Watch U.S. Commando Choppers Make a Pit Stop in Northern Iraq
Video from Q-West shows elite troops on the move
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On Oct. 21, 2016, U.S. Air Force engineers finished three weeks of repairs and reopened Qayyarah Airfield West — aka Q-West — in Northern Iraq. On Nov. 18, 2016, the Pentagon released video showing commando choppers making a pit stop at the airstrip south of Mosul.
Shot earlier in November 2016, the clip is one of a collection that ostensibly focuses on Air Force troops guarding the base from Islamic State terrorists. Then, halfway through the grainy, nighttime footage, two U.S. Army MH-47 Chinook transport helicopters arrive and park.
“Airmen marshal in two MH-47 Chinooks at Qayyarah West,” is all the official caption has to say about that particular part of the video.
But the video does offer both a visual confirmation that elite troops are still very active in Iraq and some clues about their missions.
From the very beginning of the Pentagon’s campaign to defeat Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, special operators have been front and center. Unique aircraft followed them to support the operations.
In November 2014, another official video emerged of smaller Army MH-60 commando choppers flying near Baghdad. In March 2016, a secretive American spy plane came down in a field in Iraqi Kurdistan after both engines broke down.
By most accounts, the specialized troops’ activities in Iraq have been two-fold. The commandos work with their Iraqi and Kurdish counterparts — from training to calling in air strikes — and launch raids on specific targets.
On Oct. 22, 2015, Islamic State terrorists killed Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler — a Green Beret from the Army’s highly secretive Delta Force — during one such mission. The Pentagon has repeatedly tried to downplay how dangerous the conflict is for both regular and elite forces.
Less than two months later, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced plans to expand these commando raids. In addition, the missions would extend into Syria.
“These special operators will over time be able to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture ISIL leaders,” Carter told U.S. legislators, using a common acronym for Islamic State, on Dec. 1, 2015. “This force will also be in a position to conduct unilateral operations into Syria.”
When Iraqi and Kurdish forces kicked off a major offensive to uproot the extremists from their de facto Iraqi capital in Mosul on Oct. 17, 2016, U.S. commandos were there to help. Photographs quickly appeared on social media of distinctly American troops traveling with Iraqi and Kurdish elite forces.
Then, Oct. 25, 2016, Carter noted that the top-secret Joint Special Operations Command was hard at work across the region hunting down Islamic State leaders. The Pentagon rarely talks publicly about this group and their operations.
“We have already achieved very significant results both in reducing the flow of foreign fighters and removing ISIL leaders from the battlefield,” Carter boasted at a press conference with French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
With all this in mind, it’s no surprise that the MH-47s are flying in and out of Q-West. Much bigger than the MH-60s, the Chinooks would give commandos the ability to move larger units and conduct more significant raids throughout both Iraq and Syria.
Army special operations pilots have flown unique versions of the CH-47 Chinook since the 1980s. In 2004, Boeing debuted the latest version, the MH-47G. The G model features state-of-the-art gear, including terrain-following radars and night vision cameras. Fast-firing miniguns, decoy flares and other equipment protect the chopper from enemy troops.
MH-47s can carry more than 40 commandos or thousands of pounds of cargo. In the past, the Chinook’s size has made it perfect for bringing in extra troops or rescuing troops in danger.
According to reports, after a super-secret stealth MH-60 crashed during the raid that killed Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in May 2011, an MH-47 arrived to pick up the stranded crew and commandos. Three months later, Afghan insurgents shot down an regular CH-47D — from a unique Colorado Army National Guard unit that trains for commando missions — carrying Navy SEAL reinforcements in Afghanistan’s Wardack Province.
Depending on the situation, an MH-47 can fly more than 600 miles without refueling. If necessary, these special Chinooks can refuel in midair.
When flying from Q-West, this range puts the commando transports well within range of Mosul and the Syrian border. Raqqa, Islamic State’s main stronghold capital in neighboring Syria, is less than 300 miles west of the base.
So, while we don’t know the details of the November 2016 mission, it is entirely possible the Chinooks were in position to support a raid or other operation. On Nov. 22, 2016, the Pentagon announced American aircraft had killed Abu Afghan Al Masri, a senior Al Qaeda leader in Syria.
American commandos routinely pick over the aftermath of targeted strikes for important intelligence and new leads. The MH-47s could have ferried troops back and forth from one of these sites.
Similarly, the choppers could have been ferrying supplies or equipment to or from a temporary outpost nearby. Elite troops regularly work far from established bases for long periods to keep up with their local partners and their targets.
Or the flight could have been something else entirely. The Pentagon is tight-lipped about just what its special operators are doing in the region on a day-to-day basis.
But it is clear that larger number of commandos or their gear is moving around Northern Iraq thanks in no small part to the Army’s capable MH-47s.