Safeside in the Desert

Feb. 1, 2007

Kill or capture Rocket Man.” That, in a nutshell, was the mission of Operation Desert Safeside. In this unusual action, USAF security forces took full responsibility for a sector of base defense around Balad Air Base in Iraq. It was the first time since 1969 that airmen had staged an offensive ground campaign, according to MSgt. Rodney Holland, first sergeant of the 823rd Security Forces Squadron.

“Rocket Man” was the enemy, and he seemed to be everywhere.

Desert Safeside, which unfolded in early 2005, came about for a straightforward reason: Insurgents were pelting Balad with mortars and small-arms fire, and it had to stop. In the preceeding 12 months, the bad guys had hit Balad with a total of 359 indirect-fire attacks, killing 14 and wounding 25.

For Col. Bradley D. Spacy, the operation’s planner, the attacks carried clear implications. He knew “the only way to stop the enemy from attacking our air bases was to go out and kill or capture him and take his weapons.”

The quickly assembled team of more than 200 USAF security forces did precisely that. The team mounted 338 combat patrols, 56 sniper insertions, 26 direct action patrols, and 131 hasty raids. By the time it was over, the airmen had bagged 17 “high value” enemies, discovered eight major arms caches, and seized more than 100 heavy weapons.

Equally important, every airman came back alive.

Prime Target

Not since the Vietnam War in the 1960s had Air Force security forces pulled together that kind of concerted, outside-the-wire effort. Balad sat in the midst of a Sunni-dominated area about 50 miles north of Baghdad. The base quickly became a prime target for small-arms fire and mortar attacks.

One July 2003 incident produced 16 US casualties, but that was just the beginning. On one day in April 2004, 20 mortars hit the base. In July 2004, one attack killed four and wounded 20.

This was intolerable. Balad was essential to coalition operations in Iraq. Its 11,000-foot runway was used by Air Force fighters and mobility aircraft, Army helicopters, and various types of unmanned systems. The Army’s Logistic Support Area Anaconda was built up around the airfield.

Balad acquired greater importance in mid-2004 when the commander of US Central Command, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, said the base would become the region’s primary military air hub, allowing Baghdad Airport to revert to civilian control.

By that time, incoming mortar fire had become almost routine. The 2,000 airmen and 13,000 Army soldiers at Balad and Anaconda were constantly at risk. Mortars peppered runways, taxiways, areas near chow halls, and other buildings.

One airman who had just finished refueling a C-5 transport, saw a rocket land right in front of his truck. He swerved, but hit the unexploded round anyway.

For all that, airmen kept up the refueling and maintenance of about 220 aircraft per week.

At first, the Army forces responsible for guarding Balad tried to counter the mortar fire. Counter-battery radar permitted soldiers to pinpoint firing locations to within about five yards and quickly return fire. Predators armed with Hellfire missiles performed surveillance and strike missions.

During one attack, Predators scanned the base area while Apache attack helicopters hovered nearby, ready to launch missile or gun attacks.

Yet the mortar rounds kept falling, and no one could find the attacker. “You can see how hard it is to spot one or two guys with a tube,” Maj. John Erickson, a Predator pilot, told the Christian Science Monitor.

However, by the fall of 2004, it was clear that reacting to Rocket Man was not enough. Army patrols outside the base were accomplishing little.

Aircraft were also taking hits. One F-16, a UH-60, and three CH-47s were damaged—along with numerous other vehicles.

It was at that point that a small group of security forces airmen decided to go on the offensive. In fall 2004, Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan III, then commander of US Central Command Air Forces, approved the plan. It called for 60 days of aggressive, offensive operations outside the wire. Airmen from the 820th Security Forces Group provided the core group of personnel.

They called themselves Task Force 1041—a name used by their Vietnam War forebears. (See box, p. 47.)

Pickup Game

It was something of a pickup game. The force’s on-scene commander, Lt. Col. Chris Bargery, was seconded from another post to run the operation. In need of more than 200 security forces, planners began pulling together personnel and equipment from different sources. Eighty percent of the forces came from other locations in Iraq, the rest from the US and worldwide bases.

One who got the call was Amn. Aaron Szulborski, who was deployed to Kirkuk Air Base, about 160 miles northwest of Baghdad. Szulborski didn’t know quite what to expect from this new mission. His duties at Kirkuk included manning towers and guarding the perimeter gates. Security forces did some dismounted patrols off base, but as Szulborski said, “the area wasn’t as dangerous.”

