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U.S. Department of Defense
Press Operations
News Transcript

Presenter: Colonel Steve Warren, Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman May 04, 2016

Department of Defense Press Briefing by Col. Warren via Teleconference From Baghdad, Iraq

CAPTAIN JEFF DAVIS: Right. Good morning and happy Star Wars Day.

Steve, good morning. Happy to see you and we'll turn it over to you for your comments.

COLONEL STEVE WARREN: Thank you, Jeff. It's always good to be here with everyone. I'm sure everyone has questions about yesterday's incident, and so that's what I will begin with. It was a bad day for us here yesterday.

On Tuesday, an American advise and assist team was in the village of Tal Asquf, meeting with a Peshmerga unit. Tal Asquf sits approximately three and a half kilometers behind the forward line of troops.

At approximately 0730, ISIL forces breached the Peshmerga forward lines. At 0750, the Americans there became involved in the ensuing firefight and called a quick reaction force. A U.S. service member was killed.

The service member was part of the quick reaction force who responded. At 0932, he was struck by direct fire, and although he was medevaced within the all important golden hour, his wound was not survivable. No other coalition or American forces were injured, though both medevac helicopters were damaged by small arms fire.

There were Peshmerga causalities but I do not have numbers on those to release. Coalition air responded with 31 strikes taken by 11 manned aircraft and two drones. Air power destroyed 20 enemy vehicles, two truck bombs, three mortar systems, one bulldozer, 58 ISIL terrorists were killed. The Peshmerga have regained control of Tal Asquf.

And our deepest heartfelt condolences go out to that American service member and his family. He is an American hero. This is a reminder of the risk our men and women face every day supporting the fight against ISIL.

Now, I'd like to give a quick update on other operations across the battlefield in the Tigris River Valley in the vicinity of Makhmur. At 15th Iraqi army division continues clearance operations in the village of Mahana. In Codilla, engineers cleared 30 houses and dismantled 25 IEDs.

To the southeast, the Peshmerga with the assistance of coalition airstrikes seized Bashir from ISIL in an operation that lasted less than 24 hours. Bashir was an important support zone for this enemy. They used the town as a launch area for indirect fire attacks in Kirkuk. You may also recall that Bashir was the staging ground for a chemical attack that killed three children in Taza.

In the Euphrates River Valley, Operation Desert Links also continues. The 73rd Iraqi Army Brigade is securing Hiit while the 7th commando battalion is isolating the Dulab Peninsula. Last week, the 29th brigade cleared highway 12 between Dulab and Hiit.

In Fallujah, the Iraqi Army's 52nd Brigade is clearing a canal north of Karamah. And the 60th seized Mula Mir.

In Syria, forces continue the shoving match along the Mara Line with both ISIL and moderate Syrian opposition forces gaining and losing villages over the last week.

That concludes my brief opening remarks. And with that, I'm happy to go to your questions. Bob or Lita are you there?

CAPT. DAVIS: They are not. We're actually going to start today with Joe Tabet.

Q: Hi, Mr. Warren. This is Joe Tabet.

I would like to go back to your opening statement, with the killing of the Navy SEAL, Petty Officer Keating -- excuse me -- do you think the U.S. mission in Iraq and maybe in Syria is getting more involved in the combat mission than training the local forces -- as you say -- as Secretary Carter said yesterday?

COL. WARREN: Our mission remains to advise, assist, train, equip our partner forces both here in Iraq and in Syria. That really continues to be our primary mission. In fact, we've trained more than 22,000 Iraqi soldiers thus far. That really is the largest component of this operation. Training and advise -- the training and the equipping piece.

Certainly, the advise and assist piece is also a very critical part of what we do here. But proportionally, it's relatively small. And then, of course, the devastating air power that we provide each and every day is also -- very significant impact on this battlefield.

Q: (inaudible) -- Colonel Warren, have you had any investigation to know what led ISIS militants to go inside the area and kill the Navy SEAL?

COL. WARREN: Well, we do have a map. I don't know if that map is available. You can pull it up and we can take a little bit of a look here. So what you have here, and I think it's important to kind visualize this battlefield.

So what we have is this forward line of troops that you can see there in -- in kind of brown. Everything on the lower, you know, south or towards the bottom of the page of that line is ISIL occupied and controlled territory. Everything north of it is part of the IKR, the Independent Kurdish Region. It's all Peshmerga controlled area.

So what you have here is -- is simply an example of an enemy attack. The enemy's intent, we believe, was to seize the town of Tal Asquf, which you can see there, kind of almost dead center of that map.

But you have to understand what this forward line of troops really looks like. It's not -- you know, a wall, it's not even a fence. All -- what it is is checkpoints along the main -- major roads and then they'll be outposts or observation posts in between those roads that observe the enemy.

