July 18, 2024
As most folks are aware this week marks twenty years since the United States began Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF). War Room is pleased to welcome Michael Marra to recall his role in Operation NORTHERN DELAY. As an Air Force airman that helped plan and execute the largest combat parachute operation conducted by the U.S. military in the 21st century, Mike has some incredible insights into the decision making process that preceded the operation. The lessons learned from that operation regarding rapid joint planning, power projection and the utility of joint airborne operations are just as important today as they were twenty years ago.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is high stakes poker, and all the chips are on the table.”

Major General Gary L. Harrell, U.S. Army

MG Harrell’s characterization of what came to be known as Operation NORTHERN DELAY was not an overstatement. It was 12 March 2003 and a group of planners in Qatar had just two weeks to plan the largest mass airborne drop in contemporary history —15 USAF C-17As dropping approximately 1,000 Army and Air Force personnel with all of their equipment into northern Iraq. Some might claim that experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have little relevance for our current challenges. Twenty years ago, I helped plan and execute that operation as an Air Force airman. Today, as the course director for the Military Strategy and Campaigning course at the Army War College, it is clear to me that Operation NORTHERN DELAY and other recent experiences still have great relevance to our mission of honing students’ military judgment. As I reflect on those experiences twenty years later, the lessons that stand out as being particularly relevant are decision making under conditions of ambiguity, setting the conditions for successful rapid joint planning, and the requirements for successful power projection.

Decision Making Under Conditions of Ambiguity

The cause of this sudden rush to plan was the last-minute decision by the government of Turkey to deny access necessary for the original concept of coalition mechanized forces flowing south from staging bases in Turkey. Military planners were coordinating for months with Turkish officials when this unwelcome surprise came. Though the land route was denied, the requirement to seize and hold parts of northern Iraq to pressure Saddam from north and south remained. The war was already raging in the south of Iraq and planners knew that at any time conditions in the north could change, further complicating the mission. The sense of urgency among the planners was palpable.

Without a viable overland route into land-locked northern Iraq, the planners considered a vertical insertion of conventional and special operations forces to perform push out Saddam Hussein’s forces and then perform multiple wide-area security missions. The “mass air drop” would occur in the semi-permissive environment of Kurdish-controlled territory north of the “Green Line,” the unofficial territorial border between Kurdish and Iraqi forces.

Naturally, the risk of such a mission was debated with detractors seeking an alternative. There was much uncertainty and risk, including the requirement to fly over a nation that had just denied us the right to enter Iraq from its soil. But there were other questions as well. Did the Iraqis have the skill and intent to contest the operation with an integrated air defense system of aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, and anti-aircraft artillery? Aside from these strategic and tactical risks, simply executing the mission would be difficult. An airdrop would entail a large formation conducting an air refueling at night with minimal lighting and no radio calls, a night drop in around high terrain, and of course, the risk to the soldiers and airmen fully laden with weapons and equipment jumping from a fast-moving C-17 at low altitude. With such high stakes and so many unknowns there were charged debates as to the proper course. Some thought that the airdrop was too hazardous and preferred the alternative of securing the airfield with special operations forces so that conventional forces could then be brought in with an airlanding. The issue was up in the air, as several stakeholders had at least some degree of informal “veto power.”

MG Harrell, the director of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) Joint Security Directorate, had the authorities to bring together the planners, gain consensus, and turn the concept into an operation. MG Harrell’s declaration that this operation was “high-stakes poker with all the chips on the table” not only electrified the room, it also transformed the nature of the discussion among the planners. There was no more second guessing from that point. Everyone accepted the airdrop and began planning in earnest. Having everyone in the room owning a piece of the risk was critical. As each entity described their portion of risk, it educated and informed the other leaders as to how risk carried over from one element to another, but also how other parts of the team could mitigate some of these risks. Even with very seasoned planners, there were many “ah-ha moments.” It was a consensus decision to proceed with the airdrop mission.

Many years ago, as a student at the Army War College, I learned there is a big difference between risk and uncertainty. This was certainly true in 2003 as remains so today. Future wars will call for leaders to make difficult decisions without key information on a routine basis.  Exercising, wargaming and the study of history is the critical path to competence with this skill, lest it atrophy over time.              

Rapid Joint Planning

Of course, even with the big decision made, it still remained to plan a complex mission on an extraordinarily compressed timeline of just 14 days from notification to insertion. Fifteen C-17s would fly a joint force built around the 173rd Airborne Brigade, commanded by then-COL William Mayville, from Aviano Air Base in Italy to Harrir Airfield, a small and narrow runway in northern Iraq. 

Further complicating matters, the condition of the airfield was uncertain. There was no way of knowing if the 475,000 pounds of the first C-17 to land would crater the runway, rendering it unusable and potentially damaging the aircraft and all within. Ultimately, the planners determined it was wisest to airdrop 1,000 paratroopers to secure the field, get a better assessment, and then hopefully land the follow-on force of vehicles and equipment to include Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles.

