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03-10-08, 09:32 AM
Guitar Heroes
Michael Yon

Mosul, Iraq
10 March 2008

Men crept in darkness to plant a bomb. They moved in an area where last year I was helping to collect fallen American soldiers from the battlefield.

Terrorists. The ones who murder children in front of their parents. The ones who take drugs and rape women and boys. The ones who blow up schools. The ones who have been forcibly evicted from places like Anbar Province, Baghdad and Baqubah by American and Iraqi forces. Terrorists are here now in Mosul. They call themselves al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). AQI cannot win without Baghdad, and cannot survive without Mosul. The Battle for Mosul is evolving into AQI’s last great stand.

And there were the men planting the bomb. It is unknown if the men with the explosives were al Qaeda, but they were planting a bomb and that was enough. Many terrorists murder only for money. Like hit men. They might have nothing against the victim. It’s just business. Although understanding enemy motivations is key to winning a war, out on the battlefield, such considerations can become secondary, as divining the motives of a would-be killer is less important than stopping him.

The bombers were being watched. Invisible to them, prowling far overhead, was a Predator.

The Predator is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) whose eye sees through the darkness. The night sky is the jungle where it hides. The Predator strikes with more suddenness and force than any tiger. I often watch the live feed streaming down into the Tactical Operations Centers (TOC) around Iraq, while crosshairs track the enemy, and the screen lists data such as altitude, azimuth, ground speed, and the precise grid coordinates of the target. The Predator carries a deadly Hellfire missile, but also has other weapons, like the crosshairs on its eye, which links down to soldiers watching the video and data feed. The soldiers have radios to other soldiers with massive arrays of weapons. With that combination, every weapon the US arsenal can be brought into action. Unarmed spy planes, like the Shadow, often allow enemies to escape—the difference between success and failure is often measured in seconds. The Predator can launch an attack with its Hellfire, but the most devastating attacks are usually the result of closely-coordinated teamwork between soldiers on the ground and in the air, using information provided by the Predator above. Combat at this level is an elegant dance under a burning roof.

The Predator peered down on the terrorists planting the bomb. There were too many targets for one Hellfire missile, and it’s better to conserve the weapon when possible, since the Predator must fly far to reload.

A group of four Kiowa Warrior pilots were only a few minutes away from the enemy, but their helicopters were on the ground and the engines were cold, while the pilots were waiting in a building near the runway, playing Guitar Hero to pass the time.

A soldier interrupted the Guitar Hero session, telling the pilots to get in the air. Orders would come over the radio. The pilots abandoned Guitar Hero and raced out the door into the cold night to their OH-58D Kiowa Warriors, economy-sized helicopters that would make a Ford Pinto seem spacious. The pilots crammed two each into the two helicopters, strapping in, cranking engines, while radio chatter had already started. The pilots learned that the Predator had identified a target, which it would laser-designate for a Hellfire shot from a Kiowa.

Minutes after the first alert, rotors were chopping the cold air, the instrument readings looked good. The pilots changed the pitch of their rotors to bite the air and lifted slightly off the ground, backing out of their parking spaces like cars. After backing out, they stopped in a hover, and began to move forward, pulling away from the other helicopters. The Kiowa Warriors lifted into the sky over the runway, heading south, then east toward the lights of the city of Mosul only a minute away. They didn’t get far.

The pilots were about a half mile away from their parking spaces when the Predator relayed coordinates and the laser code to pilot CW3 Tom Boise, an ex-Special Forces soldier with previous experience in Iraq who seems to know a lot more about the war than most people, and the left-seater was Chief Warrant Officer 2 Carlos Lopez who, when I first met him, was wearing a uniform that said he is an Iraqi interpreter, which Lopez, with a slight afro, got made in order to play practical jokes on new soldiers who are set to arrive. Lopez introduced himself to me as an Iraqi interpreter. First I thought, “Why does a Kiowa unit need an interpreter?” And then, “This guy doesn’t look like any Iraqi I have seen.” Lopez must have seen the strange look on my face because he cracked up laughing. The pilots, when they aren’t killing terrorists, apparently are great practical jokers. Captain Brad Warr, an excellent medical officer I got to know in 2005, told me how the pilots stole the adult-tricycle he rides around base. What Brad failed to explain was how he had first stolen the pilots’ van, and then painted it pink and put hearts all over it. They might not seem like killers. . . .

Tom Boise was piloting and Carlos Lopez was in the left seat for this attack.

The target was about three miles away.

Lopez and Boise could not see the enemy, but the Predator could, and so they set up for a “remote” Hellfire shot, meaning they would fire the weapon “blind” in the direction of the target, and the missile would “lock” onto the laser reflection as it approached.

Besides the Hellfires, each of the two Kiowas carried seven rockets, for a total between the two Kiowas of fourteen rockets. Of the seven rockets on each Kiowa, three were 2.75” flechette rockets, and the other four were HE (high explosive). Flechettes are steel nails with little fins. Darts. Each dart weighs 60 grains, and there are a total of 1,179 darts per rocket. The flechettes sound plenty lethal, and they are, when they work. Yet something has been wrong with the flechette rockets; they have not been working well in Iraq. The flechettes launch but do not disperse into a pattern, making it difficult the hit targets. Each left-seater also had an M-4 rifle and they frequently lean out and shoot at bad guys.

Lopez programmed in the Predator’s laser code while Boise pointed the nose of his Kiowa Warrior in the direction of the target. With the laser code programmed into the Hellfire computer, the Predator lazed the target.

