WEB SPECIAL - Attack on Iraq

UPDATE ON OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM - 28th March 2003

Naval Air Supreme
Mines Hindered Aid Delivery
Dolphins Called In
SSN on Second Combat Deployment
UK Naval Helicopters over the Battlefield
Royal Marines Tighten their Grip
ASM Used Against Kuwait
Saddam's Naval Remnants Destroyed
Northern Ireland The Key
Marines Move Into Basra City

Special Reports by G. Keith Jacobs (USA) and Iain Ballantyne (UK)

An F/A-18 Hornet assigned to the "Silver Eagles" of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron One One Five (VMFA-115), currently flying from the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75), releases a Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) over Iraq

An F/A-18 Hornet assigned to the "Silver Eagles" of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron One One Five (VMFA-115), currently flying from the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75), releases a Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) over Iraq. Photo: US Navy.

NAVAL AIR SUPREME

The five US Navy carriers supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom remain on-line and are flying from 90 to 130 sorties per day, depending on weather conditions, which on March 26 included lightning storms that temporarily shut down flight operations.

An F/A-18 Hornet launches from the flight deck of USS Harry S. Truman

An F/A-18 Hornet launches from the flight deck of USS Harry S. Truman. Photo: US Navy.

The USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) is apparently taking the furthest east ship operational area, while USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) and USS Constellation (CV 64) are deployed nearest to Kuwait. This may be in part because Lincoln has a squadron of longer-range F/A-18E Super Hornet aircraft onboard. Still, most carrier strike missions now require one or two aerial refuelings for each aircraft due to the distance to targets in north-central Iraq.

The US Marine Corps' Third Marine Air Wing (3MAW) has about 200 aircraft and helicopters in Kuwait. In contrast to the US Air Force Air Expeditionary Force (AEF) concept of sending small numbers of aircraft from many squadrons on an AEF deployment alert, the marines send the whole squadron. Included in Kuwait are VMFA-251 (12 F/A-18C) and VMFA-452 (F/A-18D) and transport squadron VMGR-452 (KC-130T). Most marine helicopters remain onboard the amphibious ships, except some AH-1W SuperCobra and UH-1N Huey helicopters used in direct support missions.

Supporting both US Marine and British Army units is 81 Wing (Royal Australian Air Force) with 14 F/A-18C Hornets, plus three C-130 Hercules from RAAF Richmond.

MINES HINDERED AID DELIVERY

The discovery of mines in the channel leading from Umm Qasr to the Persian Gulf delayed a British ship carrying humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people.

The British logistics vessel RFA Sir Galahad (L3005) was scheduled to deliver hundreds of tons of food, water and medical supplies to the Iraqi deep-water port on March 26. But British mine clearance ships, together with British and Australian naval divers, discovered "mine-like" objects in the channel.

A US Marine from the 15th MEU supplies force protection for the arrival of RFA Sir Galahad into the port of Umm Qasr

A US Marine from the 15th MEU supplies force protection for the arrival of RFA Sir Galahad into the port of Umm Qasr, Photo: Royal Navy.

UK Central Command spokesman Lieutenant Commander Steve Tatham explained that the objects that were found could have been munitions left over from the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, but may also have been mines laid by the Iraqis. Either way they were destroyed by charges. "There was no point in risking the vessel and her very precious cargo until the way was clear," said Lt Cdr Tatham. He went on to explain that the Allies had also found evidence that Saddam's forces had recently laid mines. "We have found mine-layers with mines onboard and also mine-layers without mines onboard, with evidence that they might have been sewn in the approaches to the port."

Prior to the Sir Galahad docking, US Air Force C-130s brought in supplies at Safwan airfield and British Army units brought in supplies to Umm Qasr.

Credit for discovery of mines in the lower Kwahr al Zubaya river estuary must go to the Royal Australian Navy's (RAN's) interception of a suspicious dhow. This was followed-up by members of the Special Forces conducting interdiction of barges. The US Navy intercepted three tugboats with barges containing 130 mines onboard. Pentagon officials said 68 mines were found on one tugboat, 50 on another and 19 on the third boat. Special Forces searching the waterways found more barges loaded with modern Italian-made Manta magnetic mines, and old-style Russian and North Korean origin contact mines. Customised dhows configured for mine-laying were found, with more than 90 mines onboard, while two other dhows, each containing six Mantas, were also found and have since been destroyed.