SSgt. Michael Minnick was one of those responsible for pulling the mission together. Minnick explained how they tapped individual troops based primarily on weapons qualifications: the M-2 machine gun, MK-19 automatic grenade launcher, and M-240 turret mounted machine gun.

Planners also scoured Iraq for equipment. Up-armored Humvees arrived from as far away as Japan.

When the chosen forces arrived at Balad, they embarked on two weeks of intensive training to improve combat skills and unit cohesion. “The Army told us what they wanted to see: how we reacted to contact, small-arms fire, and IEDs, how we handled personnel, both good guys and bad guys,” said Minnick. For three days, the TF 1041 team leaders rode “right seat” with the Army unit they’d replace.

Then, it was time to carry out the mission.

Operation Desert Safeside began officially on Jan. 1, 2005. Task Force 1041 assumed responsibility for one whole sector of the base’s perimeter area. USAF forces remained under the TACON—tactical control—of the Army’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team. TF 1041’s designated area of operations was one of the most violent areas in the region. It was “roughly 10 kilometers wide and six [kilometers] deep, ranging from the Balad perimeter fence to the Tigris River,” said planner Spacy.

TF 1041 went straight to the heart of the problem. Its mission was to target the so-called “anti-Iraq forces.” Around Balad, those threats consisted of local insurgents, foreign fighters, and terrorist cells. Targets included the brains of the organizations, such as financiers, organizers, and bomb-makers. Part of the plan was to disrupt logistics and hiding places in the areas around the Tigris.

Backing up the security forces were tremendous resources mustered by Central Command Air Forces. At the Combined Air Operations Center, intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance types became top-flight insurgent trackers.

Teams patrolled constantly. Some individuals went out on several operations per day. “Being on the offensive was different for all of us,” said Minnick.

Szulborski’s group got hit by an improvised explosive device on one of its first patrols. Szulborski was facing the rear, from his position as the No. 2 Humvee’s turret gunner, when the lead vehicle was hit. He heard the explosion, “saw black smoke everywhere,” and doubted anyone in the forward Humvee would survive.

Fortunately, no one was hurt: The enhanced armor worked. TF 1041 took more IED hits but suffered no casualties. “The worst thing that happened was ringing ears,” said Minnick.

One Team

Participants were quick to point out that TF 1041 augmented theater manpower and that they worked under the “one team, one fight” concept with Army forces.

Yet there were specific differences in the airmen’s approach. First, TF 1041 was able to “saturate the area with the manning we had,” said MSgt. Paul J. Schaaf II, 823rd Security Forces Squadron. That was something the Army forces protecting Balad had not been able to do because of other demands.

The area of responsibility for the land component forces covered thousands of square miles, whereas the airmen focused on defending their air base.

The increased manning of TF 1041 allowed it to take the initiative. Desert Safeside extended the base security zone well beyond the formal base boundary. In this new operations concept, nearby rural areas and villages were part of the security area.

USAF security forces took on a spectrum of missions ranging from meeting with locals to searching out weapons caches, all in the name of better security in that zone.

The Desert Safeside mission, said Schaaf, attracted “the most resources I’ve had available in my whole career.” These went from Army helicopters to Predator UAVs, and the security forces had a wealth of real-time ISR data at their disposal.

TF 1041 had quite a few women airmen. Two were members of Schaaf’s team. One was a fire team leader. “She was leading guys in” on direct action patrols, said Schaaf. “They were trained and hardened just like the guys were.” One TF 1041 member, SrA. Polly-Jan Bobseine, was named Air Combat Command’s Airman of the Year for her performance in Desert Safeside. (See “The Outstanding Airmen,” September 2006, p. 96.)

Many of TF 1041’s raids sought to capture individuals tracked by CENTCOM. Planners used pattern analysis of insurgent activity to help pinpoint when a target would be at a specific location.

Direct action was seen by some as a “very unorthodox” operational method for security forces, Schaaf said, because “we are not special ops.” A typical pattern for these direct action patrols would be to get a call “to go get this high value target at this time.” The team would make its way to the site and then leave its armored vehicles. Entry teams would then clear suspected insurgent strongholds.

By the Book

In their 60-day campaign, the security forces teams were careful to handle captive insurgents strictly by the book. Schaaf said he had heard about abuses of prisoners elsewhere. “I told my guys, ‘We don’t need that kind of problem,'” said Schaaf.

Other missions targeted the attackers’ key strength: their ability to freely roam the area, set up mortars, shoot, and then disappear into the urban jungle.

