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Operations in Iraq: Lessons for the Future


Key Lessons

  • The operation in Iraq demonstrated the extent to which the UK Armed Forces have evolved successfully to deliver the expeditionary capabilities envisaged in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review (SDR) and the 2002 SDR New Chapter.
  • The operation confirmed that, despite the need for continuing refinement, UK war-fighting doctrine, broadly based on the tenets of mission command, manoeuvre warfare and decisive effect, is sound.
  • The operation confirmed the requirement for highly versatile UK forces that are able rapidly to mount small- and medium-sized operations on a routine basis, while also being capable of meeting less frequent but larger and more demanding commitments.
  • Overall, the UK Command and Control (C2) arrangements established for this operation worked well. The Department will however keep C2 doctrine for deployed operations under review in the light of experiences in Iraq.
  • Expeditionary operations require a joint Communications and Information Systems (CIS) infrastructure to provide secure, reliable and timely information access to all stakeholders through a common network. This should include a means of interoperability with potential coalition systems, particularly those of the US.
  • The level of contractor support required to deliver operational CIS capability for deployed operations needs careful consideration. Sufficient skilled Service personnel must be retained to prevent an over-reliance on contractors. The Department is reviewing this issue.
  • At the tactical level, UK Bowman Personal Role Radio equipment was a considerable success, underlining the benefit of effective real-time communications to the lowest combat level.
  • Intelligence structures, including specialist and deployed manning levels and supporting CIS, should be reviewed to ensure they can meet the challenges of modern operations and the need to co-operate with potential allies and partners.
  • Individual and collective training that reflects the complexity of current intelligence processes and systems is required for specialists, staff and commanders.
  • There was a shortage of linguists. This is being addressed in a Departmental study of the recruitment training and retention of linguists.

3.1  The Strategic Defence Review (SDR) envisaged that UK Armed Forces should develop an expeditionary-based capability, providing ready, balanced forces capable of applying decisive effect in scenarios of varying intensity, frequency and character in an uncertain and unpredictable world. The SDR New Chapter analysed the implications of 11 September 2001, subsequent operations against terrorism, the danger from rogue states and the growth of asymmetric threats. It concluded that the UK needed to be able to work with allies, partners and, if necessary, alone in dealing with global challenges to national security and interests. The operation in Iraq demonstrated how far the UK Armed Forces have successfully evolved to deliver that vision.

3.2  The coalition campaign in Iraq combined the massive application of air power against regime targets and Iraqi forces with a rapid invasion from the south, designed to use and shock to reach Baghdad and quickly defeat the regime. At the strategic level, the operation attempted to separate the regime from the Iraqi population through a combination psychological signals and selective targeting. Coalition land forces were to defeat or surrender of the Republican Guard and Iraqi Regular Army, and conduct security and operations. This was complemented by the extensive use of special and light forces throughout Iraq to neutralise critical targets and seize important economic, infrastructure and military assets. Land manoeuvre was facilitated throughout by an air campaign which significant attrition of the enemyfs combat power and involved unprecedented accuracy and lethality, based on the widespread, although not exclusive, use of precision munitions, and sensors and data streams.

3.3  The operation confirmed that, despite the continuing need for refinement, UK war-doctrine, broadly based on the tenets of mission command, manoeuvre warfare and decisive effect, was sound. It also tested UK forcesf ability to operate effectively alongside US Chapter 7). The success of rapid, decisive operations in Iraq reflected the impact of of specialised light forces, highly mobile armoured assets and co-ordinated air support. assault on the Al Faw peninsula (see Box page11) was a good example of the progress have made in the delivery of 'joint effect' - bringing together the capabilities of all to achieve a single aim. However, in certain areas, such as land/air integration, operational tactical doctrine does not yet fully reflect the demands of high-tempo, time-sensitive or enabled operations. Throughout the campaign, UK personnel, who deployed in expectation operating in a hostile and demanding environment, and aware of mixed support at home operations, were more than equal to the task.

