By ODA 074 Team Members and Capt. Karla S. Owen, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) Public Affairs
FORT CARSON, Colo. (Sine Pari, Aug. 22, 2008) - It was the early morning hours of May 30, 2007, as the 11-man Special Forces team crept silently through their target’s village. They had achieved total surprise after conducting the first ever combat standoff military freefall insertion of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Every person in the village was sound asleep.
Members of Operational Detachment – Alpha (ODA) 074, Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) conduct training on military free fall insertion over the deserts of Arizona Jan. 21, 2008. ODA 074 is the only SF High Altitude Low Opening team to conduct a combat standoff MFF insertion into Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom May 30, 2007. (U.S. Army photo by MSG John D. Addleman)
The team, Operational Detachment – Alpha 074, Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), jumped into the Ninewah Province, north of the Iraqi Sinjar Mountain, with the intent to capture a suspected terrorist with ties to trafficking counterfeit U.S. currency. They also had plans to disrupt a criminal network supporting the movement and funding of foreign fighters, weapons and equipment funneled into Iraq.
The mission was designed to take the enemy completely by surprise, which is exactly what it did, said Master Sgt. John D. Addlemen, the ODA 074 team sergeant.
Even in the early planning stages, Addlemen and his team had a large obstacle to overcome. The suspected terrorists his team was after had implemented a robust early warning network, taking advantage of their remote location, and thus giving them the ability to escape or destroy evidence within minutes. The root of the problem was penetrating that network.
The proposed solution was a stealthy infiltration which would deny the enemies the opportunity to escape or tamper with evidence. This prompted the team’s leadership to regard military freefall, or MFF, as the best option in overcoming the early warning system. A joint U.S.-Iraqi quick reaction force would provide ground assault support for the jump team.
Every company within a Special Forces group has an MFF team assigned, which is comprised of personnel with advanced parachutist’s skills. These skills include parachute ground training, advanced aircraft procedures, instruction on life-support equipment and procedures with high-altitude airborne operations. The latter are known as High Altitude Low/High Opening jumps with aircraft exits ranging up to 25,000 feet and parachute openings as low as 4,000 feet, all while wearing combat equipment, supplemental oxygen, and navigational equipment.
Historically, the use of the MFF in combat has been viewed as the last alternative of insertion due to the potentially high risk of the operation. For this reason, commanders usually err on the side of safety by looking at other means of insertion. Furthermore, a traditional MFF team is typically used as a small element for reconnaissance insertions, not for purely offensive operations.
Over the years SF has used this means of insertion only once per military campaign, and even then primarily for surveillance or targeting. Rarely is an MFF team inserted to complete an offensive operation. The last documented MFF in combat by an SF team was January 1991 when a 12-man team inserted into the northwest deserts of Iraq in support of Operation Desert Storm.
MFF is often overlooked and highly understated, Addlemen said. ODA 074 decided during pre-deployment training that they would approach MFF as a viable combat option with the objective to change the mentality of its use. Train right, maintain your skills and a MFF team can be a valuable command asset, he said.
ODA 074 trained for deployment for more than twelve months. Prior to the team deploying to Iraq, they collectively completed more than 40 HALO/HAHO jumps in preparation for such a contingency.
The team, lead by Capt. Clayton C. Daniels, collectively has an average of four years of MFF and SF experience. This seasoned and talented team wanted to test themselves, their equipment, and their capabilities for each other and the command.
In preparation for this type of environment, Daniels and Addleman, along with Chief Warrant Officer Patrick J. Joyce, ODA 074 assistant team leader, wanted to give their pre-deployment MFF training a distinct combat focus. This began by acknowledging that mission success is not achieved by simply reaching the insertion point successfully.
These leaders also wanted to change the idea of a combat HALO jump being considered an anomaly in today’s war-fighting environment. To gain the confidence and acceptance of the command to use MFF in the War on Terror, they developed a new approach to training and reestablished their foothold in Special Operations as more than just ‘military sky-divers.’
“A key training objective to achieving this goal,” according to their task force commander, Lt. Col. Dan Stoltz, 3rd Battalion, 10th SFG (A) commander, “was obtaining and maintaining Level I proficiency as late as possible prior to deployment.”
Stolz said HALO teams must maintain a Level I proficiency status, which includes nighttime combat equipment jump with supplemental O2 while landing as a group, for an entire deployment. Level I proficiency is only good for 120 days, so if an MFF ODA conducts its qualification too early in pre-mission training, it will expire early in the deployment.
