Politics & Policy

A Bird’s Eye View

Watching the battle for Baqubah.

Baqubah, Iraq – A Tactical Operations Center (TOC) is the headquarters for a unit. Company-level TOCs are the smallest I have seen. A typical infantry company has about a hundred or more soldiers. The commander will normally be a captain. A company-level TOC often consists of a radio and a map, and one person on duty 24/7. It might have a coffee maker, too. In fact, there is a company TOC at the other end of the tent in which I now reside with a company called C-52. C-52 is the smallest company with only 54 men, who all live in this tent with a huge amount of weapons, and great combat experience to back them up (to whit: Superman).

The simplicity of some TOC’s was noted when I wrote about how the 1-4 CAV transformed an abandoned college into COP Amanche in one Baghdad neighborhood.

The next highest level is the battalion TOC, which consists of many radios enabling communication with and between all companies, helicopters, jets, laterally (to other battalions) and vertically (up to brigade.) Often a few monitors hang on the walls, maybe a flat-screen television normally dialed to a news channel, and one with a live feed from the battalion’s UAV.

Some battalions have tiny hand-launched UAVs that buzz around. This Raven used to fly over Baqubah.

Back in 2005, soldiers in Baqubah told me the story of a little Raven crashing in Baqubah. They recounted how insurgents danced around holding the Raven’s little wings, and even got on television as if they had shot down a U2.

Increasingly, battalions use Shadows, which fly higher and provide a great deal more information. The enemy in Iraq has learned that when he can see a Shadow, the next thing he might see is death. Shadows are unarmed, but the information they beam home can be used to conduct a vast array of attacks. We see Shadows launching from their catapults or buzzing overhead every day that weather permits.

Often, on the TOC screen next to the Shadow screen, will be a down-link from a Predator. The Predator can be used as an eye, but it can also launch missiles. There might also be a down-link from an F-16, which can deliver devastating attacks in addition to eyes from above.

Yet another screen will show “SIGACTS.”

At battalion level, maybe ten soldiers sit in front of these and other screens. One soldier will be the S-2, or intelligence. Another will monitor counter battery radar. Another will communicate with those who operate the UAV, which often is launched and controlled from elsewhere. The battalion can “task” the UAV, but an outside unit actually maintains, launches and flies it. The more high-flying UAVs might be operated from back in the United States.

The larger the unit, the more control stations in the TOC. Whereas company-level TOCs generally are limited to little more than a radio and a map, those at the battalion level are more like nerve centers which actually help coordinate battles, hence the person in charge is called the “Battle Captain.”

The next level up is the brigade and the 30 or so officers and soldiers at a brigade TOC will be clustered around computers and monitors at different stations, often three rows deep. In something reminiscent of the early NASA days, the Battle Captain sits up front in the first row, with computer screens wrapped around cockpit-like. At the next highest level up, the Division HQ, the TOC really looks like a NASA control center.

On Saturday morning about 0300 on June 30, a jet roared low and loud over the tents. Some soldiers rolled out of their cots to the floor, thinking it was “incoming.” I lay there in the tent looking into the darkness. The night was quiet for now. A few minutes later, I heard a Shadow launch from its catapult in the distance, sounding like a weed eater flying into the ink. Something was up. But that’s normal here in Baqubah for 3-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team. I couldn’t sleep, so rolled out of bed and pulled on my boots.

Michael Gordon, a reporter from the New York Times, covered the first days of Operation Arrowhead Ripper from the ground with the 3-2 SBCT, seeing first hand both the fighting on the street as well as the planning behind the scenes.

Units in Iraq that aren’t fighting much seem more intent on keeping their TOCs top secret. I’ve seen exceptions, but as a general rule, access seems to increase with action, and in the case of 3-2 SBCT, embedded journalists are given full access 24/7. Journalists actually are given more access than they possibly can handle. They can stay all day and night, coming and going as suits their needs. They can go off on missions, and then come back to watch from the TOC as missiles and bombs splash across the television screen just like on those History Channel shows, only here, a few seconds later the TOC rattles from the blasts.

So I walked into the TOC at about 0320 that Saturday morning, and there was a video feed coming in from an F-16. Crosshairs were steady on a house the pilot was circling. We could sometimes hear the jet as it orbited over the Baqubah. The Shadow was circling the same house but from a lower altitude.

“What’s up with the house?” I asked.

“An element took SAFIRE (small arms fire) and the enemy ran into that house.”

“What’re you gonna do?”

“Trying to decide. Probably bomb it.”

