OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM: 10 YEARS AGO
“We had this outfit called the Third Marine Air Wing, and I will tell you, frankly, it’s a killing machine.”
—LtGen James T. Conway, CG, I MEF, in a 2004 interview broadcast on the History Channel
In 2003, the initial attack into Iraq was a dramatically different fight than the occupation and counterinsurgency that would follow. It was a traditional war, with front lines and an enemy armed with sophisticated weapons. The capability of the Iraqi army was largely unknown. They had been weakened since the Gulf War, but still had teeth. Would they fight? Use chemical weapons? Surrender? Turn against Saddam Hussein?
For Marine aviation it was a war unlike any other. With 435 aircraft and more than 15,000 Marines, the Third Marine Aircraft Wing (3d MAW) represented the largest-standing Marine aviation element to go to war since Vietnam. More importantly, the 2003 invasion represented a turning point in tactics that included widespread use of precision munitions, dramatic changes to close air support (CAS) control doctrine, and the use of attack helicopters as forward ground reconnaissance.
In addition to the actions of pilots and aircrews, 3d MAW ground elements ultimately would move the aviation fighting capability hundreds of miles inland—farther and faster than ever before.
Rumors of War
With repeated attempts to encourage Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to yield to the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 falling flat, full-scale war emerged as the final option. With the 9/11 attacks fresh in the minds of Americans—and actions already taken against al-Qaida in Afghanistan in late 2001—Marines everywhere already were on a war footing.
For some squadrons, operations over Iraq were not an unfamiliar activity. Patrols had been flying in support of the no-fly zones since the end of the Gulf War. More recently, Operations Southern Watch and Southern Focus had put many aircrews in the sky, allowing them to test tactics and shape the battlespace in the weeks and months before Marines arrived on the ground to begin serious preparations for war.
The Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) was led by I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), with 3d MAW as its aviation component. By early 2003, 3d MAW Marines began taking up positions in Kuwait at Ali Al Salem and Al Jabar air bases. Some squadrons remained based aboard amphibious ships and at outlying bases in the region. The aircraft in the arsenal included CH-53E, CH-46E, AH-1W, and UH-1N rotary-wing aircraft. The fixed-wing element was made up of the F/A-18C, F/A-18D, AV-8B, KC-130 transport aircraft and the EA-6B aircraft for electronic warfare tasks.
In their first 30 days, Marines positioned munitions, set up maintenance facilities and established forward operating airstrips closer to the Iraqi border, and 3d MAW Marines from “Stinger” anti-air missile platoons and remotely piloted vehicle (RPV) squadrons watched over the forward areas for any sign of Iraqi pre-emptive actions.
Waiting to Go
By mid-March, all units of First Marine Division, I MEF’s ground combat element, were in their final attack positions. Hundreds of 3d MAW leathernecks were positioned to cross the line of departure with them. They would move forward with the ground forces to provide liaison, coordinate air strikes and establish forward operating bases for MAW aircraft. Aviation officers serving on regimental and battalion level staffs as air officers, or as forward air controllers (FACs), already had been attached to their ground combat units.
During the buildup, “habitual relationships” between aviation units and elements of the MEF had established a synergy and a rhythm. Twice daily video-telephone conferences were held between commanding generals of I MEF, 1stMarDiv, 3d MAW and First Force Service Support Group. Staff officers referred to it as, “the synergy of the Jims,” so named for the identical first names of three of the commanding generals (CGs): Lieutenant General James T. Conway (I MEF), Major General James N. Mattis (1stMarDiv), and MajGen James F. Amos (3d MAW).
As options for a peaceful solution faded, MajGen Amos was concerned with the mindset of the Marines as they made final preparations, saying, “Everyone was pulling hard to do the planning, and preparing themselves and their commands for combat, but the sense was that … we hadn’t made the transition yet in the mindset of everyone that this is not CAX, this is not a MEF EX, this is not JTFX on a carrier. This is the real thing.
“After some very, very serious and pointed meetings at the very senior leadership of this wing, everybody has come around and understands that we now have to build a plan that focuses on the enemy,” MajGen Amos added in a 17 March 2003 interview. “And that’s where we find ourselves today: commanders that are thinking about how they can best defeat the enemy, thinking about how they can best fool the enemy and deceive the enemy, thinking about where the enemy is and how we can kill the enemy.”
He was totally accurate in his estimate of mental readiness of the force. Three days after his comments, on 20 March 2003, the MEF and 3d MAW unleashed a maelstrom of firepower that broke the back of the Iraqi army.
Dubbed the “Opening Gambit” by the 1stMarDiv’s commanding general, coalition forces had planned to cross the line of departure at dawn on 21 March. Instead, late-breaking intelligence concerns over the position of enemy armored units, the threat of oil production facility sabotage and a precision air strike on Saddam Hussein’s suspected location created an element of confusion as plans were adjusted to a new timeline.
