The results of the Niger ambush investigation was briefed to members of the press on Thursday, May 10, 2018. The Pentagon aired the one-hour long briefing and question and answer period video online. The three briefers were Marine Corps General Thomas Waldhauser (commander of U.S. Africa Command), Army Major General Roger Cloutier (AFRICOM’s Chief of Staff and investigating officer), and Robert S. Karem (Assistant Secretary of Defense International Security Affairs).
The investigation on the deaths of the four Soldiers from the 3rd Special Forces Group killed in Niger was conducted under Army Regulation 15-6. Defense Secretary James Mattis concurred with its conclusions. The SECDEF has directed the appropriate commands to change doctrine, training, and procedures where necessary.
Briefing Contents. The briefing opened up with General Waldhauser providing an overview of the mission of AFRICOM and of the investigation process. He emphasized the ‘by, with, and through’ nature of the mission working with partner nations (like the French) and host nations (like Niger). Robert Karem provided a strategic overview of why the United States is in Africa and in particular Niger – stressing the need to ensure that violent extremist organizations (VEOs) are not able to take over ungoverned regions. The investigation officer, MG Cloutier, provided more on the process of the investigation and some of the findings.
Reports? The Pentagon released several press statements and provided an eight page summary of the investigation. The primary investigation document is 6,000 pages long. There is no definitive answer from DoD on if or when that report will be released in an unclassified format. A 180-page report was provided the the U.S. Army and USSOCOM in early May.
Tactical Surprise. The Special Forces operational detachment was outnumbered by the assailants by a 3 to 1 ratio. In addition, according to the Niger ambush investigation the enemy force had achieved tactical surprise. The four team members were killed while fighting the enemy – none was ever captured alive. The team fought an enemy equipped with rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, and mortars.
Air Support. The air support provided from French aircraft arrived over the scene but could not provide supporting fires due to an inability to distinguish friendly forces from the enemy forces. The SF team had disabled its radios due to imminent capture and subsequently could not coordinate air support – providing its location as well as enemy positions. However, the French Mirage aircraft likely prevented the U.S. casualties from being removed from the battlefield by the enemy. French helicopters later would arrive to evacuate the surviving team members.
What Went Wrong? The Niger ambush investigation noted several contributing deficiencies.
- Pre-deployment training was not conducted as a complete team at home station.
- A proper “Relief in Place” or RIP was not conducted between the outgoing team that completed its tour in Niger and the incoming replacement team (the team ambushed).
- The team did not conduct pre-mission rehearsal or battle drills with their Nigerien partner force. There was inadequate time to train with and integrate with the partner force on immediate action procedures and other tactical tasks.
- The initial concept of operations (CONOP) was not approved at the proper level of command – it was inaccurately miss-characterized and appeared to have a lack of attention to detail during the CONOP preparation.
CONOP Approval Process. The investigation report found that the CONOPs approval process within the special operations force organizations in theater was contradictory and ambiguous. The different SOF elements – advanced operational base (AOB), Special Operations Command Forward – North and West Africa, and Special Operations Command – Africa (SOCAfrica) will likely (if they haven’t already) revamp their CONOPs approval process. Most likely it will become more restrictive.
Accountability. General Waldhauser stated that while he – as the AFRICOM commander – has responsibility for the events that took place, USSOCOM and the Army will determine accountability. There were 23 findings in the Niger ambush investigation – three of them are cases that may hold individuals responsible and accountable for their actions. So three people are potentially facing disciplinary action – two captains and one other.
Change to Mission. As a result of the Niger ambush investigation some changes in procedures have been instituted to mitigate risk and improve the readiness of SOF teams in Africa. There have been (or will be) enhanced equipment issued to the teams – vehicles, weapons, etc. The process for approval of concept of operations is being improved and the mission approval process is being tweaked. Surely we will see the risk factor weighing in heavily on the mission approval process – possibly at the risk of rendering these ‘train, advise, and assist’ missions less effective. No doubt the train and advise teams may end up working a higher (safer) echelons of host nation and partner forces to mitigate risk.
