Apache Attack near Karbala

I (www.jamesphillipslaw.com) was on the Assault Command Post (ACP) with the 101st Airborne Division during the ground offensive during Operation Iraqi Freedom. For a JAG Officer, I couldn’t imagine a better position.  I was a relatively junior officer, a first term captain, and I had landed a gig where I was doing what almost every JAG Officer dreams about.  I was with the 101st, calling the legality of fires in combat and working in the Command Post with MG Petraeus.

The 101st, commanded by MG Petraeus at the time, had two command posts.  The more mobile post was the ACP which moved quickly from one position to another.  The ACP was designed to be a tactical command post that was minimally staffed, but able to command the 101st for a day or two, while the Main CP set up.  The less mobile main command post followed closely behind, but was harder to set up and took a longer time to position. So, MG Petraeus was with us for most of the actual fighting.

The ACP had one staff member for each section of the command.  S-1, S-2, fire team, etc…, were all represent by a relatively junior officer in the ACP. The artillery officer that briefed the fire missions in the ACP was appropriately name Maj. Gunn.  He was a barrel chested Hispanic man, who took some time to warm up to me initially.  Typical of any artillery officer, he couldn’t understand how a JAG a place in a combat command post.  I had to agree with him and eventually, he and I became friends. Over time, I became “Harm” named after the character on the TV show JAG.

After the first ten days of the war, we had convoyed up into Southern Iraq.  The 101st was following closely behind 3rd ID and we had set up our ACP  somewhere outside of the city of Karbala. 

Now, before we left Kuwait, my mom had sent me a care package and in that package was chocolate gold.  I had approximately two hundred chocolate covered coffee beans.  Since we were not allowed the normal stimulants, I was forced to use the magic beans to keep me awake, and that they did.  I kept them safely hidden away during our assault on Iraq, because I knew that at some point I would have to stay awake for a very long period of time.

I started a 48 hour shift in the ACP the day before the 101st was going to do a helicopter assault on Karbala.  The day before, an attack helicopter assault had taken place, and during the assault of their 32 helicopters, 29 had come back filled with holes.  I believe two of the helicopters were actually shot down and the others were inoperable after the attack.

The Apaches had been all hit by small arms ground fire.  The issue was that during the First Gulf  War, Saddam Hussein had learned a little trick.  When our helicopters were passing over, if everyone on the ground fired their weapons into the air, they could fill the sky with lead.  Shear volume of bullets was bound to cause damage to many of our Apaches.  This is what had happened to the first air assault.

The problem was that the reading of our Rules of Engagement (ROE) passed down from the all knowing CENTCOM command seemed to suggest that the only way we could fire on civilians or areas with civilian on the ground was in self-defense.  Now, I did not then or now believe that that was the only analysis that could be used.  The helicopter pilots during their tactical briefing prior to flying into Karbala believed that they could not fire their HELLFIRE missiles because it was a disproportionate response to the small arms fire from the ground.  I did not agree with this interpretation of the ROE.

When we planned our air assault mission, I was asked by MAJ Gunn what was the legality of a SEAD fire mission.  The purpose of a seed fire mission is to create a firing corridor for the Apache helicopters.  The essential idea is that artillery and air strikes are laid down just a couple of minutes prior to the air attack.  The blast from the artillery and the air strikes keeps all enemy combatants in their holes and heads down so the helicopters can pass overhead.  MAJ Gunn was unsure of the legality of a SEAD fire mission but he felt it was essential to the ultimate success of the mission.

I agreed that it was both necessary and legal.  Part of this analysis was helped by the fact that by the time I had to make the call, I had been eating chocolate covered coffees beans, one after another for over two hours.  I was wired. But for me, the basic idea was that for a helicopter, laying down SEAD fire was a measure of self defense.  If a helicopter, which is a fairly vulnerable weapon platform is moving to contact with the enemy, there is a necessity to getting it safely to position.  If it is known that the enemy will fire prior to them getting into position, there is an argument that a SEAD mission is a mission of self-defense.  There is also another argument and that is that SEAD missions are not designed to kill enemy combatants or civilians, although this may be collateral damage and had to be balanced with the need for the mission, the SEAD fire itself is only designed, at least for this particular mission, to keep the enemy combatants from being able to fire upward.  In the ROE, this was neither self-defense nor an anticipatory attack and had fallen into a loophole in the ROE analysis.  Now, this may have been fixed later, but at that time, the JAG lawyers had not resolved the problem.

As the mission started, I watched as each helicopter was in position and flew toward Karbala.  The SEAD mission blasted holes in the corridor and the helicopter pilots reported back that they were not receiving any ground fire.  All of our helicopters came back that night.  We lost no pilots, no aircraft and there were only a few bullet holes to fix.  As a JAG, I knew that the call I made was correct and essential.

I just didn’t sleep for the next week.

3 thoughts on “Apache Attack near Karbala

  1. SEAD = Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses

    I wish there was a better legal analysis of the SEAD under the Rules of Engagement. Is anticipatory self-defense permissible under the ROE? Where is the positive ID? Discrimination?

    1. You’re right, SEAD. I wrote this late last night and was trying to tell a story. I have probably gotten hazy over the years and need to be more specific.

      I guess I have failed in some ways to truly deal with the real legal issues. Anticipatory self-defense was absolutely an issue, but it ultimately is probably not the correct answer. The problem with anticipatory self defense is that it is probably not self-defense at all. Is moving into known enemy contact self-defense at all? During this period of the war, these issues had not been addressed at all and those JAGs (at all levels of command) around me had several different analysis of the problem. They were also quite reluctant to make a call and that was required at the time. Another issue is whether or not SEAD fire can be used against men on the ground firing AK 47s into the air. Is that enemy air defense?

      But, SEAD fire was not meant to be a “killing” attack and probably was not subject to Positive ID and Discrimination issues. The collateral damage, and what that damage was going to be, was balanced against the need to suppress enemy fire. Under the ROE at the time, SEAD fire was not properly addressed and either it was not subject to ROE under a standard analysis or it needed to be viewed as self-defense. Both answers were not adequate.

      My analysis under a self-defense theory at the time was that the area that we needed suppression of enemy fire. The failure of the previous mission constituted a known threat. This was a new and aggressive tactic for enemy air defenses and was also quite effective. Positive ID was acquired at the time that the enemy fire was located, but I did not then or now believe that SEAD fires require positive ID on an individual basis. The ID results from known enemy combatants in the area that will fire on our helicopters. Discrimination is used in the fact that it is the minimum force necessary to force the send the enemy underground.

      I will rewrite my blog, because I see the 1 am version was not adequate. Thank you for the great comment. Jamie

  2. Thanks for the response.

    I have wondered about ROE issues such as SEAD and even MOUT operations (throwing in grenades before the assaulting force enters the room — obviously no PID in those instances).

    Couple random comments:
    -Wesley Clark complains in his autobiography that “the lawyers” wouldn’t allow SEAD missions when NATO was planning the Apache deep-strike during the Kosovo war.

    -During WWII (obviously different ROE, but it’s instructive about the way we used to fight) the first thing done by American forces on approaching the next village (whether French, Belgian, Luxembourger, or German) was take out the church steeple. Those steeples made great OPs for calling in fire or for snipers.

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