Flying The First Night Of War In Iraq Without A Wingman And Two Polish Snipers In Back

On the first night of the invasion of Iraq, securing Saddam's deepwater port was crucial. Here's an aviator's first-hand account of how it went down.

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When it comes to war stories, where you were and what you did in the opening of a major conflict are as exciting and personal as it gets. In this case, it also happened to be the most bizarre experience I had in my entire military career. 

On March 20, 2003, as the U.S. kicked off its invasion of Iraq, I was at the controls of a U.S. Navy HH-60 Seahawk helicopter flying over southern Iraq. In the cabin of the helicopter were two of the most senior enlisted aircrewmen in our squadron. I had flown dozens of training events with these aircrewmen, including live-fire exercises using the M240 machine guns that were hanging off either side of the aircraft. Along with them were two Polish snipers. I had never flown any training missions with these snipers and had only met them just before launching. As far as I could tell, neither of the Polish snipers could speak English, at least not the standardized aviation checklist English we used in flight, and my last instructions before launching were that I should trust them to differentiate between friend and foe and let them shoot at any targets they deemed necessary. 

It wasn't how I expected to fly the first night of the war, and certainly not how I had trained. Still, that was the situation, and I was determined to get the job done, or at least not screw it up. Our mission that night was to escort a small flotilla of U.S. Navy riverine craft that were clearing and securing the Khawr az Zubayr waterway that connects the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr to the Persian Gulf. It was an important and dangerous operation, and one we had to get done as soon as possible to allow heavy cargo ships to come in to support the forces moving towards Baghdad. 

In The Dark While On The Brink

We had launched that night from a small, transient base located at Al Maghasil, Kuwait, located about ten miles south of the border between Iraq and Kuwait. During the first days of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), I and several other Naval Aviators and aircrewmen were stationed there as part of a small, ad hoc detachment of four US Navy HH-60H Seahawk helicopters tasked with supporting the initial objective of securing Umm Qasr, which is located about 30 miles south of Basra, and just north of the border between Iraq and Kuwait. In addition to the Navy helicopter detachment, there were several platoons of Navy SEALS, some Special Warfare Combatant Craft Crewmen (SWCC) operators, as well as a contingent of U.S. Marines and U.K. Royal Marines. 

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HH-60H Seahawk working with SEALs during training. 

We had set up at Al Maghasil about eight to 10 days before the commencement of OIF. One of the first things I noticed was how difficult it was to get information. Back on the carrier, we had essentially unlimited bandwidth to access both open-source news services, like the now discontinued "Early Bird" the Pentagon put out, as well as classified intelligence. As we got closer to the invasion, my situational awareness of the broader events taking place got progressively worse. 

The closer you are to the front lines of the conflict, the less you know about what is going on elsewhere. While frustrating, it wasn't a consequential problem. We were focused on our piece of the mission. With that said, our crew of Naval Aviators was definitely experiencing some culture shock due to the lack of easily accessible information. The makeshift camp at Al Maghasil had the bare minimum of communication connectivity to receive tactical level tasking and nothing more.

Iraq's Only Deepwater Port And Gateway To Oil Terminals

While Basra is the largest city in southern Iraq and is located directly on the Shatt al Arab waterway, formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which acts as the border between Iran and Iraq, it does not have deepwater port capabilities. Umm Qasr is Iraq's only deepwater port, as well as the gateway to Iraq's two offshore oil terminals, Khor Al Amaya Oil Terminal (KAAOT) and its sister facility, the Al Basrah Oil Terminal (ABOT). At the time, KAAOT and ABOT represented approximately 90% of Iraq's oil export capacity.   

During the First Gulf War, as Saddam Hussein's forces left Kuwait they set hundreds of oil and gas wells on fire. This led to massive economic and environmental challenges as the government of Kuwait tried to recover from the invasion and occupation. As a result, an initial objective of OIF was to quickly secure both the deepwater port facilities at Umm Qasr, as well as the oil platforms at KAAOT and ABOT to ensure that Hussein's retreating forces did not sabotage them. Seizing the port facilities and oil terminals intact was seen as a key enabling objective for the future economic reconstruction of Iraq and eventual independence and legitimacy of the new Iraq government.