For the aviation element, first actions ranged from effective to tragic. As weather aborted the planned insertion of British Royal Marines to seize oil infrastructure on the Al Faw Peninsula, one CH-46 Sea Knight was lost and the Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 268 crew and Royal Marines on board were killed. These were the first casualties suffered by 3d MAW.
Meanwhile, air strikes began in support of the ground attack. Iraqi border observation posts were destroyed by AH-1 Cobra and UH-1 Huey attacks; fixed-wing strikes destroyed enemy armored vehicles in the path of ground objectives. Other F/A-18 Hornet and AV-8 Harrier strikes hit interdiction and deep battle targets in Baghdad and elsewhere, as well as participating in hunts for Iraqi SCUD missile launchers and key regime leaders.
The Opening Gambit plan of attack hinged on the assumption that at least some—if not the majority of—Iraqi military forces would surrender or put up only token resistance. Air and ground forces were prepared to kill those who chose to fight, but also were focused on minimizing collateral damage; if a change of leadership in Iraq were to happen quickly and cleanly, a functioning Iraqi infrastructure would make the transition that much smoother.
But Iraqi forces never surrendered in large numbers. The division’s regimental combat teams (RCTs) encountered limited resistance and successfully seized their first-day objectives, including the gas and oil pumping stations that had concerned military planners. Combined arms attacks by air and artillery were successful in suppressing the enemy as the MEF crossed into Iraq.
The ground attack advanced, and the wing opened the first forward arming and refueling point (FARP) at Safwan and later the forward operating base (FOB) at a captured Iraqi airfield named Jalibah in the southern Iraq desert. This was the first of a chain of FOBs and FARPs set up by MAW ground elements to support an attack that, for now, was moving at a rapid pace (see sidebar).
The enemy’s inability to mount an air-to-air fight meant coalition forces would have air superiority. With the Iraqi air force rendered ineffective before the start of the ground war, CAS—a hallmark of Marine aviation—was top priority. When carried out by F/A-18 Hornets and AV-8 Harriers, accuracy had increased significantly in the decade since the Gulf War. The Harriers had received an impressive upgrade with the Litening Pod targeting system, and Hornets also had seen improvements to their targeting systems.
The tactical advantage of air superiority allowed 3d MAW F/A-18 Hornets to protect the right flank of the 1stMarDiv as they bypassed several Iraqi divisions. The Hornets’ forward-looking infrared radar systems were able to monitor enemy positions and report movement that might pose a threat.
Precision guided munitions (PGMs) also proved to be a game changer. Utilizing GPS guidance systems attached to the existing inventory of “dumb” unguided bombs, the majority of bombs dropped could now be precision targeted. Setting target coordinates in the cockpit of fixed-wing aircraft, bombs could “fly” to the designed grid coordinate. The ability to deliver close, accurate and extremely effective fires meant less collateral damage and fewer civilian casualties.
Tactics and Turning Points
A critical turning point in the war came as coalition forces completed their initial advance and moved forward to key highway intersections and the bridges across the Euphrates River near An Nasiriyah. Because of its strategic position on the route of advance, Task Force Tarawa (2d Marine Expeditionary Brigade) under Brigadier General Richard F. Natonski was assigned responsibility for securing bridges over the Euphrates and the Saddam Canal that would allow 1stMarDiv to continue the push toward Baghdad without delay.
According to BGen Natonski in a 2004 interview, An Nasiriyah was at “a confluence of all the Army and Marine forces going into Iraq.”
To complicate matters, a U.S. Army maintenance company had become lost in the city, resulting in the death and capture of several soldiers, as well as emboldening the enemy. The Marine counterattack in An Nasiriyah would make maximum use of Marine aircraft, attacking enemy positions with AH-1 Cobras, F/A-18s and AV-8s—and conducting casualty evacuations with CH-46s, often under enemy fire.
The battle for An Nasiriyah unfolded as an unprecedented sandstorm enveloped central Iraq. The weather grounded almost all aircraft, although some CH-46 pilots assigned to support the regimental combat teams flew in trace of combat elements by hovering 15 feet off the ground, barely maintaining sight of the ground.
While the weather complicated the aviation mission, it was the nature of the enemy resistance that signaled a change to the aviation strategy. Up to this point, uniformed Iraqi army units that did engage would often deliver initial fire, then retreat. Some soldiers changed into civilian clothes, threw away their uniforms and returned to their villages and towns. In An Nasiriyah, Iraqis fought in civilian clothes (especially paramilitary regime loyalists like the Saddam Fedayeen), operated among civilians and used taxis and ambulances to transport fighters.
“My whole perspective of how we were going to fight this war changed,” MajGen Amos said just weeks after the battle. “I decided that I was going to try to destroy every single piece of Iraqi military equipment, and I was going to personally kill every single Iraqi soldier that fought back. I was not going to kill any that were willing to turn themselves in, so don’t misread. … We went after the Iraqi army for vengeance after that.”
As the advance continued toward Baghdad, the Marine RCTs and the wing continued to adapt. While doctrine called for transport helicopters to be escorted by Cobras and Hueys, the demand for ground attack missions quickly changed that mission. Cobras were well-suited for close air support attacks and often worked in sections of two aircraft, as well as teaming with UH-1s. As ambushes against the advancing RCTs increased, AH-1s were called in to provide forward armed reconnaissance of roads along the route of advance.