So in this case the enemy was able to very covertly assemble enough force, which included the several truck bombs, some bulldozers, and of course their infantry. And they were available to punch through the Kurdish line there, punch through the fly, and really sprint towards Tal Asquf, which was their objective.

Now all this happened while our -- our advise and assist team happened to be in that village just doing their duties, right? They were, you know, conducting the advise and assist meeting -- or conducting a meeting, really, with the -- with the Peshmerga leaders who are responsible for that sector. And so it was really just a matter of timing.

So after the enemy forces punched through the forward lines there and made their move into Tal Asquf, our forces automatically became kind of embroiled in the ensuing battle. They rapidly called for the quick reaction force and continued on the fight until such time as -- that one solder was shot -- or one service member was shot and then medevaced out.

I think the important thing to keep in mind here is that the systems that we have in place worked. The quick reaction force sprang into action, the medevac did its duty of evacuating the wounded service member from the battlefield and got him back to the hospital within that very important one-hour timeframe where we've determined that it makes a significant difference.

So, you know, all of the factors that we set up to mitigate the possibility of, you know, a significant loss, came together. And while yes that a service member was killed and it's a tragedy and this is the nature of operating in a dangerous environment.

Yes, the Black Hawk helicopters that were used to medevac him did receive -- they did take some damage from ground fire. But this is the nature of being in a dangerous place.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Cassim.

Q: General, hi. I will have two questions. One on the soldier that's been killed in Iraq and I will have another one on Syria. Was Daesh aware of the American forces being in that village?

COL. WARREN: No, they were not.

Q: So, the American forces were not the target of that attack by that (inaudible) by ISIS?

COL. WARREN: Well, we've seen nothing to indicate that. No.

Q: Okay. And on Syria, have the Turks recently requested or provided the coalition with the coordinates of the Daesh targets inside Syria?

COL. WARREN: Well, of course we work very closely with our Turkish partners. They are NATO allies and they are partners with us in this operation against ISIL. So, we work very closely with them to exchange information on the enemy situation and on targets.

Q: There were certain reports claiming that the Turkish authorities have provided the U.S., and coalition as of -- with certain targets of Daesh inside northern Syria. But the coalition declined to include this, you know, targets into the task of air strikes. Could you confirm or decline -- deny this report?

COL. WARREN: Well, I'm not aware of those specific reports. But the way the process works, we will take inputs from any of our coalition partners to include the Iraqis and Syrian opposition forces, even on the ground.

As well as any of our other nation partners, as well as other agencies within the U.S. government. All of these various bodies can nominate targets. Now, once a target is nominated, then we put it through our vetting process. A very extensive, very detailed, very thorough vetting process to ensure that the target meets our criteria to be struck.

If the target meets that criteria, it gets struck. If it does not meet the criteria, it is not struck, regardless of who nominates the target.

CAPT. DAVIS: Our next, to Tara Copp.

Q: Colonel Warren, I may have misheard your initial summary. But was the SEAL a part of the advise and assist team on the ground? The -- was in the initial fire fight or was he part of the quick reaction force?

COL. WARREN: Yes, so the service member who was killed was part of the quick reaction force that responded when the advise and assist team became embroiled in the firefight.

Q: Okay. And the initial reporting yesterday suggested he was about three to five kilometers behind the forward line. Is that still true, since he was part of the quick reaction force?

COL. WARREN: That's correct. The firefight -- this battle took place in -- you know, in the vicinity of this town called Tal Asquf, which is approximately three and a half or so kilometers behind the front lines.

Q: Okay. And then for comparison with other firefights that U.S. forces have supported recently, is this the most intense one you've seen to date? Could you provide a little context for us?

COL. WARREN: Well, we think there were -- this was -- this was a large fight, there's not question about it. We think there were at least 125 enemy fighters involved in this fairly complicated, complex attack. So it -- it was a big fight, one of the largest we've seen recently. It puts me in mind of the battle that we saw around Tal Aswad on December 16 of last year, so several months ago.

So you know, what these are in our assessment -- you know, and this enemy has suffered a string of recent defeats. They were kicked out of Hiit, they've been cleared out of the roadway between Hiit and Dulab, they're being pressured into Dulab. They're being pressured, their noses have been bloodied and they've continued to become battered around Makhmur. They were out of Bashir by the Peshmerga.

So this enemy has suffered a string of defeats recently, and one of the things that we've noticed that ISIL likes to do is when they have suffered several defeats in a row, when they're back on their heels, often they will try one of these more high-profile, high-visibility attacks in an effort to gain some attention.

