About a week ago a U.S Marine was killed by a rocket attack near the city of Makhmur in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Marine’s (Staff Sgt. Louis F. Cardin) death led to the disclosure of the existence of an active U.S military facility known as Firebase Bell. A few days ago, this facility was attacked again by a group of ten ISIS fighters.
CNN has reported that the base houses 200 Marines from the 26th Marine expeditionary Unit and 200 unnamed special operations forces operators. This is the first officially named U.S military firebase in Iraq and first time in the war that a member of the U.S armed forces has been killed outside of a special operations mission in the fight against ISIS.
What is a Firebase?
A firebase is a military facility meant to support front line infantry with artillery. Firebase Bell was set up to provide supporting fire for Iraqi forces in the upcoming assault on Mosul. This base is reported to house M142 HIMARS rocket launchers and some M777A2 howitzers, but they can be set up to support a range of missions using a vast array of artillery; from light mortars to the MGM-140 tactical missile.
Composition of the firebase
Firebase Bell is 15 to 20 km from the current front line and roughly 70 km from Mosul. The current front line already puts it at the maximum range of the M119 105mm howitzer and the minimum range of the M30/31 guided rockets. Therefore, while there is gun artillery there now, it is unlikely to stay. The range of standard shells fired by artillery like the M777A2 maxes out at about 23 km.
Even using the “Excalibur” round, the 155 mm Howitzer has a maximum range of only 40 to 50 km . As Iraqi forces advance toward Mosul they will move out of range of even these advanced munitions.
The only artillery that can reach that Mosul from Firebase Bell is either the above mentioned MGM-140 tactical missile, or the the M30/31 guided rockets. In other words; the HIMARS or the M270 MLRS really are the only options for ground based strikes against the city of Mosul.
The HIMARS in Iraq
the U.S has made a habit of employing the HIMARS in Iraq; likely for operational and political reasons. Not only are they effective, but their range allows them to stay far away from the front and avoid casualties from both return fire and from militant raids like the one on Bell last week.
The HIMARS is well suited to supporting an offensive on Mosul from Firebase Bell. The rockets it fires can reach out to over 70 km; giving it the ability to provide fire support deep into the center of Mosul. Each M142 can also be loaded with a single MGM-140, which can can hit targets up to 300 km away with a 500 pound warhead. This puts all of northern Iraq within range of the Marine’s artillery.
The Implications of Firebase Bell.
As noted in the reports, there are no Iraqis operating on Firebase Bell. These Marines are not advisers; they are a combat force; regardless of what any general may claim. Their mission is to fire artillery at ISIS. While they are technically in a support role they are still engaging the enemy directly.
The 200 special operators at Bell are also clearly a combat force. They are not assigned to Iraqi forces and therefore also could not be advisers or forward air controllers either. Special Operators are almost always light infantry and are certainly using Firebase Bell as a foreword operating site to stage raids against ISIS. At this point the pentagon’s claim we don’t have combat troops in Iraq is little more than rhetoric.
Their designation as “temporary” is more rhetorical juggling. As noted in the articles, “temporary” troops are not included in the official troop count. This allows the Obama Administration to skirt the congressional limits on the number of troops in Iraq while still continuing to station more troops in the country. They are there indefinitely until Mosul is secure. How long that will take cannot be accurately determined.
It is important to also remember that these deployments are just the tip of the iceberg. There is a whole logistics infrastructure that has to support this base. Every shell and rocket the marines fire and every bullet the special forces use has to be brought to the base by logistics personnel and vehicles.
We do have troops in Iraq fighting ISIS directly. These are boots on the ground regardless of what role they fill. In addition, there are certainly thousands of non-combat personnel and contractors stationed in Iraq as well to support bases like Bell. They will also stay until the job is done.
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