3.4  As the 2003 Defence White Paper3 concludes, the level of concurrent and sequential crises,and the sheer range of military tasks that the UK is likely to have to meet, placevaried demands on our Armed Forces. In Iraq, our forces simultaneously conducted highcombat, stabilisation, and humanitarian assistance operations. Such complexity demands highly adaptive forces that must be able routinely and rapidly to meet the most likely (and occurring) small- and medium-sized operations, while also being able to generate appropriate forces for the less frequent, but larger and more demanding commitments.

Command and Control

3.5  The three UK Contingent Commanders (Maritime, Land and Air) operated under the tactical control of their respective US Component Commanders, reflecting many years of interaction and recent bilateral experience in the Gulf region. This arrangement worked the Air and Maritime contingents, with effective working relationships established at all Land contingent arrangements were different, as the US 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (1 HQ sat in the coalition chain of command between the UK Land Contingent HQ and Component HQ. Nevertheless, 1(UK) Armoured Div worked exceptionally well under the of 1 MEF owing to the strong leadership and multinational awareness of the 1 MEF and the strong professional links already established between the UK and US military.

3.6  In terms of national command and control, the Chief of Joint Operations (CJO), General Sir John Reith, was appointed Joint Commander and was responsible to the Chief the Defence Staff for the conduct of operations, exercising operational command over all forces assigned to the operation. CJO exercised his responsibilities through the Permanent Headquarters to the National Contingent Commander (Air Chief Marshal Sir Brian Burridge) the UK Contingent Commanders in theatre. While this did not mirror US command led to a degree of complexity at the tactical and operational levels, it served to reserve direction of UK forces and ensure that they would only undertake specific missions approved UK commanders. The doctrine underpinning these arrangements is nonetheless being reviewed.

Communications and Information Systems (CIS)

3.7  The UK's Communications and Information Systems (CIS) infrastructure could not easily support the information exchange requirements of the Iraq operation. UK forces had to rely on a variety of different communications systems connected by numerous gateways and interfaces. Integration of these capabilities was reliant on the procurement of additional equipment under UOR action and the initiative and skill of deployed personnel. Some gateways could not manage the volume of information traffic generated, inhibiting communication and information exchange between the UK Maritime, Land and Air contingents. The limited degree of interoperability between UK and US CIS also had an impact on the ability to support coalition planning and operations in a high tempo environment, though maritime UK/US interoperability was good. At the tactical level, however, UK Bowman Personal Role Radio equipment was a considerable success, enabling effective command and control at section and platoon level. Indeed, the US Marines purchased some 5000 sets. Clansman, the UK's current main tactical communications system which is due to be replaced by Bowman from 2004, also proved reliable on this operation, despite past difficulties.

3.8  Inadequate support for deployed CIS equipment placed a considerable burden on the units operating it, and substantial reliance was placed on contractor support in the UK. The operation also highlighted shortfalls in CIS training in a number of areas, such as web-based technology.


The helicopter carrier HMS OCEAN in the Gulf
The helicopter carrier HMS OCEAN in the Gulf

3.9  Intelligence played an invaluable part in every aspect and at every level of this campaign. This activity ranged from analysis of the intentions of the Iraqi regime to the specific targeting of individual military units, and the integration and analysis of information from a wide diversity of technical and other sources. The tempo and effects produced by land, sea and air operations were directly attributable to the quality, availability and timeliness of the intelligence provided, which was significantly and critically enhanced by access to US and other coalition sources. However, Iraq had been subject to 10 years of significant intelligence effort since the end of the 1991 Gulf Conflict. The intelligence preparation challenge was therefore less than would be required for a new theatre. Key vulnerabilities and vital points were well known, allowing precision effects to be applied early on in the campaign.

