By Lt. Col. John Valledor, Commander 2d Bn., 14th Inf. Reg’t
The quick reaction force—QRF—wearing night vision goggles, quickly waded through a waist deep canal, keen on snatching their illusive prey. Overhead, a team of two AH-64 Apache helicopters circled like flies, ‘sparkling’ their infrared laser pointers on two suspected insurgents, fleeing and desperately trying to distance themselves from the fast-approaching U.S. hunters.
The pilots had their forward-looking infrared sights’ heat polarity setting on “black hot,” revealing two dark colored human silhouettes against a broad white or cold farmland background. Invisible to the naked eye was a pair of thin, laser-straight light beams dancing across the landscape, emanating from the unseen helicopters aloft. Eventually they converged on a dense patch of four-foot-tall elephant grass bordering an irrigation canal, illuminating the insurgents final hide site.
The reaction force, guided by the pilot’s beacons and radio instructions, pounced on the patch. The team’s lead sergeant, propelled by adrenalin, roughly tackled the pair of cowering insurgents. One was a Moroccan foreign fighter wearing a chest ammunition rack and carrying an AK-47 assault rifle with a Russian hand grenade in the pocket of his Adidas running suit. The other, a tribesman, was described by local intelligence sources as belonging to Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Quickly, the reaction force reassembled on a nearby freshly-plowed potato field where minutes earlier, the Blackhawk helicopters had dropped them off. Again, the formation of helicopters descended from the darkness to withdraw the force and their newly acquired detainees for a short flight back to their base within the Baghdad International Airport complex.
Hours earlier, a U.S. Army platoon accompanied by a squad of Iraqi jundis, or soldiers, conducted a combined, nighttime air assault into the village of Ar-Radwaniyah. The village is a sleepy, out-of-the-way collection of irrigated croplands on the Mesopotamian plain, suspected of being a waypoint along an insurgent ratline connecting Al-Fallujah, Abu Ghraib and southwest Baghdad. As soon as the force hit the ground, the supporting aviation battalion battle captain detected movement in what was previously a still, motionless scene, typical of all Iraqi villages obeying nation-wide, nighttime curfew restrictions.
In the planning prior to the execution of the air assault, the task force had created several contingency plans, including that of the targets’ withdrawing from objectives as a reaction to the air assault. Although the assault force was primarily focused on clearing a sprawling cluster of over 20 Iraqi homes, they had rehearsed a plan to kill or capture fleeing ‘squirters’—insurgents who managed to escape by squeezing through U.S. lines.
Critical to accomplishing this task is good air-to-ground integration between attack aviation assets and the ground maneuver force. In the event that the assault force could not chase down and capture-fleeing insurgents, the task force designated an additional ground maneuver force, the QRF, with dedicated aviation lift assets to get them to any point on the ground deemed necessary. For this air assault operation, those assets would come from the same helicopter platoon used to infiltrate and later extract the ground assault force. The Blackhawk helicopters supporting this air assault would simply return to the mission’s primary pick-up zone and shut down, monitoring the task force’s command radios for continuous situational awareness. Likewise, staging the QRF’s Soldiers alongside the idle aircraft facilitated rapid loading and assault launching if needed.
The QRF commander, in this case a highly respected master sergeant, participated in all of the ground force commander’s air mission planning and rehearsals, so that he was acutely aware of the anticipated threats, terrain limitations, the ground maneuver scheme and most importantly, all likely contingencies. Further, the QRF commander placed himself inside the task force tactical operations center during the execution of the air assault. This allowed him to monitor live reports from the ground maneuver commander and the supporting aviation battle captain as they called-in code words signaling completion of tasks on a checklist. He was also able to observe live unmanned aircraft system feeds to better visualize the effects of terrain on both the U.S. force and their opponents.
As planned, the reaction force commander began to track and plot on a digital imagery map the initial spot reports from the air battle captain of suspected insurgent ‘squirters.’ He was able to monitor and track the assault force’s attempts to close with and capture the fleeing duo.
From the onset, the assault force touched down two kilometers away from the initial insurgent sighting. They followed the radio instructions as well as the attack aviation’s laser beacons, but with the dense undergrowth and water-filled farm plots, closing in on these insurgents was taking longer than hoped and jeopardized the completion of tasks in the original scheme of maneuver.
The enemy also had first-hand knowledge of the dense irrigation canal networks in Ar-Radwaniyah and were able to outrun the assault force Soldiers trying to envelop them at night, through complex terrain, wearing full body armor.
Although the attack aviation aircraft could clearly see the suspected insurgents using their infrared optics, they could not positively identify if they were carrying weapons, which would increase the options for how to apply the rules of engagement.
Although their actions by fleeing the site of the air assault landing marked it as suspicious activity, it alone was not enough to warrant the application of deadly force. At a minimum, it was imperative that the task force attempt to capture the suspicious twosome for intelligence of military value.
Frustrated by the fleeing insurgents’ ability to outrun the ground assault force, and by the fact that the air battle captain did not have visual justification to interdict the fleeing duo with lethal fires, the task force commander decided to launch the QRF.
The task force commander contacted the aviation battle captain managing airborne assets over the objective and tasked him to identify a safe and suitable helicopter-landing zone for the QRF in close proximity of the pinpointed insurgents. Once selected, the task force staff passed the map coordinates to both the pilots and QRF commanders so they could give the information to all involved.
Once launched, the QRF was able to capture the wanted insurgents, safely disarm them, and return them to the task force detention facility for tactical questioning within a span of 40 minutes. Upon questioning, it was found that the Moroccan foreign fighter was high on an unknown substance. He freely divulged detailed information on existing insurgent cell networks in the area—information that would be used in the never-ending cycle of human intelligence driven counterinsurgency operations.
The operation described might sound like a mission executed by a secret, covert, special-operations team. But surprisingly, it was entirely conceived, planned and successfully executed by conventional Army forces. The ground assault force consisted of Soldiers from Task Force 2-14’s heavy weapons company and the QRF from the reconnaissance platoon. With prudent planning and careful use of limited aviation assets, any conventional force in Iraq can achieve time-sensitive targeting effects previously within the domain of special operations forces.
Thursday, May 31, 2007
By Lt. Col. John Valledor, Commander 2d Bn., 14th Inf. Reg’t