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The Combined Action Platoon in Iraq: 

An Old Technique for a New War

First Lieutenants Jason Goodale and Jon Webre, USMC 

On 30 May 2004 the Marines of 3d Platoon, Company G, Task Force 2nd Battalion, Seventh Marines (TF 2/7), Regimental Combat Team-7 (RCT 7), were activated as one of the first Combined Action Program (CAP) platoons since the end of the program during Vietnam in 1971.  Upon entering into this mission, which was new to everyone involved, the TF 2/7 CAP platoon had to “reinvent the wheel” and use an almost forgotten model in order to wage modern counter-insurgency warfare in the west-central Al Anbar Province of Iraq.  The scope of the TF 2/7 CAP mission can be broken into three phases:  initiating and founding the CAP mission, coordination and operations in a joint CAP environment, and establishing a training base to ensure the continuation of the mission.

Phase I:  Initiating the CAP Mission

Due to TF 2/7 operations occurring up to the day of the CAP platoon activation, which included TF 2/7 displacement east in support of Fallujah offensive operations in April 2004, the CAP platoon was not able to start working with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) until late May 2004.  The utilization of the CAP platoon as a semi-independent unit within TF 2/7’s area of operations (AO) had been planned for a period of weeks since the battalion’s arrival in February 2004, but finally the opportunity presented itself.  When the order arrived, the TF 2/7 CAP platoon, call sign “Golf 3,” displaced from the battalion main forward operating base and moved 25 kilometers away into the platoon’s new home near the city of Hit (pronounced “Heet”), Iraq.  The CAP platoon arrived at the headquarters of the nascent Iraqi National Guard (ING) 503d Battalion on 30 May 2004.  

Upon arriving at the 503d headquarters, the platoon had three goals:  establish initial security, familiarize with new responsibilities, and sustainment.  After a brief introduction to the platoon’s new host, Colonel Fahad Ab’dal Aziz, Commander of the 503rd, the platoon established local security, and began settling in to billeting areas.

            The CAP platoon quickly set in motion the necessary functions to quickly train the 503d in anticipation of the national transfer of sovereignty in little over a month.  The CAP platoon commander introduced the unit to the staff and officers of the 503d and established short, mid, and long-term training and operations goals.  The CAP platoon sergeant, ensured all logistical and security concerns were immediately addressed and that future requirements were anticipated.  The platoon guide assumed the role of chief trainer and began establishing the process of turning the 503d into a capable Iraqi fighting force. 

The NCOs of the platoon made sure tasks were assigned, watches and rotations established, and everything was proceeding according to the platoon plan.  The junior Marines had perhaps the hardest role of adapting to a foreign culture by learning the language and working, daily, with hundreds of non-English speaking, ill-trained soldiers.  Needless to say, this was all ad hoc considering the CAP platoon’s pre-deployment training consisted of two days of orientation which already proved far short of the expectations necessary to live, eat, sleep, and fight with the 503d.  Despite these shortcomings, the TF 2/7 CAP platoon was cognizant that they were going to carry out this mission for the last three months of the battalion’s deployment and the platoon wanted nothing short of success.  The future local security in this area of operations needed to be transferred to the Iraqis as soon as they were ready. 

Phase II:  Coordination and Operations in a Joint CAP Environment

            Perhaps the biggest challenge that the TF 2/7 CAP faced in its mission was the establishment of procedures when it came to joint operations with Marines and the 503d soldiers.  Golf 3’s role in coordinating all U.S. and ISF training and operations from the 503d headquarters decreased throughout the platoon’s stay in Iraq.  This would never have been possible without the addition, in early June, of a battalion detachment lead by the TF 2/7 S3L.  Along with subject matter experts from each battalion staff section, the essential task of establishing an operational capability at the 503d battalion level was removed from the CAP platoon.

            The CAP platoon and battalion staff solidified as the weeks passed, into a solid band of Marines and sailors that became known as “Team JCC.”   The JCC was the operations center at the heart of the mission.  From the JCC, the CAP platoon and TF 2/7 tracked the majority of activity concerning the Marines, the ING, and the Iraqi Police (IP) in TF 2/7’s AO.  Despite some early difficulties with command and control, understandable for a mission of this type, Team JCC began to establish useful techniques and procedures.  Such procedures consisted of receiving direction from TF 2/7 headquarters, establishing whether an Iraqi, U.S.-only, or a combined effort would act on it, and supervising the execution of any action.  As a team, the officers from the respective agencies would assess the situation and assign react teams from the ISF to respond.  These teams were often supported by the Marines of Company E located at the adjacent battalion forward operating base, or other units of the battalion as required.