Turret gunner Szulborski said some of his missions entailed establishing traffic control points; others involved talking with local Iraqi residents and getting their assistance.

Airmen found it was common for their patrols to attract small-arms fire. Usually, what they heard were potshots taken from a distance. “All they were trying to do was bait you out of your vehicles,” Minnick said.

Around Balad, mortar attacks “went down to nothing” during the 60-day operation, noted Schaaf.

Desert Safeside took security operations to a new level. An after-action report stated: “Task Force 1041 proved the Air Force possessed the capabilities needed to successfully dominate the base security zone [BSZ] and provide a secure operating environment from which to launch, recover, and sustain airpower.”

The operation “dispelled the perception that Army units are better organized, trained, and equipped than Air Force security forces to conduct such operations,” said the after-action report.

The Original Task Force 1041

In fall 1965, a survey of Vietnam air bases revealed potential security problems. Under instructions from Gen. John P. McConnell, Air Force Chief of Staff, a select group of airmen completed Army Ranger training then exercised in mountain operations in Hawaii.

The 1041st Security Police Squadron (Test) stood up on Sept. 1, 1966. It was to carry out Operation Safeside.

Among its first deployment sites was Phu Cat Air Base in South Vietnam. In 1967, the unit maintained security in a 9.3 square-mile area with a combination of day and night reconnaissance patrols, sweep operations, and other tactics. Before it left, the 1041st trained other security police at the base.

“I remember well the small groups of men in camouflage uniforms moving out of the base camp at dusk, dedicated to taking the night and the jungle away from the enemy,” recalled Lt. Col. William H. Wise, an early leader of TF 1041.

“Some day perhaps the Air Force will once again find itself unprepared to protect its people and resources in a hostile environment,” said Wise during the 1969 stand-down ceremony for the 1041st. “There may be another crash program to organize, train, equip, and deploy a unit such as Safeside.”

Thirty-six years later, his prediction was borne out.

Desert Safeside set the standard for securing air bases in the middle of hot spots. Two years later, the full implications of the operation are still being debated, but there’s no turning back. The Air Force and Army formally agreed in 2005 to drop Joint Service Agreement 8, which tasked the Army with defending bases in theater.

Reinforcing the point, joint doctrine published in August 2006 directed that “forward operating bases protect themselves against direct and standoff threats designed to interrupt, interfere, and impair the effectiveness of joint operations.”

Gen. Ronald E. Keys, ACC commander, said that, in the past, airmen “were based far enough back … that people didn’t have to worry” about defending them. “Now that we’re doing forward basing, and we’re out there in our own little foxhole, someone has got to worry about defending the bases.”

As Desert Safeside showed, securing an expeditionary air base is not like defending an Army post. Keys said, “When you have a lot of thin-skinned pieces of machinery sitting around on the ramp, you’re going to want to push the threat out … farther than if you’ve got land forces on a post”—because the land forces have more inherent self-defense capability.

Securing the air base demands a bigger perimeter, to protect approach and departure corridors and keep flight line and base support activities safe.

Air Force officials feel it is essential to defend the air base out to about six miles, the typical range of weapons that could attack aircraft and other targets. Providing such a perimeter requires security forces to conduct offensive operations.

New Debate

The question of how to posture for that mission is causing debate within the Air Force because of the perceived trade-offs with other security forces missions. According to Keys, the Air Force has been analyzing how many bases its security forces should defend and at what threat levels.

One school of thought advocates preparing all USAF security forces for enhanced missions. Balad was a high-threat location, but it did have significant infrastructure in place. Early in a conflict, it might take even more personnel—perhaps hundreds of security forces—to secure a major base for full-scale flight operations.

Some bases, such as those in remote spots or in allied territory, would require much lighter manning to provide the same six-mile buffer.

Domestic base security needs must still be taken into account. Nuclear security remains a high-priority, manpower-intensive mission.

Commanders also want tranquility at their home bases. “We’re just like any big city, and so we have a requirement for some law and order on our bases,” said Keys of the ACC bases.

As a result, it is not clear when there will be another mission like Desert Safeside, but the participants say they are ready. “We know how to guard an air base,” Schaaf asserted. “If those are our resources, why aren’t we protecting them

Rebecca Grant is a contributing editor of Air Force Magazine. She is president of IRIS Independent Research in Washington, D.C., and has worked for RAND, the Secretary of the Air Force, and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Grant is a fellow of the Eaker Institute for Aerospace Concepts, the public policy and research arm of the Air Force Association. Her most recent article, “Cat Against the Sun,” appeared in the January issue.