The Blog

Tankers on Two Legs

One 'surge' brigade gets creative in the fight against al Qaeda.

12:00 AM, Aug 14, 2007 • By JEFF EMANUEL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Salman Pak, Iraq
THE 3RD INFANTRY Division (known as the "Marne" Division) has a long, storied history as a mechanized unit. For years they have brought the big guns of tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, as well as M-113 Armored Personnel Carriers and dismounted infantry patrols, to the fight wherever they may be needed.

The third of the five 'surge' Brigades, the area of operations (AO) covered by the Marne Division's 3rd Brigade--a region just southeast of Baghdad--is made up of a population that is majority Shia but predominantly Sunni to the east along the Tigris River, and includes the site of the Iraqi nuclear reactor that was destroyed by the Israelis in 1981, as well as Highway 8, which runs directly to Iran, and the former terrorist training center (and resort town) of Salman Pak.

The part of that area that 3rd Brigade's 1st Battalion (also known as the 1st Battalion of the 15th Infantry Regiment, or '1-15') is responsible for includes a geographic feature called the "deep bowl"--so named because of its round-bottomed appearance on a map. Bordered on the east, west, and south by a large bend in the Tigris, the "deep bowl" is an extremely defensible area in the southernmost part of 1-15's area of operations, and is home to the majority of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in the region. Terrorists cross the river from the south, and base their weapons factories and operations out of farms and various other unmapped places.

One problem with 1-15's AO is the fact that, over much of its terrain, there are very few actual roads; most passageways are canals and other paths that are not easily navigated by large vehicles, and which are well-suited to ambush. As the northern limit of the "deep bowl" is one of these areas, the only realistic vehicle-based approaches into the bowl are from the east and the west--and the cost of actually making such an entrance would be extraordinarily high. "We tried to drive in, but the roads were absolutely laden with IEDs [improvised explosive devices] at the eastern and western access points," said Lieutenant Colonel Jack Marr, the 1-15's Battalion Commander. "Approaching from the east, we found so many IEDs that our EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] team ran out of demolitions before they could destroy them all."

Rather than accept that there was a region within their AO that his forces simply could not enter--let alone one containing large numbers of al Qaeda fighters--Marr made the decision to radically alter his battalion's way of doing business. "Since we couldn't drive in without an inordinate amount of risk," Marr told me, "we decided to go in the way that we knew we could--by air."


In essence, Marr, a former light infantry officer with the 82nd Airborne and the 25th Infantry Division, took his infantry battalion--long used to heavy vehicle-based operations--and made them into a unit capable of the mission known as 'Air Assault.' Air Assault units are able to fly to an objective via helicopter, perform a quick dismount upon landing, do an infantryman's job on the ground, and then re-board the helicopters and 'exfil' back to their base.

The transition from mechanized infantry to an Air Assault-capable unit didn't come quickly or easily--and it's a process that is still ongoing. However, the men of the 1-15 "have made great strides," according to their commander, "and will get better at it the more that we do it. Right now, we are limited to just a few hours on the objective--land, get off [the helicopter], do a quick mission, and then get back on. Eventually, I want to be able to have my soldiers stay on the objective for up to 24 hours--to have the helicopters drop us off and leave, and then come back and get us the following night. We're not there yet, but we hope to be soon."

Given the Army's past penchant for separating light infantry from their mechanized brethren--and for keeping each in their own lane mission-wise--the transition was expected to be much more difficult than it has been.

"The mechanized world has been far behind the light infantry world for a while now," Marr explained. "Until the beginning of OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom], the guy who got out of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and patrolled on foot had a different MOS ("military occupational specialty," or job title) than the guy who was manning the gun or driving it. What I'm doing now is to have all of my infantrymen be infantrymen, who can dismount or move to the objective by a different means and do the same job as anybody else."