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The War Nerd / July 28, 2008

One of the best things about war is that it’s a huge IQ booster. The only people who use their brains in peacetime are the suits: salesmen, real-estate agents. The rest of us just slog along for the paycheck, get home and get on the computer so we can have a virtual war. But once real war comes to town, every guy turns into MacGyver, thinking up ways to convert harmless civilian items like alarm clocks and remotes into killing devices.

The Shia militias in Iraq have just demonstrated this kind of killer ingenuity by finding a new way to say “thank you” to their American friends using nothing but a few unguided 107mm rockets, propane tanks, and a used truck. It’s like the kind of problem they give you in those online intelligence tests: how can you use a crummy unguided rocket, a lowly propane tank, and a junker of a truck to blast a heavily-defended US base in Baghdad?

Let’s start with the most important ingredient, the rocket. The Shia have been using Type 63 107mm rockets, an old design that was sold all over the world in huge numbers. They’re usually called “Soviet” but most of the sales were by the Red Chinese, who back in the good old days of the Cold War sold Warsaw-Pact weapons at a fraction of what the lazy Russians wanted. Yup, even back then they were beating the white folks on price. The 107mm model weighs about 41 pounds, about a fifth of that is the HE warhead and the rest rocket propellant. If you haven’t seen many unguided, barrage-type rockets you’ll be surprised how short they are. They look almost like stretched artillery shells. And that’s what they were meant to be: artillery substitutes. They’re the direct descendants of the famous Katyushas that were fired in huge numbers on the Eastern Front. The Katyushas could be fired from simple multi-barreled two-wheel towed launchers or trucks with firing rails welded to the bed. They had long range and tremendous firepower. Their defects were accuracy, as in they hadn’t got none, and re-supply, because barrage rockets basically trade off the weight of an artillery piece for added weight in the shell—the weight of the propellant.

If you think about that tradeoff you can see why rockets have gotten so important for irregular warfare, and why artillery, with the exception of mortars, doesn’t play much of a role in irregular arsenals. In a traditional artillery piece, the investment is in the heavy tube and the carriage to move it. The projectile is relatively small; the tube and carriage are huge and heavy. That’s fatal for insurgent forces. They never have air superiority or even try for it, so the first time they try to push an artillery piece into position, they get zapped. And even if they get lucky and fire a few shots with it, how do they hide it, with enemy choppers heading at full speed for what their computers have identified as the point of origin for that incoming shell? Nope, if you’re an insurgent artilleryman, what you want is a light tube, as in an RPG or, for longer range, a barrage rocket like these Type 63.

The downside is that you’re going to be damn lucky to hit anything with those rockets. I’m not talking about the RPG here, because that’s a simple, line-of-sight weapon, the original point-and-shoot. A barrage rocket has a much more complicated trajectory; firing one is a geometry problem, not simple aiming. And in Iraq, most of them are fired into urban areas, so if your local math whiz forgot to carry the one or dropped a decimal point somewhere, your rocket salvo is going to wipe out half a tenement block instead of the US base you wanted to hit.

To get an idea how casual the traditional insurgents were with their barrages, have a look at this video of 107mm unguided rockets on simple rail launchers being fired by Iraqi insurgents.

This video has two parts: the first shows insurgents setting up a salvo of 107mm rockets, an then they go on to the main event, the launch of a half-dozen huge 240mm rockets.

What’s scary, or funny depending on your mood, about the first part of the video is how casual they are about the 107mm salvo. They use what look like fixed rail launchers that somebody just unscrewed from a truck bed or—God knows—welded in a basement. First you see all the pretty little rockets and launchers in a room, then you see them set up on a typical Iraqi dust-field. (It looks way too much like Kern County, that field. That’s one of the first things that bummed me out about Iraq, the way it looked like Bakersfield.)

The insurgents run in their shirts, tinkering with them for all the world like geeky model-rocket hobbyists you remember from kid-hood. You know, the guys later known as “One-Eye,” or “Doug with the Artificial Hand.”

