American Artillery is Pounding Islamic State in Iraq and Syria
U.S. troops are prepping the battlefield around Mosul
by KEVIN KNODELL
It was a chilly and damp autumn day on Nov. 9, 2015, as members of the 5th Battalion, 5th Air Defense Artillery’s Bravo Battery — the “Dragon Slayers” — stood in formation before their families at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State.
“The Dragon Slayers are going to one of the most complex and volatile regions on Earth,” Col. Joseph McCallion told the soldiers and their families. “Iraq.”
When Islamic State swept into Iraq in the summer of 2014, militant fighters seized a great deal of equipment from the Iraqi army garrison in Mosul. Between equipment seized from Syrian and Iraqi troops, the group had amassed a large arsenal.
As an air-defense-artillery unit, the Dragon Slayers specialize in counter-rocket, counter-artillery and counter-mortar operations. Their job is to help keep friendly bases and units safe from enemy strikes — something Bravo Battery had been doing in Afghanistan just a year prior.
Much of the news on the America war effort in Iraq and Syria has centered on Special Operations Forces and air strikes. But conventional artillery troops on the ground — providing indirect fire support to Iraqi forces and protecting coalition installations — have also played a huge role in the slow-boiling war against Islamic State.
Islamic State’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, made extensive use of mortars and rockets for hit-and-run guerilla attacks on coalition and Iraqi forces and civilians. But that group never had the firepower that Islamic State boasts.
Islamic State seized sophisticated weaponry from Iraqi troops, including American-made artillery pieces and targeting systems. Militant fighters were quick to turn the equipment against their enemies, particularly in their bloody offensive that punched through Kurdish lines in 2014, leading to the massacre of the Yazidis in the town of Sinjar.
The terror group’s attempted eradication of the Yazidis finally prompted the United States to launch air strikes and take an active role in fighting the militants. Not long after, American advisers surged into the country to train Iraqi and Kurdish troops. U.S. commandos began joining native forces on secretive raids.
The extent of American artillery troops’ role in the fighting became more apparent in March when militants killed U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin in an attack on a firebase near Makmour that was manned entirely by American personnel. Cardin was the second U.S. combat fatality in the war against ISIS.
It was a surprise for some to learn of the death of a member of a conventional unit so close to ISIS lines. The only other American combat deaths in the current fight have been members of elite commando units. It further complicated the White House’s “no-boots-on-the-ground” narrative.
While special operations troops, drones and warplanes have dominated the conversation about the war, artillery units on the ground have been an important part of the anti-ISIS coalition’s march toward the militant stronghold of Mosul.
Iraqi and Kurdish forces have artillery units of their own, but additional American firepower only further tips the scales on the ground. Field artillery can respond much faster than warplanes or drones can do.
The same month as Cardin’s death, American field artillery struck targets in Syria, officially for the first time. The strike was in support of a U.S.-backed rebel offensive against ISIS positions.
U.S. troops based in Jordan deployed the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, better known as HIMARS — a truck-mounted guided-missile system that can hit targets up to 185 miles away.
A month later, U.S. forces set up HIMARS in Turkey, as well, for strikes across the border into Syria. However, Washington’s deteriorating relations with the regime of controversial Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could compel the Pentagon to redeploy these forces.
The war rages on. Iraqi and Kurdish troops, as well as Iranian-backed Shia militias, are preparing to attack Mosul. The battle could be a long and grueling one.
American troops have already taken up positions around the city to provide logistical support for the Iraqi and Kurdish fighters as they prepare their assault. Special operations and air assets are expected to play a key role in the battle. Artillery likely will, as well.