Breaking the Siege on Sinjar

Sept. 28, 2015

In early August 2014, after months of waging war across Iraq, the terrorists of the Islamic State (ISIS) had taken Mosul and Tikrit and had fixed their sights on the Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking religious minority group living in northern Iraq.

Facing death, torture, or enslavement at the hands of ISIS terrorists, tens of thousands of Yazidis fled their homes but became trapped on Mount Sinjar with no food, water, or shelter.

Up to that point, the US had avoided military action against ISIS, but the worsening humanitarian crisis drove President Barack Obama to action: On Aug. 7, he authorized the first air strikes against ISIS, in what is now known as Operation Inherent Resolve, and an Air Force-led relief mission aimed at preventing what he called “a potential act of genocide.”

“When many thousands of innocent civilians are faced with the danger of being wiped out, and we have the capacity to do something about it, we will take action,” he said. “That is our responsibility as Americans. That’s a hallmark of American leadership. That’s who we are.”

Planning The Drop

US troops in the region had seen intelligence about the situation on Mount Sinjar, but first received notification about potential relief airdrops on Aug. 5—about 36 hours before the first flights took off.

The request came from the government of Iraq, going through US Air Forces Central Command before landing at the Theater Direct Delivery Cell of the Air Mobility Division at the 609th Air Operations Center at al Udeid AB, Qatar. The 609th is one of USAF’s combined air and space operations centers, or CAOCs.

Maj. Mike Damron, who was then the AMD tactics chief with the CAOC there, said while the US and the Air Force still needed to secure the proper legal approvals and diplomatic clearances, “we knew there was a very good possibility of doing the drop.”

That meant not just looking at how much water and food AFCENT had on hand, but also how many aircraft were needed, where the pallets should be dropped, which crews to put on crew rest, what maintenance needed to be done, and how they would handle unforeseen variables like aircraft breakdowns.

Airmen from the 437th Airlift Wing, JB Charleston, S.C., who at the time were deployed to the Central Command area as part of the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, stood up a mission planning cell at the CAOC to begin working on a concept of operations, detailing how the airdrops would work on the tactical level.

The CAOC also alerted the 618th Air Operations Center, the Tanker Airlift Control Center at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. At the Theater Direct Delivery Division there, Maj. Jason Homrig, deputy director of TDDD operations, began making plans for the C-17 portion of the mission.

“We started looking at manning forces and that kind of stuff,” he said. “We were notified essentially as they were still framing the formation, how the actual air drops were going to go, to get the required aid in place.”

Homrig, a C-130 pilot, had flown humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions before—including Operation Damayan after the 2013 super typhoon in the Philippines—which he said helps bring perspective to the planning process. But this mission was different. Instead of landing somewhere to unload relief supplies after a natural disaster or dropping supplies to US troops, the Air Force would be dropping supplies to non-Americans under the cover of darkness, on a mountain surrounded by hostile forces.

The US airmen didn’t know exactly what the situation was on the ground, Homrig said, but were told there were potentially “tens of thousands of people” cut off from any normal supply route.

In an address to the nation from the White House, Obama said the Yazidis were facing “almost certain death.”

“When we face a situation like we do on that mountain—with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help, … and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye,” Obama said. “Earlier this week, one Iraqi in the area cried to the world, ‘There is no one coming to help.’ Well, today, America is coming to help.”

ISIS had created the need for the airdrops, and also made the relief efforts more difficult. The aircraft would need to fly at low altitude, in the darkness, and remain over the drop zones for less than 15 minutes.

Damron had participated in airdrops in Afghanistan before—from inside the aircraft. But US troops always cleared the drops, he said. The Mount Sinjar mission called for dropping pallets of supplies to civilians on the ground.

“Our worst fear” was to drop stuff out of an aircraft that would land on the people it was supposed to aid, he said.

Another challenge: The mission brought together troops from several different US commands, plus C-130s and their crews from the United Kingdom and Australia.

Still, Homrig said, pilots and crews train for airdrops in complex scenarios. “We are experienced at this, and so when it comes down to actual mission execution, you really rely on that training and that experience, and it will take you through,” he said.

With the advantage of prior planning, Damron said they had around a 70 percent solution when the Air Force was given the definite go-ahead, less than 24 hours before the airdrops were to begin. Even then, they weren’t sure how long the airdrops would continue.

A Personal Touch

The first night of the mission, one C-17 and two C-130 Hercules aircraft flew to Sinjar, escorted by two F/A-18s from the carrier George H. W. Bush, in the Persian Gulf at the time. The airlifters dropped bundles containing 28,224 Meals, Ready to Eat, and 1,522 gallons of fresh drinking water.

But there was still work to do. Damron said he and others in the CAOC “planned straight through,” looking at intelligence reports to determine where more supplies were needed, while others worked to secure approvals for subsequent drops.

“We knew we were going to be dropping again until we got orders to stop,” he said. “We just didn’t know exactly where on the mountain we were going to drop. That changed almost every night.”