Though the planning time was compressed, no corners were cut because the planners were building on a foundation of exercises and training built over the years prior to this operation. It was not a time to get ready, it was a time to be ready.  Had it not been for the long and habitual relationship the units had with each other to accelerate planning, this mission would have been too high risk. Indeed, I wonder what would have happened if we would have attempted the same operation a few years later. Just a few months prior to Operation NORTHERN DELAY, one of our Air Force higher headquarters had questioned whether keeping airmen jump qualified was worth the resources and time. They argued that a combat airdrop including airmen was “extremely unlikely.”  

At the War College, we teach more than just strategic theory and doctrine. In seminar, we often discuss how operational readiness comes from trust, and trust comes from relationships. The interservice teamwork that allowed the rapid planning and successful execution of such a difficult mission was based on trust, relationships, and realistic training including the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Italy, the 86th Contingency Response Group in Germany, and C-17 crews in the United States for years beforehand. This cannot be surged without turning a risk into a gamble. Do we have this capability today? We will only know if we exercise and rehearse it. The price of such exercises is high, but the costs of failure are incalculable.

The Requirements for Successful Force Projection

Army and Air Force forces arrived at Aviano Air Base days before the mission and hastily worked out a myriad of conceptual and logistical issues, as the aircraft and airdrop cargos and paratroopers converged to make the airdrop and then follow-on air assaults. Crews from of the 62d Airlift Wing315th Airlift Wing437th Airlift Wing, and 446th Airlift Wing, all part of Air Mobility Command and based in the United States formed the air element. After the drop, they flew back to Aviano for an air assault mission to land on the crude Harrir Airfield the next night. They would end up doing so nightly for the next month.    

But returning to the night of the initial airdrop, the performance of the aircrew and paratroopers was remarkable, considering the many unknowns. Prior to the drop, U.S. Special Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga were on the drop zone to provide a modicum of protection and intelligence. Over the drop zone, “GREEN LIGHT” was illuminated, and COL Mayville led 1,000 soldiers and airmen to jump into the windy, rain-filled night. Moments later, they were all on the ground, remarkably with no fatalities or major injuries — a testament to superb Army airborne training.

The drop zone was an older paved airfield of approximately 6,700 feet, designed as a recovery base during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. No improvements were made to the field — it lacked lights, navigation aids, power, water, communications infrastructure, and paved roads.  The epitome of an austere airfield. This lodgment would be a true test of expeditionary warfare – the forces flown in would operate the base with what they had.  While the 173rd Airborne Brigade pushed outside the airfield perimeter and secured decisive points, including the major city of Kirkuk and the valuable oil fields in the region, the Air Force’s 86th Contingency Response Group improved the airfield and accepted fully loaded C-17s until the runway was unusable. The fears about the robustness of Harrir during planning had not been groundless. But before it could no longer be used, it did good service. Lieutenant Colonel M. Shane Hershman, a lead pilot in the formation, would later document the achievements and lessons of Operation NORTHERN DELAY while studying at the Army War College. He noted that in the first five nights the aircrew delivered over 3,000 paratroopers, 3,060 tons of cargo, and 408 vehicles with a 100% reliability rate in 62 missions.

Once Harrir was no longer operational, the command moved air operations to nearly Irbil Airport without slowing the rate of soldiers, equipment, and supplies flowing into northern Iraq. Interestingly, the Army transferred all airbase security, including perimeter security and beyond, to Air Force Security Forces elements. These elements partnered with Kurdish Peshmerga using captured Russian-built armor to provide point and mobile defense, freeing the soldiers for offensive and wide-area security operations. With northern Iraq secured from the Iraqi Republican Guard and other security forces, the mission transitioned smoothly to stabilization.      

Force projection capability must be cultivated and carefully preserved at the operational level with large-scale planning exercises and actual rehearsals to distant and unfamiliar locations. This is a high-risk, high-reward mission. The costs of keeping this capability are significant, but the value is incalculable. The confidence to employ this rare capability can only come from successful exercises and rehearsals safely demonstrating this ability.

Looking Back, Looking Ahead As we scan the horizon for opportunities and threats, we become keenly aware the United States prefers to fight “away games” overseas, sometimes over great distances and far from friendly installations. This ability to expand the battlespace and confront our enemies with multiple dilemmas is a key axiom of our operational approach. The “big lessons” from Operation NORTHERN DELAY are still relevant. Joint force synchronization is essential. Jointness, if not exercised, atrophies. We do not know when the next crisis will come, but these abilities provide the United States with an asymmetric advantage that can instantly tip the strategic balance. It’s been twenty years since the last mass airdrop, but we should prepare as if we needed to execute another in the next twenty days.

Michael Marra is Associate Professor in the Department of Military Strategy, Planning and Operations and the Course Director for the Military Strategy and Campaigning Course at the United States Army War College. He is a retired Air Force colonel with extensive experience in Special Operations and Joint Strategy and Planning.

The views expressed in this presentation are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense.

Photo Description: U.S. Army paratroopers prepare to board a C-17 Globemaster III. Nearly 1,000 “Sky Soldiers” of the 173rd Airborne Brigade recently parachuted from C-17s into the Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq. This was the first combat insertion of paratroopers using a C-17. U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Controllers along with an Air Force Contingency Response Group were also part of the troop movement in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Stephen Faulisi

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