3.10  First Reflections4 emphasised the challenge to intelligence organisations posed by the significant increase in the demand for intelligence and the need to service the requirements of rapid, decisive and multi-layered campaigns. We concluded that: there was a need to review our structures and specialist and deployed manning to ensure their suitability and resilience to meet this challenge; greater connectivity between national and allied elements and access to robust communications was required; the era of Network Enabled Capabilities demanded an increased tempo of intelligence; human intelligence, linguistic, imagery and technical skills were of particular importance; commanders and staff at every level needed to be capable of accessing and contributing fully to the intelligence process; and mechanisms were required to ensure that the full range of battlefield effects could be analysed as soon as they occurred.


The 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines (3 Cdo Bde) mission to seize intact the oil infrastructure on Iraq's Al Faw peninsula was crucial to the coalition's overall campaign plan. Failure could have enabled Iraqi sabotage, leading rapidly to a major environmental disaster in the northern Gulf. Moreover, the oilfields were crucial to the subsequent reconstruction of the Iraqi economy. Near the base of the Al Faw peninsula the oil passes through a distribution station and four large pipelines that emerge briefly on the beach before running along the seabed to feed gas/oil platforms 25 miles offshore, where deep sea oil tankers take it on board (see Figure 1). This infrastructure was a strategic target for the coalition.

A key part of the campaign plan was to secure the Al Faw peninsula to provide land flank protection to the Mine Counter Measures Task group as it conducted mine clearance operations in the Khawr Abd Allah waterway in order to open the sea route to Umm Qasr (see box page 19), which 3 Cdo Bde also needed to seize simultaneously. As Iraq's only deep water port, Umm Qasr would be the essential hub for delivery of humanitarian aid.

Pressure on airport and seaport facilities in Kuwait due to the massive US troop build-up made an amphibious assault on the Al Faw particularly attractive, since it is Iraq's only coastline, and the forces involved could be held, launched and supported from the sea, thereby exploiting Iraq's maritime flank. 40 Commando Group sailed to theatre as part of the Royal Navy's Amphibious Task Group with helicopters embarked and the logistics necessary to support the Brigade ashore. The remainder of 3 Cdo Bde moved by air direct to Kuwait, and established in concentration areas in the desert to train, plan and rehearse. 3 Cdo Bde HQ, 40 and 42 Cdos, along with 29 Cdo Regiment RA, 59 and 131 Cdo Engineer Squadrons and other Brigade troops were all committed to the operation.

This was a joint operation, spanning the areas of responsibility of the sea, land and air component commanders. It was also a 'combined' operation with the United States, under overall US command. To provide the necessary force simultaneously to capture Umm Qasr, the US Marine Corps (USMC) placed its 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) under command of 3 Cdo Bde, demonstrating the mutual respect developed between the RM and USMC over many years.


Figure 1
Figure 1


The Al Faw operation was a classic amphibious night helicopter commando assault and, as the first conventional ground force action of the war, had immense strategic significance. On the night of 20 March 2003 the men of 3 Cdo Bde waited in Kuwait and on ships in the Gulf, ready to embark in over 80 helicopters to launch the assault. After days of bad weather, with low cloud and blown sand, the weather and light conditions were touch and go, but the strategic imperative to seize the oil infrastructure intact meant there was no scope for delaying the launch options. The start of operations was set for 2200 local time and was preceded by a short but intense air bombardment onto known enemy positions, combining the effect of JDAMs5 dropped from US FA-18s with the firepower of AC-130 Spectre gunships. 40 Cdo and US forces landed as planned on their three strategic objectives, capturing some 230 prisoners for no loss. Meanwhile, simultaneous landings from air and sea were made onto the gas/oil platforms out to sea.

