Every generation or so, military forces fight a battle that sets the lead for an entire generation of equipment modernization, along with doctrinal and tactical development. Well-known examples include the Battle of Hampton Roads between the ironclad ships USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (1862), the Battle of Britain (1940), and the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley (1965). Each was at the cutting edge of technology and military art, and all set the standard and tone for a generation of warriors going into battle. But what happens when an Army has two such battles in the same war? Is there time to assimilate and understand the lessons of each, and put these into the proper context so that the right conclusions can be drawn? And perhaps most important, which is the right battle to learn from in the first place? These are just some the problems that are faced by today’s U.S. Army as it heads into a critical era of transformation.
The best known of the engagements from Operation Iraqi Freedom are the famous “Thunder Runs” made by the 3rd Mechanized Infantry Division (MID) into downtown Baghdad early in April 2003. Led by the aggressive Col. David Perkins, commander of the 2nd Brigade/3rd MID, the Thunder Runs broke the back of the Baghdad defenses, likely ending the war weeks early. And perhaps most powerful of all, the Thunder Runs took place on live television, beamed back to an American audience hungry for news of the war and their loved ones in the battle. However, a closer look indicates that the success of the Thunder Runs was based as much on the audacity and skill of Col. Perkins and his soldiers as American firepower and armor. Furthermore, there is the question of whether the U.S. Army will ever want to fight this way again.
The M1A1 Abrams tanks and M2 Bradley fighting vehicles that led the Thunder Runs are not the future systems of choice within the Army, making their study of questionable value. Years before OIF, the Army began a two-decade-long process of transformation designed to produce an Objective Force which will be more strategically deployable, along with possessing greater tactical agility and lethality. The soldiers of the Army’s Objective Force will be digitally linked, equipped with advanced sensors and fire-and-forget “brilliant” weapons, and will ride into battle on vehicles that can “shoot and scoot.” Thus, if one is to find the OIF battle that represents the best guess of how the Army’s Objective Force may develop, they will have to look elsewhere: specifically, northern Iraq. That is the setting for the story of the Battle of Debecka Pass.
Debecka Pass is little more than a road crossing a low ridge where the old “Green Line” stood between the zones previously controlled by the Sunni and Kurdish factions in Iraq. It was here that a battle took place that may set the course of future U.S. Army structure and doctrine for the next 50 years. Approximately 30 mounted Army Special Forces (SF) soldiers and 80 Peshmerga insurgent fighters took on a regular Iraqi Army division, much of which was dug into positions along the ridge. The Iraqi forces had tanks and other armored vehicles, tube and rocket artillery, and thousands of troops. The Americans and their insurgent allies were outmanned, outgunned, and facing a dug-in enemy with nothing heavier than a 5-ton truck. Nevertheless, in one of the most one-sided victories since Henry’s archers destroyed the French knights at Agincourt, the SF soldiers completely defeated the Iraqis, drove them from positions that had been held for years, and began the march to the strategically vital oil production facilities of Kirkuk. Clearly, here you can find a battle that shows the way to the Army’s future.
Background: The Roughnecks
The Battle of Debecka Pass has its origins in, of all things, the failed parliamentary vote by Turkey to allow the United States and its coalition allies to use its territory for operations against Iraq. When it became obvious that U.S. forces would not be able to access northern Iraq through Turkey, Operation Viking Hammer began. Built around the 10th Special Forces Group (SFG) and commanded by Col. Charles Cleveland, Viking Hammer was designed to tie down the 11 Iraqi regular army divisions that were just across the”Green Line” from the Kurdish/Peshmerga zone in northern Iraq. Cleveland’s forces would also have to take and protect the vital oil production facilities near Kirkuk, take a suspected terrorist WMD production facility, and make sure that Kurdish/Peshmerga insurgents did not cause the Turkish military to intervene in the Iraqi campaign. However, to make this all happen would take more than just the two lightly armed Special Forces (SF) battalions (2nd and 3rd/10th SFG) Cleveland had at hand for what was known as Joint Special Operations Task Force – North (JSOTF-N).