That's what we saw last December with their attack, right? That was just as Ramadi was beginning to go, and the enemy knew that -- that the end was near for Ramadi. They knew they were going to lose Ramadi. So what did they do? They conducted a very large and sophisticated attack along the Peshmerga lines, and that attack involved several hundred ISIL fighters, multiple VBIEDs. It was kind of the same tactic.

So this is something that we've seen before. We also know that when this enemy is on its heels, when it's suffered several setbacks, they're likely to try and lash out, you know, through terror attacks, perhaps in Baghdad, perhaps elsewhere in Syria, perhaps elsewhere in the world. It's part of the way this enemy operates, it's something that we know and it's something that we deal with.

Q: I just had one last quick one. The quick reaction force, they -- I assume they flew in by helicopter. Were they using Apaches?

COL. WARREN: There weren't any Apaches involved in this. You know, I'm very uncomfortable talking about specifically how the quick reaction force moves around the battlefield. I think this is a piece of information that -- that our enemy would like, so I'm not going to share it with you. But I -- but I will tell you that Apaches were not a part of this fight.

CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Next to Thomas Watkins with AFP.

Q: You mentioned the 125 enemy fighters involved in this. Could you give us the size of the -- the Peshmerga forces and the overall size of the -- the U.S. forces present?

And also, was the SEAL killed by a sniper? And what -- did you guys then kill the sniper?

COL. WARREN: So, I'm not going to talk in too much detail about the size of our quick reaction force. Again, this is a piece of information that our enemy would find exceptionally valuable, so I'm not telling.

Same with the size of our advise and equip, or advise and assist forces. We've said they're small teams, you know, less than a dozen. I'm going to leave it there.

There were several Peshmerga outposts and OPs in the area. The Peshmerga than rapidly generated their own series of counterattack forces, a number in the hundreds for the counterattack.

Q: And the thing about the sniper?

COL. WARREN: That's right, yes.

So I think that sniper bit came from the ground and I honestly -- I feel like it was a lost in translation. He was killed by direct fire. But this was a gun fight, you know, a dynamic gun fight, so he got hit just in the course of his gun battle whether it was a sniper or some fighter with his AK is unclear. So -- this really was, I mean, this was a gunfight so there were bullets everywhere.

CAPT. DAVIS: All right, next to Andrew Tillman.

Q: Colonel Warren, just two things.

Can you just describe what the ISIS fighters were operating in? Were they operating in trucks or bulldozers? How did they approach this village and mount and maneuver in this attack?

And the second question, just on the QRF -- I'm assuming this is an all American QRF that came in? If that's not the case, please correct me? And can you tell us how often QRFs like that are called into respond to situations? Is this the first time that's happened in months or is that a relatively routine thing for the guys up north?

COL. WARREN: It's all American and it's the first time it's happened in months.

On how the enemy moved in this case, so they move in these type of vehicles that we refer to as technicals, which is kind of an all encompassing term for you know, homemade gun trucks, right. They throw together these -- I don't know -- kind of Jed Clampit, they will bolt a machine gun onto the hood of a pick up truck, or a gremlin, or whatever. You know, it's whatever they can find with four wheels and an engine, they will bolt some armored plates on the side if they can find them. You know, they'll rig this thing up to be some sort of troop carrying vehicle, and whether or not it's only two or three people that can fit into it, or if it's a larger type of pick up truck, they can fit more in there.

So there's no standardization here. This is a non-standard military force that we're facing. So it's a little bit of everything. So that we use the word technicals, we've destroyed 20 of them.

The bulldozer they like to use in several ways. Like I said earlier, the flot that we talked about, this forward line, is simply a checkpoint on the road is the main thing. So they will use the bulldozer, they will often use a truck bomb, plow it into the checkpoint, detonate it, kill the personnel there, and then they'll have to use the bulldozer to push the wreckage out of the way.

Not clear on whether or not that's exactly how they did it this time. I don't think they did, it seems like they punched through just with the bulldozer, and detonated their one truck bomb that they got off a little bit further up the road and we destroyed the other two truck bombs from the air.

So -- but that's how they move around is in this kind of ad hoc series of bolted together homemade trucks and cars and -- et cetera.

Q: I just -- one more detail. What was the medical facility that the service member was taken to? Was that in Erbil or -- what medical facility?

COL. WARREN: We have what we refer to as role two medical facility in Erbil, yes.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Laurent.

Q: Hi Steve. This is Laurent.

I wanted to ask you, I'm not sure I understand exactly what is the Quick Reaction Force. What is its mission? Is it a unit that -- that is -- which role is to protect forces? And is it -- who is composing this force? Is it only special forces?

