The not-a-movie-protest attack that killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens killed a total of four Americans, including "information management officer" Sean Smith and two former-Navy United States military veterans who were specialists in asymmetrical warfare and security. Both these last two were also experienced snipers. A Daily Mail article names one of the men. The sister of Glen Doherty, 42, said he was working on a security detail when the consulate in Benghazi was attacked.
What the reports have not yet explained about the deaths of the men is that both of the veterans, who were expressly present to provide security to the Ambassador, had been given express orders not to carry long arms.
In case the significance of the order against long arms might escape the reader, the author proposes a mental stroll through some well-known information available to anyone who with access to a newspaper. Think about the Middle East, where attacks on U.S. citizens is a widely-known threat, and attacks on U.S. government personnel have been expressly threatened for years by anti-U.S. hate groups who have demonstrated international reach. What specifically are the highest-likelihood threats to U.S. government personnel?
The answer comes straight from the news of the last more-than-a-decade: (1) AK-47 rifles, (2) rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and (3) improvised explosive devices (IED) used to immobilize Americans for ambush on disorganized survivors using AK-47s and/or RPGs. These threats are far from secret. Personnel returning from the Middle East have described to this author that fully-automatic AK-47 military rifles and their ammunition is, in fact, as common in that part of the world as matchbooks are common in ours.
So it is no great surprise that Americans traveling in diplomatic group or located in an overtly-marked American consulate building should be attacked by gunfire from rifles and RPG fire.
While the effective range of an RPG varies greatly with the skill of the operator, the widespread availability of RPGs and the longstanding nature of conflict involving RPGs in the Middle East makes the availability of adequately-skilled RPG users a likely threat. The formation of vehicle-hunting teams armed with numerous RPGs has been taught by veterans of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to enemy fighters in modern conflicts, complete with effective RPG tactics. The risk of RPGs has been known for decades, as target-specific RPG munitions modifications were involved in the 1993 attacks that downed U.S. helicopters in Somalia. Although "[c]lose combat is a direct-fire brawl in which the RPG excels", "Soviets tried to stay at least 300 meters away . . . out of AK-47 . . . and RPG-7 moving target range." But the consulate is not a moving target, and RPGs can reach over nine hundred yards. Suffice it to say that the effective range of anticipated threat from RPG attacks on a fixed position such as a consulate building lies in the hundreds fo yards.
Although Soviet policy regarded 300 meters beyond range of AK-47s against moving targets, a team providing suppressive fire on a building under attack by RPGs so as to prevent escape is not necessarily worried about moving targets, and can content itself laying fire into a beaten zone at known exits. In a manual published on the training soldiers in the use of the M-1 Garand during the Second World War (the author gave away the manual with the rifle, or a quote would appear here), users were instructed to zero the sight firing at the range of three hundred yards. The U.S. Army publication FM-23-5 (1958) instructs soldiers on page 260 on the amount of lead to give a walking man at a range of three hundred yards. In fact, that page of the manual has an illustration with a little dot on it and an arrow that says "400 YDS OR LESS AIM HERE". The manual makes clear evident that an expected objective of training given to regular soldiers included accurate fire at a range of three hundred yards against a walking man – that is, a moving target much smaller than a vehicle, and much more challenging than a building entry. The 30.06 round fired by the M1-Grand and the 7.62mm Soviet round fired by the AK-47 are certainly different species of thirty caliber ammunition, but the more recently-introduced 7.62mm Soviet round is certainly capable of performing within the operational envelope of American rifles of the WWII era. The effective range of our current enemies' rifles exceeds several hundred yards.
What this means is that the expected enemy threat against the Ambassador involved attack by weapons having effective range measured in hundreds of yards. In the face of this threat, the State Department ordered two U.S.-trained snipers – with significant experience countering AK-47s and RPGs in live operations – to bear handguns. Handguns have a barrel length measured in inches instead of feet, and an effective range of tens of feet instead of hundreds of yards. Even if one generously considers the extreme effective range of a handgun against an enemy to be "tens of yards", one might conclude (generously) that the greatest outer limit of battlefield handgun accuracy is an order of magnitude less than the minimum plausible effective range of the rifles borne by the most common expected adversary.
