Online Flight Tracking Provides A Look At The US Build Up In Middle East Following the Attack on US Embassy In Iraq

Paratroopers of the 82nd AD boarding the C-17s before deploying to Iraq. (Photo: U.S. Army). Boxes are screenshots from ADSBExchange.com and RadarBox24.com.

Here’s everything we know about the deployment that followed the attack on the US embassy in Baghdad which involved at least 30 aircraft (that could be tracked online via ADS-B).

Last week, on Dec 29, 2019 American fighter jets struck five facilities belonging to Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria, after the group launched a rocket attack against an Iraqi base near Kirkuk that resulted in the death of a US contractor and injured four US service members, as well as members of the Iraqi Security Forces. At least 50 members of the Iranian-backed militia were injured and 25 were killed, including also senior leaders of the group.

On Dec. 31, 2019 a large group of people, initially reported as protesters, marched trough Baghdad’s Green Zone, reaching the US Embassy. Among them there were also members of the KH militia wearing camouflage uniforms and bearing the militia’s flag. The crowd assaulted the embassy, setting on fire walls, guard positions and vehicles while trying to breach into the building.

There were no plans to evacuate the embassy and the US Marines which took defensive positions on the roof used non-lethal weapons to try to repel the attack without further escalating the situation. The embassy was later in the day reinforced by 100 Marines, airlifted there by MV-22B Ospreys supported by at least one AH-64E Apache Guardian, and Iraqi Security Forces stationed on the perimeter.

Composite image of an AH-64E performing a show of force over the embassy (left) and the MV-22Bs unloading the Marines at the embassy (right). (Photo: US DoD)

As you probably already know by now, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper authorized the deployment of an infantry battalion from the Immediate Response Force of the 82nd Airborne Division in response of the embassy attack. 750 paratroopers were deployed in 18 hours to the Central Command Area Of Responsibility (CENTCOM AOR), with more being readied for further deployments in the following days.

What’s interesting about this is that it was possible to track the entire deployment by the use of ADS-B, Mode S and MLAT allowing us to discover some details of the operation through Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) tools.

The first two flights were noticed out of Ft. Bragg, home of the 82nd AD, in the evening of New Year’s Eve (European time zone, late morning in the USA), with a third C-17 departing some hours later. The C-17s belong to either the 315th or the 437th Airlift Wing based at Joint Base Charleston and used callsigns RCH892, RCH893 and RCH894.

After disappearing due to the lack of coverage, the C-17s were tracked again over the Azores while enroute to a rendez-vous with KC-135R tankers of the 100th Air Refueling Win departed from RAF Mildenhall, with callsigns QID534, QID535, QID536.

The Globemasters crossed the Mediterranean Sea and entered holding patterns over Crete before heading to Egypt.

These 3 C-17s flew around the Sinai Peninsula and landed at Queen Alia International Airport in Jordan. They later departed Jordan and headed towards Baghdad, before changing route and landing at Kuwait International Airport.

Meanwhile, a C-32 (military variant of the Boeing 757-200), callsign RCH584, belonging to the secretive 486th Flight Test Squadron landed at either NAS Rota or Morón AB, in Spain. The C-32 is often used by the Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST), a US interagency team poised to respond to terrorism incidents worldwide on short notice. After taking off again, it flew towards Crete before disappearing from online tracking websites.

Interestingly, a Gulfstream G-III with registration N173PA, flew to Bahrain at around the same time. This plane, better known as “Ebola Jet” for being the only one capable of safely transporting citizens who contracted the Ebola virus back to the US, belongs to Phoenix Air, an air ambulance service out of Cartersville, Georgia, which according to rumors could be linked to CIA.

Another noteworthy deployment on the first day of 2020 started from RAF Mildenhall, which saw the departure of at least three MC-130J Commando II of the 67th Special Operations Squadron and three CV-22B Osprey of the 7th Special Operations Squadron, all headed to the Middle East. Another MC-130J followed on January 2.

Other C-17s took off on January 1 from Ft. Bragg and also Ft. Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne Division and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR). Another C-17 departed from McChord AFB and made a stop in Ft. Campbell before heading to the CENTCOM AOR. Considering the aforementioned deployment of CV-22s and the fact that these three locations are home of many special operations units (3rd Special Forces Group in Ft. Bragg, 5th SFG and 160th SOAR in Ft. Campbell, 1st SFG, 4th Btn/160th SOAR and 2nd Ranger Battalion/75th Ranger Regiment in McChord) we can’t rule out also the deployment of a special operations task force. Anyway, C-17s from McChord participated in the deployment of the 82nd AD.

In the first two days 32 aircraft involved in the deployment were tracked online, 20 of which were C-17s. On January 2 other C-17s flew from the US to the Middle East, this time landing at Ramstein AB (Germany) for refueling, instead of performing air-to-air refueling over the Mediterranean Sea.

Some of the C-17 are currently flying back to Ramstein.

At this time, it’s still not known how many soldiers will be deployed and how many airlift flights will be performed. However the US Defense Secretary stated that they expect further attacks from the militia and they are ready to perform preemptive strikes if needed. Indeed, along with the flights related to the 82nd AD’s and AFSOC elements mobilisations, there can be additional deployments underway, some of those not completely “visible” on the Internet.  Whatever, the level of details that can be gathered by OSINT (Open Sources Intelligence) in real-time is rather impressive.

Here’s, for instance, the heads-up to the deployment of four MC-130H via Rota, Spain:

There are also AC-130 gunships on the way:

You can get a pretty good “picture” of what is happening in these hours by following, among all the others, these accounts on Twitter: @Gerjon_ @vcdgf555 @CivMilAir @GDarkconrad @ItaMilRadar @Intel_Sky @planesonthenet @MilMonWorld @AircraftSpots @FireFlying11 (we have probably forgotten someone, in this case apologies).



About Stefano D'Urso 62 Articles
Stefano D'Urso is a contributor for TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. He's a full-time engineering student and aspiring pilot. In his spare time he's also an amateur aviation photographer and flight simulation enthusiast.
About David Cenciotti 3921 Articles
David Cenciotti is a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written four books.