The insurgents don’t seem too worried about air attack, because they set up a whole chorus line of the 107, walk around checking the angle, and then, just when you’re waiting for the launch, damn it, they cut to another attack. But just from the set-up, you can tell they’re not going for accuracy. A carpenter’s level would give you better accuracy than a bunch of unguided rockets fired from bumpy ground on fixed-angle rail launchers. That’s probably why they’re firing about 40 rockets at once—in the hope that maybe one or two will hit the target. The rest are going to make life very exciting for civilians anywhere within miles of the intended target. If there was a pebble under the 17th launcher in that row, then rocket #17 is going to fly over the target and land in a street, or somebody’s house, or empty land. No wonder those people say “It is the will of Allah” so much. I hear that up in Afghanistan, where they really believe in Allah, they leave it up to him so much that the Talibs just lean a few 107mm rockets against the rocks, pointing in the general direction of an ISAF base, hook’em up to a battery-powered alarm clock for a detonator (so they have an alibi when the rockets launch), and leave the aiming to Allah.

Iraqis are a little more advanced than Talibs, but they’re pretty damn casual about their 107s. They don’t seem to value the weapon much. You can see the difference in the second half of the video, when the insurgents switch from little 107mm’s to their pride and joy, big 240mm rockets. It’s clear the bastards love these things. The guy who made the video first shows the 240mm rockets, a half dozen of them, sitting on little prayer rugs in some Hajji’s house. You soon see they aren’t going to waste their 240mm’s on sloppy fixed-rail launchers. Instead they crank up these relatively sophisticated adjustable launchers, out in some other dust-bowl field. They actually seem to worry about getting the angle right, not so much because they care about civilian casualties but because these big rockets are a lot harder to come by. For one thing, it looks like the field’s been artificially leveled—you can see piles of dirt off to the side. Of course maybe they’re just using a construction site, I don’t know. Unlike the 107s, the video actually shows the 240mm’s launching. The launch is so fast and so intense it almost looks like a detonation. When you realize it’s nothing compared to what’s going to happen at the other end of this short flight, you realize what crazy shit these people are playing. Supposedly the Shia “special groups” are getting these 240mm rockets from Iran, and that’s the angle we’re playing up in our propaganda.

I don’t know if they’re from Iran or not, but to be honest these Iran stories want to make me go, “No shit, Sherlock!” Didn’t anybody in Cheney’s office look at a map before they planned this invasion? Nobody noticed that Iran is right next door to Iraq, and hates America like poison? Suppose our worst enemy in the world was dumb enough to invade Canada or Mexico; I sure hope we’d have the guts to start shipping the insurgents there everything we had. What kind of idiot didn’t plan for Iran doing the same? You might as well get mad at a rattlesnake for biting you when you tease it. The only real surprise for me is that Iran is playing it so cautious, instead of pushing the Shia insurgency pedal to the floor. But then that’s the Persians’ rep: crazy but smart, and cautious, playing for the long term.

These 240mm rockets have a 40-pound HE warhead. That’s a serious blast. To see what the smaller 107mm rocket does when it hits, here’s another video from the “Incoming!” angle: a video from a US base in Iraq.

The guys in the sentry post don’t seem very worried; they’re sandbagged in, and bored. They see the launch, and then talk about how long it’s taking the rocket to hit. Finally somebody off to the side yells “incoming!” just like in the movies, and the camera pans to a long shack with one ended blasted open and smoking. One of the guys at the sentry-post sums it up for you: “Fuckin’ Hajji motherfuckers!”

My all time favorite fun video of an Iraqi rocket attack is this one:

These bored GIs are killing time on-base by test-flying their little model helicopter. It’s the dorkiest thing I’ve ever seen, and I used to play D&D. Remember I said the Iraqi insurgents setting up their rockets reminded me of model-rocket hobbyist kids? Well, this video is where model-airplane hobby meets real-life rocket attack, because after a few seconds of watching this lame model chopper with pingpong balls for landing gear fly around a parking lot, a cheerful animated voice pipes up from the base PA system, “Incoming, incoming, incoming!” The guy working the model helicopter says one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard: “I hope it wasn’t my helicopter!” Well, he can relax, sort of, because it’s a salvo of insurgents’ rockets, being fired by those rocket nerds just like the ones in that other video. Nobody gets hit, the model flyers hide and laugh, but I dunno—this clip makes me feel like Butthead says about an arty video: “This MEANS something.” I don’t know what, except that we’re all a bunch of nerds. Maybe they should just call off the war and stage a big comic con instead.

