Apache Gunships Draw First Blood in the Fight for Mosul
Coalition airpower gets closer to the action
by RODRIGO UGARTE
U.S. Army Apache helicopters unleashed their might on Islamic State positions in northern Iraq on June 12. The gunships assisted Iraqi troops working to isolate and retake the city of Mosul, which has been under the terrorist group’s control since June 2014.
In the attack, two AH-64 Apaches belonging to the U.S. Army 1st Battalion, 10th Aviation Regiment attacked and destroyed a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device near Qayyarah, a Pentagon spokesperson told War Is Boring.
A small city some 50 south of Mosul along the Tigris River, Qayyarah lies at the heart of Iraq’s latest offensive to dislodge the Islamic State.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced the strike on Monday, June 13, to reporters in Brussels. “The commanders have used the Apache capability that we positioned there and that [President Barack Obama] authorized them to use some months ago when they found an opportunity when that might make a difference,” Carter said.
Apaches are heavily-armed helicopters capable of firing rockets, Hellfire missiles and explosive 30-millimeter cannon shells. The gunships can brush away the Islamic State’s speedy “technicals” and armored vehicle-borne bombs, or VBIEDs.
Due to operational security reasons, the Pentagon would not provide more information on the strike, explaining it was part of a combined arms operation and “not on a high value target” in support of operations around Mosul.
The Islamic State extensively deploys VBIEDs throughout Syria and Iraq as one of its key weapons. These vehicles, layered with armor and driven by suicide bombers, are often the spearhead of Islamic State attacks. One of the group’s common tactics is to ram the vehicles into Iraqi or Kurdish positions, and then blow them up.
These vehicles often pack as much explosive power as the truck bomb Timothy McVeigh used to destroy the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. The Islamic State will use multiple bombs of that size in a single attack. After breaching the defenses, ground troops storm the target and overrun the shocked survivors.
The Islamic State and other terrorist groups also use VBIEDs to target civilians, busy markets and public buildings.
Qayyarah sits on the frontline. Iraqi troops are currently battling the Islamic State on the eastern banks of the Tigris River as part of a larger offensive to liberate Mosul. Haidar Sumeri, using the Twitter handle @IraqiSecurity, reported heavy fighting between Qayyarah and Makhmur, farther east.
Footage from the ongoing battle between #Iraq's army and Da'ish in the Makhmur-Qayyarah frontline, south of #Mosul.pic.twitter.com/LMMHcaVsO7
The taking of Qayyarah could prove vital, bisecting the Islamic State and isolating its forces around Fallujah to the south.
An airfield, called FOB Endurance during Operation Iraqi Freedom, is located near the city, which could prove invaluable in the offensive. With runways long enough for MiG fighter jets to take off, ground-attack planes such as Iraq’s Su-25s and America’s A-10 Warthogs could take off on short notice and cover the Iraqi advance.
To support the offensive, American and coalition aircraft carried out 19 airstrikes on Islamic State positions. Six strikes hit Mosul and seven hit Qayyarah. The Qayyarah strikes targeted VBIED-making facilities, three bridges, two artillery positions, seven assembly areas and various vehicles, among them the one destroyed by the Apache.
“This is the first time that it’s been called into action, and effectively,” Carter told reporters.
“I think [the Apache] use was timely this time, or said differently, why the Iraqi and U.S. commanders decided to use it was because it — it could be effective in helping those forces that are positioning themselves for the two-forked envelopment of Mosul,” he said.
“That’s what it was used for, to help them along their way.”
The Apaches follow the same vetting process as other coalition aircraft before strikes, the Pentagon spokesperson explained. However, he would not divulge who requested it. The number of Iraqi troops converging in the area and the reported fighting near Qayyarah suggests it was Iraqi troops or American advisers attached to their units.
“Our targeteers coordinate the best weapons system to use on a target based off the description of the target, location to friendly forces and civilians, and location of the target,” an Operation Inherent Resolve spokesperson told War Is Boring via email. “As with all coalition strikes, Apache operations are coordinated with and in support of the government of Iraq.”
Since the war with the Islamic State began in 2014, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq has risen to around 5,500. Most of these — around 3,870 — advise and assist Iraqi forces. The remainder are logistical support and Special Forces operatives.
Apaches also returned to Iraq in 2014. The last deployment of U.S. troops announced publicly happened in April, adding 217 troops. Along with those troops, eight more Apache helicopters entered the fray.
“Their ability to respond so quickly and so dynamically to the evolving tactical situation, that’s the general value of an attack helicopter in a situation like this,” Carter said in April.
U.S. military advisers started joining Iraqi troops at the brigade and battalion levels back in April to provide faster and more flexible support in preparation for the Mosul offensive. Three American troops have been killed in action in Iraq since the start of Operation Inherent Resolve.
Apache crews face similar dangers. The gunship’s slower speed and low altitude provides troops with vital and precise support, better than most coalition jets … at a price. Those same characteristics make it easier prey for anti-aircraft cannons or machine guns. But the bigger threat is from shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.
In October 2014, the New York Times explained how the Islamic State instructs its fighters to fire these portable missiles at low-flying helicopters. Under the heading “How to Shoot Down an Apache,” the terrorist group provided specifications on the Apache and instructions on how to engage it.
The online guide recommended shooting from stable high ground and having a spotter as well as a sniper, according to excerpts of the guide shared by journalist C.J. Chivers. The sniper’s job is to shoot any of the two-man crew who survived.
“It is preferred to launch the missile in conjunction with the time the helicopter fires its missile on a friendly target, so the pilot and shooter will be busy following the target,” the guide added.
The last reported case of the Islamic State using shoulder-fired missiles happened in 2014 when an Iraqi Mi-35M attack helicopter was shot down. The Pentagon has not said when Apaches will be called on again, but the threat lingers.