To reinforce Cleveland’s understrength 10th SFG, a number of units were rapidly airlifted into northern Iraq once OIF kicked off on March 20, 2003. This included the famous 173rd Airborne Brigade, troopers from the 82nd Airborne Division, a number of tanks from the 1st Armored Division in Germany, and one more SF battalion: the 3rd Battalion/3rd (3/3rd) SFG. Normally assigned to provide SOF personnel for operations in Africa, 3rd SFG has been “backstopping” 5th SFG for over a dozen years of operations in Southwest Asia. However, 3/3rd SFG was equipped and trained for a very different set of missions from Cleveland’s 10th SFG.
Originally assigned to work with Col. John Molholland’s 5th SFG in western Iraq hunting SCUDs and WMDs, 3/3rd had just taken delivery of a brand new batch of Ground Mobility Vehicles (GMVs), the chosen desert patrol mount of SF units. GMVs might be best described as High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs) on steroids, as they are highly modified versions of the M1025A2/M1113 “Heavy Hummer.” Designed to provide three men the ability to operate for up to 10 days in the field, each SF “A” team usually had three to four of the big GMVs to move their array of weapons, equipment, and supplies. However, 3/3rd’s GMVs were a far cry from 10th SFGs off-the-shelf Land Rovers. 10th SFGs mounts had been procured to assist in peacekeeping and military-to-military missions in post-Cold War Europe and were lightly armed. By comparison, 3/3rd’s GMVs were virtual war wagons, with mounts for a .50-caliber machine gun or 40mm automatic grenade launcher, along with 7.62mm medium and 5.56mm light machine guns. In addition to the mounted weapons, each 3rd SFG GMV carried two AT-4 anti-tank rockets, a sniper rifle, either a Javelin anti-tank or Stinger surface-to-air missile launcher, 80 pounds of demolition materials, and personal weapons (M4 5.56mm carbines and M9 9mm pistols) for each SF soldier. Add to this water, food, ammunition, personal gear, radios, computers, digital cameras, GPS receivers, and fuel for 800 miles of road driving, and each GMV tipped the scales at around 12,200 pounds.
If this sounds like a prescription for creating mass havoc, the assessment would be correct, especially considering the mass of SF soldiers 3/3rd SFG brought to bear. 3/3rd SFG (known as “Forward Operating Base 33” or FOB 33) was composed of three SF company headquarters, each known as an “Operational Detachment Bravo,” or ODB. Each ODB normally controlled four to six “A” Teams (each 10- to 12-man detachment known as an “Operational Detachment Alpha” or ODA), each composed of a mix of highly-trained SF soldiers. For Viking Hammer, these already skilled SOF professionals were given extensive weapons refresher training, along with instruction in several systems and procedures new to SF. This included 40 hours of Javelin and Stinger missile classroom training and simulation, along with several weeks of field/battle drills with GMVs, weapons, close air support (CAS) radio procedures, and something really new: combat resupply in the field.
3/3rd, along with the 5th SFG troopers scheduled to work in western Iraq, had worked up a new field resupply scheme using specially modified trucks. Known as “War Pigs” (officially known as “Ground Resupply Vehicles” or GRVs), these were 5-ton medium trucks with cut-down cabs, mounts for medium machine guns, and radios and satellite communications gear. In back were racks and stowage for enough fuel, ammunition, and other supplies to let a GMV-mounted ODA stay out an additional 10 days. The idea was for the “War Pigs” to deliver the required supplies to a field resupply point so that the GMV-mounted ODAs would not have to leave their observation stations. 3/3rd SFG’s GRVs had some extra features, including a winch for handling 55-gallon fuel drums, a trailer hitch for towing, and one extra touch, a 60mm mortar. Assigned to ODB 390 (“C” Company, 3/3rd SFG – “The Roughnecks”), the trucks would act as mobile company headquarters and bases of fire. From here, the four ODAs of ODB 390 (ODAs 391, 392, 394, and 395) with their 16 GMVs would be supported and resupplied, and ordered into battle.
