Warplanes: Keeping Your Distance In Iraq


December 18, 2014: Iraq wants the United States to put more air control teams into Iraq to serve with Iraqi units. The U.S. has refused to do this and prefers to handle air strikes via two operations centers (one in Baghdad and the other in the autonomous Kurdish north) that handle communications between aircraft overhead and Iraqi units on the ground. Rather than risk air controller teams on the ground with Iraqi troops, the air force uses targeting pods on the aircraft and good communications with Iraqi ground units and their American advisors. The targeting pods give pilots an eagle eye view of the battlefield and with zoom pilots can see a lot of detail (like weapons carried and clothing worn) about the people below. Using GPS it is possible to get a precise idea of where the bad guys and friendly forces are. Moreover, the air strikes tend to concentrate on enemy rear area operations like convoys moving about and stationary targets like warehouses, parking lots, barracks, headquarters and other base areas (even ones in caves). So far this is working, at least for the Americans. The Iraqis are nostalgic for the old days (before 2011) when there were a lot of American ground combat troops in Iraq and lots of air controllers, even with Iraqi units. Nostalgia does not work for the Americans while the safety of their personnel on the ground does.

The U.S. Air Force does have air control teams on the ground in Iraq but these are usually with American or other Western commando units. These are primarily special operations troops from the army (Special Forces, Rangers), marines, navy (SEALs) and air force (para-rescue). There will be some similar special operations troops from American allies. Britain and Australia are already in and others are expected to join, including some Moslem special operations units that worked with NATO in Afghanistan.

Many American special operations troops are trained to act as ground controllers and many have experience in combat doing this. The Western nations prefer to have a Western air controller on the ground confirming what is going to be hit. But this is not absolutely necessary. Nearly all armed UAVs fire their missiles using the vidcams (with zoom) they carry. Manned aircraft (including heavy bombers) have similar capability in the form of targeting pods. These are very popular with fighter pilots, mainly because they contain FLIR (video quality night vision infrared radar) and TV cameras that enable pilots flying at 6,200 meters (20,000 feet) to clearly make out what is going on down on the ground. The pods also contain laser designators for laser guided bombs and laser range finders that enable pilots to get coordinates for JDAM (GPS guided) bombs. Some have software that can identify many military vehicles and systems automatically. The 200 kg (440 pound) pods hangs off a hard point, like a missile, bomb, or fuel tank. Pilots and bomber crews are trained to use these pods to select and hit targets from the air if there is no one on the ground to help out.

The Iraqis and Kurds have some trained air controllers. The Iraqi ones were trained to call in strikes from Iraqi warplanes armed with Hellfire missiles. The Kurdish ones have been known to work with American Special Forces teams. It’s possible some might be allowed to operate on their own. Trusting the Iraqis, what with all the bribery, divided loyalties and such is still discouraged.





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