Difficulties would often arise due to lack of communications equipment and logistics assets such as fuel, unreliability (or lack of training) of the local forces, or language barriers.  Each one of these problems was dealt with as it occurred and over the course of months the CAP managed to find creative solutions to solve each challenge. 

A simple example is that of the language barriers.  Many of the battalion’s interpreters were either not Iraqi, or were from a different part of Iraq, making it difficult for Iraqi soldiers to understand them.  By learning enough tactical terms in the local dialect to issue a simple order such as checkpoint, patrol, enemy, and weapons, while making up the difference with diagrams and hand gestures, the problem was solved.  As in Vietnam, the CAP platoon’s language ability was essential to mission success.

Joint operations with the ISF are rarely smooth, but as the mission matured and evolved, Team JCC developed a system that resulted in several successful operations against the enemy.  The CAP jointly confiscated hundreds of illegal weapons and explosive material, captured several insurgents, and successfully engaged the enemy on numerous occasions with no casualties to ISF or TF 2/7 Marines. 

Phase III:  Establish a Training Base

            Perhaps the most visible success of CAP platoon’s training mission was the establishment of an instruction foundation that would ensure the continuation of sustainment training throughout the 503d.  The CAP platoon initial training package trained 700 soldiers of the 503d in basic weapons handling and marksmanship with the AK-47 and RPK light machine gun.  The 503d fired more than 13,000 rounds in the span of four days and set a standard for ISF training.

            As a result of some collective thought between the 503d trainers and Marines, a plan developed to bring one platoon a week from one of the four companies in the 503d (from the cities of Hit, Baghdadi, Haditha and Anah/Rawah) and train them in basic combat skills.  The training package, which became known as the “Basic Skills Training”, lasted from Monday to Thursday of each week (accounting for the Iraqi religious day on Friday) with Sunday as a receiving day.  The package included physical training and martial arts every morning and covered the gamut of basic mission essential tasks and combat skills to include: procedures at checkpoints, search actions for both vehicles and personnel, basic dismounted patrolling skills such as hand/arm signals, mounted/dismounted techniques, and medical training.  Also included were urban skills such as room clearing, patrolling, building entry techniques, and a full day of live fire-and-movement training on the 503d’s 300-meter rifle range which was recently renovated by TF 2/7 civil affairs.  The 503d soldiers learned to rely on a basic formation that they called the “zigzag,” or tactical column, for most combat operations. 

The training week culminated in a series of graduation battle drills in which the three squads of the 503d platoons would demonstrate, in a series of events, all the skills learned in the week’s training.  In the CAP platoon time with the 503d, the 503d passed ten platoons through the training package for approximately 400 soldiers.  Each week the plan fluctuated and evolved but ultimately became smoother.

            The CAP platoon’s most significant training accomplishment was the establishment of a core group of approximately ten Iraqi trainers led by Major Ab’dal Qader Jubair, the Training Officer of the 503rd and the senior enlisted trainer, Jafa.  With the personnel additions of other trainers, the group developed into a highly skilled and well-versed training cadre. 

Building on TF 2/7’s military police platoon, “Train the Trainer” package for 503d non-commissioned officers, the CAP platoon’s initial training of the 503d was conducted entirely by Marines.  After an additional Train-the-Trainer piece, the 503d trainers affectionately referred to as the “Red Sleeves,” for the armband they wore, assumed responsibility.

By the beginning of August 2004, the Red Sleeves assumed full control of the Basic Skills Training package and shaped it as their own.  The Marines gladly and proudly allowed them to take the reins and stood back.  The CAP realized that if it was theirs (the Iraqis) it was better.

Looking Back

            On 9 September 2004, the last Marines of Team JCC were extracted by helicopter and the CAP mission of Golf 3 was complete.  As the helicopter circled overhead of the 503rd headquarters, the Marines reflected that in three short months a small group of Marines had stood-up an ING battalion, conducted joint operations against the enemy, and created a training program that had been adapted by the Iraqis as their own.  As of this writing, the training program continues beyond TF 2/7’s stay.   A new CAP platoon from TF 1/23 carried on the mission.  TF 2/7 CAP platoon results were often roughly bordered and many times the unit had to adjust expectations, but nevertheless, the overall goal was defined; the Team JCC leadership was completely confident the mission was worthwhile.  The reactivated Combined Action Program has been a relative success in this modern war on terror and should be closely examined as an option for future conflicts.

1stLt Goodale is now the Executive Officer of Weapons Company, 2d Battalion, 7th Marines.

1stLt Webre is now attending Military Intelligence Officer’s Course (MIOC) while pursuing a lateral transfer to the Intelligence MOS.

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