Getting There: Into Iraq
As it turned out, the toughest part of OIF for 3/3rd SFG may have been getting into Iraq once the war started. The battalion began its movement into the theater in early March 2003, flying to a staging area in a nearby host nation. From there, the adventure began several weeks later with the ODAs taking a circuitous ride aboard an MC-130 tanker/transport to As Sulaymaniya, combat-loaded and ready to drive off into their first mission. The ingress route had the MC-130s flying south over the Mediterranean Sea, entering Iraq from the west, then moving north along the Syrian border until they passed over the Green Line and entered “permissive” airspace. FOBs 102 and 103 from 10th SFG had preceeded 3/3rd SFG, and were already operating throughout northern Iraq. ODB 390, with their heavily loaded GRVs, had to be delivered by C-17A Globemaster heavy transports.
ODB 390 swung right into action, first moving over to the eastern side of the Green Zone to help support operations against the Ansar Al Islam terrorist camp near Halabja. The company then made a rapid road march on April 1 of almost 100 miles to the town of Irbil. The Roughnecks then joined other units of JSOTF-N on April 4 in Operation Northern Safari, a major offensive operation designed to clear northern Iraq, capture key population centers, and secure the Kirkuk oilfields and petroleum production facilities. ODB 390’s job was to take a force of Peshmerga insurgent fighters south from Irbil and try to occupy the western end of a ridge running along the Green Line. When this was occupied, the Northern Safari force would flank the Green Line, move east, and occupy the Kirkuk area.
Approach to Battle
Early on April 5, the four ODAs of ODB 390 linked up at the town of Pir Daúd about 8 miles north of the pass, along with their Peshmerga insurgent fighters. With the Peshmerga fighters were elements of ODA 044 (from 10th SFG) to act as liaison elements. There also were camera crews from various news outlets, including the BBC, following the force south. Early the next afternoon, following an “on the hood” planning session, ODB 390 began to move south. Split to the west were ODAs 394 and 395, while ODAs 391 and 392 moved south on the hardball road towards Debecka. The Peshmerga fighters marched to the rear of the ODAs, ready to move to the attack with the “A” teams providing a base of fire. By 2100 (local, as will be all times reported here), the force was several kilometers north of the ridge, beginning to reconnoiter the enemy positions.
Attached to each ODA and the ODB was a U.S. Air Force (USAF) Tactical Air Control Party airman (TACP) equipped with the radios and skills necessary to call in every kind of fire support imaginable. From U.S. Navy (USN) F/A-18 Hornets operating off carriers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea to big USAF B-52s from RAF Fairford in England, JSOTF-N was given every kind of support possible to make up for its lack of armor and artillery. It needed the help, because dug in on and south of the ridge were three brigades of the Iraqi 34th Infantry Division. While the 34th was not equipped or trained anywhere near as well as the Republican Guard Divisions defending Baghdad, it was a solid regular army unit with approximately 6,400 men and good equipment, including T-55 tanks, and BMP-1 and MTLB armored personnel carriers (APCs). In practical terms, the Iraqis outnumbered the allied force by about 20:1, had armor against the Land Rovers, GMVs, trucks, and SUVs of the allies, and were dug into positions that had been held for over a decade. Hardly what conventional military analysts would call a fair fight. Late that afternoon, the ODA TACPs began to even the odds by calling in a series of B-52 airstrikes with GPS-guided JDAM bombs on the ridge. The first of these had been a pre-planned daylight affair at 1700, clearly visible in the clear sky of a beautiful spring sunset. Two more B-52s struck the ridge at 0401 the following morning (April 6), each delivering 27 1,000 pound JDAMs on point targets. It would be the opening drumroll to the Battle of Debecka Pass.
Left Flank: Battle at the Crossroads
At daybreak (about 0600), ODAs 391 and 392 linked up with about 80 Peshmerga fighters in SUVs and cargo trucks. The insurgents were well-armed, including vehicle-mounted 12.7mm DSHK heavy machine guns and 106mm recoilless rifles. The combined force then headed south towards a crossroads protected by a minefield. By 0730, the Peshmerga were trying to breach an earthen berm just ahead of the Iraqi defensive line and began to engage dismounted troops. The two ODAs supported the movement with .50-caliber machine gun fire and began to interrogate the first Iraqi prisoners. It was at this point that the SF soldiers began to get information that an armored battalion with 12 T-55s and 15 MTLBs had been defending the crossroads, but had withdrawn to the south. At the crossroads, the force found an abandoned T-55, and the ODAs continued to move forward towards Debecka.
