Shock and Awe: Fifteen Years ago Tonight…

Army vehicles moving through the Oil Wells of southern Iraq

My fellow citizens, at this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.” President George W Bush speech on 19 March 2003.

Fifteen years ago tonight, I stood on the floor of the Prince Sultan Air Base Combined Air Operations Center, the nerve center for the air campaign, looking up at the wall. Video relay from the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (J-STARS) moving target indication radar projected on the wall. Hundreds of inverted yellow triangles spread all over southern Iraq. Yellow means potential targets.

The coalition ground forces commander Lieutenant General David McKiernan remained concerned about one thing: The Crown Jewels, the Rumaila Oil Fields. An MQ-1 Predator picked up Iraqis setting charges on the oil pumping equipment and setting the charges off. The Fires of Kuwait were happening all over again. With General Tommy Franks permission, Lt Gen McKiernan began Operation Iraqi Freedom by sending troops to the oil wells the night of 19 March. Blue Force Tracker icons projected on the CAOC wall began moving northward to the oil fields.

The 1003 Victor war plan called for one big event tonight. Coalition Special Forces soldiers and their support infiltrated into Iraq. Coalition Special Forces moved off MC-130 Combat Shadow airlifters, and 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) helicopters spreading across western Iraqi. Spec Ops had many tasks. A primary mission was hunting SCUD ballistic missiles in western Anbar Province. Groups of Navy SEALS and Army Apache attack helos destroyed Visible Observation Posts along the Saudi-Iraqi border. One group rarely heard about sought and capture/killed members of Saddam’s inner circle. This group was called Task Force 20, made up of Delta Force, SEAL Team 6, and British and Australian Special Air Service (SAS) commandos. If you want to read a great book on a long flight, check out Lieutenant Colonel Pete Blaber’s The Mission, The Men, and Me. He was the Delta Force Commander giving orders to his “Wolverines,” named after the famous Patrick Swayze movie Red Dawn.

Sikorsky MH-53 Pave Low helicopter sits outside a city in northern Iraq

This night fifteen years ago Q, the F-117 Stealth Fighter plans officer, appeared in front of my desk, an urgent look on his face. 

“Sluggo, I need gas. A lot of it.”

“Q, everybody needs gas. What makes your need so unique?”

“Sluggo, I’m waiting for the President to approve the target. I need the gas tonight!”

There’s only one target requiring presidential approval.

“What’s going on tonight, Q?”

“We know where Saddam and his sons are this evening. I’m building a Black Jet strike to bomb his ass at a place called Dora Farms.”

CIA Director George Tenant received information from a group of Saddam loyalists the US paid off as informants, nicknamed “The Rock Stars.” One of the Rock Stars convinced CIA Director George Tenant Saddam and his sons Uday and Qusay would be at Dora Farms tonight. The Director, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Chuck Meyers, and the President discussed with Lt Gen Mike Moseley the risks of such a strike. One risk stood out. The F-117’s must take off to reach Dora Farms in the cover of night by 3:15 am. The President decided at 3:12 am. The two F-117’s nicknamed RAM 01 and RAM 02 dropped four GPS and laser-guided bombs on Dora Farms just as the sun was rising in the east. Shortly after the F-117 team strike, two dozen Navy Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles or TLAMs slammed into Dora Farms.

Initial reports we received were Saddam was pulled from the rubble on a stretcher with an emergency medical technician holding an oxygen mask over his face. 

Saddam appeared on television Thursday morning 20 March with a prepared text. After the war, the Joint Forces Command Iraqi Perspective Project Team interviewed several people of Saddam’s inner circle. Saddam’s secretary said he was staying in the Al Mansour area of Baghdad, miles from Dora Farms.

The opening of the Iraqi Freedom air campaign, dubbed “Shock and Awe” by the mainstream media, but called Air Tasking Order O at the CAOC, would begin the next evening. The first bombs slamming into targets in downtown Baghdad, arrived at 9 pm Friday, 21 March 2003.

This picture shows RAM 01 landing after the early morning strike on Saddam and sons at Dora Farms

About the author, Mark Hasara

Author of Tanker Pilot: Lessons from the Cockpit, Mark Hasara is a retired US Air Force pilot with 24 year in the KC-135 airborne tanker. He is a speaker and aviation industry consultant in campaign planning and cockpit architecture. Follow his weekly newsletter “On the Nations DIME”.