By Steven Alger, 10th SFG(A).
In early 2003, planning between the United States and coalition partners was underway to eliminate Saddam Hussein and his influence throughout Iraq. This operation would later be known as Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). This initial operation was divided into multiple missions, one of which was named “Ugly Baby,” aiming to open a second front in enemy territory.
The goal was to insert the majority of two 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) battalions into the country. The mission was to cross through Turkey’s airspace under cover of darkness to establish a foothold on the northern border of Iraq. Though a reliable NATO ally, Turkey feared that OIF might ultimately reinvigorate Kurdish plans for an independent Kurdistan. However, on March 1, 2003, their military was still against the United States utilizing their airspace due to the internal political situation.
As a result, the Joint Special Operations Aviation Detachment-North (JSOAD-N) and the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-North (CJSOTF-N), which included members from the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), started looking for an alternate route into the north. With the help of the United States European Command, Romania offered the U.S. the use of Mihail Kogălniceanu (M.K.) Air Base near Constanta.
Chief Warrant Officer 5 Jefferey Elwell, then an Operation Detachment Alpha (ODA) team sergeant with the 10th Special Forces Group at the time, shared his experience during the initial operation. “It was about three days of us trying to get into northern Iraq by flying over Turkish airspace, and each time they would deny our flight,” said Elwell, now the Command Chief Warrant Officer for 10th SFG(A). “We had been planning this for months, and we were anxious to get in and get to work.”
Planning was underway to establish a new route that would jump from M.K. Air Base, but that added hours of flight time and required more fuel on the already heavily loaded MC-130Hs.
This new route was also a heavily defended airspace which required that operations be conducted at lower elevations to avoid anti-air bombardment. Regardless, it was deemed the only direct route available. What initially had started as three MC-130Hs turned into six, dispersing as much weight as possible for necessary equipment. Members of the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army Green Berets would take off in intervals throughout the night to either Bashur Landing Zone (LZ) or Sulaymaniyah LZ, located on the northern border of Iraq.
Map of Northern Iraq, March 2003. Red denotes Iraqi positions. The green line is the extent of Peshmerga lines. (Image courtesy of Mark Grdovic, DVIDS)
Jim Donovan, an ODA team sergeant assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 10th SFG(A), said, “When we flew north on the western border of Iraq, that’s when all the Ugly Baby portion really started.”
The planes taking off were staggered, which allowed the Iraqis to adjust fire as each plane flew the route to Bashur and Sulaymaniyah L.Z.s. The last few planes received the most contact from anti-air. Most of the flight had been an average ride until the aircrew started to receive enemy fire. At that point, the airplane initiated evasive maneuvers to avoid taking too much damage. During the rollercoaster of a ride, the pilots had to change elevation throughout the flurry of rounds, sometimes reaching nearly 200 ft off the ground and at near top speeds with as many as 60 Green Berets on board.
“You could see tracers and hear all the rounds outside, but we had all the confidence in the Air Force to get us through,” Donovan stated.
Donovan also said that at the time, he thought about what they would do if they had to make an emergency landing. He hoped it was in a flat enough area for convenience because everyone on the plane was surrounded by necessary equipment while wearing all the necessary gear they would need.
Contact would come in waves as they passed through embedded anti-air. The sound of rounds impacting the aircraft’s fuselage could be heard throughout the flight, and a few stray rounds hit one of the engines, causing fuel and oil to leak. As another engine was struck, the pilots would come on the radio declaring an inflight emergency. Unfortunately, the damaged engine would have the MC-130H land sooner than anticipated. Given the circumstances, the closest and safest place would be to cross the border into Turkey.
“We passed over a small convoy, and they started firing everything from shoulder-fired Surface to Air Missile Systems to pistols and everything in between,” said Elwell as he recounted moments from his experience. “The lights came on, and the pilots declared an inflight emergency which would have them divert landing into Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. As the ramp came down, everyone started running as they realized aviation fluid was spilling over the tarmac.”
During the night of March 22, 2003, the JSOAD-N would successfully insert 19 U.S. Army Special Forces teams along with 4 Company Headquarters elements between Bashur and Sulaymaniyah L.Z.s. No casualties or injuries were sustained throughout the high-risk flight, which ultimately caused Turkey to rethink its decision to allow the U.S. to utilize its airspace to send much-needed supplies to the northern border.
Ugly Baby was remembered as the longest low-level infiltration via aircraft since the Second World War.
“That next day, we proceeded to load up and continue through the mountains to later coordinate close air support down on Iraqi positions across the green line alongside peshmerga fighters,” Elwell said. “They were excellent and very brave, and many had sacrificed their lives alongside us to liberate Iraq.”
This story by Spc. Steven Alger of the 10th Special Forces Group was first published on March 30, 2023 by the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service. DVIDS content is in the public domain.
The map shows the route flown north along the western border of Iraq during the mission Ugly Baby on March 22, 2003. The mission intent was to insert ODA teams into two different landing zones to help gain a northern front as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Photo Courtesy of U.S Army)
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