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The Battle of Debecka Pass: Roughnecks at War

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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.

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.

Battle of Debecka Pass

A Ground Mobility Vehicle of Charlie Company, 3/3rd Special Forces Group armed with an M2 .50-calibur machine gun driving south toward Debecka Pass. Photo courtesy of USASOC

Originally assigned to work with Col. John Mulholland’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 40 mm 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.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...