Google Earth 

Umm Qasr

Once we were set up at our austere base at Al Maghasil, we started to figure out who else was there. Along with Navy SEALS, Navy SWCC, U.S. and U.K. Marines, I started to see some other personnel whose uniforms and insignias were unfamiliar to me. They turned out to be from the Polish special operations force known as the Grupa Reagowania Operacyjno-Manewrowego (GROM), which means Group for Operational Maneuvering Response. While I knew nothing about them, the way they moved and carried themselves was reassuring. They gave the impression of being calm and capable professionals. 

The forces at Al Maghasil were a small fraction of the total force that would conduct the assault on Umm Qasr. Some of the main assault elements were located further inland, with the balance of U.S. and U.K. Marines waiting on the big amphibious assault ships located in the Persian Gulf. Although we were well aware of the threat posed by Saddam's still potent arsenal of Scud missiles, the consensus was there was little to no anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) threat menacing the amphibious assault ships, so by a few days prior to the invasion, those ships had crept up very close to the far northern end of the Persian Gulf. That proximity to the objective obviously made the problem of movement from ship to shore much easier. 

Scrounging Helicopters From The Fleet

As I detailed in a previous War Zone article, most U.S. Navy SEAL helicopter operations are typically supported by U.S. Army or U.S. Air Force units that are solely dedicated to special operations. However, as I pointed out in a follow-on piece, U.S. Navy carrier-based H-60 Seahawk squadrons are trained and equipped to support maritime-centric special operations missions. With respect to this helicopter detachment in the desert just south of Umm Qasr, we did have enough airframes to support Navy SEAL operations, but just barely. How we were able to do this was a big part of the story. 

What follows may seem like an excessive amount of detail on the logistics of the operation, but as we pointed out before, a Navy deploys on the strength of its maintenance operations. How we got four full mission capable (FMC) Seahawks into Al Maghasil and supported them for several weeks required a massive and complicated effort. 

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HH-60Hs on the carrier deck.

The primary purpose of the Navy carrier air wing is force projection. That's why four aircraft carriers were in the Persian Gulf on day one of OIF, to provide fixed-wing sorties in support of ground operations. While the standard carrier air wing mix has varied over time, it typically includes about 50 strike fighter aircraft. At the time, I was attached to Carrier Air Wing Five (CVW-5), stationed aboard USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63). In our case, the strike fighter loadout was one squadron of F-14 Tomcats and three squadrons of F/A-18 Hornets. Supporting aircraft included a squadron each of E-2 Hawkeyes, which provided airborne radar control, S-3 Vikings, used for a combination of overwater radar coverage and in-flight refueling, and EA-6B Prowlers, providing electronic attack (jamming) services. 

Last but not least, there was one squadron of H-60 Seahawks onboard, with four airframes of the SH-60F variant optimized for Anti Submarine Warfare (ASW) and three HH-60H airframes optimized for supporting Navy SEAL operations. We also used the HH-60H airframes to provide a defense against the constant threat of Iranian small boat swarm attacks. To get four total FMC HH-60H airframes at the temporary base at Al Maghasil, we took one each from the four carriers. Given the massive amount of other tasking the helicopter squadrons had – running cargo and personnel to and from shore, maintaining situational awareness of and deterrent to the Iranian Navy, keeping a 24/7 overwater Search and Rescue (SAR) alert manned – it was difficult, but we made it happen. 

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A maintainer works on an HH-60H.

Maintaining those four aircraft ashore was a complicating factor. We simply did not have enough maintenance personnel or spare parts to set up a maintenance operation at Al Maghasil, separate from the aircraft carriers. We solved that problem by rotating aircraft out every day or two, taking them back to the carriers, where each squadron had a full maintenance department to do inspections and maintenance before sending the birds back up to the desert. By rotating the HH-60H airframes out every day or two, we were able to keep four FMC aircraft in the rotation at Al Maghasil. The maintenance personnel back on the carrier were working 18 hour days for the duration of our time in the Persian Gulf, and as always, they deserve the lion's share of credit for our success. 

