Balad of the Hellfire

The act of attacking U.S. forces becomes increasingly difficult as the U.S. military leverages its technical abilities. Several days ago insurgents unwisely decided to attack the Balad Air Base (also known as “Mortaritaville” for the large number of inbound mortar attacks). The U.S. Army was prepared. They detected the firing location and requested the dispatched of a Predator drone equipped with Hellfire missiles. The Department of Defense releases video of the attack (sub par quality but viewable) and provides the timeline of events:

5 Sept 0458 60mm mortar fired at Balad Airbase

5 Sept 0459 Point of origin from mortar attack is determined

5 Sept 0500 Joint Tactical Air Controller contacted for UAV support

5 Sept 0502 Runner joins four others near to house, hot mortar tube visible

5 Sept 0508 Hellfire missile fired

Ten Minutes.

Within one minute, the firing location of the mortar tube is determined. Somewhere between two to four minutes, a Predator is on site, and begins shooting video. Within ten minutes the terrorist safe house is identified and attacked. All of this was done without a soldier having to get out of his seat or the need for legal approval.

It is quite possible the delay in detection of the insurgents to the firing the Hellfire missile was intentional. The operator of the Predator was no doubt interested in where the mortar team fled to, and hoped to maximize enemy casualties. Had the operator decided to attack upon immediate detection, the turnaround time from the firing of the mortar to the launch of the Hellfire would have been four minutes, plus or minus seconds.

The enemy will eventually adjust their tactics. Insurgents can (and do) attempt to counter this technological advantage by mounting mortars on vehicles or rigging tubes to fire remotely, but these options create their own set of problems. Remote mortars means only one round per tube can be fired, thus reducing the effectiveness of the attack, as rounds cannot be walked onto the target. Placing mortars on vehicles is less than inconspicuous, and fleeing mortar vehicles can be just as easily targeted from the air.

The increased deployment of Iraqi troops in hot spots (Strategy Page, September 8, 2005 entry), coupled with the military’s ability to quickly and effectively use technology to hunt and kill the enemy makes the insurgency’s chances of derailing Iraq’s progress less and less likely as time goes by. Sunnis are scrambling to register to vote in the upcoming referendum on Iraq’s constitution in October and the new election for the Assembly in December. Whether they vote to for or against the draft constitution is immaterial. They detect that a political solution is possible, and that the insurgency’s days are numbered.

By no means is the insurgency defeated. There is still much fighting to do in Anbar and elsewhere, and al Qaeda will fight on no matter despite the Sunni participation in the government. al Qaeda’s base of support has been and will continue to shrink as more Sunnis get involved in the political process, and this will lead to more intelligence on their activities. Superior U.S. technologies will continue to be brought to bear on al Qaeda in order to track, hunt and kill them.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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9 Comments

  • Justin Capone says:

    Bill,
    Perhaps my greatest fear right now on the political front is that the Sunnis vote in the first election and lose and decide not to vote in the second election (which is the one that really matters most long term for us) in December.

  • GJ says:

    Superior U.S. technologies will continue to be brought to bear on al Qaeda in order to track, hunt and kill them
    This brings to mind an interesting point. I had seen a program recently about technology and modern warfare,(The Perfect War), specifically regarding terrorists. The conclusion was that all our technology wouldn’t help much at all in the war on terror. Looks to me like someone was dreadfully wrong in their assumptions. Once again the media have no clue in what they’re talking about.

  • Annoy Mouse says:

    Technology alone doesn’t tell you where the enemy is, but it sure works great for counter-battery fire. Shoot and scoot or stay and pray. This kind of action justifies the ‘flypaper’ theory very well.

  • leaddog2 says:

    Great shot! Is there any possibility of having Jihadi Moore on the ground filming the incoming missle?
    It would begin to cleanse America’s cesspool
    although the toxic damage to Iraq might be worse than Cherynobyl.

  • Enigma says:

    Justin,
    That may be a valid concern, but it seems to me that many of the Sunnis have realized that they lose more by not voting. I do wonder, however, what number of Sunnis define “losing” — in the context of the current political process — as failure to reassert control over all of Iraq. But then again, most of those are probably fighting already — and dying — in the insurgency.

  • M says:

    While this Hellfire shot is a great demonstration of our ability, it was a little lucky as well. Our airbases in Iraq sustain attacks like this on a daily basis. Radar systems can determine the point of origin before the weapon impacts.The problem is getting a QRF (Quick reaction force) to that point fast enough to catch the bad guys. If you happen to have a Predator in the vacinity you get this most recent result, but that is usually not the case as the operational tasking for these assets is very high. And of course you can’t just start lobbing mortors back into civilian homes(Well you could…)due to civilians and the bad guys have driven or run out of the effective blast zone of the weapon anyway. (Not the case with a precision guided Hellfire)
    As for weather or not the terrorists will think twice in the future… I have seen a wide range of reporting showing some of these guys come out of friday prayers all worked up and buy a SA-7 on the black market for a couple hundred dollars get in a car and drive right up to the airport and shoot, not knowing crap about what they are doing. That case is pure emotion and incompetance and ineffective. And in the case of the attack on the Kearsarge, they travel from Iraq to Jordan, rent a wharehouse through and third party, pay 6 months rent and fire 7 weapons with only one getting close. This is just incompetence. Would either of these groups of men have thought twice based on this Hellfire shot. I’m not so sure.

  • Rookie says:

    The last thing we need are “competent” terrorist… the dumber they are, the easier is to hunt them down. Let them come…
    Their lack of competence also shows that a lot of non-Iraqis which were trained in Afganistan, Pakistan are already dead, and only fresh meat is sent to the frontline. But bear in mind that saddam’s army didn’t evaporate over night, there are lots of experienced soldiers which know how to handle guns. It’s good that most of them are staying idle.
    Regarding the release of this video, I think US army should have kept this a little bit down, the later the terrorists know what hit them the better. But then, maybe it was intended as a reassurance of our lovely “public opinion”.

  • Brad says:

    Only a relatively small number of insurgents are professionals and competent…evidenced by having large numbers of IED attacks but declining numbers of successes, even though those successes may be more powerful.
    Shorter response potentials for American forces can keep the low talent from learning to be better, by killing its operators, as well as put strain on its better warriors. You can both eliminate the small fry and retard the pace of operations for the effective warriors.

  • chuck wood says:

    Was the mortar located using FireFinder? Couldn’t a very accurate artillery piece (e.g. an 8-inch) have smoked the mortar tube and crew?

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