Realizing that the minefields and berms restricted their movement in the area, the SF soldiers decided to complete the breach begun by the Peshmerga. After several tries and use of captured explosives from the Iraqi minefield, the berm breach was finished. By 0900, the force began to move south again towards Highway 2 on the
ridgeline, where wheeled vehicle traffic had been observed and engaged with machine guns. Ten minutes later, one of the ODA 391 weapons sergeants spotted a military truck loaded with troops, and Staff Sgt. Jason Brown (ODA 391’s senior weapons sergeant) engaged it with a Javelin anti-tank missile at a range of 3,000 meters. Though the “official” range of the new weapon is only 2,000 meters, the missile flew true and killed the vehicle, scattering its occupants. A few minutes later, after engaging another light vehicle, the SF soldiers began to notice Iraqi vehicles about 2 kilometers south and moving toward their position. With mortar fire and airbursting 57mm anti-aircraft shells beginning to be fired in their direction, it became clear that a battle was in the offing for the SF/Peshmerga force.
By 0940, a line of MTLBs and T-55s emerged from the morning haze to the south, the tanks firing their 100mm guns at the GMVs. Realizing that their position was too exposed to fight effectively, the two teams displaced about 900 meters north to a small ridgeline they would call “the Alamo.” From there the teams began to call in CAS to deal with the enemy armor, and set up the rest of their four Javelin Command/Launch Units (CLUs). By this time, Sgt. Brown had reloaded his CLU, and fired two more Javelins at MTLBs, killing both and causing the rest of the Iraqi armored vehicles to halt their advance and deploy into line abreast along the ridgeline. With just two shots from the deadly new missiles, Brown had stopped an advance by a company of armor and mechanized infantry, and the Iraqis were about to suffer even more deadly treatment from the SF soldiers.
By this time ODA 392 had its first Javelin CLU ready, and Sgt. Jeffrey Adamec killed another MTLB while the GMV gunners began to engage the Iraqi armor and a string of troop trucks. The Iraqi infantry, by now dismounted from their vehicles, began to take highly accurate .50-caliber and 40mm grenade fire from the Americans. Sgt. Brown, clearly having a “hot hand” with the Javelin CLU, fired a fourth missile, hitting a troop truck. Staff Sgt. Zawoski from ODA 392 fired his own Javelin at the same time, killing another of the troop trucks. The dismounted Iraqi troops began to take casualties, and some began retreating to the south.
Ridge Fight: Half an Hour in Hell
As ODA 391 and 392 were dueling with the Iraqi armor, ODAs 394 and 395 were advancing on the end of the ridgeline to the northwest of the crossroads fight. The teams were trying to reconnoiter the enemy positions and turn the Iraqi flank for the Peshmerga fighters following their advance. However, as the eight GMVs moved toward the ridgeline, they began to take Iraqi artillery and mortar fire. Before the SF soldiers could back away, both teams were in the midst of a massive artillery and mortar barrage and fighting for their lives. Taking advantage of the GMVs excellent cross-country mobility, the drivers began to “chase” the exploding rounds, trying to upset corrections by the Iraqi observers in the strongpoints on the ridge. At the same time, the gunners on the GMVs’ began to engage the Iraqi observation posts and other positions on the ridge with .50-caliber machine gun and 40mm grenade fire, trying to suppress corrections on the barrage.
For almost 30 minutes, the two ODAs dodged and bounded almost randomly through the impact zone, desperately trying to move back and disengage from the fight. Though many of the artillery and mortar rounds were close, not one SF soldier was hurt or the GMVs hit. The agility and mobility of the GMVs, along with the training of the SF soldiers, managed to allow them to escape from the deadly fire. Though a bit rattled by the experience, the SF troopers realized that they needed to get back into the fight if the Peshmerga were to accomplish their mission. Short on .50-caliber machine gun and 40mm grenade ammo, the two teams called “Roughnecks” company commander Maj. Curtis Hubbard for the “War Pigs” of ODB 390 to make an “on the battlefield” resupply. As this was being accomplished, the attached Air Force TACPs were plotting the enemy positions on the end of the ridgeline.