Oil Platforms And Port Facilities Are Sniper's Heaven

As we got closer to zero hour, we started taking a more detailed look at the mission. In general, the main objective was taking Umm Qasr itself, along with three associated missions. The first was seizing the offshore oil platforms. The second was maintaining a semi-continuous reconnaissance mission over Bubiyan Island and the Al Faw Peninsula, which lay directly between Iran and Umm Qasr. Lastly, the third was clearing the waterway, the Khawr Abd Allah, that flowed south out of Umm Qasr into the Persian Gulf. 

I had been tasked with providing aerial cover for the small flotilla of surface craft that would be working up from Al Maghasil towards Umm Qasr along the waterway, so that was my focus in getting ready to execute the mission. 

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Map of the Al Faw Peninsula and surrounding area. 

In this case, clearing the waterway had two meanings: clearing it of potential enemy resistance and eventually physically salvaging and clearing shipwrecks that made it impossible for deep-draft ships to get to Umm Qasr. 

As we started looking at the objectives, it quickly became apparent that if the Iraqi forces decided to resist, they would have a perfect defensive position to work with. To start with, a deepwater port facility like Umm Qasr is just about as tailor-made as can be for hiding snipers. There were heavy cranes on the docks with a lot of buildings and warehouses to support the port operations. These presented platforms for snipers that were both elevated and heavily armored. Beyond that, we knew there were underground utility tunnels and conduits, but they were not clearly marked on the surface or charted on maps. We had some blueprints from when the port was originally built, but had no idea if what was depicted on the blueprints actually existed.

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP via Getty Images

One port area of Umm Qasr photographed in 2011. 

Before we even got to the port, however, we would have to navigate and clear the waterway leading to it. Saddam's forces had sunk several large ships in the Khawr Abd Allah waterway just south of Umm Qasr, which precluded any deep-draft vessels from operating there.  It wasn't a problem for us in terms of movement towards the target area, as both the U.S. Navy and U.K. Royal Navy had plenty of shallow draft vessels to work around the sunken vessels, but those partially sunken vessels were additional potential staging areas for snipers. 

As an example of this, the Iraqi Motor Vessel Hillah, a dredging ship, had been sunk just south of Umm Qasr. While the hull of the vessel was resting on the bottom of the waterway, the superstructure was still above the waterline, and it represented a perfect sniper blind. They could easily stash themselves somewhere in the superstructure, then wait for an opportune time to emerge and start taking potshots. 

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Iraq’s Khawr Al Amaya Oil Platform (KAAOT) just after sunrise.

While the plan to take down the oil terminals was fairly straight forward – insert SEALs via fast surface craft and helicopter fast rope simultaneously – it was fraught with danger. The oil terminals were also perfect for active defense. They were vast man-made islands featuring a maze of pipes, heavy steel that is perfect for cover, docking facilities for massive oil tankers, austere living facilities for the workers, and a labyrinth of other compartments. With a primary mission of securing the oil terminals before they could be sabotaged, speed was of the essence. It would have been easy to bomb the platforms, but the point was to take them intact, so that was out of the question.

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A US Navy Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB) sits off a portion of the Al Basrah Oil Terminal, also known as the Mina Al Bakar Oil Terminal, in Iraq during the open phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Eventually removing the sunken vessels in the Khawr Abd Allah waterway was a follow on objective, which also precluded simply dropping bombs on the hulks in the waterway to clear them of snipers. We needed to keep those scuttled ship hulls intact in order to facilitate their future removal. This meant that we would essentially be doing a modified Visit Board Search and Seizure (VBSS) clearance operation on each ship hulk in the waterway. 

You Train Like You Fight... Until You Don't

We've all heard the sayings. Some version of, 'the more you sweat in peace the less you bleed in war' or 'train like you fight,' etc. Point being, in all our training leading up to OIF, we tried to make the scenarios as realistic as possible. One of the cardinal rules of aviation is you never fly solo over enemy territory. You always go into combat with a wingman, and as Jester told us in Top Gun, you never leave your wingman. So, in all my training scenarios, I had never prepared for the scenario I was presented with at zero hour. I was told, on the first night of the war, to go fly into Iraq without a wingman. 

Of course, I did it. 

