You are U.S. Army Lieutenant Nelson Patel, leader of a 1st Infantry Division tank platoon with four M1A1 Abrams tanks. Your unit is stationed at a forward operating base (FOB) near the city of Baqubah, 30 miles north of Baghdad, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Although the 2003 invasion of Iraq by U.S. and coalition forces defeated the Iraqi army and deposed dictator Saddam Hussein, a widespread insurgency has erupted in the wake of the invasion.
The insurgents you face in this country are extremely dangerous. They employ guerrilla tactics, such as ambushes and bombings, and their weapons include AK-47 assault rifles, machine guns, rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), mortars and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The IEDs, which the enemy fighters typically emplace on or near the roads, are particularly deadly to soldiers moving on foot or traveling in vehicles.
Earlier this morning, in response to reports that a large insurgent force has moved into parts of Baqubah, you were ordered to lead your platoon in a patrol along one of the city’s major roads. Each of the heavily armored, 68- ton tanks in your platoon has a crew of four men (commander, gunner, loader and driver) and is well armed with a 120 mm main gun, two 7.62 mm machine guns, one of which is coaxially mounted, and a top-mounted .50- caliber heavy machine gun. While the latter can be fired remotely from inside the tank, its ammunition supply must be replenished externally.
As you are leading the patrol from within your tank positioned at the head of the other three, you suddenly hear a thunderous blast as an IED explodes on the road to your front. Fortunately, the device appears to have detonated prematurely, causing no damage to your vehicle or harm to your crewmen. Seconds later, however, an RPG round fired from a nearby rooftop strikes your tank’s turret.
You quickly order your gunner to engage the insurgents who fired the RPG, but he reports that the turret is jammed and he is unable to traverse the main gun and the coaxially mounted machine gun to align them on the target. Moreover, you now spot several more RPG teams as well as other fighters armed with AK-47s on the rooftops and in the windows of the buildings along both sides of the road.
You must immediately decide what actions to take to escape this deadly ambush.
WHAT IS YOUR DECISION, LIEUTENANT PATEL?
ASSESSMENT OF THE TACTICAL SITUATION
The tactics used in this ambush are typical of an insurgent attack: explode an IED under the lead vehicle of a patrol or convoy to disable it; block the road while RPG teams and individual fighters inflict as many casualties as possible; and then withdraw to avoid being drawn into a set-piece battle with overwhelming U.S. and coalition firepower.
Your tank was the target of both the IED attack and the initial fusillade, and the insurgents will continue to focus on it as long as it remains in the lead. The tank’s damaged turret can no longer traverse, but its main gun and coaxially mounted machine gun can still move up and down. Since the tank’s mobility has not been impaired, you also can engage the enemy with the .50- caliber heavy machine gun. However, once its ammunition is expended, you can’t risk sending a crewman out to replenish it.
Your situation is serious, as you are at risk of incurring further damage to your tank and possible casualties to your crew. However, it also presents you with a rare opportunity to kill a significant number of the usually elusive insurgents.
POSSIBLE COURSES OF ACTION
Since remaining in place could be deadly, you determine that you have two possible courses of action:
The first option is to continue leading the platoon forward with your impaired tank. Although your turret can’t traverse, you can still target the enemy with its main gun and machine gun by directing the driver to move the tank left or right. You have already identified several enemy positions, and you can destroy many of them before the insurgents have time to move to other hidden locations or escape. As the lead tank, however, your vehicle is at risk of sustaining further damage or perhaps taking a potentially fatal hit from an IED or RPG round.
The alternative is to pull back immediately and rejoin the rest of the platoon. You can then order one of the other tanks to take the lead as the unit attempts to re-engage the insurgents, or you can abort the patrol and return to the FOB. Continuing the mission with a fully functional lead tank maximizes combat power, but it also gives the ambushers time to reposition to hidden locations. Returning to the FOB, on the other hand, leaves the insurgents in control of the road but prevents them from achieving their main objective of killing as many Americans as possible.
Speaking through the tank’s intercom, you deliver your orders to your crew: “The insurgents exposed their positions when they opened fire on us – so let’s take them out! Driver, keep moving forward and I’ll direct you to turn left or right to align our main gun and coax machine gun on the targets. Gunner, as soon as we’re lined up, you fire! Meanwhile, I’ll remotely fire the .50-cal for as long as its ammunition holds out, plus its tracers will help the gunner locate the targets I identify. We’ll follow this procedure until we’ve defeated the ambush and destroyed as many enemy positions as possible.”
Switching to the radio, you order the rest of the platoon to follow your tank and engage the insurgents as you identify them along both sides of the road.
Colonel (Ret.) John Antal is the author of the must-read book “7 Leadership Lessons of the American Revolution: The Founding Fathers, Liberty and the Struggle for Independence” (Casemate, 2013).
HISTORICAL NOTE: The tactical situation described in this fictional account is based on an actual June 24, 2004, combat action in Baqubah, Iraq. That morning, dozens of insurgents ambushed Lieutenant Neil Prakash’s four-tank platoon that was part of 2d Battalion, 63d Armored Regiment, 1st Infantry Division. An after-battle report stated that 23 IEDs and 20-25 RPG teams were located within the 1-kilometer stretch of road.
Despite a disabled turret, Prakash kept his tank in the lead and engaged the insurgents by moving the vehicle to the left and right to align its guns on enemy targets. By the end of the fight, his tank had destroyed eight enemy strongpoints while surviving multiple IED blasts and at least seven hits by RPG rounds. The platoon was credited with 25 confirmed insurgent kills plus an estimated 50-60 additional destroyed enemy fighters. Prakash, who was born in India and raised in Syracuse, N.Y., was awarded the Silver Star for his heroic leadership.
Originally published in the July 2014 issue of Armchair General.