Upon discovery of the tugboats and mine-carrying barges, the US Navy expanded its search for mines beyond the al- Faw Peninsula. The US Navy's HM-5 "Blackhawks" squadron is deployed to the Gulf with MH-53E Sea Dragon minesweeping helicopters to sweep the channel to Umm Qasr port facilities, aided in spotting and destruction by two Cyclone Class patrol craft - USS Chinook (PC-9) and USS Firebolt (PC-10). The sled-towing MH-53 is ideal for estuary sweeping in confined waters, while four other American mine warfare craft remain engaged in coastal sweeping of the al-Faw Peninsula and Bubiyan Island, Kuwait.

The overall mine clearance effort has been under the command of the British, who have committed a tasking ship, in the form of the RFA Sir Bedivere, and a squadron of Mine Counter-Measure Vessels (MCMVs).

  • For more detail on ships involved see the May 2003 edition of WARSHIPS IFR.

DOLPHINS CALLED IN

The US Navy is also employing the San Diego-based Marine Mammal Detachment, with both dolphins and sea lions trained to locate and mark underwater mines and to provide protection for anchored ships. Two of the dolphins, named Tacoma and Makai, were delivered in specially configured traveling sleeve containers directly to Kuwait and then taken by helicopter to Umm Qasr on March 25. The special underwater mammal programme team is likely to remain for some weeks, until the waters around Basra and the Shatt al Arab waters can be searched. Unfortunately one of the dolphins - Tacoma - went missing soon after arriving in the Gulf, possibly due to attack from native dolphins protecting their 'territorial rights'.

SSN ON SECOND COMBAT DEPLOYMENT

History is currently being made underwater, as for the first time since World War 2, a US Navy submarine is in the middle of a second consecutive combat deployment. During her last six-month deployment, the crew of the USS Key West (SSN 722) were looking forward to a liberty port in Bahrain when they were notified of the Sept 11 2001 attacks on New York and Washington D.C. The submarine was immediately diverted to the North Arabian Sea. In fact, Key West was the first US warship to be on station and within Tomahawk range following the attacks.

he US Navy attack submarine USS Key West. Photo: US Navy

The US Navy attack submarine USS Key West. Photo: US Navy.

Today, Key West is one of the 30 coalition warships assigned to Naval Forces Central Command and is actively participating in Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) attacks on Iraq. Targets have included command and control facilities, early–warning radar sites and Surface-to-Surface Missile (SSM) systems. Key West is armed with the most sophisticated Mark-48 anti-submarine torpedoes, plus Harpoon and Tomahawk missiles. The submarine carries a crew of 130 men and is attached to Submarine Squadron 3.

  • Item based on text supplied by the US Navy.

UK NAVAL HELICOPTERS OVER THE BATTLEFIELD

British naval support helicopters from RNAS Yeovilton have been playing a key role in keeping the front line troops in Iraq supplied, and also in defending them from attacks by Saddam's fanatics.

The Sea King 'copters of 845 Naval Air Squadron have been transporting Royal Marines, their rations and equipment in from Royal Navy ships loitering in the northern Gulf.

Meanwhile the Gazelle reconnaissance helicopters of 847 NAS have been hovering above the battlefield, in an attempt to spot developing attacks by Iraqi irregulars and Republican Guard forces.

In at least one incident, the Lynx tank-busting helicopters of 847 NAS thwarted an Iraqi armoured thrust.

The enemy attack, against Royal Marines who have secured the vital port of Umm Qasr and the al–Faw Peninsula, aimed to prevent the Allies from bringing in reinforcements, military supplies and humanitarian aid via a captured container port.

Royal Marines from 40 Commando on patrol in the al–Faw Peninsula. Photo: Royal Navy.

Royal Marines from 40 Commando on patrol in the al–Faw Peninsula. Photo: Royal Navy.

The pilot of one tank-busting Lynx later said: "One tank that we engaged swung its main gun barrel 'round to target us, but we managed to get him before he got us."

Aside from hostile action, the biggest challenge faced by the RNAS Yeovilton air squadrons is the extreme Gulf climate.

Not only does the heat make the helicopters' engines work extra hard, put strain on their electronic systems, but the scouring action of sand also wears out mechanical parts, including rotor blades.

However, these challenges are no doubt being mastered by the Yeovilton-based air mechanics sent to the Gulf in the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean (L12).

An 847 NAS Lynx takes off from HMS Ocean (L12), to provide air support for Royal Marines fighting in southern Iraq. Photo: Royal Navy.

An 847 NAS Lynx takes off from HMS Ocean (L12), to provide air support for Royal Marines fighting in southern Iraq. Photo: Royal Navy.

Ten Sea King helicopters from 845 NAS together with six anti-tank Lynx and six Gazelle scout 'copters, from 847 NAS, are currently embarked in Ocean.