COL. WARREN: So the role -- the mission of the Quick Reaction Force is to quickly react with force to situations that arise. So in this case it is a group of very well armed, very well equipped, very well trained American service members whose mission is to standby, stand at the ready when American forces are operating.

In this case, there was an American force that we knew -- it was moving Tal Asquf to conduct this -- this meeting to do their -- to provide some advice and assistance to the Peshmerga forces that were there.

So the Quick Reaction Force prepared themselves to quickly react should force be required. And in this case it was. So when the fire erupted, the Quick Reaction Force quickly reacted and, you know, came to the battle and provided the additional firepower and maneuver that was required to extract the remainder of our personnel.

Q: Quick follow up. It's just special forces?

COL. WARREN: Well, I'm not going to get into that kind of detail. There are a lot of special forces operators in that area. Quick Reaction Force can be composed of -- of anything. Oftentimes it will be task organized according to mission. So it varies. In this case it was Special Operations Forces, but it can vary.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Dan Lamothe.

Q: Good morning, colonel. Dan Lamothe, "Washington Post."

One of the -- just to clarify a couple details -- really just maybe discrepancies between what we were getting from the ground and what we're hearing today.

For one, can we clarify whether or not the -- the advise force, the SEALs that were in Tal Asquf. Were they in Tal Asquf proper, the town itself, when this began? And by the time the QRF arrived, where were they?

COL. WARREN: So they were in the vicinity of Tal Asquf. You know, these -- these villages don't necessarily have clearly defined borders, maybe, as we're used to. So I think used Tal Asquf as the -- the spot on the map. And they remained there when the QRF arrived.

Q: Their fight was underway when the QRF arrived at that point -- even still at that point?

COL. WARREN: It was. Yeah. I mean, this was a dynamic battle. I mean, this -- again, we're talking more than 100 enemy fighters, you know, assaulting this town. So yeah, the firefight was ongoing.

Again, at 7:30 is kind of when the breach occurred. The team on the ground declared TIC at 0750, troops in contact, TIC.

That's what scrambled the quick reaction forces who rapidly arrived on the scene. I'm not going to give you the time, because again, this is a piece of information that emulates to know how quick the quick reaction force is. They'll use that as one of their planning factors.

So, it was quick. And then the firefight continued and then obviously at some point, our service member was shot.

Q: Just a couple of follow-ups. Was the vehicle carrying the deceased service member, or the eventually deceased service member hit with a RPG at any point in this battle? And can we clarify whether the quick reaction forces was accompanied by any Peshmerga?

COL. WARREN: Quick reaction forces was alone. Who got hit by what type of round is unclear. I would caution you against reporting on that in anyway. You know, the thing about battles and firefights is that there is a lot of fog. You know, we call it, sort of the fog of war.

So, it's very difficult to kind of sort out that level of minutia. And I know it reads really well, but in real life, that type of stuff is very difficult to get to the bottom of. And really, no three people see the battle in the same way. It all depends on where you.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Gordon Lubold.

Q: Hey, colonel, it's Gordon.

A couple of quick questions and then a broader one. But, was there only one QRF ever present in this whole scenario?

COL. WARREN: Only one.

Q: And can you give us a better -- or if I missed it, I apologize. But the QRF's mission is exactly what?

COL. WARREN: The mission of a quick reaction force is to quickly react to an emerging situation, normally with force.

Q: Right. But are they there -- again, sorry if I don't understand. But are they there to respond to protecting the advise and assist Americans who are there? Or are they there to help get, in this case, the Peshmerga out of trouble of their enemy?

COL. WARREN: Fair question. They are there for the Americans. So we'll task and organize a quick reaction forces based on mission right? When you plan a mission -- so in this case, mission. Send a team to Tal Asquf to conduct advice, provide advice and assistance to the Peshmerga fighters. That is your mission. Then you organize your mission after that. This is what commanders do. Leaders. They organize a mission.

Okay. What's the team going to look like? Well, we'll put this guy and this guy and that guy. Okay. What road are they going to drive to from their home base to the meeting site? So they'll plot out the route. They'll establish check points and phase lines along the way.

They'll establish what radio frequencies they're going to be on during the course of their mission. They'll determine who will provide quick reaction support should that team get into trouble. They'll task organize that quick reaction force specifically for the mission. Depending on distances, depending on the perceived enemy threat, depending on any number of factors.

The quick reaction force will be put together specifically to support that mission. And that quick reaction forces will then be placed somewhere on the battlefield in such a way that it's able to quickly respond, should it be required. Then, we'll determine what the medevac situation is. Do we have dedicated birds? Are they properly stocked? What's the frequency that they're on? Et cetera, et cetera.

