U.S. Commandos Are Flying Around Iraq

Video offers a peek at new war’s secretive missions


Commandos were among the first American troops to return to Iraq after Islamic State fighters swept through the country in early 2014. But the Pentagon has provided few details about what these troops are up to.

However, U.S. Central Command—which oversees military operations in the Middle East—recently offered us a peek at the special operators’ activities. On Nov. 14, CENTCOM posted a video in its YouTube channel showing the commandos’ airplanes and helicopters flying near Baghdad.

“U.S. airman [sic] from air base Ali Al Salem, Kuwait, conduct a helicopter aerial refuel and a forward area refueling point … [on] 10 October, 2014 at Baghdad International Airport,” reads the official text at the beginning of the footage.

The U.S. Air Force’s headquarters in the region is cited as the source, but stateside public affairs officials for the unit said they were unaware the video had been posted on the Internet. The imagery is “UNREVIEWED and UNRELEASED,” according to the opening credits.

The video quickly disappeared, but we managed to save a copy before it did.

The footage opens with airmen singing as they load refueling gear into a C-130 cargo plane. American troops use this equipment to quickly set up portable gas stations to top up planes and helos.

The original title and credits say the aircraft in question is an AC-130 gunship, an attack plane that fires machine guns and cannons. It’s unlikely the Air Force would consign one of its few AC-130s to a non-combat role, but it’s at least possible the flying branch is experimenting with some of the newer gunships—to see whether they can perform other functions.

Indeed, the latest AC-130Js are basically just MC-130J commando transports with a few extra weapons. It should be possible to quickly turn an AC-130J into an MC-130J, and vice versa.

Above—a U.S. Air Force MC-130H. At top—U.S. Army MH-60Ms in Iraq. Air Force photos

However, personnel at the Air Force’s Middle East headquarters told War Is Boring that the plane is actually an MC-130H. These models are specifically designed to insert commandos behind enemy lines and refuel helicopters in flight.

The rest of the video—shot in eerie night vision—shows at least three Blackhawk helicopters linking up with the tanker and gassing up at the Baghdad airport.

The helicopters are clearly special operations variants. The unique nose of an Army MH-60M is visible in the second half of the footage. This model has a distinctive radar—called Silent Knight—and an infrared camera.

Silent Knight helps the all-black helos fly at night over mountains and sand dunes, according to an official briefing. Only the Army’s secretive 160th Special Operation Aviation Regiment has Blackhawks with this sensor combination.

The Silent Knight radar is clearly visible in the photo of an Army MH-60M, at left, and in the still from the Air Force video, at right. Army and Air Force photos

The video doesn’t clearly indicate what the helicopters’ exact mission is in Iraq, but it’s noteworthy that the helos’ engines are running as airmen hook up the fuel hoses. The pilots likely flew from the Iraqi capital to other locations, but we can’t say whether they were heading out or returning to base.

Army general Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, recently advised sending some of the American Special Operations Forces to Al Anbar province in western Iraq to help Baghdad’s troops battle Islamic State militants. The Pentagon “agreed with Gen. Austin’s recommendations,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel told reporters two days after the video appeared.

The special operators are responsible for training and equipping Iraqi forces, Hagel added. We don’t know whether the commandos have already moved into the restive province.

The helicopters in the video might have been supporting U.S. military teams working alongside Iraqi or Kurdish forces. The 160th uses its MH-60s to move commandos around and bring them supplies when necessary.

It’s also possible the commandos were heading to Syria. For months, Washington has been considering boosting its support for rebels fighting the regime in Damascus.

The Pentagon might also be working on a new plan to rescue American hostages held by Islamic State in Syria. American and Jordanian commandos tried, and failed, to rescue some of the captives in July.

The Black Hawks would have no problem reaching the Syria-Iraq frontier from Baghdad—especially with the benefit of mid-air refueling. “We are doing what we can with the resources we have,” Hagel said.

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