After a few hundred attacks like that, where a few sheds got blown up at best, the Shia insurgents came up with their MacGyver solution, the new IRAM. “IRAM” is one of those Iraq-war names you can’t say with a straight face. Like VBIED, which means “car bomb” to us civvies. But “IRAM”—it’s like some porn thing: “IRAM U, Yankee dog!” What it stands for is “Improvised Rocket Assisted Munition.” What it actually means is that these smart little nerds have figured out a way to use the crummy unguided 107mm rocket effectively in urban combat.

They basically turn it from a long-range barrage weapon with a small warhead to a short-range lob-bomb. It’s basically a remake of the old siege mortars that European armies used once they were close enough to an enemy city’s walls. The siege mortars, which look like extra-thick, tilted cauldrons, had no range, but they coughed up huge shells at a very high angle, so they could sail right over any fortification to make life more interesting for people huddling in town. The IRAM does the same thing, lobbing a big explosive load over sandbagged walls into US and Iraqi Army bases.

The extra punch is provided by a simple propane tank. If you ever went trailer-camping like we did, you know and love these things, big steel cider bottles you can get refilled at country gas stations. What I remember most is they’re the only things on earth that don’t hold to the “righty tighty, lefty loosey” rule, which made my dad furious every time I forgot it and stripped the screws, which was every single time. Here’s a shot of an Iraqi propane tank, from a GI’s blog. Wonder if he knew what these guys were going to use it for:

The Shi’ites just fill these tanks with explosive and strap them to 107mm rocket. That gives the IRAM a huge warhead, dozens of times more powerful than the charge in the original 107mm warhead. When US bomb experts checked out the IRAMs in a failed attack on June 24, they found that each one had 200 pounds of HE. Of course all that lopsided explosive is going to weaken the rocket, lessen its range and screw up its trajectory, but this is supposed to be a short-range weapon. The insurgents weld it onto a truck bed, on one of those rail launchers. I’d guess, from the little I can remember from Sophomore-year Geometry, that they want a very high angle, almost a vertical launch, to shorten the range and clear all barriers.

Next they have to get the truck into position. And here’s where that old Arab imagination, or “lying,” gets to work. And when it comes to serious, professional lying, the Shia who are using these IRAMs just seem to be a cut above those hysterical, impatient Sunni. Last April, a guy in Sadr City managed to use our own civilian-compensation system to launch a successful IRAM attack on a US “Joint Security Station.” He came in whining that his truck had been hit in a firefight between US troops and Insurgents and claimed compensation. The Civil Affairs unit told him to park his truck across from the base and they’d check it out later. He parked it right where they said, and in a few minutes eight IRAMs blasted out of the truck trailer and landed in the middle of the base, wounding 15 soldiers. That’s the kind of operation that makes an urban guerrilla very happy, not so much because it breaches a heavily-defended outpost but because it means the foreign troops are going to be very, very cautious about listening to any more civilian complainers. And that’s the strategic goal for the guerrilla, breaking down any link between the people and the occupying army.

Of course all this MacGyver-ing has its own hazards, as in premature detonation destroying an entire neighborhood. That happened this June in Baghdad, when a truck full of IRAMs blew up on a street near a US base, killing 18 civilians. But one of the grimmest lessons of guerrilla warfare is that that’s not necessarily so bad either; the locals can’t persuade the guerrillas to go away, so they usually react to this kind of disaster by blaming the foreign occupier, hoping they’ll go away so the whole mess will stop.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, there’s only been one really successful IRAM attack. It was at Fort Loyalty in eastern Baghdad—Shia territory, Sadr country. That makes the name “Fort Loyalty” kind of painful. “Fort Don’t Count on It” might be better. In April 2008, “special groups” who you can bet were operating with Sadr’s and Iran’s blessing fired 14 IRAMs into the base from a truck, killing three GIs.

Of course, war is an IQ booster for both sides, so we’re going to develop countermeasures for the IRAM. Most likely, though, the countermeasure will involve limiting contact with the locals. No more letting them park their dinged-up trucks next to the base to collect damages. US/Iraqi Army bases will definitely become a “No Parking” zone. That’ll limit the damage these IRAMs can do. But that’s assuming the point of the IRAMs is to blow up US bases. That’s not really the point, strategically. The point, like I said, is to push the occupying army and the local people as far apart as possible, make them hate and fear each other. Those are the conditions an urban-guerrilla movement needs to operate successfully. And these simple, updated siege mortars are perfect weapons for that campaign.

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