On numerous occasions this served to draw fire and allowed these enemy positions to be attacked and destroyed with minimal risk to Marines on the ground. Like any tactical innovation, the enemy soon caught on. On at least one occasion, two AH-1s were riddled with enemy small-arms fire and forced down just behind friendly lines.
The advance deeper into Iraq also solidified the effective use of fixed-wing CAS, coordinated by FACs assigned to company-size units and by battalion and regimental air officers within the RCTs. Technology and timing again played to the MEF’s favor. Doctrine changes had only recently been approved which allowed air officers to take full advantage of new technologies like GPS, digital communications and friendly positioning data.
Specifically, “Type III” close air support could be controlled by the battalion or regimental air officer based on their knowledge of the position of friendly forces without visually observing the aircraft they were controlling.
During the night of 3-4 April near Al Aziziyah, an ideal opportunity to leverage the air-ground team and exploit the new CAS doctrine presented itself. While RCT-5 paused to refuel and rearm, intelligence sources reported an enemy convoy nearby. During that night, RCT-5’s air officer, Major Hunter H. “Hamster” Hobson, ran multiple Type III CAS missions in an all-night attack, destroying the convoy and a large enemy compound later sighted in his area.
Hobson skillfully used the initial air strikes to halt the convoy in its tracks. “As a result, we had the entire 20-vehicle convoy stopped and blocked, and what happened after that was awesome,” Hobson said in a May 2003 interview. Coordinating strike after strike through the Direct Air Support Center-Airborne (DASC (A)), Hobson and his assistant ultimately directed F/A-18s, Air Force F-15s and even B-52 bombers onto their targets. The action virtually eliminated the 41st Mechanized Brigade of the Al Nida Division.
Flying thousands of feet higher than in previous wars, the operating altitude for fixed-wing fighters during the invasion was 15,000 feet, with a 10,000-foot minimum allowed if needed to identify targets. The incredible leaps in targeting technology and use of PGMs meant more effective CAS than ever while reducing the threat of antiaircraft fire to Marine aircraft.
In the air, F/A-18Ds often acted as airborne FACs, directing section after section of fixed-wing attack aircraft against enemy mechanized and armored divisions in the path of the advance. Using a “Kill Box” method, they could freely hit any target in their designated box. Dubbed “SCAR” missions (Strike Coordination and Reconnaissance), sections of two F/A-18Ds would cycle back and forth from the refueling tanker to provide for ongoing control of areas, sending other aircraft into designated Kill Boxes located in the Marine Corps’ area of control.
The F/A-18D acted as the scout in a hunter-killer team relationship with other strike aircraft, forming wolf packs that converged on enemy interdiction targets forward of friendly lines.
“We flew more than 10,000 sorties and dropped more than 6.5 million pounds of ordnance. In the 28.5 days of missions, we destroyed eight Iraqi divisions, two of which were the elite Republican Guards,” said MajGen Amos.
By 12 April, all Kill Boxes had closed and open attacks on Iraqi targets ceased. On 1 May, the end of major combat was announced. While the occupation in Iraq would become a counterinsurgency fight lasting eight more years, the Marine Corps—and 3d MAW—demonstrated the ability to dominate the enemy in a total combat environment.
Taken as a separate action when considering the entire experience of the Marine Corps in Iraq, the initial assault was a watershed event. Marine aviation had changed. Systems and tactics were put to the test—some were validated, others quickly modified to fit the requirements of this war.
Normal tactical procedures such as escorting transport helicopters with AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters were quickly forgotten as the demand for Cobra support of the ground movement grew. Virtually every squadron flew well above and beyond normal squadron operational parameters. During combat they exceeded normal flight hour performance by more than three times, reaching more than 350 hours per Cobra. Targeting, CAS and PGM innovations aligned to allow strategic planners to rethink their targeting calculations—targets that once required multiple aircraft strikes to achieve destruction now simply required only one or two bombs from one aircraft to achieve the same result.
Operation Iraqi Freedom I (OIF-I) reinforced the ability of the Marine Corps to fight as a uniquely integrated and effective air-ground team, with Marine aviation providing everything from CAS and casualty evacuation, to fuel, food and ammo to forward ground forces to keep the attack moving forward.
Maj James E. Quinn, the assistant air officer for RCT-7, best summarized the success of the MAGTF: “It was clear to them that we were doing great work; it was the classic example of Marine air and the ground operating together. It was a team. It worked.”
Editor’s note: Then-LtCol Mike Visconage deployed to Iraq during the initial months of Operation Iraqi Freedom as a field historian with the Marine Corps History Division and later served as the officer in charge of the Field History Detachment. He returned to Iraq in 2007-08 as the command historian for the Multi-National Corps–Iraq (MNC-I). He retired from the Marine Corps Reserve in June 2012 and works in private industry in San Antonio.