Conclusion. The AFRICOM Niger ambush investigation seems to clear the AFRICOM headquarters responsible for the events that take place on the African continent and cast blame on USSOCOM (Tampa) and the U.S. Army (stateside). In addition, although there may be individual, organizational, and institutional failures up and down the chain of command, the investigation appears to lay blame on two Special Forces Captains – the SF team leader and acting AOB (company) commander.
This article was first published on Thursday, May 10, 2018 on the same day that the Pentagon released its 8-page summary of the Niger ambush and presented its one-hour long briefing to the press. Since then new information has come to light about the Niger ambush and the investigation results. This article has been changed from its original state to reflect the new information. In addition, several reference articles by other journalists and observers have been added below – either under ‘DoD References’, ‘Reference’, ‘Other News Reports’, or ‘Footnotes’.
Oct 2017 Niger Ambush Summary of Investigation, DoD, May 10, 2018. This is an unclassified 8-page summary of the investigation report.
Defense Officials Brief Press on Niger Investigations Results, DoD News, May 10, 2018. One hour long video of Pentagon Briefing on Niger Ambush Investigation.
Video Transcript. This is the text transcript of the above video.
Statement by Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Ms. Dana W. White on Niger Investigation Report, Department of Defense, May 10, 2018.
Department of Defense Press Briefing on the results of the Investigation into the October 4, 2017, Ambush in Niger, DoD, May 10, 2018.
Africom Chief Details Changes Made to Mitigate Risks After Niger Attack, by Jim Garamone, DoD News, Defense Media Activity, May 10, 2018.
Niger Report Highlights Bravery of U.S. Troops, Notes Training, Planning Deficiencies, by Jim Garamone, DoD News, Defense Media Activity, May 10, 2018.
Investigation Results – Compilation Site – DoD
Special Forces in Niger – Countering Terrorist Groups, SOF News, October 4, 2018. An explanation of why Green Berets are conducting operations in Niger.
Tongo Tongo Ambush, WikipediA
Other News Reports:
“DoD’s Report on the Investigation into the 2017 Ambush in Niger”, by Alice Hunt, Center for Strategic & International Studies, May 15, 2018.
“Following Niger ambush, Pentagon promises more air support in Africa”, Air Forces Times, May 13, 2018.
“Father of soldier killed in Niger says officers cited in a military investigation are not at fault for his son’s death”, by Dan Lamothe, The Washington Post, May 12, 2018.
“Overun and Outnumbered, Special Ops Soldiers Fought to the End in Deadly Niger Ambush”, Army Times, May 11, 2018. DoD releases video depiction of the October 2017 combat action.
“US Niger ambush: How raft of failures ended in death”, BBC, May 11, 2018. BBC video helps explain the misson.
“The U.S. Military’s Niger Ambush Investigation Raises More Questions Than It Answers”, by Joseph Trevithick, The Warzone, May 11, 2018.
“The Accompany They Keep: What Niger Tells Us About Accompany Missions, Combat, and Operations Other Than War”, by Alice Hunt Friend, War on the Rocks, May 11, 2018.
The Bigger Question Raised by the Deadly Ambush in Niger, PBS News Hour, May 10, 2018. Sarah Sewall of John Hopkins University is interviewed on the Niger mission briefing.
4 Soldiers Fought to Their Deaths in Niger Ambush, Pentagon Now Says, by Jeff Schogol, Task & Purpose, May 10, 2018.
Broken Arrow: Department of Defense still inconsistent with findings on ambush in Niger, by Derek Gannon, Fusion Cell, May 10, 2018.
Military Leaders Sent Them on A Hasty, Ill-Planned Mission – And Are Now Blaming Them, by Paul Szoldra, Task & Purpose, May 10, 2018.
Niger investigation: What went wrong, what’s being done to fix it, by Tara Copp, Army Times, May 10, 2018.
Top Photo: Map provided by DoD, May 10, 2018.