At least 50 U.S. aircraft (mostly Blackhawk helicopters), ferrying more than 1,500 troops, swooped down on Samarra today, launching the biggest American air assault since the invasion of Iraq three years ago.
Air assault is, of course, the operational tactic perfected by the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). Unlike the 82nd Airborne (which still insists on jumping out of perfectly good airplanes), the 101st uses its huge fleet of helicopters to insert forces at the edge of the battlefield, or behind enemy lines. During Operation Desert Storm, the 101st conducted a massive air assault behind enemy lines, a critical element of the famous "left hook" maneuver that crushed Saddam's forces in Kuwait and Southern Iraq. The entire division (almost 20,000 personnel) re-deployed to Iraq last fall; not surprisingly, the division played a key role in today's raid in Samarra, along with other U.S. and Iraqi units.
Properly executed, an air assault is a lightning strike, allowing U.S. forces to quickly isolate specific targets and overwhelm them. In Iraq, air assault puts terrorist forces at a major disadvantage, partially negating the effectiveness of roadside bombs or VBIEDs, and exposing their marginal air defense capabilities.
Early reports from the battlefield are encouraging; so far, troops have captured a number of weapons caches that supported IED operations, along with Iraqi security forces uniforms and phony ID cards. Leapfrogging from bases just north of Baghdad, the assault force appears to have achieved tactical surprise when they began landing in Samarra. The rapid discovery of IED support facilities and the uniforms/ID cards also suggests that we had good intel to support the raid, allowing us to target certain buildings and (probably) specific individuals. Discovery of the uniforms and ID cards reaffirms terrorist attempts to infiltrate Iraqi security forces, and staging attacks to discredit legitimate Iraqi police and soliders.
In addition to the helicopter force, today's offensive also includes 200 tactical vehicles, which advanced into the area on the heels of the air assault. Details of the operation are (deliberately) sketchy, but it's important to put today's attack into a larger context. As Bill Roggio (and other informed observers) have noted, complex raids or other ground actions in Iraq don't happen in a vaccum.
The large-scale raid in Samarra is probably the opening chapter of a multi-phased offensive, similar to what Army and Marine units have been doing in western Iraq for the past year. The initial phase typically involves the interdiction of terrorist strongholds, and cutting off possible escape routes. Once the area has been secured, the focus begins to shift to civil affairs operations, with an emphasis on building ties with local leaders and emplacing well-trained Iraqi security forces, to keep the bad guys from coming back.
With the 101st "in country" for another 6-7 months, it's likely that we haven't seen the last, large-scale air assault operation in Iraq.