So this happens with every mission. This is the type of detailed mission planning that frankly only the United States military has the -- the bandwidth to conduct. This is how we train, this is how we fight. And this is part of the advice and assist that we give to our partners. We teach them how to do just this, right? This is the type of stuff that the American military and, you know, some of our Western partners, perhaps, understand better than any force on Earth, and it's this type of detailed planning, this type of painstaking attention to detail before every mission that really sets us apart from other militaries.

Q: Just two more, though, on this. I mean, A, was the -- was there an expectation that -- that this mission could go south? And so the QRF -- I recognize the QRF is probably prepared anytime, but were they particularly prepared because you were going into bad guy territory or whatever? But also, I'm trying to think -- trying to get a better sense of when U.S. forces come to assist in any operation and if -- are there times when, in this case, the Pesh are in battle and there are no Americans present and there's -- so there's -- there would be no reason for a QRF, is that right?

COL. WARREN: That's right.

Q: And then one final thing, if the -- if these guys kind of breached the flot, and I understand it's kind of a rough term, but was there -- would there be an effort, then, to say, okay, this has become a dynamic situation, let's remove the American advisers and get them kind of out and then let the battle play out as it is? It just -- the reason for the question here is because it seems like we may be getting into an area where it becomes a little gray when American force is used against ISIS. And so that's -- I'm just trying to make sure I understand like when the QRF would be used and when it wouldn't be.

COL. WARREN: No, those are -- those are fair questions. So -- again, so the QRF is part of the advise and assist mission in this case, right? So again, a team is designated to go out and -- and visit this site in Tal Asquf. A team doesn't live there. Their team is not from there. The team has decided that it's time for them to go visit there, and by visit, what I mean is physically travel to that location, conduct meetings with the -- the leaders -- the Peshmerga leaders who were responsible for that sector and provide them advice and assistance.

And you know, it could be as simple as, "Hey, we're here to make sure you're getting enough water. What's your ammunition supply? You know, how do you have your defenses laid out here? Let me give you some advice." So that's the mission.

So to support that mission, that day-long operation of a team travelling from their home location to this particular spot, a QRF was spun up. A QRF was spun up to support the team that was going to that town. Now, when the fight's over, the QRF is then spun back down.

So -- so I don't want you to think that there is some sort of standing QRF out there in the sky somewhere that can respond to anything that happens across the entire battlefield. That's not the case. This was a quick reaction force designed to support the advise and assist team that was traveling to -- (inaudible) -- to provide advice and assistance to the Peshmerga leadership on the ground at that moment. So hopefully that makes sense.

So your question was so long and my answer was even longer. I can't remember what else you were asking.

Q: I know my question was long.

Would there have been an attempt to pull the advisers out of the area when an operation went south and therefore the QRF, and the advisers, and the Americans would just leave the area and let the fight play out or is that not where we are?

COL. WARREN: That's exactly what happened. That's why the QRF went to help extract them.

There was a big fight. You know, they were in contact. They couldn't get away. So the QRF came to help ensure that they were able to get away.

And then as soon as they got away, the fight continued. The fight was going on last night at 9:30 p.m. our time. This was a long battle. It was going on for some time.

Our guys got out of there relatively rapidly within the first couple of hours. So they didn't stay there to fight, that's not their mission. If that was their mission, believe me, they would've stayed but their mission is not to stay there. So they departed but they needed the assistance of the QRF to get out.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Christina Wong?

Q: Hi Steve. Good to see you.

So just to clarify, were the troops -- were U.S. troops involved in the firefight exchanging fire before the QRF came in?

COL. WARREN: Yes, they were.

The U.S. troops were conducting their advise and assist duties. They were doing their advise and assist duties when the fight broke out, so they fought back. And they called the QRF and then when the QRF arrived, they fought out. And of course, one service member was killed during the course of all that.

Q: Your answer toward that suggests that there is not standing QRF, it's drawn from forces that are there? Would you say it's drawn from the existing advisers on the ground or who makes up this QRF if it's not already standing? Are these forces specifically just ready to go or are these part of the advising mission?

COL. WARREN: The answer is that it depends.

So part of what we do is to be prepared to defend ourselves. So we have forces that's their only thing they think about all the time. They wake up every morning thinking about, "How will I defend my spot if something should happen?"

And that's the case you know, at Al-Asad, at Besmaya, anywhere where there's Americans, there are forces whose only job is to provide force protection. Part of that force protection is to have a Quick Reaction Force. Additionally when there is a specific mission of some sort, often a commander will develop a quick reaction force as part of the mission force. Does that answer your question?