ODA 074 was prepared and surpassed the set Army standards, updating their airborne standard operating procedures and ensuring they were always combat-focused.
A central aspect of their pre-deployment training was being allowed to perform extensive testing and training with the prototype version of a parachutist navigation system. According to the distributor, the system is a “global positioning-based, flight management system with an integrated heads-up display. It provides parachutists with accurate navigation capabilities and enhanced situational awareness, allowing them to fly to their designated landing zones.”
The use of this system assisted in their training and provided the team with a precision method for determining jumper release points over unfamiliar territory, at night, with no visual references necessary, Joyce said. The system provides all jumpers with the ability to accurately navigate over long distance while under canopy, and land together in unmarked drop zones during periods of limited visibility.
Sgt. 1st Class Dale J. Kozelka, one of ODA 074’s engineers, related that this system greatly enhanced the team’s capability.
“We conducted 13 HAHO jumps while testing the PARANAV helmet system,” he said. “We constantly verified the PARANAV capabilities against our navigation boards, or ‘belly’ compasses, making us very confident in our abilities to navigate with a compass under canopy.”
ODA 074 culminated their HAHO qualification with a final night-time jump that alleviated any concerns that may have been on their minds. There longest HAHO had them under canopy for more than 14 kilometers, landing within a 50-meter radius of each other.
While the team did not deploy with the PARANAV system, its testing improved their ability and confidence in their navigation abilities to conduct an accurate combat MFF. When it came time to plan the mission in Iraq, their training was second nature.
Members of Operational Detachment – Alpha (ODA) 074, Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) conduct training on military free fall insertion in the deserts of Arizona Jan. 21, 2008. After jumping from more than 13,000 feet, the team packed up and assembled their gear for a follow-on ground assault. ODA 074 is the only SF High Altitude Low Opening team to conduct a combat standoff military free fall insertion into Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom May 30, 2007. (U.S. Army photo by MSG John D. Addleman)
Training on unmarked drop zones, desert conditions and full gear jumps gave the team confidence that this was the right method for this particular target. They did not go looking for a HALO jump, and in fact, completed more than 12 ground-offensive operations while continuing to train their Iraqi counterparts, when the Ninewah Province mission came along.
The leaders of ODA 074 were confident in their training and equipment, and when the “go-criteria” was met for this mission, they knew they would achieve the surprise needed to accomplish the mission.
Mission planning was narrowed down to three days based on intelligence of the targeted individual’s location, night-time weather conditions and night-time illumination. Once the approval was given and the date was chosen, final preparations commenced.
Force protection was the main concern, according to the Advanced Operating Base 070 commander, Maj. Isaac J. Peltier.
“With this isolated objective, we were very aware of the potential force ratio differences between sending in a small 11-man team versus a larger ground assault force,” Peltier said. “Contingency plans were put in place and with the intelligence that we had received regarding the target; we took the needed steps to mitigate the risk.”
Peltier explained that sending a small 11-man team into an objective alone is risky, regardless of the QRF nearby. However, this target was deemed right for an MFF insertion so the ODA planned appropriately to be self-sufficient on the objective.
Early on May 29, the Ninewah Province operation began with the movement of ODA 074 and their Iraqi Army counterparts to an airfield located on a nearby forward operating base to link-up with its sister detachment, ODA 075. The plan was for ODA 075 to be responsible for controlling the follow-on ground assault forces that were comprised of ODA 074’s Iraqi Army and ODA 075’s Iraqi Police counterparts. At the FOB, final coordination, air mission brief with air elements, mission brief for ground forces and rehearsals were conducted in preparation for the actual combat operation.
ODA 074 moved to the flight line, rigged their combat equipment and conducted jumpmaster inspections, while ODA 075 simultaneously moved with their Iraqi counterparts to stage at a secure location closer to the target. There they would wait for ODA 074 to initiate the assault.
Shortly after midnight, the 11-man MFF team boarded an MC-130 Combat Talon aircraft especially well-suited to conduct the night drop in variable conditions.
When the team and the aircrew went airborne the illumination provided by the moon was close to 100% visibility. At approximately 4:05 a.m., at an altitude of nearly 13,000 feet, the team performed a diving exit off the ramp of the U.S. Air Force aircraft. All jumpers utilized the MC-4 Ram Air Free Fall Personnel Parachute System wearing supplemental oxygen, carrying their assigned weapons, and a parachutist’s drop bag containing their combat equipment, weighing more than 100 pounds.
