MILAN missile classes prepare Peshmerga to use the antitank missiles crucial for stopping Islamic State attacks. Photo by Florian Neuhof
By Florian Neuhof
DAQUQ, Kirkuk province - First Lieutenant Hawraz Xalid Mukhmed has not had much time off since the last time he travelled abroad.
One of the select Peshmerga officers chosen to train on the MILAN anti-tank missile system in Germany for two weeks last September, he has been much in demand since his return to the Kirkuk front.
Mukhmed arrived back in Kurdistan the same month as the first of the armor-piercing MILANS were delivered by the Germans. They did not come a moment too soon, observers say, because the Peshmerga were soon struggling to cope with motorized ISIS suicide bombers crashing into their lines.
Known as vehicle-based improvised explosive devices, or VBIEDS, trucks clad in steel sheeting and armored vehicles captured from the Iraqi Army are filled with explosives and driven into Kurdish defenses.
To counter this threat, Mukhmed was constantly deployed to the frontlines, often at night when ISIS likes to stage its surprise attacks.
"Some days I came back at 11 in the morning, and the commander called me back to the frontline two hours later," he told Rudaw.
The lieutenant quickly passed on his missile handling skills to another officer, which allowed him to take breaks from the frontline, but he reckons he still spent twice as much time on duty as his comrades.
General Araz Abdulkadir, commander of the 9th Brigade, also became increasingly concerned that he was short of operators for his most potent weapon.
"The MILANs are very important. They greatly improves the morale of the Peshmerga,” said the general at his headquarters near Daquq.
“The troops know its a very clever weapon, which can stop any car bomb."
The Peshmerga have other means to take out VBIEDs, notably rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs. The MILAN rocket has a much greater range, however, enabling the Kurds to take out even large trucks without being affected by the blast.
The night vision in the missile system's scope enables it to foil VBIED attacks conducted at night or during sandstorms.
To ensure that battlefield losses would not deprive his unit of MILAN operators, Abdulkadir decided to reassign Mukhmed from frontline duty to the classroom, where he would teach recent military academy graduates how to fire the missile.
The young officers had already learned about operating the MILAN during their two years of training at a military school in Sulaimani, which made the task easier.
In a container office at 9th Brigade HQ, the officers underwent eight days of additional training, handling the weapon and listening to Mukhmed pass on his expertise. They also spent time at the frontline, watching the lieutenant deploy the system in real life conditions, even if no actual ISIS attack materialized during school hours.
At base, they learned how to get the MILAN battle ready, repeating the process until every step had been memorized. First, the missile is sealed in a hard plastic tube and mounted on a tripod that holds the sight. Finally, a thin wire is attached to the rocket connected to the guiding system.
They were taught how to steer the missile to its target. Once fired, it is guided by the operator, keeping the target in the sight's crosshairs, with the wire transmitting adjustments to the rocket's steering system.
The MILAN is known for being relatively easy to handle, an attribute that has made it popular with armies worldwide since its inception over 40 years ago, and still makes it an effective weapon today. The European-made device is an acronym for the French “missile d´infanterie léger antichar” or light anti-tank infantry missile.
"It's not difficult to learn," said Second Lieutenant Amir Abdulrahman Muhemed, who is confident of hitting the mark with the MILAN after taking part in the course, despite never having fired one of its missiles.
Upon graduation, the class is proud to be among the few Peshmerga trained to operate the weapon. The new officers feel they can make a valuable contribution in the war against the Islamic State, which is reluctant to expend its VBIEDs on attacks that are likely to fail.
"Before we had the MILAN, ISIS used to attack us with car bombs. Now, they are not attacking because they know we have the missile," said Second Lieutenant Rebaz Saifadin Nejmadin, another of the course's participants.