Q: Yes, the last question is -- you mentioned, "The last time a QRF was assembled that was a few months ago." Can you tell us when that was and what that situation was?

COL. WARREN: Well, that -- that's not exactly what I said. What I said is it's been some time since (inaudible) one. I can't remember the last time a QRF was called.

CAPT. DAVIS: Okay. Jeff Seldin.

Q: Thank you. This morning, it sounds like this was a -- one of the bigger operations that the Islamic State has put together from what you've said. What did they do differently that allowed them to mass the bulldozers, the VBIEDs and just the number of fighters and then punch through the enemy lines? If this is something they hadn't done before, have they -- have they learned something new? Is there a new trick up their sleeve that allowed them to do this that caught the Pesh off guard?

COL. WARREN: Well, this isn't the first time they've done it. On -- on December 16, 2015, which is several months ago, they also staged a very complex attack around -- in the vicinity of the town of Tal Aswad. This was kind of similar in some ways. It was, we believe, in reaction to the fact that they were in the process of losing Ramadi. What this enemy likes to do is when they're -- when they're taking a beatdown, they like to try and stage some noticeable event that would distract the press, particularly the Western press who are very vulnerable to distraction in their view.

So they'll stage one of these kind of high-profile events. They'll make a lot of noise, a lot of sound and a lot of fury in order to distract everyone away from the fact that they're taking a beatdown elsewhere. So on 16 December, as Ramadi was slipping from their grasp, they initiated a very similar attack that involved several hundred ISIL fighters that penetrated the flot. If I recall -- it's been several months now, but if I recall, there were three penetrations in that fight and you know, created -- kind of caused a raucous back behind the enemy lines.

And that's really what happened here, right? This enemy has -- has -- has been getting slapped around now by both the CTS, the Iraqi security forces and the Peshmerga for weeks. They just lost Bashir, which is something that they held onto for a long time. It's an area that they used to launch indirect fire attacks against Kirkuk, it's an area that they used to launch chemical weapons attacks against Taza that killed three children several months ago and the Peshmerga came in and took it away from them, unceremoniously took it away from them in a relatively quick fight. It took about 24 hours.

In Hiit, the Iraqi security forces have been grinding them up. They've taken away Hiit. Hiit was a very important security -- was a very important support zone for ISIL and the Iraqi security forces, along with the CTS, took it away from them. And now, the Iraqi security forces and the CTS are clearing Route 12, which is the road -- which is the highway between Hit and the Dulab Peninsula, took it away from them. And now, we're about to clear the Dulab Peninsula.

And oh, by the way, over in Makhmur, the (inaudible) Iraqi Army Division has been steadily jabbing the Iraqi forces around these very small villages that are west of Makhmur. So they've been -- they've been, you know, getting stuck in the face by these stiff jabs that the Iraqi army has been delivering for the last several weeks.

So in response to all of that, in our view, this enemy wanted to stage a relatively high-profile, high-visibility attack that would distract peoples' attention away from the beatdown that they've been taking everywhere else. Luckily for us, it won't work. You know, everybody understands that ISIL really is on the their back foot here and this, while certainly a relatively significant tactical event, has no lasting operational value to this enemy.

Q: So, aside from the motivation for carrying out the attack, what enabled them to mask the force like they did without being detected in time for the Pershmega to take a more proactive approach or for air strikes to be called in sooner.

It seems to -- if this is a bigger force than they've usually been able to mount, if the visibility is as good as we've all been told it is, it would have been detected. What did they do to avoid detection prior to the attack.

COL. WARREN: Well, if we knew that, we would have detected them and spoiled their attack, wouldn't we? So, you know, difficult to know. Obviously, they were able to amass this force of about 125 with about 20 vehicles.

Whether they in filled them into some sort of an assembly area, there are a few towns south of the flot there. You can see them on the map. So, clearly they were able to, overtime, infiltrate individuals and vehicles, one or two at a time presumably and then be able to dash out of there, you know, under the cover of darkness on Tuesday morning.

CAPT. DAVIS: All right, Jenny.

Q: Excuse me, (inaudible) --

CAPT. DAVIS: Jennifer.

Q: -- from Air Force magazine. Hi, sir.

Last night, Air Force Chief of Staff General Welsh said that for about the first six months of OIR, we were sort of operating under the assumption that ISIS was just a terrorist group and then there was sort of a realization that they have all this infrastructure, such as the financial infrastructure.

And we started hitting that. And we've now, you know, started hitting all of this infrastructure. I'm just wondering why it took so long for us to come to that realization? And, you know, did we just not have enough intelligence, enough people on the ground?

And do you feel like we do have a better handle on how to actually get at the, you know, get at them now?

