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I welcome comments from everyone on my book Choppertech.
I am interested especially on hearing from former ZANLA and ZIPRA combatants who also have thier story to tell.