At the same time, the riggers—mainly soldiers—loading the pallets with food and water were working around the clock, Damron said. Some added a personal touch.

In a throwback to 1st Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen’s “Candy Bomber” missions during the Berlin Airlift, MSgt. Stephen Brown, a loadmaster with the 816th Airlift Squadron, taped a package of Skittles to a bundle of halal MREs. This prompted others in Brown’s unit to attach candy, toys, and even bags full of treats to later bundles.

“Although my favorite candy that doesn’t melt in the desert heat is Starburst, I took what I had in my bag and just taped it to the side of the box,” he said at the time. “I can imagine being in the shoes of these parents down there. Not being able to provide much during a time of war would be heartbreaking. This could be something that will make a dire situation a little brighter, even if it’s just for a few moments.”

In Illinois, Homrig and others with the AOC monitored the C-17 portion of the mission and provided command and control—while still monitoring more than 40 other sorties each day.

Damron took a broader view, making sure every person and aircraft worked together.

“From where I sit, I had access to every asset that was involved in the operation, … all the coordination between every other aircraft,” over the drop zone, he said. This included information about foreign aircraft coming in to drop with the US. Damron and his teammates “brought that all together to ensure that they could meet at one place at one time and execute the air drop.”

The list of participating units and partners is long—so long that an Air Force spokesman said it is impossible to nail down exactly how many people participated in the relief effort. US Transportation Command, US Central Command, Air Mobility Command, AFCENT, 18th Air Force, 618th AOC (TACC), the 609th AOC (CAOC), Department of State, United States Agency for International Development, the government of Iraq, and the air forces of the United Kingdom and Australia all played a role.

That made for very long days in the CAOC, Damron said, but the airdrops would never have been approved if the airmen couldn’t plan around the challenges.

“It was a very busy time,” he said. “But everybody came together.”

Planners added an additional C-130 on the fourth and fifth nights of the operation, and an additional C-17 for the sixth and seventh nights. Altogether, USAF flew nine C-17 missions and 16 C-130 missions, dropping bundles containing 35,397 gallons of water and 114,216 halal MREs—679,280 pounds of cargo—on Mount Sinjar over a seven-night stretch.

In an Aug. 11 briefing at the Pentagon, Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville Jr., director of operations for the Joint Staff, responded to questions about a possible safe corridor for the Yazidi refugees by saying the most important thing at that moment was to deliver water, shelter, and food to those still stranded on the mountain.

“We are, right now, gripped by the immediacy of the crisis, and our focus right now is to provide immediate relief to those that are suffering,” he said. “We need to continue to sustain the humanitarian assistance, and we need to be able to protect that effort.”

On Aug. 13, after six nights of airdrops, the US sent a handful of troops and a group of USAID personnel to assess the situation, DOD officials said at the time. The last airdrops took place that night.

The next day, then-Pentagon spokesman Rear. Adm. John Kirby told reporters there were “far fewer Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar than previously feared, and that’s largely because of our successful humanitarian airdrops and US air strikes on [ISIS] targets.”

Do The Right Thing

The airdrops, together with the nearby air strikes, allowed Kurdish Peshmerga troops to help the Yazidis leave the mountain, Kirby said, bringing the number of Yazidis there down to roughly 5,000—including about 2,000 who planned to stay there—thereby making an evacuation mission unnecessary.

“Those who remain on Mount Sinjar are in better condition than we previously thought they might be, and they continue to have access to the food and water that we have airdropped,” he said.

Kirby said that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was “very proud that we’ve been able to effect this kind of change around Mount Sinjar, and in particular thanks to the skill and professionalism of our military personnel.”

In a speech, Obama said the airdrops had helped the US military break ISIS’ “siege of Mount Sinjar.”

“We helped vulnerable people reach safety, and we saved many innocent lives,” he said. “The bottom line is, is that the situation on the mountain has greatly improved and Americans should be very proud of our efforts. … I could not be prouder of the men and women of our military who carried out this humanitarian operation almost flawlessly.”

Kirby said the mission was necessary because DOD believed “the risk of genocide was real.”

“There was an imminent threat at the time to tens of thousands of people on that mountain,” he said. “They’re up against some pretty brutal people here, you know, beheading young kids and chasing down innocent women and children and slaughtering them.”

Damron said everything went as planned during the airdrops, and all the bundles were dropped on target. It was his first time in a planning role as the weapons officer for a humanitarian aid mission, and he said it was rewarding to be able to put that training to use.

But the best part of the operation, he said, was “knowing that we were saving lives.”

Homrig said he enjoyed being able to work with other services, countries, and aircraft on such an important mission.

“It really puts into perspective and unites people from different places, … and you get to do basically a good deed,” he said. “The best moments of my career and my life have been when we’ve been able to directly impact and help those who are in dire need, both in the Philippines and [at Mount Sinjar]. … It’s really giving hope to those who need it.”

Homrig had deployed to Iraq several times previously, so he said, “To be able to help our friends out in Iraq and let them know that even though ISIL might be right in their face, that we are not deterred, … it’s always a good feeling to do the right thing.”