The existence of a previously unknown Marine fire base in northern Iraq came suddenly to light last weekend after a Marine was killed by an ISIS rocket attack while serving there. This same austere base has reportedly been attacked once again by ISIS, although this time via a squad-sized group of foot-soldiers. The attack was fended off by the Marines without injuries.
A few new details have also surfaced about the base. It is named “Firebase Bell” and between 100 and 200 Marines are stationed there. These Marines were classified as “temporarily deployed” which has allowed them not to be added to the roughly 3,500 American troops that are authorized to be deployed to Iraq. This seems like a fairly rickety loophole that allows the White House’s message of “no boots on the ground” and a finite number of troops deployed in-country in non-combat roles to remain intact even though the truth may say otherwise.
The Pentagon says that the base is there for force protection only, being located in the vicinity of the town of Makhmour. As we mentioned in our previous piece on the previously undisclosed firebase, Makhmour is a major staging ground for Iraqi troops and US advisers as they prepare for the long awaited assault on Mosul. The military operations area in Makhmour is known as the Nineveh Operations Center, and will likely be a major command and control complex throughout the effort to take back Mosul from entrenched ISIS forces.
The idea that the fire-base exists just for defensive purposes is most likely not the entire story. It’s thought to lie somewhere northwest of Makhmour, putting it within around 40 miles of Mosul. Although standard artillery will not reach that far, the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System’s M31 GPS guided rockets can. In other words, with HiMARS the Marines could rain GPS guided rockets with 220lb warheads onto targets leading along the main route up to Mosul, all the way into the city itself, on demand and under any weather conditions.
The use of HiMARS against ISIS is an evolving tactic. Earlier this month the first use of the system from Jordan into Syria occurred. Last year HiMARS systems deployed to bases in Iraq were reported to have launched over 400 rockets. So the idea that the Marines would forward deploy it within reach of Mosul is not outside the realm of possibility. In fact, getting that weapon system to such a location may have been worth putting 100-200 Marines directly into a combat zone in itself.
This does not mean that such a system is already on site, but the groundwork for such a deployment is likely being forged at Firebase Bell. What is an artillery outpost mainly focused on force protection today could and probably will be a rocket artillery launch position tomorrow, if it isn’t already.