WASHINGTON — The Army has failed to adequately train and equip the military bomb technicians and infantry troops who are increasingly accompanying American commandos on high-risk missions in war zones, according to interviews and documents obtained by The New York Times.
As the Pentagon draws down the number of troops in combat, including in Afghanistan and Syria, it is largely relying on Special Operations forces to keep up the fight. Those American commandos depend on support from remaining conventional troops for extra firepower, security and logistics.
But the documents and interviews with seven military officials show that the backup forces — including explosive ordnance disposal, or E.O.D., soldiers — often do not have the necessary gear for protection nor the same level of training as the commandos they join on Special Operations raids and patrols.
“There is a difference between conventional and S.O.F. support equipment requirements for E.O.D. personnel,” concluded one of the documents from October 2017, which reviewed the performance of an Army bomb disposal unit after it returned from Afghanistan.
“We need to be able to shoot, move, and communicate as effectively as our supported unit in order to remain an enabler, not a liability,” the document said.
One bomb disposal soldier was killed last month, and another in March, while accompanying Special Operations forces on missions. They were among the 10 American troops who have died in combat in Afghanistan so far in 2019.
Inadequate training for conventional soldiers embedded with Special Operations units also proved deadly for an Army Green Beret team that was ambushed in Niger in October 2017. Some of the troops in the unit were not trained for Special Forces missions, including Sgt. La David T. Johnson, an Army mechanic who was among four American soldiers killed in a firefight with insurgents loyal to the Islamic State.
“This should be one of the top priorities for the Army to fix, with such a small amount of troops deploying into direct combat,” said David W. Barno, a retired lieutenant general who led the war effort in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. “It looks like a broken model.”
In a statement on Wednesday, an Army spokeswoman, Col. Kathleen Turner, said bomb disposal technicians were “critical specialty enablers” who receive nine months of training before they deploy, which continues after they arrive overseas.
“Their mission set determines the type of training they receive,” Colonel Turner said. She said that units “also receive focused training on their soldier tasks related to the deployment.”
There are roughly 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, a fraction of the 100,000 who were deployed at the height of the war in 2010. As the number of forces has dropped, the Pentagon has wrestled with how to continue fighting the 18-year-old conflict. Four more Special Forces teams were sent to Afghanistan last fall, according to one of the documents obtained by The Times.
But the deaths of Sgt. James G. Johnston, 24, and Specialist Joseph P. Collette, 29, whom two current and former officials said were not properly trained to fight alongside the commandos, demonstrated the Pentagon’s struggle to protect rank-and-file troops in counterinsurgency wars while also preparing to confront threats from Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.
The Times viewed reports submitted by six Army bomb disposal units deployed to Afghanistan and Syria from 2017 to 2019. Taken together with a half-dozen other documents, including some written before units arrived in war zones, they portray a need for set training programs for explosive technicians who support Special Operations troops.
Army bomb disposal “doctrine is not set up to enable the direct support from E.O.D. forces to Special Operations forces,” according to one document from 2017. Another, from April 2019, said that “mission success relies upon the quality of predeployment training conducted” between the Special Forces and bomb disposal soldiers.
Before Sergeant Johnston deployed in March — his first mission to Afghanistan — his bomb disposal unit had little to no training with Special Operations troops and was not prepared to work with them, according to a Defense Department official familiar with his death. The official, as with others who provided details to The Times, spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the episode by name.
Initially, Sergeant Johnston and other soldiers in the 704th Ordnance Company expected to work with conventional forces in Afghanistan to clear bombs and land mines from relatively secure areas and to train Afghan troops. Instead, and to the alarm of some Army officials, their mission changed just before the unit left to support the Green Berets.
A military report in March warned that the unit “will not have sufficient gear” to support the Special Forces and that command headquarters in Afghanistan “needs to address immediately” the lack of advanced night vision optics, rifle lasers, advanced tools for defusing bombs and personal protective equipment.
On June 25, Sergeant Johnston climbed into a helicopter with a team from 10th Special Forces Group and Afghan commandos. They landed in Uruzgan Province to clear Taliban fighters from the village of Shinia. Sergeant Johnston, walking at the front of the American patrol, was shot by the Taliban at close range; a Green Beret, Master Sgt. Michael B. Riley, was also killed in the gun battle.
Seven Taliban fighters also were killed, and some Taliban weapons were recovered, according to a second Defense Department official who saw an official account of the battle.
A spokesman for the American-led mission in Afghanistan declined to comment on the episode, citing an open investigation into Sergeant Johnston’s death.
Specialist Collette, another bomb disposal technician, was also on his first deployment to Afghanistan when he was killed in March in a firefight while on a mission with Army Special Forces in Kunduz.
He had received some Special Operations training before deploying and had completed an urban combat course, according to one former Defense Department official. But Specialist Collette was still considered too inexperienced for the mission he was asked to undertake.
There are at least 20 Army Special Forces “A teams,” each consisting of about 12 soldiers, operating across Afghanistan. They work with Afghan commandos on raids and other missions against Taliban and Islamic State fighters. They seek to not only isolate Islamic State fighters in rural territory but, more strategically, target the Taliban to keep them involved in continuing peace negotiations.
With no official doctrine for bomb disposal soldiers working alongside Special Operations forces, it falls on individual units to properly prepare for their deployments, meaning their training is based on the time and resources available, the documents show.
Specifically, the documents show, additional training is needed for long-distance clearing operations, breaching, small unit tactics and operating heavy weapons used by the commandos.
Infantry units that are teamed with Special Operations troops to supply additional firepower have faced similar problems.
Hundreds of soldiers from the Fourth Infantry Division returned from Afghanistan earlier this year. According to two Army officers familiar with the unit, they had almost no training with Special Operations forces before deploying in 2018.
The soldiers were given a class to familiarize them with Special Forces weapons. But the infantry unit’s armory at Fort Carson, Colo., did not normally carry those weapons, and the soldiers could not train with them before deploying, one of the officers said. He said it was the commandos’ responsibility to provide proper training and equipment for arriving soldiers before they could work together on missions.
One infantry soldier in that unit, Sgt. Jason M. McClary, was killed in November by a roadside bomb while supporting a 3rd Special Forces Group mission in Ghazni. Three other Americans were killed in the blast.
Some infantry troops were given night vision goggles and body armor that were outdated compared with what the Green Berets were using, slowing them down on more demanding missions, the officials said.
Bomb disposal forces also repeatedly asked for updated radios, better body armor and newer night visions goggles between 2016 and 2019, the documents show.