Thursday, May 9, 2019

“Thunder Runs” and the drive into downtown Baghdad

“Conventional military wisdom has long held that tanks and urban combat or a bad mix”
Not so here


The planning for the US invasion of Iraq was stormy and filled with politics. I’ll go into some of it in a later edition.

Cutting through all that, the idea was to use heavy armor and Bradley fighting vehicles, rush into Baghdad, stay away from as much contact with Iraqi forces as possible, capture the capital, and move in infantry reinforcements to hold. In essence, this invasion was to be an armored “blitzkrieg” targeted at Baghdad and the oilfields for the purpose of deposing Saddam.

Unlike traditional operations, armor would go into the cities. 

The invasion was very complicated. It required interoperability, networking, wide information sharing, and integration among all the services as a means to obtain maximum force integration.

Estimates varied about how long it would take to get into Baghdad from the line of departure in Kuwait. Projections were from three weeks to less than 100 days or more.

The concerns were centered on logistics: getting sustainment supplies to keep up with the rapidly moving combat forces, and fuel, where it would be placed and when. It is fascinating to study how all this was done.

It is hard to say exactly when the invasion began. The USAF had been attacking Iraqi targets since the first war in 1991. These attacks were focused on containment. CIA Special Activities Division (SAD) Paramilitary forces entered Iraq in July 2002 to prepare for the later arrival of US military forces. 

The invasion known as "Operation Iraqi Freedom" was to start on March 21, 2003. However the CIA said on March 19 it knew where Saddam was located. As a result, President G.W. Bush ordered the invasion to begin on March 19.

Such a date change might not seem like a big thing. But is was a big thing for General Tommy Franks, USA, the force commander. His command and control system had to notify all the forces. This was crucial to maintain the synchronization of force movements. The forces were spread out and were preparing themselves for war to begin on March 21. Now they had to hurry up and get into position for a March 19 invasion.

All of that aside, the military invasion of Iraq began at
5:34 a.m. Baghdad time on March 20, 2003 which was 9:34 pm, March 19 EST.

The ground forces moved off the line of departure in Kuwait --- they had a long way to go, over 300 miles. There was cause to believe Saddam was mainly interested in defending Baghdad, putting his less accomplished forces south of the city.

The actions of the grounds forces throughout the march from Kuwait to Baghdad were absolutely remarkable. Commander’s at all levels had to make many tough decisions, and take many risks. As has so often happened, the troops on the ground with support from the air and a logistics effort that ran behind them as fast as it could got the job done. Valor was the word of the day, every day.

These forces surrounded Baghdad in barely two weeks time.

Once Baghdad was surrounded, the plan called for “Thunder Runs” into the city. A column of armored vehicles were to speed into the city on reconnaissance to assess how well defended the city was. They were then to go to Baghdad International Airport, stay a few hours to rest and get reorganized, and then thunder back to their starting point outside the city. The 3rd Infantry Division (ID) was tasked with two Thunder Runs.

The 2 Bde Spartans of the 3 ID, Colonel David Perkins (left) in command, got the nod. Perkins decided to use his 1st Battalion 64th Armor (1/64 Armor) “Desert Rogues,” Lt. Colonel Eric “Rick” Schwartz (right) in command. Perkins went along.

On April 5, 2003,  Alpha Company, 1/64 Armor  (A/1-64 Armor) “Wild Bunch” launched off from Objective Saints, its location outside the city, followed by C/1-64 “Cyclones.” The mission was to get to Objective Lions, the Baghdad International Airport held by the 1 Bde 3 ID “Raiders.”

The idea was to demonstrate a show of force and freedom of action. A total of 24 Abrams tanks and 12 Bradleys were used. The one-way trip was about 12 miles. The force would have to pass through three major intersections. They were called Objectives Curley, Larry and Moe named after the "Three Stooges," an American vaudeville and comedy team active from 1922 until 1970. Objective Larry was expected to be the toughest.

