David Axe / Tech Central Station – 2006-06-20 07:58:53
(June 9, 2006) — Ten years ago, taking out Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi with F-16s would have been an impossible task. Air strikes were planned days or even weeks in advance. Pilots weren’t trained to change missions mid-stream. Sensors and weapons weren’t accurate and flexible enough to spot and hit fleeting targets.
But during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Air Force pioneered the prosecution of what it calls Time Sensitive Targets, or TSTs. Since then, the Navy and Marine Corps have gotten in on the game too, and these days, over Iraq, it’s typical for jets to launch with only the vaguest idea of what’s out there. New sensors and weapons, high-tech surveillance drones and better training have resulted in a minor revolution of which the Zarqawi attack is just one result.
The Air Force has been mum on the subject, but it’s entirely possible that the F-16 drivers who eliminated Zarqawi were just flying a routine patrol before orders came to hit the safehouse. In stark contrast to the rigid preplanned sorties that were typical during the 1991 Gulf War, these days over Iraq, fighters from the Air Force and its sister services launch in two-jet sections carrying sensor pods and laser- and satellite-guided bombs.
They have no specific targets in mind. Orbiting over their assigned areas, they scan the ground below with sensor pods and helmet-mounted sights, use datalinks to pass around video imagery and the GPS coordinates of potential targets and coordinate with ground-based forward air controllers to hit insurgents who appear in crowded cities or crawl onto highway medians to plant improvised explosive devices. Hitting a safehouse is relatively easy by comparison.
Sensor pods are perhaps the most visible technology in the military’s efforts to take on TSTs. Pods contain day and night cameras, GPS for employing satellite-guided bombs and laser designators and trackers for laser-guided bombs. The cigar-shaped pods are slung under jets’ wings or fuselages.
Lt. Col. David Wilbur, commander of Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 332, which returned from Iraq in February, says that the new Litening AT pod enables Marine fighter crews to switch easily between looking for insurgents and attacking them, even in bad weather. Litening AT made its combat debut on Marine Corps jets during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and since have become standard equipment.
“There’s no reason to take off without one,” says Lt. Col. Wilbert Thomas, commander of Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 224, which served in Iraq between January and August 2005.
The Air Force is buying a number of different pod designs for nearly all of its combat aircraft types. In recent years, F-16s, F-15Es, A-10s, B-52s and B-1Bs have been fitted with pods.
The newest sensor pods include datalinks tied to a laptop computer-based terminals called Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receivers, or ROVER. The system allow crews to beam pod imagery to troops and commanders on the ground, letting them see what the crews see and facilitating close coordination between US personnel on the ground and personnel in the air.
A datalink called Link 16 performs a complementary role. Link 16-equipped jets can transmit a graphical target schematic based on and including GPS coordinates to other jets and to ground stations.
Air Force 77th Fighter Squadron commander Lt. Col. Donavan Godier says that Link-16 means a “large jump forward”. “In the past we needed a lot of [voice] comms.” Godier says that, in a combat scenario, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft like the RC-135 Rivet Joint and E-8C J-STARS can “feed targets to us via datalink”. “We can refine that data or pick up new threats. We can populate the network … [and] pass data to link-equipped fighters.”
Navy Lt. Comm. Trenton Lennard used Link 16 in conjunction with the new Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System, or JHMCS, a visor that allows pilots to direct their radars, targeting pods and weapons just by looking at a target. “With that helmet, on the [Link 16 terminal], a pilot can look down, designate a target and put it out to everybody. … It gets target pods, sensors and eyeballs on to the same piece of dirt.”
With pods, datalinks and JHMCS, if one pilot or sensor operator sees a target, so can every other friendly force in the area. A target need enter only one person’s situational awareness to enter everyone’s. That makes it hard to hide and allows commanders ands controllers to assign the best shooter to a given target, cutting the time between spotting the target and attacking it.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), blanketing Iraq in cameras and radars around the clock, only reinforce what is already a robust network of sensors and shooters. The Air Force flies 20 small Predator drones and a handful of larger Global Hawks on continuous orbits that cover almost every corner of the country.
The service calls this “persistent” surveillance. Navy Capt. Steve Wright, a UAV manager for the Chief of Naval Operations, says that UAVs help the military maintain a “common operational picture” — in other words, a universal, constantly-updated picture of the battlefield, with which it can quickly assign on-station pilots to hit new targets.
While most attacks are carried out by high-performance manned aircraft, Predators themselves have been armed to give commanders more options. It was an early armed Predator that killed USS Cole bombing suspect Abu Ali in 2002. A new version of the versatile UAV will carry more ordnance.
Despite the depth and breadth of the military’s sensor/shooter network, single human beings who don’t want to be found represent a daunting targeting challenge. The system is in place to quickly kill high-value targets such as Zarqawi, but it depends on someone on the ground pointing out the target’s location to begin with, accurately and in a timely manner. This is where previous decapitation strikes failed. An air raid in Fallujah in June 2004 narrowly missed Zarqawi.
Notorious Ba’ath Party leader Ali Hassan Al Majeed, aka “Chemical” Ali, had already left his safehouse in Samawah when it was hit in March 2003. Several attacks on suspected safehouses in Baghdad failed to kill Saddam Hussein in the early months of the war. Indeed, the opening shot of the U.S. invasion was a bomb dropped on Dora Farms, one of Saddam’s country retreats, on March 20, 2003. The strike was launched based on reports that the Iraqi leader was at the site, when in fact he hadn’t visited in months.
Despite the sophistication of US warplanes, sensors and ordnance, all results of billions of dollars of investment — and despite great progress in prosecuting TSTs — most decapitation strikes have been undermined by tardy or faulty intelligence at the ground level. The Zarqawi killing represents the first time in more than four years that intelligence has allowed the technology of surgical strikes to fulfill its potential.
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