ROYAL MARINES TIGHTEN THEIR GRIP

The marines, from the UK's 40 Commando and 42 Commando, who have helped secure the al–Faw Peninsula and sanitise Umm Qasr, have fought several skirmishes with Iraqi elements. It was while marines from 40 Commando's Alpha Company were fighting to clear out the headquarters of the regime in one settlement that a gas canister exploded, causing burns to three of the commandos involved. During subsequent fighting in Umm Qasr, 40 Commando's Marine Eric Walderman had a lucky escape when bullets ripped through the cover of his helmet, but could not penetrate it.

Royal Marine Eric Walderman in the kevlar helmet that saved his life. Photo: Via UK MoD.

Royal Marine Eric Walderman in the kevlar helmet that saved his life. Photo: Via UK MoD.

By late March, 40 Commando was in a position south of Basra, protecting approaches to the al-Faw Peninsula and was notified to stand-by for a possible attack by an Iraqi armoured column.

This duly emerged, with between 70 and 120 Iraqi tanks, armoured personnel carriers and other vehicles reportedly heading south. One thousand enemy troops were said to be in the column.

However, before 40 Commando's marines were called upon to blunt the Iraqi advance with their anti-tank weapons, British Army artillery (including light 105mm guns from 29 Commando) and Allied strike jets broke up the attack.

In the 40 Commando battlefield operations centre the movements of the Iraqis were monitored closely. "Their intentions or motives are totally unclear, but they have adopted an offensive posture and do not want to surrender, so they have been attacked, " explained 40 Commando's Major Mick Green. "For the Iraqis to move tanks around in daylight is suicide."

Early the next morning a British armoured unit was sent into the area where the Iraqi attack had been dispersed, to winkle out any survivors that might pose a residual threat to 40 Commando's positions.

It transpired that the column might have been much smaller than anticipated, possibly only containing three tanks, but then British Challenger 2 tanks destroyed 14 Iraqi T55s in a battle in the same area. As ever, the fog of war lay thick on the battlefield.

ASM USED AGAINST KUWAIT?

One worrying development on the night of March 28/29 was the firing of a missile, possibly from somewhere in the al-Faw Peninsula, against Kuwait. What may have been a Silkworm or Seersucker Anti-Shipping Missile (ASM) exploded in the water just off a Kuwaiti port, causing substantial damage to a shopping mall, but luckily causing no casualties. Tracking down the ASM battery was a top priority for Royal Marines operating in the al-Faw and soon commandos were on the ground in the approximate launch area. They were supported by Gazelle recce helicopters from 847 NAS and hovercraft of 539 Assault Squadron Royal Marines.

SADDAM'S NAVAL REMNANTS DESTROYED

As the war approached the end of its first week, Royal Marines boarded Rigid Raider assault craft and hovercraft from 539 ASRMs for a foray up the Shatt al-Basra waterway to seek out and destroy the remnants of Saddam's, already badly depleted, fleet. The British commandos discovered several gunboats and destroyed them with grenades. Prior to this they had also used sledgehammers to break instruments and other vital equipment, as double insurance against the vessels ever being used again.

NORTHERN IRELAND THE KEY

Meanwhile success of British commandos in pacifying Umm Qasr was being put down to their experience in dealing with urban threats, such as the IRA in Northern Ireland. The Royal Marines, like most of the British Army units sent to the Gulf, learned, during many tours of duty in the troubled UK province, how to combine the need to pursue armed opponents while not causing deaths among the civil population. In Umm Qasr the Royal Marines have gone from house-to-house, guided by Iraqis who wish to see the end of Saddam's rule, hunting down the dictator's agents and arresting them. One of Saddam's supporters tried to fire on Royal Marines manning a checkpoint in the town, but a commando sniper on a nearby roof killed him before he could achieve his purpose.

MARINES MOVE IN TO BASRA CITY

On March 30 the Royal Marines of 3 Commando Brigade initiated Operation James, which sought to clear out Iraqi Army and Baath Party irregulars from the south-eastern suburbs of Basra.

Backed up by tanks and artillery of the UK's 7th Armoured Brigade, the RMs had, five hours into the operation, managed to capture half a dozen senior officers including a Republican Guard enforcer who had been sent south to make the Iraqi Army fight.

The discovery of 21 T55 tanks, heavy artillery and bridging equipment belonging to the Iraqis, suggested another armoured thrust out of the city was planned. These Iraqi forces were "neutralised" by heavy fire fire from British Army AS90 guns. Operation James was named after the fictional superspy, and naval Commander, James Bond, with objectives in the operation labeled Connery (as in Sean Connery), Moore (as in Roger Moore) and Pussy Galore (as in...).

• For background on the conflict see our other web specials and the forthcoming Gulf War special editions WARSHIPS IFR magazine (due out in early April and early May).