Over the weekend, Marine Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin was killed during a rocket attack on his fire base in northern Iraq.
Prior to Cardin’s death Saturday, the public did not know about the fire base, named Fire Base Bell. It was just days old when 107mm rockets fired by the Islamic State group landed within its confines, killing Cardin and wounding his comrades. The Pentagon had planned to release the details of the Marines’ new position, a small outpost of berms, tents and four 155mm M777 howitzers, but did not because it was not fully operational, according to Army Col. Steve Warren, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition.
Fire Base Bell hearkens back to the United States’ older wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where small outposts with names like Fire Base Phoenix and Combat Outpost Turbett were ubiquitous and where the creation of yet one more would only be noticed by the enemy and the troops that had to fill the sandbags. Yet in the fight against the Islamic State, the creation of a U.S. outpost indicates a noteworthy development in a battle that is largely fought from the skies.
In the wake of Cardin’s death, Pentagon officials have insisted that the Marine fire base there is for “force protection” of the Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the region. Yet as Iraqi forces push the Islamic State from strongholds such as Ramadi and Hit in Anbar province with the help of U.S. artillery, it takes little imagination to see that Fire Base Bell represents an additional offensive capability for future operations in the lead up to and eventual battle for Mosul.
In recent months, U.S. rocket artillery, known as HIMARS, has been used frequently in battles around the Euphrates river, according to news releases from the U.S. Central Command. HIMARS and their GPS-guided rockets known as GMLRS provide the same type of accuracy as a guided munition dropped from an aircraft, without the strings attached to calling in an airstrike. Aircraft availability, fuel and weather are non-factors in a HIMARS strike, and thus the rockets are easily requested and delivered. In the United States’ last war in Iraq they were used extensively in earlier battles in Ramadi and Mosul.
The GMLRS maximum effective range is roughly 40 miles, the same distance — as the crow flies — from Makhmour to Mosul. Between Mosul and the Iraqis’ defensive lines are a number of villages that would be well within the range of the guided rockets. Though Warren said that there are no HIMARS systems in position currently at Fire Base Bell, he did not deny that they would be eventually staged there or that the base would be used for future offensive operations.
The small base is manned by a detachment of Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit - an amphibious task force that has since been loaned to the anti-Islamic State operation in Iraq and Syria. According to Warren, Marines from the unit come and go into Iraq, though their new fire base indicates a more permanent presence.
Fire Base Bell is just adjacent to a larger Iraqi base outside the town of Makhmour, Iraq. The area is a staging point of sorts for operations in the region. The Iraqi base is home to troops from Iraq’s 15th Division that are being prepped for the upcoming liberation of Mosul, and also contains Kurdish peshmerga fighters and a small detachment of U.S. advisers. To the west, Peshmerga forces border the Tigris river in defensive positions closer to the Islamic State stronghold that sits roughly 40 miles to the northeast.
In a first in the fight against the Islamic State, Fire Base Bell is an independent U.S. military position, though not by much. According to Warren, it is just a few hundred meters from the larger Iraqi base that sits nearby. The U.S. has howitzers and rocket artillery stationed elsewhere in Iraq, namely at the Asad and Taqqadam air bases, but they are positioned within the confines of bases that belong to the Iraqis.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a staff writer and a former Marine infantryman.