We Watched Kurdish Troops Train With Guided Missiles

The students sweated in the July heat of a classroom on their last day of training. They watched as two young Peshmerga second lieutenants disassembled a large tripod for a MILAN anti-tank guided missile launcher.

We had a chance to observe this missile training course during a visit to the Kurdish army’s 9th Brigade in Daquq, Iraq. It’s critically important work that can mean the difference between life and death for dozens if not hundreds of Kurdish fighters.

There’s a simple reason why. These missiles are one of the Kurds’ primary defenses against Islamic State’s suicide explosive trucks, known locally as “pigs.”

Typically, the Sunni extremist groups sends in suicide vehicles — large trucks covered in armor and impenetrable to most of the weapons the Peshmerga have — to blow holes in defenses along the 1,000-kilometer front line.

These blasts can be massive and often precede Islamic State ground assaults. An unstoppable “pig” loaded with explosives and operated by a driver determined to kill himself is a terrifying weapon.

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Two Kurdish peshmerga officers assemble a MILAN launcher during a lecture in Daquq, Iraq. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo.

Not unstoppable to the MILAN, however. That’s why the German government supplied 30 of the launchers and 500 missiles to the Peshmerga in September 2014.

The MILAN — a French acronym for “light anti-tank infantry missile” — was designed by France and Germany in the 1960s and first fielded in 1972. The weapon has seen widespread use around the world. In Syria, the rebel Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units captured MILANs from Bashar Assad’s forces.

Many Western armies are phasing out the system in favor of newer weapons, such as the U.S.-made Javelin. MILAN is comparatively crude, has no laser-guided “lock-on” system and instead relies on the operator manually guiding the missile to the target while watching through the weapon’s sights.

It’s old for a missile launcher, but it’s still long-range, accurate and deadly in the hands of the Peshmerga. The MILAN’s sights often include a night-vision unit known as the MIRA, which comes in handy for observing Islamic State positions. This makes them even more highly desired since night-vision devices are in short supply in Iraq.

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A peshmerga officer, looks through the sights of a MILAN ATGM during a lecture at a peshmerga base in Daquq, Iraq . Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

There is some debate whether the MILAN can destroy all of Islamic State’s combat vehicles, which include captured T-72 and M-1 Abrams tanks. But it can certainly deal with armored Humvees, older Soviet-era tanks such as the T-54/55 and T-62 and, most importantly, the massive truck bombs.

Of all the weapons in the Peshmerga’s arsenal, it’s probably the most advanced.

Brig. Gen. Aras Abdulkadir, the 9th Brigade commander, explained that the MILAN is an important weapon for the Kurds. “They greatly improve the morale of the Peshmerga,” Aras told War Is Boring. “They know it is a weapon which can stop any car bomb.”

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2nd Lt. Hawraz Khalid instructs his class. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

The German government conducted a two-week-long MILAN training class in September 2014 for 23 Peshmerga soldiers. Berlin is supplying another 30 launchers and more missiles, but there isn’t enough ammunition in Iraqi-Kurdistan to conduct live-fire training. Each missile costs about $18,000.

The first time these students fire a MILAN, it will likely be in anger.

Second Lt. Hawraz Khalid, a 27-year-old fighter who has served in the Peshmerga for four years, was one of the soldiers who trained in Germany. Now he’s one of the few Kurdish missile operators on the front line. Until this summer, Hawraz’s squad — consisting of himself and an assistant — was the only MILAN team for this part of the sector.

As a result, the soldiers live under almost constant alert. “Sometimes we have information that they will attack, sometimes not,” he said. “We do not succeed 100 percent of the time, sometimes we miss.”

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2nd Lt. Hawraz Khalid stands with the launcher, and expended missle tube, he used to destroy a suicide explosive vehicle. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Two months ago, Hawraz and his assistant responded to a vehicle bomb in a village near the contested city of Kirkuk. “I couldn’t recognize what car it was, either a Hummer or a Badger,” he said. “[The explosion] was recorded on a mobile phone and shown on TV, I was very proud. All of my friends called me and congratulated me.”

But being part of the only missile team in the brigade took its toll. “Some days I went back home at eleven in the morning, and the commander called me back to the front line two hours later.”

It’s a grueling scenario familiar to many Kurdish fighters near Kirkuk. Hawraz estimated that he has spent twice as much time on the front line as anyone else in his unit. He trained another officer to help with the workload, and is now training another group of officers which further reduce the burden.

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2nd Lt. Hawraz Khalid (R) instructs two students as they assemble a MILAN ATGM launcher. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

Back inside the classroom, Hawraz continued instructing the students about the MILAN. Despite the heat, the students — themselves newly-promoted second lieutenants wearing freshly-pressed uniforms — appeared relaxed and attentive.

Following the training course, these young fighters will go to the front. If an alert goes up in their part of the line, the brigade can rush a MILAN to the location, which will in turn free up Hawraz for other duties.

Which is just as well. Three months ago, Hawraz became engaged to his fiancée, but he had been too busy to get married. “The commander promised me time off to get married when the training is done,” he said.

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2nd Lt. Amir Abdulrahman and a colleague disassemble a MILAN launcher. Matt Cetti-Roberts photo

“In the past, armored cars [car bombs] were a problem, but now they can’t send them at us,” 2nd Lt. Amir Abdulrahman said.

The 24-year-old officer just completed training. “I’ve had the theory class before,” he said, referring to his time at a military academy. “The training here was both theory and practice.”

Amir added that the MILAN isn’t a hard system to learn. The night before War Is Boring visited the class, Hawraz and his students took a field trip to observe Islamic State’s positions through the weapon’s MIRA sights.

Fellow student 2nd Lt. Rebaz Saifadin agreed with Amir. “It’s very simple to learn how to use it,” Rebaz said. “Germany did a great thing by sending the MILAN to Kurdistan.”

It’s a hands-on learning experience. The MILAN launcher in the classroom is the same one Hawraz employed to destroy the suicide bomb two months ago. I joked with him about it, and suggested he might mount the tube on the wall of his house once the war is over.

He smiled, and said he will, if the Peshmerga let him keep it.

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