After finishing the resupply and carefully moving forward to observe the Iraqi lines, the TACPs called in a series of B-52 JDAM strikes which demolished the numerous Iraqi strongpoints. This cleared the way for the Peshmerga forces to advance, and the Iraqis began to abandon positions they had occupied for almost a dozen years. The amazing agility of the GMVs while under fire had caused the Iraqi gunners to waste much of their ammunition, while allowing the teams to escape and plan a second advance. Also, the “on the fly” resupply by the OBD 390 “War Pigs” had allowed the SF soldiers to quickly move back onto the offensive. For the first time in years, the Green Line had been turned and a route was open to Kirkuk. Back at the crossroads, though, the fight with Iraqi armor and infantry was not over.
The crossroads battle continued: an ODA 044 Javelin gunner killing an MTLB, and Sgt. Adamec firing a second Javelin, hitting a truck that had been struck earlier. Sergeants Michael Ray and Richard Turner from ODA 391 then shot a Javelin of their own, which missed. Then, just a few minutes before 1000, the first close air support arrived over the battlefield in the form of two Navy F-14 Tomcat fighter-bombers from a carrier in the Mediterranean Sea. Armed with GBU-16 laser guided bombs (LGBs), the flight leader set up to bomb the T-55s in front of the two ODAs. However, a mistake in communications and orientation occurred, and the lead Tomcat dropped its first LGB on the abandoned T-55 back at what is now called “Press Hill.” The ODA 044 liaison element (along with some command personnel from ODB 040 – their company headquarters) had gathered the Peshmerga fighters there, and a number of news personnel were also present when the warhead detonated.
Capt. Eric Wright, the ODA 391 team leader, saw the explosion and realized immediately that there were “friendlies down” to his rear. Seeing that the rest of his SF soldiers were solidly in the fight, Capt. Wright, along with Sgt. Ray (the ODA 391 senior medical sergeant) and several other personnel from ODA 391, moved to the site of the bomb impact to see what could be done for the victims. Meanwhile, the crossroads fight began to get more interesting as Iraqi artillery rounds began to hit near the ODA 391/392 positions. Realizing that it was time for a change of position, the rest of the American vehicles and personnel began to displace back to Press Hill themselves.
By just after 1000, Capt. Wright, Sgt. Ray, and several other Team 391 members arrived at Press Hill to find a mass of casualties, exploding fuel and ordnance, and burning vehicles. Sgt. Ray quickly established a casualty collection point (CCP) and spent a frantic 15 minutes separating the wounded that could be helped from the mortally wounded. The ODA 391 soldiers pitched in as best they could, tying 19 tourniquets in just 30 minutes while the battle continued just in front of their position. The ODA 044 Javelin gunner and Sgt. Adamec managed to each shoot a missile at the same truck, while the TAC-Ps worked to calm down the two Tomcat crews and get them back into the fight.
Despite the incredible performance of the Javelins, the T-55s were still in front of Press Hill and behind cover. After making “dry” runs on the targets, the F-14s finally started getting GBU-16s onto one of the tanks. They then began to designate targets with a laser designator for the F/A-18 Hornets that followed the Tomcats. With the remaining tanks, trucks, and MTLBs under a withering shower of LGBs, many of the ODA 391 and 392 SF soldiers moved over to the CCP site to assist with the wounded. Unfortunately, the loss of life was heavy: 17 Peshmerga and a BBC cameraman were killed and an additional 45 wounded, including two of the 10th SFG troopers.
By 1040, all of the survivors of the errant LGB had been evacuated, and all of the SF soldiers from ODAs 044, 391, and 392 could concentrate on finishing off the Iraqi armored force to their front. However, the supply of Javelin missiles was running short, and there still were Iraqi vehicles and troops trying to find a way to fight back. Despite the shortage of missiles, the ODA 044 gunner fired the 12th shot of the battle, killing another MTLB. This caused the remaining Iraqi vehicles to begin moving towards Press Hill, in an attempt to close with the SF soldiers. However, the SF soldiers fired four more Javelins, destroying a T-55 and another APC.