The assault on Umm Qasr was scheduled to kick off shortly after sunset, along with the seizure of the oil platforms, the reconnaissance mission over Bubiyan Island and the Al Faw peninsula, and our little waterway clearance operation. As I walked into the command center for our final briefing, one of the senior SEAL officers pulled me aside and said:

"We have a problem. We picked up a lot more activity on Bubiyan Island and the Al Faw Peninsula than we expected and we have to divert helicopters there right now to make sure this is not a flanking attack. Between that and the oil platforms, we have too many missions and not enough helicopters. Your call. You can fly as a dash three over the Al Faw Peninsula or you can go on your own to do an armed reconnaissance up to Umm Qasr. You won't be completely alone, you will essentially be flying top cover on some of our boats going up the waterway as a clearance and reconnaissance mission. They are going with or without you. You have thirty minutes to decide."

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An HH-60H's receives some TLC at night.

I knew the book answer was to go with the other helicopters as a third wheel, but I also knew we needed to know what was going on in the waterway between Al Maghasil and Umm Qasr and the small riverine craft going up there would obviously want us flying top cover, whether we were solo or not. After checking with my copilot and aircrewmen and making sure they were okay with it, we rogered up to flying solo over Iraqi territory on the first night of the war. 

As we did our preflight, I thought we had a pretty good handle on the mission. We were essentially going to stay over the waterway the entire time, as the riverine craft moved up the channel toward Umm Qasr. At each sunken ship hulk in the waterway, they would discharge 10 to 12 SEALS and/or Navy SWCC guys and certify no snipers were present. Then we would move up the river to the next hulk, and so on, until we got to the port facility itself. The riverine craft were heavily armed with .50 caliber machine guns, 7.62mm miniguns, 40mm grenade launchers, etc.  Between that and our two door-mounted 7.62mm machine guns and the two SEAL snipers I expected to carry with us in the helicopter, I thought we had more than enough defensive firepower to conduct our mission of reconnoitering the waterway up to Umm Qasr. 

A picture of US Navy Mk V Special Operations Craft (SOC) and Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIB) carrying both US and Polish flags around the time of the battle of Umm Qasar.

Depending on my fuel burn rate, at some point, I knew I would have to tell the small boats to suspend while we flew offshore to a ship that was waiting with a "green deck" to take helos aboard and refuel. We knew that clearing the waterway and port was not going to be a one night mission, but we thought we could at least get a pretty good start on it that first night.  

At the same time, other helicopters would be supporting the assault on the oil platforms at KAAOT and ABOT, and doing the reconnaissance of the Al Faw peninsula, so I thought if I got in any real trouble, i.e. got forced or shot down, I would at least have a decent chance of someone executing a quick-snatch Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) on us. 

If you are doing the math, right about now you are observing that this adds up to a lot more than four Navy helicopters. Indeed, at the last minute, we found out that other helicopters from multiple sources – U.S. Marines, U.K. Royal Marines, U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force – had become available. They were folded into the overall operation. But for whatever reason, we still wound up flying solo with the waterway clearance mission. 

The closer we got to zero hour, the more our operations seemed unscripted and something of a free for all. 

The Rules Of Engagement Are Whatever And Your Snipers Don't Speak English

As helicopter pilots, we were particularly focused on Rules Of Engagement (ROE). Helicopters spend a lot of time escorting high-value units like aircraft carriers through constrained waterways at close range to potential enemies. Going into and out of the Persian Gulf via the Strait of Hormuz (SOH) can be nerve-wracking, especially since the Iranian Navy regularly trains on how to blockade the SOH. Every time a carrier transits the SOH, because of the constrained air and water space, the fixed-wing aircraft can't fly, which means helicopters are the first line of observation and defense. 

As a result, helicopter pilots are hardwired into knowing or at least asking exactly what the ROE are in any given situation. This is especially true when traveling from a relatively benign environment overwater in the Persian Gulf into a live-fire zone which is what we expected the area around Umm Qasr to be. So, as we got ready to fly that first mission, I asked again about ROE. The senior SEAL briefer looked at me like I was insane. "ROE? Your mission is to come back alive and make sure the small craft don't get ambushed. Your ROE is whatever you need it to be to get that outcome." 

