Warplanes: January 24, 2005

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Although nearly all the combat operations in Iraq are on the ground, warplanes are still up there, and involved in the fighting. But in a major change from the way air operations are usually conducted, the ground troops are giving the orders. Every day, ground force commanders tell the CAOC (Combined Air Operations Center) where air power will be most needed. Specific aircraft types are not requested, but rather the kind of support the ground troops believe they will need. 

The coalition usually has 500 combat aircraft available for Iraq and Afghanistan. About 80 percent of these planes are for Iraq, and include U.S. Air Force F-15s , F-16s, AC-130s and A-10s, U.S. Navy F-14s and F/A-18s, U.S. Marine CorpsAV-8s and F/A-18s and British GR-4s and GR-7s. There are also about 50 reconnaissance aircraft available, including Global Hawk and Predator UAVs, plus U-2s, RC-135 (electronic signal collection) and E-8Cs (J-Stars ground radar). There are also several dozen tankers and transport aircraft. The ground troops also have dozens of helicopter gunships available as well. 

The CAOC is located in Doha, Qatar, about 1,100 kilometers south of Baghdad. Most of the aircraft operate out of aircraft carriers, or Al Dhafra airbase in the United Arab Emirates, Ali Al Salem in Kuwait and Al Udeid in Quatar. Bases in Kuwait and Iraq are also used, as needed. Keeping these aircraft, and their support personnel, out of Iraq, avoids the problem of mortar shells damaging aircraft on the ground, and injuring maintenance crews. 

On most days, there will be five or six warplanes in the air over Iraq, circling over ground troops they are supporting. Tankers and recon aircraft will also be in the air, and often combat aircraft will be used for recon as well. Most bombers have targeting systems that include day/night vidcams, and these can be used to collect information, or simply to look out for suspected enemy operations. This is often the case when an attack on oil pipelines is suspected. Warplanes can spot vehicles approaching a pipeline, and alert ground forces to intercept. 

Almost all bombing is now done with smart bombs, either GPS guided JDAMs, or laser guided bombs (which are a bit more accurate than JDAMs, but require a laser designator and clear weather.) In the last year, accuracy of smart bombs has been about 90 percent. The other ten percent are the result of equipment failure, bad luck (a JDAM running into an obstacle before it hits its target, laser designator fails, Etc.) or sending the wrong coordinates for a JDAM. Except for major battles like Fallujah, not many bombs are used on any given day. Many  days can go by without dropping a bomb or missile. Most of the bomb requests come from Special Forces operators, who spend a lot of time hunting down the enemy. When they find them, a smart bomb is usually called in to take care of the problem. This enables the Special Forces troops to remain hidden, and perhaps find another target in the same area. This tactic also scares the hell out of the Iraqis. They think they are safe at some isolated building out in the country side, then the place explodes. Fear can be a very powerful weapon, especially if the mystery bomb arrives at night.

The CAOC has a military lawyer on duty at all times, to give the air commander advice on whether some targets may be hit. Another CAOC innovation is the use of chat rooms for communications between people in the control room. This also allows a written record of all messages to be kept. But all the chat room action makes the place pretty quiet, with everyone hunched over their PC, or looking up at the large flat screen displays that show maps of the region (and the location of combat aircraft in the air), or video feeds from recon aircraft. CAOC is also tied in with carriers, and intelligence and other operations back in the United States, and all over the world. 

 


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