COL. WARREN: We do have a much better handle on how to get at them now as you say. You know, the thing about intelligence is it grows over time. So, as you get some intelligence, that leads you to more intelligence, which leads you to more intelligence. So it's kind of like -- you know, it's gathering right?

You know, you gather here, you gather there. As you gain a bit of knowledge, that lead you to several other bits of knowledge. So it grows at a kind of exponential -- exponentially, which is sad how we've kind of gotten to the place where we are.

We are able to strike. You know, we understand their leadership structure, so we're able to strike those leaders with regularity and effectiveness. We under their financial set up. A lot of that -- a lot of our understanding of their financial set up came from the raid against Abu Sayyaf and also captured his wife, Umm Sayyaf.

You know, we gathered a very significant amount of intelligence from that raid. So, you know, intelligence and knowledge tends to grow more as it gets bigger if that makes sense. So, we do have a much better sense for now what this enemy looks like, how this enemy operates and how they're structured.

CAPT. DAVIS: Next to Louis Martinez.

Q: Quick question on the essay from yesterday. Did the troops in contact -- did the death of the service member occur while the QRF was moving away from the extraction point?

COL. WARREN: Louie, that's a good question. I don't know the answer to that. I don't have that detail.

Q: And earlier this week, Jane's came out with a study noting the -- what they said, "was the highest level of ISIS attacks and civilian casualties in the last two years." How does that correlate with what you were talking about earlier about the number of attacks and their positions? And does that -- are their numbers accurate?

COL. WARREN: So you'll have to send me that report. I haven't seen it. So I'm not sure what it says.

Q: And going for strike three here.

The troop levels I think in Iraq are about 3,600, can you tell -- give us an idea of how many of those are actual advisers working with the advise and assist mission are working with the Iraqis? Up in Erbil, you've got a sizable presence of several hundred personnel, I mean obviously, not all of those are advisers, what are they doing?

COL. WARREN: So our EML is after the secretary's recent announcement is now up to 4,087 or something like that. We're right about at 4,000.

Frankly, a fairly small percentage of that is advise and assist, less than 1,000 I think. The remainder are you know, they provide support in various ways. Well, there's the train and equip -- so you've got the train and equip, the building partner capacity piece, and you've got the advise and assist piece.

The advisers -- the advise and asset piece, and the train and equip piece is a relatively small segment of the total picture here. And within that, the advise and assist is the smallest. It's really only several hundred, you know, it's a handful of teams that go and advise and assist.

The next largest thing is the building partner capacity, the trainers who conduct training and equipping. That's kind of the next largest group.

And then the overall largest group are security protection for the advisers and assisters. And then of course, you have staff support, you know, there's logistics requirements, people got to eat, (inaudible), people need to go to the dentist, things like that. So there's also a logistics and a support requirement.

Q: And last one, specifically up there in Erbil, I mean, what's the capacity up there given that -- I think it's a much smaller presence that you have there than you do in Baghdad or other places?


Louis, I don't have the exact number in Erbil. We probably wouldn't put it out anyway. You know, several hundred I'll tell, you know, there's an One Star General in charge, and he's got a staff, and then there's several hundred you know personnel there to support him.

CAPT. DAVIS: I don't know your name.

Q: Ryan Pernell with CNN. Colonel, thank you for doing this.

I just had a follow up about the detection question. I mean, I imagine, like you said, you position the QRF ready to launch when the advisers go out. In terms of ISR assets, I mean, do you -- are they pre-positioned as well when advisers are kind of going out into a little bit remote in the advising location? And I have a follow up on ISR issues as well.

COL. WARREN: The answer is that it depends. It always depends on the mission.

This is what we -- before we do any missions, we conduct something that we call "mission analysis." So we analyze the mission and determine what we need to do to ensure that, that advise and assist team is safe. You know, our intent here is that they don't -- these advise and assist teams do not encounter the enemy. All right? That's kind of the going in position. So we want them to not encounter the enemy.

So we'll analyze the mission and determine what assets, what we need to do, to help ensure as best as we can that they will not encounter the enemy. And I -- as we learned on Tuesday, no plan is perfect. And in this case, you know, the enemy was able to position themselves in such a way that they came in contact with our forces.

But this is what we try to avoid because our mission is not to come in contact with the enemy on the ground, our mission is to provide advice and assistance, you know, to the forces who are coming in contact with the enemy.

Q: And in terms of those assets, intelligence and surveillance and reconnaissance, are -- I know there's also a role being played by the coalition in monitoring the situation in Syria and any violations of the cease-fire. Has that put a constraint on those assets in terms of having those additions -- that additional role, that additional mission?

