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."
Marr began the cross-pollinating process by placing officers who specialized in light infantry tactics in charge of his tank and Bradley platoons. "What you have to realize," said Captain Rich Thompson, commander of 1-15's B ("Baker") Company, "is that, just like C-130s for the 82nd Airborne or helicopters for the 101st, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle isn't an end in itself; it's just how guys get to work. It's how they get to the objective--and what they do when they get there is an infantryman's job."
An enlisted Ranger for almost twelve years, Thompson's experience with light and unconventional infantry tactics and techniques provided an invaluable resource in the unit's quest to adapt, training the men and leading one of the two air assaults that the 1-15 has performed to date, a raid on a chicken farm that was suspected of being a VB (vehicle-borne) IED factory (the other was a successful hit on a large al Qaeda weapons cache).
"For the most part, it went exactly how we had hoped that it would," Thompson recounted. "We basically had a Company-sized element trying to work a Battalion-sized objective, but I thought we did a very good job.
There are a few things we need to work on--most importantly, how we integrate the attack helicopters into what we're doing--but overall, I was very pleased." The Baker Company soldiers were able to flush the al Qaeda fighters into the clearings where they wanted them to go, said Thompson, but "they're smart. They know that we won't shoot at an unarmed person," so they dropped their weapons, or "wouldn't fire at the helicopters, making it difficult for the pilots to get a PID (positive ID) on the terrorists as opposed to the civilians."
While no VBIED factory was found ("Sure enough, it was a chicken farm," Said Staff Sergeant Cory West, platoon sergeant for Baker Company's 2nd Platoon), the mission was considered a success for multiple reasons. "First, obviously, we got some experience going in on helicopters," Thompson told me. "It was two flights of two CH-47s," so just the infiltration portion of the mission took coordination and provided real-world practice for the soldiers adapting to the world of the light infantryman after spending most of their careers in tanks and APCs.
"Second, and most importantly, we showed al Qaeda that we can land anywhere that we want, and can deny them the safe haven they thought they had [in the bowl]. They thought they were protected there, with the deep-bury IEDs all along the access roads, so us showing them that we can bring the fight to them, on what they thought was their turf, any time we choose to has got to be a blow to their confidence."
Not to mention to their safety.