That worked for me, and I was glad to have the clarity. 

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After sunset, the riverine craft pushed off from Al Maghasil. We gave them about an hour's head start to work their way up towards the shipwrecks blocking the channel into Umm Qasr. As we were spinning up to launch, I didn't see the two Navy SEAL snipers that were supposed to fly with us. One of the SEAL officers came up to me and said "Hey, we needed some extra help elsewhere, so we are out of bodies. Can you take a couple of the Polish snipers with you? They are good to go. Just trust them." I laughed and said, "sure, why not?" 

So, that is how I started the first night of OIF, flying a single helicopter, without a wingman, over Iraqi territory, operating under "ROE whatever" with two Polish GROM snipers in the back, neither of whom spoke English. It wasn't by the book, but it turned out to be effective, and that is all that counts. 

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Polish GROM special operations forces in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Securing Oil Platforms and Ship Hulks

Shortly after we launched, we heard that both oil terminals had been taken intact with limited opposition. I was relieved because I knew once the oil terminals were secured, the SEALS and SWCC operators and Navy helicopters could then transition to supporting our waterway clearance operation, which was going to take more than just one night. Still, for this first night, it would be just us and the two Polish GROM snipers. As we crept north, flying a racetrack pattern over the small flotilla of riverine craft below us, we could see a spectacular display of firepower to the west of Umm Qasr, but the port facilities were eerily quiet.

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As the riverine boats would approach each sunken ship, we would circle overhead. We had a Polish GROM sniper and a door machine gunner out each side of the helicopter available to provide suppressing fire, but never needed it. After about three hours of this slow, painstaking work, I let the riverine craft know I had to check off to go get gas. There were several Navy ships just south of Bubiyan Island, so it took me maybe 45 minutes total to fly out, land, get gas, and return. We did this cycle three times that night. We started flying about 2100, got gas at about 0000 and again at 0300 and 0600. We finally landed for good just after sunrise. It had been a heck of a night, with a lot of good work clearing the shipwrecks, and fortunately, we did not take any direct fire. After a quick debrief, we hit the tent to grab some sleep. 

Umm Qasr Captured, But Not Secure

The initial operations at Umm Qasr went pretty well. The U.S. and U.K. Marines defeated the forces defending Umm Qasr fairly quickly and, consistent with the rest of the campaign, soon turned north in the race to Baghdad. That's when the trouble started. 

In the first instance of what was to become the norm throughout Iraq, many potential combatants in Umm Qasr had declined to fight in the initial action, then started engaging in limited insurgent attacks once the main coalition forces moved on. This was in the far south of Iraq in majority Shia territory, so there was no allegiance to Saddam per se, but the locals clearly also did not want the United States sticking around as an occupying force. Pretty quickly it became apparent that Umm Qasr had been captured, but not secured. 

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HH-60H about to head out on a night mission.

This was still the first week of OIF, so the U.S. was way behind the power curve in establishing any kind of counterinsurgency doctrine or operations in support of it. Still, we knew we had to clear Umm Qasr of snipers and insurgents in order to get the port back up and running. In the short term, that would support the US war effort, and in the long term, support the economic and political reconstruction of Iraq.

For the next four to five days, that's what we did, working pretty much around the clock. We would fly up and down the Khawr Abd Allah, checking for any insurgent activity on the waterway or alongside it. The riverine craft continued to work on clearing shipwrecks and do initial preparation to salvage them along with sweeping the port for mines. The Polish GROM operators were working hard in the port itself, clearing out several pockets of insurgents. 

Back To The Boat

Eventually, Umm Qasr and the surrounding areas were secured, which was our signal to head back to the carrier. In all, our little ad hoc helicopter detachment had worked out of Al Maghasil for about three weeks. We supported plenty of additional SEAL operations in Iraq, some as far north as the outskirts of Baghdad, but before we could get set up for that, we needed to reconstitute back at the carrier, debrief, get the aircraft through some deferred maintenance, and more.  

Overall it was a successful operation, and to this day, the only time I have flown a single ship mission with non-English speaking snipers over enemy territory was the first night of OIF. 

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Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com