The Thunder Run to Capture Baghdad

The American War Machine at its absolute finest in maneuver warfare. In recent history we can see it in the American invasion of Iraq.

On April 3, 2003 the 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division captured the Saddam International Airport in the western end of Baghdad. Two days later, the 2nd Brigade, the Spartans, launched the first of two “thunder runs”- monstrous charges of tanks and other armored vehicles into the capital (Ricks, 2006). These probes showed the U.S. Army at its best, taking tactical risks that paid off substantially.

Thunder Run

These success of these raids led to the abandonment of the U.S plan to cordon off the city and move in slowly with dismounted infantry (Ricks, 2006). The two “thunder runs” into the Iraqi capital led to the collapse of the Saddam government and a quick American victory. It would be the occupation that would be tough.

American Way of War

During the American Revolutionary and Civil Wars dashing cavalry charges followed up with lighting strikes of mounted infantry behind enemy lines to capture ground quickly. A self-taught Confederate General named Nathan Bedford Forrest summed up the essence of this tactic with a single phrase, “Git thar fustest with the mostest,” (Kelly, 2003).

World War II

The American military is a master of learning and adapting. Using a strategy from World War II it attacked Baghdad. “Blitzkrieg” is a German word meaning “lighting war” describing an all-mechanized force concentration of tanks, infantry, artillery and air power, concentrating overpowering force at great speed to break through enemy lines.

The premise is through constant motion, the attack attempts to keep the enemy off balance, making it difficult to respond effectively at any given point before the front has already moved on. The attacking force through a series of quick and decisive short battles will deliver a knockout blow to an enemy before it could fully mobilize.

Rommel and Patton knew that success on the battlefield is determined more often by shock and surprise — by-products of speed — than by superior firepower (Kelly, 2003).

The Spartans employed all three in Iraq, along with real time intelligence.

March 2003, Kuwait/Iraq Border- The March Up

The weeks before the attack into Baghdad the 2nd Brigade swept past significant areas of Iraqi resistance and urban areas. Rather than envelope them in pockets it left them alone. Later they proved troublesome they would be reduced by follow-on infantry and Marine units. The goal was to get to the capital as fast as possible.

The Attack on Bagdad

The Brigade’s famed “Thunder Run” into the center of Baghdad became the turning point of the war both militarily and psychologically. Once the coalition reached Baghdad, commanders decided that a military demonstration into, instead of in front of, the city was in order to show American military might.

Thunder Run Graphic

The idea was to shorten the battle by taking the capital. The highways into the city were practically open; the route chosen was a large four lane highway that arced from the southern to western ends of the city, ending with Saddam Airport, which was already in 3rd Infantry Division hands being captured the day before by elements of the 3rd Brigade.

Thunder Run- Recon by Fire

The intention of the first run was a risky armored thrust into enemy-held urban territory where tanks were supposedly wholly vulnerable. The second thunder run was quickly planned after the success of the first, two days later – and this time the Americans had come to stay and would overnight in several of the palaces that made up the downtown part of the city.

Armored Tracks into Baghdad

The idea would be like someone parking a tank on the front lawn of the White House and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. to let the Iraqis know that the Americans were serious about invading.

Importance of UAV’s

A key part in the strategy was the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles’ (UAV) for real-time battlefield photos of Highway 8 leading into downtown Baghdad. The Spartans relayed potential target coordinates for warplanes that were used to attack in support of the armored column as it attacked into Baghdad against enemy bunkers.

To deconflict all these different assets they had fixed wing aircraft fly at a minimum of 10,000 feet, rotary wing at below 1,000 feet and the UAVs at 3,000 feet, given each aircraft a margin of error of 1500 feet or more for maneuver (Zucchino, 2004).

Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) can support planning for Main Supply Route (MSR) movements by providing early warning of enemy locations and potential Improvised Explosive Device (IED) locations along the MSR. ISR can provide real-time video along the MSR in order to identify possible problem areas before arriving at a particular location.

Using both manned and unmanned resources the Spartans were able to establish two levels of reconnaissance going into the city.

This required the establishment of Air Mobility Corridors being used first by UAVs being operated by the Air Force and Army to identify any blocked areas or enemy locations with IEDs along the MSRs ten minutes before the main body of the lead battalion with over 60 vehicles came along the road at almost 25 miles an hour.

The second layer of reconnaissance was done using helicopters and planes to destroy any potential enemy locations that were a defense corridor around the city as the convoy moved into the city to attack. All of this was a like a large symphony orchestra being guided by something called the Air Movement Table to ensure that all the resources from the various services were where they needed to be and when.

Another real-time concern was about missing critical turns into Baghdad airport at what everybody called the spaghetti junction, a maze of twisting overpasses and on-ramps on the cusp of downtown Baghdad to what you would see an any large American city. All of this was directed at in a unity of effort to take Baghdad and was executed using joint planning to take the city.

All of this allowed the Spartans to keep the momentum needed to attack into the city. The toughness of their tanks, the real-time intelligence from overhead coverage and the audacity of the Spartans allowed them to drive into downtown Baghdad.


General Patton’s 3rd Army, in what had been widely regarded as the most impressive armored attack in history, took four months to battle from the Falaise Gap to the Rhine. The 3rd Infantry traveled the same distance in two weeks (Kelly, 2003).

On April 7, the second thunder run cut right through to Saddam’s palace complex in the center of Baghdad, on the left bank of the Tigris and decided to stay (Ricks, 2006).

The arrival of U.S. forces in strength and in places where the Iraqi military did not expect them is the main reason Baghdad was seized so quickly, with so little loss of life (Kelly, 2003). The rapid fall of Baghdad prompted the disintegration of virtually all remaining organized military opposition.

Thunder Run Painting


Kelly, J. (2003, April 3). How the bold run to Baghdad paid off . World News.

Ricks, T. E. (2006). Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq . new York : The Penguin Press .

Zucchino, D. (2004). Thunder Run: The Armored Strike to Capture Baghdad. New York City : First Grove Press.