COL. WARREN: Well, you know, there's never enough of anything in the Army. I've been in the Army a long time and there's never enough of anything. But we are able to accomplish our mission with the -- with what we have.

Q: (inaudible)

CAPT. DAVIS: (inaudible)

Q: (inaudible) -- with sea power. (inaudible) -- air support when you and your -- in part of your mission planning, what -- you know, we've always got -- loitering in -- in the area but for the specific mission, was air cover provided or were airplanes vectored in from somewhere else?

COL. WARREN: It was both. You know, in this case, you know, we had -- you know -- a lot of aircraft came. Obviously, American forces, troops in contact. That immediately became the priority. So we were able to get a lot of aircraft on scene. There was F-15s, F-16s, there were drones, we had some B-52s and some A-10s that, towards the end, got into the fight.

So -- there was air nearby which was able to respond immediately. And as this developed into a larger -- you know, as it became clear that this was a larger fight, even after American forces departed, you know, there was still a need for airpower there because it was -- you know, it was an ongoing fight. So more and more airpower was brought to bear.

Q: Who was doing the tactical air controlling. Is that part of the QRF or did the Peshmerga have people that they could do the -- the tactical coordination?

COL. WARREN: So the tact -- the joint tactical air controllers operate out of the operations center in Erbil, in this case, and they monitor -- they do their duties by observing the battlefield via drone coverage. You know, by live feed.

So the tactical air controllers are actually located in the jock. On the ground your spotters -- anyone can spot. In this case we have some very highly trained personnel who are able to, you know, vector aircraft as needed.

The Peshmerga are also trained. They know how to call targets -- identify targets so that the JTACs can then, you know, provide the terminal guidance.

CAPT. DAVIS: Tony Capaccio?

Q: Steve, this is Tony Capaccio.

Is it fair to say that in this case, despite the United States and coalition having virtual air supremacy over Iraq, hundreds of airplanes flying around, that this group of 20 vehicles and 100 and some odd ISIL were able to escape and surprise this force. Is that a fair summary in this case?

COL. WARREN: Well, Tony, you can't see -- you can't observe every inch of earth every moment in the day. There's not enough eyeballs out there to watch it all, anyways. So in this case, the enemy conducted a -- at least initially successful attack. It's an attack that failed. You know, they've been repelled out of -- (inaudible) -- out of -- they've been repelled out of that town that they were in.

So it was a failed attack, but certainly, they were able to martial and deploy a force that surprised the -- the -- the Peshmerga forces that were on the flot, yes.

Q: Not related to the tactical situation of the fight, despite this episode, is the United States still saying that ISIL has lost roughly 40 percent of the territory covered -- captured in 2014 or has that number gone up a bit? Is there any new number to the 40 percent?

COL. WARREN: Tony, in my view, that number has gone up. They'll -- I haven't seen the -- the new set of numbers yet. We kind of release those numbers. Those numbers come out monthly, and frankly, I have not seen the April numbers yet, so more to follow when the numbers come out. But my -- my sense is they've gone up, because since the last set of numbers, you've know, we've taken Hiit, we've -- we've taken a -- you know, a chunk of the Euphrates River Valley up to Dulab. We've gained territory in the vicinity of Makhmur. We've gained some territory in and around Fallujah.

So my instinct is that they've gone up, but the new numbers simply haven't come out yet.

Q: Follow-up question on a different issue. We've heard from the secretary about the cyber attacks against ISIL -- (inaudible) -- 30,000 foot level he's brought this up. And from your level, what impact have these cyber attacks had on the tactical situation against ISIL? And what impact -- what role are they having in preparations for an attack on Mosul, cyber attacks, basically?

COL. WARREN: So very sensitive area. We kind of stay at the 30,000 foot level on cyber. You know, the intent of the cyber piece is to disrupt, to provide disruption, to create confusion, to make the enemy's ability to do things more difficult. And that frankly, unfortunately, is really the extent of the detail that we can go into. We do believe that, you know, as the cyber piece continues to gain momentum, that we'll have an increasingly important impact.

Q: Commands mission team -- national mission teams actually come into the JOC. Are they in Iraq or is a lot of this being conducted long distance from the United States or from Europe?

COL. WARREN: Tony, I'll -- I'll never speak about the -- the national mission teams. As you know, one of the interesting pieces of cyber is that it can be done from anywhere because the nature of, you know, the internet and the web and interconnectivity that we see. Cyber operations can be conducted from any place that can, you know, access the cyber world.

Q: Thanks.

CAPT. DAVIS: All right. We are out of time. I know that there were a couple of follow-ons. That's how popular you are, Steve. But we appreciate you taking the time to meet with us today and we look forward to seeing you next week if not sooner.

Thanks, everybody.


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