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July 17, 2007

USAF Steps Up Iraq Operations Iran  Iraq

Air power cannot defeat the insurgency in Iraq. It's a blunt instrument that inevitably kills non-combatants (i.e., people like you and me), alienating the few remaining Iraqis who don't already hate US forces. For the US military, though, it's seductive; it seems like an easy technological fix to an otherwise insoluble problem. But it cannot, will not, work. Vietnam taught us that. Even so, the US Air Force is ramping up Iraq operations in a big way. AP (via Cryptogon):

Away from the headlines and debate over the "surge" in U.S. ground troops, the Air Force has quietly built up its hardware inside Iraq, sharply stepped up bombing and laid a foundation for a sustained air campaign in support of American and Iraqi forces.

Squadrons of attack planes have been added to the in-country fleet. The air reconnaissance arm has almost doubled since last year. The powerful B1-B bomber has been recalled to action over Iraq. [...]

Inside spacious, air-conditioned "Kingpin," a new air traffic control center at this huge Air Force hub 50 miles north of Baghdad, the expanded commitment can be seen on the central display screen: Small points of light represent more than 100 aircraft crisscrossing Iraqi air space at any one time. [...]

Early this year, with little fanfare, the Air Force sent a squadron of A-10 "Warthog" attack planes — a dozen or more aircraft — to be based at Al-Asad Air Base in western Iraq. At the same time it added a squadron of F-16C Fighting Falcons here at Balad. Although some had flown missions over Iraq from elsewhere in the region, the additions doubled to 50 or more the number of workhorse fighter-bomber jets available at bases inside the country, closer to the action.

The reinforcement involved more than numbers. The new F-16Cs were the first of the advanced "Block 50" version to fly in Iraq, an aircraft whose technology includes a cockpit helmet that enables the pilot to aim his weapons at a target simply by turning his head and looking at it.

The Navy has contributed by stationing a second aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, and the reintroduction of B1-Bs has added a close-at-hand "platform" capable of carrying 24 tons of bombs.

Those big bombers were moved last year from distant Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to an undisclosed base in the Persian Gulf. Since February, with the ground offensive, they have gone on Iraq bombing runs for the first time since the 2003 invasion. [...]

The demand for air support is heavy. On one recent day, at a briefing attended by a reporter, it was noted that 48 requests for air support were filled, but 16 went unmet.

"There are times when the Army wishes we had more jets," said F-16C pilot Lt. Col. Steve Williams, commander of the 13th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, a component of Balad's 379th Air Expeditionary Wing.

In addition, the Air Force is performing more "ISR" work in Iraq — intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. "We have probably come close to doubling our ISR platforms the past 12 months," said Col. Gary Crowder, a deputy air operations chief for the Central Command.

Those proliferating reconnaissance platforms include Predator drones, high-flying U2s and AWACS, the technology-packed airborne warning and control aircraft, three of which returned to the Persian Gulf in April after three years' absence.

The F-16Cs and other attack planes also do surveillance work with their targeting cameras, keeping watch on convoy routes, for example. By Oct. 1, Crowder said, all squadrons will have "ROVER" capability, able to download real-time aerial video to the laptop computers of troops on the ground — showing them, in effect, what's around the next corner.

"They love it. It's like having a security camera wherever you want it," said Col. Joe Guastella, the Air Force's regional operations chief.

Air Force engineers, meanwhile, are improving this centrally located home base, which supports some 10,000 air operations per week.

The weaker of Balad's two 11,000-foot runways was reinforced — for five to seven years' more hard use. The engineers next will build concrete "overruns" at the runways' ends. Balad's strategic ramp, the concrete parking lot for its biggest planes, was expanded last fall. The air traffic control system is to be upgraded again with the latest technology.

"We'd like to get it to be a field like Langley, if you will," said mission support chief Reynolds, referring to the Air Force showcase base in Virginia.

The Air Force has flown over Iraq for many years, having enforced "no-fly zones" with the Navy in 1991-2003, banning Iraqi aircraft from northern and southern areas of this country. Today, too, it takes a long view: Many expect the Army to draw down its Iraq forces by 2009, but the Air Force is planning for a continued conflict in which it supports Iraqi troops.

"Until we can determine that the Iraqis have got their air force to sufficient capability, I think the coalition will be here to support that effort," Lt. Gen. Gary North, overall regional air commander, said in an interview. The new Iraqi air force thus far fields only a handful of transports and reconnaissance aircraft — no attack planes.

North also echoed a common theme in today's Air Force: Some of the U.S. planes are too old. Some of his KC-135 air-refueling tankers date from 1956. Heavy use in Iraq and Afghanistan is cracking the wings of some A-10s, the Air Force says.

"We are burning these airplanes out," North said. "Our A-10s and our F-16s are rapidly becoming legacy systems." [Emphasis added]

One thing is clear: the US does not plan on pulling out its warplanes any time soon. Far from ramping down the air presence, they are busily ramping it up, building new facilities, adding aircraft.

And what in the world are long-range B-1B bombers, which cost something like a third of a billion dollars each, doing flying close air support against insurgents with AK-47s and homemade bombs? I hope the following story isn't a clue. Deutsche Welle (via Cryptogon):

The Ramstein air base in southwestern Germany, long the largest US nuclear storehouse in Europe, has been completely emptied of its atomic arsenal according to experts who say the weapons are out of the country.

This week the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists (FAS) said in a study that the US army had apparently completely removed its stock of an estimated 130 nuclear weapons from the Ramstein air base. [Emphasis added]

B-1B bombers and a bunch of repurposed nukes. Please say this has nothing to do with Iran.

Posted by Jonathan at July 17, 2007 10:04 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb

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