The team knew that conditions on the ground do not always match the conditions in the air, and at 13,000 feet, this became abundantly clear as they began their final preparations to jump. Due to an unforeseen approaching sandstorm, the visibility was worse than expected. The moon was in a haze and the team realized that visibility was going to be less than what they had been told to expect. At an altitude of 6,000 feet, each jumper deployed his parachute and oriented toward the blacked-out, unmarked drop zone and rally point.
One of the critical aspects in conducting a combat MFF is the ability of the parachutists to read their navigation boards so that they could land closely together at the predetermined DZ. Infrared strobes worn by each jumper were only intermittently visible, making it difficult to group together under canopy. This resulted in the team landing in three separate, dispersed groups. This did not hinder the outcome of the mission, since each small group conducted a tactical DZ assembly. Personnel were accounted for, equipment was recovered, parachutes and air items were cached, and individual assault gear was donned.
Once combat ready, the separate elements moved to a link-up site south of the target area, bringing the 11 members of ODA 074 together. They then moved as a team to their final concealed position, 300 meters south of the target area, before beginning their ground assault.
ODA 074 then crept up to the buildings and made a stealthy entry into the target area. In every case, all villagers encountered in the targeted structures were completely surprised and awakened from sleep as every room and floor was cleared.
Kozelka remembered the surprised look on their faces.
“They had no idea that we were even in the area,” Kozelka said. “No team has ever had the element of surprise that we did that morning. We’ve proven it can be done. Try and find a current team out there that has conducted anything close to this. Our training set us up for this mission.”
Within 10 minutes, all the intended community people on the objective were under immediate control. Six minutes later, ODA 075 and its ground assault force arrived, securing the perimeter and entire target area.
When asked about the value of the mission since the targeted individual was, unfortunately, not in the village or detained, Addleman forcefully stated, “I’ve conducted multiple missions, on multiple tours. This was the first time that everybody on the target was still asleep when we arrived and not awake and waiting for us. There was absolute silence when we arrived on target. This mission was 100 percent successful in achieving ultimate surprise.”
Peltier pointed out that “fog and friction” is inherent in every operation. The incoming sandstorm was unpredicted and dispersion led to a longer assembly time. Under those circumstances, patience was key.
“Because of the dispersion, the team took longer to assemble than planned,” Peltier said. “But I trusted my team. They were one of my best.”
After the mission, Danielshighlighted the success of the HAHO jump. He pointed out that this mission further validated MFF as a means of insertion for SF, “Despite landing in and moving through known smuggler and foreign fighter ‘ratlines,’ all the team elements were able to link-up and conduct a direct action mission without early compromise.”
Since redeployment, this team has traveled to Arizona for requalification and continued training. Joyce, ODA 074’s senior jumper with more than eight years MFF experience, reflected that their training and operating procedures continue to evolve.
“We have become more realistic in planning timelines to accommodate contingencies, building in flex time, continuing to revise our ASOP,” Joyce said. “We are the visionaries in the future of HALO. We need to get it right. New technology and continued training improvements are essential.”
As they continue to train, they said their concentration is on improvement. As one of ODA 074 communication sergeants, Staff Sgt. Zechariah C. Flaugh, related that the jump culminated everything they had learned.
With more than 485 combined civilian and MFF jumps of his own, Flaugh said the sheer number of jumps he has conducted makes him confident. With the pre-deployment training and ground rehearsals in Iraq, his said his team was ready.
“The fact that we can tell others what it takes to get done and that it can be done safely is important,” Flaugh said. “We did make history.”
Sgt. 1st Class Mark A. Mallory, ODA 074 weapons sergeant, further related that they set a precedent in mission success.
“The fact that you can employ MFF in the War on Terror validates its use for future operations,” Mallory said. “We’re getting back to the original roots of MFF. People I haven’t heard from in years call to find out the lessons that I have learned and want to see how they can improve their operations.”
Mallory, reflecting the implication of this historic jump, said “The standards will and should change. We are a part of that. It was what we planned and trained for.”
The team has seen a few changes with eight out of eleven members still training together, while some have moved on to other SF occupations since the combat MFF insertion. The training continues to expand and continues to improve at every level.
Sgt. Jim A. Canzoneri, a member of ODA 074 during the operation, but not MFF qualified, remembered the mission, “It made a big difference before I headed to school to see the training and combat jump. I knew what to expect and what the team expected of me. It is obvious to me that this is the hardest working team around and I want to do what they’ve done.”
Members of the historical May 30, 2007 HAHO jump over northern Iraq: