By: Charles J. Hanley, the Associated Press
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. Concerns about civilian casualties from the air are growing, and may already be on the upswing. Longtime AP correspondent, and Pulitzer Prize winner, Charles J. Hanley wrote two exclusives this weekend from Iraq this weekend, and they follow.
The first concerns the world’s first “robot attack squadron.”
The airplane is the size of a jet fighter, powered by a turboprop engine, able to fly at 300 mph (480 kph) and reach 50,000 feet (15,240 meters). It is outfitted with infrared, laser and radar targeting, and with a ton and a half of guided bombs and missiles.
The Reaper is loaded, but there is no one on board. Its pilot, as it bombs targets in Iraq, will sit at a video console 7,000 miles (11,265 kilometers) away in Nevada.
The arrival of these outsized U.S. “hunter-killer” drones, in aviation history’s first robot attack squadron, will be a watershed moment even in an Iraq that has seen too many innovative ways to hunt and kill.
That moment, one the Air Force will likely low-key, is
expected “soon,” says the regional U.S. air commander. How soon? “We’re still working that,” Lt. Gen. Gary North said in an interview.
The Reaper’s first combat deployment is expected in
Afghanistan, and senior Air Force officers estimate it will land in Iraq sometime between this fall and next spring. They look forward to it.
“With more Reapers, I could send manned airplanes home,” North said.
The Associated Press has learned that the Air Force is
building a 400,000-square-foot (37,161-square-meter)
expansion of the concrete ramp area now used for
Predator drones here at Balad, the biggest U.S. air base in Iraq, 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Baghdad. That new staging area could be turned over to Reapers.
It is another sign that the Air Force is planning for an extended stay in Iraq, supporting Iraqi government forces in any continuing conflict, even if U.S. ground troops are drawn down in the coming years.
The estimated two dozen or more unmanned MQ-1 Predators now doing surveillance over Iraq, as the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, have become mainstays of the U.S. war effort, offering airborne “eyes” watching over road convoys, tracking nighttime insurgent movements via infrared sensors, and occasionally unleashing one of their two Hellfire missiles on a target.
From about 36,000 flying hours in 2005, the Predators are expected to log 66,000 hours this year over Iraq and Afghanistan.
The MQ-9 Reaper, when compared with the 1995-vintage
Predator, represents a major evolution of the unmanned
aerial vehicle, or UAV.
At five tons gross weight, the Reaper is four times heavier than the Predator. Its size ? 36 feet (11 meters) long, with a 66-foot (20-meter) wingspan ? is comparable to the profile of the Air Force’s workhorse A-10 attack plane. It can fly twice as fast and twice as high as the Predator. Most significantly, it carries many more weapons.
While the Predator is armed with two Hellfire missiles, the Reaper can carry 14 of the air-to-ground weapons ? or four Hellfires and two 500-pound (227-kilogram) bombs.
“It’s not a recon squadron,” Col. Joe Guasella, operations chief for the Central Command’s air component, said of the Reapers. “It’s an attack squadron, with a lot more kinetic ability.”
The new robot plane is expected to be able to stay aloft for 14 hours fully armed, watching an area and waiting for targets to emerge.
“It’s going to bring us flexibility, range, speed and
persistence,” said regional commander North, “such that I will be able to work lots of areas for a long, long time.”
The British also are impressed with the Reaper, and are buying three for deployment in Afghanistan later this year. The Royal Air Force version will stick to the “recon” mission, however ? no weapons on board.
BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq – 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.
The escalation worries some about an increase in
“collateral damage,” casualties among Iraqi civilians. Iraq Body Count, a London-based, anti-war research group that monitors Iraqi war deaths, says the step-up in air attacks appears to have been accompanied by an
increase in Iraqi civilian casualties from air strikes. Based on media reports, it counts a recent average of 50 such deaths per month.
The Air Force itself does not maintain such data.
Air Force generals worry about wear and tear on aging
aircraft. But ground commanders clearly like what they see.
“Night before last we had 14 strikes from B-1 bombers.
Last night we had 18 strikes by B-1 bombers,” Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch said approvingly of air support his 3rd Infantry Division received in a recent offensive south of Baghdad.
Statistics tell the story: Air Force and Navy aircraft dropped 437 bombs and missiles in Iraq in the first six months of 2007, a fivefold increase over the 86 used in the first half of 2006, and three times more than in the second half of 2006, according to AirForce data. In June, bombs dropped at a rate of more than five a day.
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.
The increased air activity has paralleled the reinforcement of U.S. ground troops, beginning in February, to try to suppress the insurgency and sectarian violence in the Baghdad region. Simply keeping those 30,000 additional troops supplied has added to demands on the Air Force.
“We’re the busiest aerial port in DOD (Department of
Defense),” said Col. Dave Reynolds, a mission support
commander here. Working 12-hour shifts, his cargo
handlers are expected to move 140,000 tons of cargo this year, one-third more than in 2006, he said.
The greatest impact of the “air surge” has come in close air support for Army and Marine operations.
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.
As chronicled in the Air Force’s daily summaries, more and more pilots are getting the “cleared hot” clearance for bombing runs, usually with 500-pound bombs. In recent Army operations north of Baghdad, for example, Air Force planes have struck “factories” for makeshift bombs, weapons caches uncovered by ground troops and, in one instance, “several houses insurgents were using as fire positions.”