Attrition: The Royal Navy Heads For The Hills


August 18,2008:  The British Army is short of support troops for their force in Afghanistan. So a thousand sailors from the Royal Navy will go there to help out with things like driving trucks, communications and supply. The British are simply doing what the U.S. has been doing for years, and this has apparently made the Brits confident that their sailors will get the job done with a minimum of fuss.

Currently, over U.S. 10,000 sailors are serving with army units, mainly in Iraq (the "sand box"), but also in places like Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan. This small army of sailors are assigned to fill army support jobs overseas. In the last seven years, over 50,000 U.S. Navy sailors have served as "IAs," (individual augmentees), to assist the U.S. Army. The number has been increasing, and it's no longer voluntary. While most of the IAs are still volunteers, many who have not been IAs, and are up for a new assignment, are being told to do an IA tour, or not be able to re-enlist. The navy has been downsizing over the past few years, so they can get away with this. The navy still has no problem getting the recruits it needs.

 The IA work involves six, or, more usually, twelve month assignments. Most of the IAs possess skills similar to those performed by soldiers. The IAs get 17 days of training at an army base, to familiarize them with army procedures, weapons, and the specific dangers they will encounter. Most of the sailors never get out into combat, but concentrate on support tasks in well protected bases. This ranges from maintenance to handling logistics. Many navy EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal) technicians serve in the danger zones, taking care of roadside bombs, and other dangerous devices. But mostly, the sailors free up army personnel for things like base security. The IAs also help army morale, as they make it possible for the army to not send key technical people overseas so much. Most sailors volunteer because they want to get involved. As the old saying goes, "it's the only war we've got," and this one does not involve a lot of naval action.

The navy has been constantly tweaking the IA program, to make it less disruptive to a sailors career. This includes awarding a lot of Combat Action Ribbons. This is an award established in the 1960s, but not seen much, at least for ground combat, since the Vietnam war ended. Now, with so many sailors seeing ground combat (usually as EOD technicians clearing roadside bombs, or working convoy escort duty), the blue-yellow-red-white ribbon has now appeared on the uniforms of thousands of sailors.

The navy personnel procedures have also been adjusted several times to accommodate IAs. The latest wrinkle is to select sailors for IA duty at the end of a tour of duty (on a ashore or on a ship), so that they have more time to arrange their next regular assignment. By the time the fighting dies down in the sandbox, 15-20 percent of sailors will have had the experience of serving with the army. No telling what long term effects that will have.

When Britain rotates its force in Afghanistan this September, about 12 percent of the 8,000 troops will be sailors. British overseas tours are for six months.




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