Bow hunters know that super-fast bucks can “jump” the bow. Sound travels about a thousand feet-per-second faster than hunting arrows, so a buck that’s a hundred feet away can get maybe 1/10th of a second head start on the arrow, but his reflexes must be instant. Slow motion video shows bucks can jump the bow at the sound of arrow’s release and just avoid getting hit. Combat footage shows that bomb-planting terrorists can similarly avoid Hellfire missiles. The launch noise of a Hellfire is loud and distinct. If the enemy is truly on his game, the split second he hears the Hellfire or sees the launch flash, he can run like a deer for cover. With a lot of luck, a very quick enemy—who absolutely does not hesitate—can just barely get away. Sometimes.

So pilots try to take the remote shot from down low, where the enemy cannot see the flash.

The Predator was lazing the target, invisibly marking the group of six men. Boise launched the Hellfire…

Shaking the little helicopter, the missile-motor temporarily blinded the night vision goggles, filling the cockpit with light. From up close, the launch appeared white, but from a distance the launch was orange and illuminated the Kiowa and the ground below as the Hellfire sparked away.

The missile climbed to about eight hundred feet, its cold eye scanning the ground ahead for the laser reflection. There it was. The eye acquired laser photons, the computer verified the code, adjusted flight controls, and pointed the warhead at the target. The Predator was striking the gavel for the Hellfire to deliver justice, but the terrorists apparently realized the verdict a fraction of a second too late. The detonation appeared silently on the Predator thermal, while seconds later the sounds of the explosion rumbled over the base. The remains of the terrorists glowed hot on the infrared imagery.

But there were “squirters” trying to get away. The Predator, whose pilot was back in America flying the UAV remotely, saw the squirters, and Boise pushed into the attack, swooping down low into the target area, launching three 2.75” flechette rockets and four HE rockets, which are plenty loud and must have been impressive to the terrorists, but not impressive enough because Boise and Lopez could see one still trying to run away in the dark. Boise pulled up close and from about 80 feet up was doing a tight counter-clockwise circle around the terrorist while shining him with the “Pink Light,” a infrared light invisible to the naked eye but very bright to the night optics. Someone else from up higher also had an IR light on the bad guy, but neither Boise nor Lopez knew who was shining the other light from above. Maybe it was the laser from the Predator, they did not know. I thought more likely that the bad guy was al Qaeda, and God was lazing him for Lopez, who flipped his M-4 from SAFE to BURST, and started shooting the terrorist that God was lazing. Thirty rounds later, Lopez had not struck flesh, though the bad guy must have realized that things were not going well. It was dark for the terrorist as the little helicopter orbited him and Lopez rained bullets down, but the terrorist was still bathed in bright IR light when Lopez jacked in another magazine and finally shot the guy to death. Boise turned the Kiowa back to the FARP, reloaded quickly, and ended up taking another Hellfire shot, and the Predator also had fired a Hellfire.

Total time from playing Guitar Hero to getting airborne and delivering justice was an astounding twelve minutes. Apparently at least five terrorists were killed, while at least one escaped, though he probably needs new eardrums and might ask for a raise before trying that again.

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03-10-08, 09:36 AM
March 10, 2008
In the Villages of Al Anbar

ANBAR PROVINCE, IRAQ – The Iraqi town of Al Farris looks like a model Soviet city up close and a rounded square from the sky. Saddam Hussein built it to house workers in the now-defunct weapons factory to the east, and they live in neighborhoods called City 1, City 2, City 3, City 4, and City 5. “Socialist living at its finest,” Sergeant Edward Guerrero said as we rolled through the gates in a Humvee. The place made me think of Libya, where I have been, and North Korea, where I have not.

Al Farris was part of Saddam’s attempt to launch Iraq into the sci-fi future before he ruined his country with four wars, two genocides, and an international sanctions regime. It was a failure. Like all utopian cities, Al Farris is dreary. Every apartment building is nearly identical. There are few stores, restaurants, or other businesses at street level. There certainly is no traditional Arabic souk. If it weren’t for the vaguely Arabesque windows, little would distinguish it from any other drab worker’s paradise.

“It’s like a gulag city,” one Military Police officer said. The grace note, if I could call it that, is the encircling coil or razor wire at the city limits which keeps insurgents from coming in and blowing up buildings and people. Billowing plastic bags have been snagged along the length of the wire.

Sergeant Guerrero had a private meeting scheduled with the local Iraqi Police chief, so I climbed a ladder to the roof where I could get a better view.

An Iraqi Police officer pointed out an American military outpost on top of the water tower. His job entailed sitting in silence in a rooftop bunker with a machine gun in case the station is attacked. I assumed the Americans on the water tower overwatched the city with sniper rifles. I didn't ask, but if they are it would not be a secret.

Back in Fallujah, Captain Steve Eastin explained why.

“We can’t put up a sniper’s nest without everyone knowing,” he said. “So we’ve decided to use that knowledge to our advantage. It works for us that insurgents know they could be shot by a sniper at any time.”

I climbed back down the ladder into the police station and was struck by the number of scuff marks on the walls. How do they get there? Clean white paint now makes up less than half the walls’ surface area, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the Iraqis are doing to make them look like this.

“Mister! Mister!”

An Iraqi Police officer behind a desk saw my camera and beckoned me over. He wanted me to take his photograph. He summoned more Iraqis to stand next to him and pose with suddenly serious expressions on their faces. Just before I clicked the shutter, the officer picked up the phone and placed the receiver next to his ear, as if it would make him look more important.

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