By 1115, the Iraqis began to break, and a dozen soldiers tried to surrender to the SF soldiers. As they did, though, two Toyota SUVs roared up and six men in white uniforms got out, machine gunning the surrendering troops. Shocked by the sight, the TACPs called in an F/A-18, which literally vaporized both the SUVs and their occupants with a well-placed GBU-16. As this bizarre episode came to an end, Maj. Hubbard and the two ODB 390 “War Pigs” rolled up to conduct another battlefield resupply, including eight of the invaluable Javelins. While this was going on, one of the ODB 390 headquarters personnel took a shot with a Javelin, killing still another MTLB. When one more Javelin shot went wide, a Javelin “cease fire” was declared. The SF soldiers finished off the rest of the Iraqi vehicles and personnel with CAS. It took two hours to complete the job, but by 1600, the Iraqis had all surrendered, died, or retreated.
At 1600, ODB 390’s “War Pigs” set up a 60mm mortar to provide a base of fire, and ODAs 391 and 392 moved forward into the killing zone to set up defensive positions for the night. They spent the night hours dueling with a single Iraqi 152mm howitzer that fired single rounds at them, and then tried to hit the artillery piece with CAS. The only other excitement occurred on the morning of April 7 when a single T-55 began to maneuver in front of them and was destroyed with a Javelin shot and CAS. With that, the SF soldiers and their Peshmerga fighters picked up and continued the advance down the Green Line. All told, the SF soldiers fired 19 Javelins for 17 hits (eight Tanks and APCs, along with four trucks), and not one missile was fired at less than 2,200 meters range. Officially, the maximum range of the Javelin is 2,000 meters, well short of the longest shot of the battle at 4,200 meters.
Aftermath and Lessons
Within a matter of days, Col. Cleveland’s JSOTF-N forces occupied Kirkuk and its oil production fields without a single well head blown or refinery tower damaged. Thanks to the victory at Debecka Pass and other SF-led battles along the Green Line, the Iraqi forces surrendered, dissolved, or just retreated in disarray. Just three weeks later, the major combat phase of OIF was officially over and sustainment/support operations under way. For their actions on April 6, 2003, Sergeants Adamec and Brown were awarded Silver Stars for their successes with the then-untried Javelin missiles. For Capt. Wright, Sgt. Ray, and a number of other “Roughnecks” there were Bronze Stars and Army Commendation Medals for their actions, both combat and lifesaving, at Debecka Pass. There also is a great deal of study going on about just what they did, how they did it, and what they did it with.
ODB 390 and its four ODAs operated in a manner very close to what the U.S. Army has in mind for its planned Objective Force, due to debut sometime in the middle of the next decade. Designed to be built around lighter, more agile, and deployable vehicles and systems, the Objective Force is intended to replace the heavy armored forces in use presently. It’s a hard sell, though – one made more difficult by the fine performance of systems like the M1 Abrams tanks and M2/3 Bradley fighting vehicles in OIF. However, the performance of the “Roughnecks” at Debecka Pass shows that a light, mounted force with fire-and-forget “brilliant” weapons, “on the battlefield” logistical resupply, and good communications to call in CAS, can defeat armored units many times their size, weight, and numbers, and not suffer significant casualties. In fact, the only allied casualties suffered at Debecka Pass were a result of the errant “Blue-on-Blue” GBU-16 strike. Even this incident showed the way to the future, as the SF medical sergeants made use of some of the new, high-technology bandages and medical supplies coming into military service. It is quite likely that the Battle of Debecka Pass will go down in history as the first real example of 21st century warfare.
Author’s Note: This article has been reviewed for security concerns and factual accuracy, and is based on a variety of sources including personal interviews with participants. For purposes of personnel and operational security, only soldiers already publicly identified by U.S. Special Operations Command, along with officers of lieutenant colonel rank and above, were named. Otherwise personnel were referred to by rank and team/position.
This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2004 Edition.