With the best part of an Iraqi Army armoured division known to be based in and around Basrah, it was vital to ensure that no counter-attack could be mounted to threaten 40 Cdo's tenuous foothold on the peninsula. A second aviation assault by 42 Cdo in USMC helicopters was planned to launch an hour after 40 Cdo. Preceded by Cobra helicopter gunships to sweep their landing sites, 42 Cdo was to land just north of the town of Al Faw, destroying the enemy artillery which threatened the oil infrastructure, thereby securing 40 Cdo's flank. For an hour and a half, the landing sites were subjected to an intense bombardment by artillery and naval gunfire from four artillery batteries (three UK and one US) positioned on the eastern edge of Bubiyan Island (see Figure 1), and from three UK ships (HMS RICHMOND, HMS MARLBOROUGH and HMS CHATHAM) and an Australian ship (HMAS ANZAC)). 42 Cdo's insertion started badly in appalling visibility, made worse by blowing sand and smoke from fires started the previous day. Tragically, the US CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter carrying the headquarters of the Brigade Reconnaissance Force crashed as the assault formation turned out over the Brigade assembly area to start their run in over the sea. With the cloud base dropping still further, the insertion was aborted, forcing the Brigade HQ rapidly to identify other aviation assets and plan a new insertion for 42 Cdo at dawn, using RAF Chinook and Puma helicopters. Although the landing took place six hours late, onto insecure landing sites, and in some cases miles away from those originally intended, all objectives were secured, demonstrating 3 Cdo Bde's inherent flexibility.

Meanwhile, early that morning, 15 MEU crossed the border into Iraq, bypassing the town of Umm Qasr as planned, to seize the port area, before pushing north up the western side of the Khawr Abd Allah waterway. They encountered some stiff resistance as they advanced, particularly from the irregular Saddam Fedayeen, but nevertheless made excellent progress and achieved all their critical objectives ahead of time.

The initial plan had always depended heavily on helicopters both to insert the force and then sustain it. In an effort to reduce dependence on aviation, engineers operating from the shore and mine clearance divers, inserted by hovercraft from the sea, worked against the clock to try to clear a beach on Al Faw (Red Beach) large enough to land the light armour. This option had to be abandoned at first light when the scale of mining became apparent, and the risk to the heavy US Navy hovercraft carrying UK Scimitars was deemed too high. C Squadron Queen's Dragoon Guards, who had been pre-loaded onto hovercraft on board USS RUSHMORE for the landing, had to be landed back in Kuwait. They finally crossed the waterway north of Umm Qasr some 24 hours later to take up their screen positions on the exposed salt marshes south of Basrah.

Overall, the Brigade's operation was completely successful. The level of resistance put up by the enemy proved to be less than expected. Nevertheless, as final preparations were made on 20 March in the tactical assembly area to launch the assault, there had been attacks by Iraqi missiles. The Brigade fully expected to be subjected to chemical attack and the helicopters to be engaged by air defence artillery. It was also anticipated that there would be determined resistance on the ground, which the Brigade did encounter at local level from some determined and fanatical fighters. However, although the Iraqi armed forces mounted several armoured attacks out of south-east Basrah, their defeat stemmed from their inability to put together a co-ordinated defence. This failure can be attributed to the surprise engendered by the speed and force of the coalition's initial assault. The all-arms co-operation between the Commando Groups and the MEU, the ships and helicopters from the Amphibious Task Group, the tanks and other elements of 1 (UK) Armoured Division, and the AC-130 Spectre gunships and coalition Close Air Support sorties that all supported the amphibious operation provided useful lessons for the all-arms approach to littoral operations.

Following this initial operation onto the Al Faw and into Umm Qasr, 3 Cdo Bde advanced and was involved in a series of engagements, including an assault by 40 Cdo on the Abu Al Khasib suburb in south-east Basrah, which helped precipitate the fall of the city (see Box page 25).


The nature of warfare and the way in which UK forces operate have changed and will continue to do so. Nevertheless, whilst recent operational experience has consistently validated much of our existing doctrine, the rapidly changing strategic environment has made it necessary for the UK to develop flexible capabilities for expeditionary operations. MOD has accordingly developed a high-level, joint concept of operations for the future that strikes an important balance between continuity and change.