There was some fighting, but on balance there was very little opposition.  The force made it to the airport suffering one KIA, several WIA, and at least one tank disabled. The force returned to Objective Saints. The job was completed in less than a day.

The next Thunder Run was scheduled for April 7, 2003, just two days after the first.
Having observed the situation and ease with which his force conducted the first run, Col. Perkins developed a yearning to go straight into downtown Baghdad instead of to Objective Lions, the airport. He did not like the idea of taking territory and then leaving it.

Lt. General William Wallace, the V Corps commander at the time, had a different perspective.

His plan was to rush to the airport with an armored force, remain at the airport for a few hours to prepare for the return, and then return. He intended to run raids in and out of the city from his five forward operating bases (FOBs) around the city. Wallace was firm with this plan.

The second run would have a larger force, two battalions of the 64th Armor Regiment: the 1/64 commanded again by Lt. Colonel Schwartz, and the 4-64, commanded by Lt. Colonel Phillip DeCamp. The 3-15 Infantry, Lt. Colonel Stephen Twitty in command, would follow and secure the supply route. Lt. Colonel Kenneth Gnatt commanded the 1/41 Field Artillery (FA). His FA forces would synchronize with the armor force movements and hit main highway overpasses just before the armor approached. The artillery would be high explosive air bursts designed to kill troops but leave the bridges and highways in tact.

Armored vehicles were to hold each of the three major intersections, wait for 3-15 infantry forces, and then move toward the airport.

Perkins’ force reached the second major intersection, Objective Larry, with little to no resistance.

Then Col. Perkins acted on his own. For the first run on April 5, the force turned to the west to the airport (red arrow). For the second run on April 7, Perkins was to do the same. Instead, Perkins told his armor forces to hang a right turn to the east and go into the city (blue arrow).

Perkins' force did that and took the presidential palace with barely a scratch. The arrival of this American force in Baghdad not only surprised General Wallace a bit, but it greatly surprised the Iraqis. They were not prepared. Their command and control system was unable to respond quickly enough to make a difference.

This put General Wallace in a pickle. Should the force stay or get out?

In an interview with PBS, Wallace said this about the second Thunder Run:

“(Major General Blount - shown here) came back to me and said, ‘Col. Perkins would like to conduct another Thunder Run, and he would like to go into downtown Baghdad…I suggested (to Blount) that he (take) a less aggressive tactic, that we go into the city again, but only as far as the second intersection (Objective Larry), which is the main intersection that, if you turn to the west you go to the Baghdad International Airport; if you turn to the east, you head down to the new presidential palace, downtown.

“My concern was that any formation that got into Baghdad, we were going to (have to) be able to supply them with ammunition, we were going to have to be able to supply them with fuel, and we were going to have to be able to get any casualties out because I knew we were not going to be able to do it by air.”

The generals and Col. Perkins discussed the issues for most of the day. Blount and Perkins said they should stay. Both said they could take care of the problems cited by General Wallace. General Wallace then agreed.

As a result, by April 7 US forces were in downtown Baghdad to stay. The regime had collapsed, everyone went home or into hiding. Within hours of seizing the palace and with television coverage of this spreading through Iraq, US forces ordered Iraqi forces within Baghdad to surrender, or the city would face a full-scale assault.

John Pike of called these runs a “coup d’etat.” The regime was in effect decapitated. There was no need for house to house fighting. The Iraqi government simply vanished. To everyone’s surprise there was no one to run the city. Buford would have to come up with a remedy. 

Wallace did have to confront the question of whether Perkins disobeyed orders. In this same interview, Wallace said:

“Now I don’t think he was disobeying orders; I think he was taking advantage of a situation that was presented to him on the battlefield, which is what we teach our young leaders to do.”

Lieutenant General Wallace was promoted to four stars and took command of the Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), retiring in 2008.

Colonel Perkins rose to the rank of four stars and also commanded TRADOC, after which he retired in 2018.

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