Bomb it,” he said. Sounded simple. Question is, with what? Commanders have myriad options. Some weapons are within their direct authority to use, while other weapons require higher permission. Rules of Engagement (ROE) constantly change, and in order not to tip the enemy, I’ll only talk about the ROE in a general sense. For the early days of operation Arrowhead Ripper, the ROE were relaxed, giving robust options further down the chain, with caveats to mitigate civilian deaths, which had been few.

The 3-2 is combat seasoned — many 3-2 soldiers have served three or more combat tours — but if such relaxed rules were extended to a brigade without a similar depth, the results might be muddier missions from commanders whose soldiers had either sticky trigger fingers, or were too quick on the draw. Either extreme could result in catastrophe.

A week after serious fighting began on June 19, I watched as Michael Gordon of the New York Times and Alexandra Zavis of the Los Angeles Times tried to tally civilian deaths. After being out and seeing the battle first-hand, Gordon and Zavis were a few feet away from me, talking with Major Robbie Parke and comparing notes, trying to figure out the civilian deaths, and finally arriving at a consensus of about 7. Their earnestness was not an agenda-driven hunt for collateral damage victims. A number that low — and five of those deaths were from a single explosion that locals said had come from a U.S. bomb — is almost unbelievable, considering the amount of firepower that had been used. Except when commanders have made avoiding civilian casualties a primary part of the battle plan, which is a basic tenet of counterinsurgency warfare. It’s hard to build civic relationships out of body parts.

The F-16 and Shadow both beamed down live images of the house where the terrorists had hidden after firing on U.S. forces. Now was option time. Which weapon to use? There were so many choices: mortars, missiles, and cannons of various sorts, among others. With the enemy hiding in the building, an F-16 and a Shadow orbiting in the black above, both peering down on thermal mode, the Battle Captain asked the Air Force experts, (the JTACs) what weapons the F-16 was carrying. As a JTAC started ticking off a long list, I was thinking, “How in the world to do those little jets carry all that?” In fact, I believe they were reading down the list for two jets flying in the same package. They carry a mixture of weapons cross loaded between the jets so that they might have the black magic needed for a likely situation.

In addition to the F-16’s bombs of various sorts, there was the MLRS rocket system dozens of miles away that had been precisely punching rockets through Baqubah rooftops for days. The MLRS had been flattening buildings that had been rigged as giant bombs. There were the 155mm cannons on this base that can hit and flatten anything in Baqubah and beyond. The Apache helicopters could spin up with their rockets and cannons. Infantrymen could just roll in. Or tanks. Or Bradleys. Or Strykers. Even Humvees. The idea was to use just the amount of force to kill the enemy fighters, but leave everyone in the surrounds unscathed, if possible. If that was not possible, often they would simply not fire, but other times they would. Judgment call.

By about 0400, the Battle Captain had decided to use 120mm mortars. As a reference, if a 120mm were to land on a car, the car would be obliterated, but a 120mm would not be enough to flatten decent house. The first round was shot and exploded on the two video screens leaving a black-hot thermal cloud. The impact looked hundreds of yards off target. Successive shots did not hone it, but got worse. It was starting to look like a turkey shoot, so the Battle Captain ordered the mortars to cease fire and refused to consider using the mortars again for that mission.

They discussed dropping a JDAM (a special type of bomb from one of the jets), but were worried about CD (collateral damage). The idea of a strafe run came up but that would likely cause even more CD, and so that idea was also nixed. Things sure look different from the comfort and safety of the TOC, even though the TOC is still so close to the battlefield that often the explosions can be felt from there. Still it’s like being a thousand miles away by comparison to being with the infantry in the dark and danger. (TOCs do get hit by rockets or mortars sometimes.)

The MLRS rockets and JDAMs were good enough to actually hit buried IEDs, and could easily take the house. The F-16 was carrying at least one concrete bomb — literally, just a bomb made from concrete, like throwing boulders at people — but a JTAC said, “We are not dropping a concrete bomb.” For some reason he didn’t want to just throw a rock. Personally, I don’t like to see bombs explode because it means we are still at war. But a strange feeling came over; I wanted to see the F-16 drop a boulder on people that shot at our guys. I knew if the rock hit them, the neighbors would be fine…

Click here to read the full dispatch — with photos — from Michael Yon.

– Michael Yon is an independent writer, photographer, and former Green Beret who was embedded in Iraq for nine months in 2005. He has returned to Iraq for 2007 to continue reporting on the war. He is entirely reader supported and publishes his work at www.michaelyon-online.com.


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