You can hit an unmoving and unobscured paper target at a hundred yards with some handguns, but this author has significant doubt about the relative effectiveness of handguns at more than a few tens of yards against targets using cover and obscured by night or smoke. The sights available on rifles dramatically alter the obscurity penetration and aim of the weapons, even ignoring their dramatic differences in performance characteristics. To send sniper-trained Americans to provide security using handguns when the expected enemy's weapons are all effective threats at several hundred yards' range is a serious handicap.
Americans were sent by design into a rifle battle bearing pistols.
How They Died
Unlike the Ambassador, who reasonably kept cover but was eventually overcome by environmental factors (warning: graphic photo) when his cover (a rented villa) was ignited by RPG fire, the American security personnel did not die of smoke inhalation. Running out of ammunition for their handguns, they fought their way to AK-47s to acquire usable weapons. In doing so they necessarily sacrificed the cover of a building, and exposed their positions to the enemy by assaulting positions known to their attackers (because elements of the attackers' own team were located at the assault target). As a consequence of their effort to protect the Ambassador, made necessary by their being deprived of longarms at the outset of the battle, they operated at a marked disadvantage.
They were ultimately unable to create an escape corridor for the Ambassador because they had been forbidden weapons suited to the task, and first had to expose themselves in a two-person assault against twenty militants armed with rifles, before they themselves could acquire the weapons required to perform their objective. The State department's own employees may not have died from gunshots, but their superiors' orders didn't work out any better for the Ambassador than for his security detachment.
The Daily Mail article mis-identifies Doherty as a "Marine." While inaccurate, this is understandable in light of the well-known fact that it is Marines who are tasked with providing security to U.S. embassies and consulates abroad. The use of Marines for this task is easy to understand: if you want someone to tolerate oppressively boring tasks like guard duty and stand against overwhelming odds in the event of assault until their mission is accomplished or every man is dead, who else will you ask? Special forces operators are not guard-duty material. Lesser soldiers may not be reliable to hold their ground when boredom erupts into Hell on Earth. As an example of a duty that's oppressively boring and yet utterly critical in the event of disaster, consider my friend the Marine who was tasked with providing physical security to nuclear weapons. In some jobs, you just can't have someone break and run.
So, where were the Marines in all this? Marines could have made quite a bit of difference, and moreover are equipped with rifles. (If they are lucky, they are permitted to carry loaded rifles. This may sound obvious, but the Unites States has a track record of getting this exactly wrong. Ever wonder how the explosives-laden truck that blew up the barracks in Lebanon made it all the long, snaking way through the vehicle-control devices without being shot? Right. Orders that Marines tasked with guard duty should employ unloaded rifles. The time required to get an off-site chain of command to authorize the withdrawing of an ammunition magazine and the loading and charging of a rifle was simply so long the bomb arrived before the orders permitting self-defense. This fact should also suggest something extremely dangerous about the dedication of Marines to their orders.) Unfortunately for the Ambassador and his non-uniformed security detail, the Marines ordinarily detailed to provide security to Ambassador Stevens had been ordered elsewhere at the time.
Protecting the Ambassador just wasn't a priority for the State Department on September 12.
The orders affecting security at the scene of the attack – that Ambassador Stevens should be without any Marine security at the consulate in Benghazi, and that his security detachment should be forbidden long arms while providing security in Libya – have a character that suggests they originated outside an organization having a deep understanding of security matters. Someone with operational sense must be given the authority to exercise it. At present, that is not the case at all in the State Department.
Form over substance only fools people until threats appear. Now, it appears the Emperor went on parade naked, and was shot at range by aimed fire. Even children could have seen that coming.
[UPDATE: It turns out the Benghazi location, where the Ambassador was being protected by two (2) security personnel who had been ordered not to use longarms, was also operating under a security waiver that exempted it from having to maintain the security features and personnel complement ordinarily required at United States diplomatic facilities. Whoops.]