When Task Force Strike arrived in Iraq in April 2016, the U.S. Air Force was delivering all the precision strike capability to the Iraqis fighting the Islamic State, said Col. Brett Sylvia.
Over the course of the deployment of 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), which made up Task Force Strike, the U.S. Soldiers augmented much of that strike capability with their own artillery and unmanned aerial vehicle assets. About 6,000 artillery rounds were fired, he added.
Sylvia, the brigade commander, spoke at a media roundtable Wednesday at the Pentagon.
Although the U.S. mission in Iraq is often referred to as one of advising and assisting, Sylvia said only about 25 percent of the brigade was doing that. The other 75 percent were engaged in route clearance, expedited communications, air and ground coordination and logistics, which enabled the Iraqis to build their forces up and get to their tactical assembly area for the push into eastern Mosul, which began Oct. 17.
Sylvia said he was pleased with the authorities the U.S. commanders on the ground were given to call for fire to enable the Iraqi ground forces to move forward. In March, the month before the task force arrived in Iraq, the authority was granted not only for the general in charge of the operation but for colonels, lieutenant colonels, and in at least one case, a captain near the front of the fighting.
Although the Iraqis themselves did the fighting, there were some limited situations when U.S. Soldiers accompanied them to provide “niche capability,” Sylvia said.
For instance, Soldiers accompanied an Iraqi battalion on a bridge-building mission on the Tigris River, where the enemy had blown up the bridge. The Soldiers advised them on establishing area security as the U.S.-made bridge was erected, he said.
As for militia fighters not attached to the Iraqi army who were also fighting the Islamic State, Sylvia said they were pretty much segregated from Iraqi forces. The U.S. was aware of their location and movements, he said, but did not interact with them in any way.
THREAT FROM ABOVE
It’s been some time since the U.S. faced a threat from the sky, Sylvia noted.
During the battle for Mosul, UAVs began appearing in the air in and around the city and it was quickly determined that they did not belong to friendly forces, he said. In one day alone, 12 appeared. They were mostly quadcopters operated by Wi-Fi with about 45 minutes of flight time.
At first, it was determined that they were providing the enemy with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. They were also taking video and using it for propaganda over their social media sites, he said.
Over time, the enemy managed to mount 40 mm grenades on the UAVs and drop them, Sylvia said.
It was sort of primitive, he said — like when World War I pilots would toss bombs out of their airplanes by hand. It wasn’t precision bombing, but it was more effective than their indiscriminate bombing.
This new threat from the air had U.S. forces dusting off old manuals on how to respond to threats from the air. Over time, the U.S. employed countermeasures that stopped or slowed their flight, enabling Iraqi ground forces to shoot them out of the sky.
BEST DAY IN IRAQ
Sylvia said he still clearly recalls his best day in Iraq. It was Christmas day and Iraqi forces, who are Muslim, invited him and his Soldiers to a Christian church just outside Mosul to attend mass. The Islamic State had gutted the church, but the Iraqis had rebuilt it with their own money.
“It was a powerful symbol and was amazing,” he said of the visit to the church, adding that he hopes the relationship forged with the Iraqis will be enduring.
Task Force Strike returned to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in January, but was replaced by the 2nd BCT, 82nd Airborne Division which is serving in Iraq now.
By David Vergun (Army News Service)