Recent operations have confirmed the trend for conflict to occur between forces of very different sizes, strengths and tactics ('asymmetry'). Overwhelming Western coalition combat power increasingly leads to enemy actions that exploit the inherent vulnerability in our respect for moral and legal conventions. This presents a difficult challenge, but a powerful counterweight is our ability to respond quickly to the unexpected. This is one reason why the concept of 'agility' is the cornerstone of MOD's new doctrine. 'Agility' has both mental and physical dimensions but it is essentially epitomised by the ability of our people to think creatively, to be resourceful and imaginative and to adapt to the unexpected. At its heart are four key attributes for which we will train, organise and equip UK Armed Forces: responsiveness, robustness, flexibility and adaptability.

The 'agility' of UK Service personnel is arguably their greatest strength, but it invariably brings a high individual training requirement and attendant resource implications. The 'moral' component of fighting power is also derived in part from the ethos and cohesion of individual units, putting a premium on unit and Service identity. In Iraq, operational flexibility and tempo also depended on how well information was shared across traditional boundaries and to what extent force elements had trained together for joint operations. To achieve high 'agility', the Services will increasingly depend upon each other in war; it is therefore important to forge even stronger bonds of inter-Service co-operation in peacetime. In future, joint and combined training must include more frequent interaction at the critical tactical level.

The Iraq conflict confirmed the trend toward increased discrimination and precision in the use of weapons, enabling much greater accuracy in targeting. Paradoxically, it is much easier to generate the wrong effects on the now rare occasions that weapons miss. But it is also important to consider precise effect, not just weapon precision per se. Many targets in Iraq were relatively easy to acquire and attack, but what really mattered was generating and measuring the desired effect of attacks. In future, there will be a strong emphasis on effects-based operations, a critical part of which is the analysis of campaign effectiveness - a more sophisticated approach than traditional battle damage assessment. This will also place greater emphasis on information and media operations, which are critical to success, and the new concept of operations accordingly aims to provide a better understanding of the information campaign.

Successful military capabilities in recent operations can broadly be characterised as those which achieve precise and selective effect by responding to information and exploiting 'designators' which point out the target. Such information will be gathered by a variety of means, and the 'designators' may sometimes be independent of the launch platform. The long endurance of many military capabilities and improved situational awareness are now providing the key to more responsive targeting. The high number of time-sensitive targeting missions in Iraq was a specific and very successful example of responsiveness that led to an impressive increase in the flexibility and precision of joint effect in the close battle. Such responsiveness is no longer the domain of Special Forces and other specialist capabilities; in future it will become a routine capability in order more easily to achieve precise effect in minimum planning time.

Tactical decision-making is often fast enough to outstrip the ability for re-evaluation at the strategic level, leaving the two levels of command out of step. On the other hand, strategic decisions may sometimes need to be taken rapidly in response to tactical events. This problem will be addressed in the future through an adaptive command and control system, which also recognises the primacy of the 'mission command' philosophy. This will allow us to exploit better the relationships between command and control that are relevant to good decision making in an information-rich environment. It will also allow us to adapt more intelligently to the ad hoc command and control arrangements that necessarily characterise coalitions of the willing.

Force protection in Iraq covered a wide range of factors that included combat identification. Whilst coalition acquisition of a Blue Force Tracking system helped improve shared awareness to a degree, vulnerability to friendly fire remains a risk. The UK's new concept of operations will attempt to manage that risk by stressing the importance of sharing critical information on force position, status and intent, although physical protection will remain an important factor.
In sum, our thinking about future operational techniques is being fully informed by recent events, many of which reinforce the enduring principles of British defence doctrine.

A Corporal hands over new shoes to an Iraqi child
A Corporal hands over new shoes to an Iraqi child

3 Command Paper No. 6041, 'Delivering Security in a Changing World' dated 11 December 2003
4 First Reflections: Box page 15
5 US Joint Direct Attack Munitions - GPS guided bombs.

 Chapter 2 - Planning and Force Generation
Chapter 4 - The Maritime Environment 

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