US Escalates Air War in Iraq and Afghanistan

September 21st, 2010 - by admin

Noah Shachtman / Dangerroom/Wired – 2010-09-21 21:37:27

US Air War Soars in ‘Post-Combat’ Iraq
Noah Shachtman / Dangerroom/Wired

(September 20, 2010) — Combat operations are officially over in Iraq. But don’t tell the US Air Force, which is still flying tens of thousands of missions over Iraq.

American pilots have been continously operating in the Iraqi skies since the 1990 Gulf War. And they’re likely to fly there for years to come; while Iraqi ground troops have steadily taken a bigger and bigger role in the country’s security, its air force is still lagging far behind. As of this spring, the active fleet consisted of only 36 transport, 19 surveillance, and three attack planes. The Iraqi Air Force academy opened its doors just last week.

“Let us be frank, we don’t have the combat or jet fighters or intercepting planes or air defense systems,” Iraqi Air Force commander Staff Lt. Gen. Anwer Hamad Amen Ahmed told the AP in April. “We are still far from an air force’s full potential. We will need the US long after 2011.”

Through the first seven months of 2010, according to statisitics supplied by the US Air Force, American pilots flew 4,620 “close air support” missions over ground troops in combat. The airmen only fired their weapons only 10 of those flights — compared to 1650 such sorties in 2007. But the number of surveillance flights has soared: with 6,200 sorties through July 31st, American planes could surpass 2007’s total by 40 percent or more. In addition, US aircraft ferried 470,000 passengers, and hauled 52,700 tons of cargo.

While American air operations in Iraq show little sign of letting up, the US air war over Afghanistan continues to escalate, military statistics indicate. Last month, US pilots went on 3,200 “close air support” sorties over Afghanistan, about 30 percent more than August, 2009’s total. Those airmen dropped bombs or fired weapons on 500 different missions, a 25 percent increase from last year.

US Escalates Air War Over Afghanistan
Noah Shachtman / Dangerroom/Wired

(August 30, 2010) — There may not be quite as many bombs falling from the sky. But don’t let that fool you. The United States has dramatically escalated its air war over Afghanistan.

Spy plane flights have nearly tripled in the past year; supply drops, too. There are even more planes buzzing over the heads of troops caught in firefights, according to statistics provided to Danger Room by the Air Force.

The increased numbers show how the American military has retooled its most potent technological advantage — dominance of the skies — for the Afghanistan campaign. But so far, at least, the boost in air power doesn’t seem to have shifted the war’s momentum back to the American-led coalition.

An influx of Reaper drones and executive-jets-turned-spy-planes allowed US forces to fly 9,700 surveillance sorties over Afghanistan in the first seven months of 2010. Last year, American planes conducted 3,645 of the flights during a similar period.

The United States may not have reconnaissance flights “blotting out the sun,” as one senior defense official predicted. But there are many more than before — mostly providing overhead footage of the battlefield to troops on the ground. In addition, more than 30 million pounds of gear was airdropped from January through July 2010 — compared to 11 million through July 2009.

Also, 398,000 people were transported into, out of and inside the Afghan theater. In the first seven months of 2009, that number was 212,000.

It wasn’t long ago that Defense Secretary Robert Gates was in an all-but-open war with the US Air Force, when the service didn’t seem to be moving fast enough to meet commanders’ needs in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Air Force had fewer than a dozen unmanned air patrols over the war zones in 2007. Today, there are more than 40. The battles between Gates and the air generals have largely subsided.

“Today, unlike the contests of the past, our joint forces go into combat with more information about the threat they face, provided in near real-time. And they get that information… from air and space,” e-mails retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, who stepped down this month as the Air Force’s intelligence chief. “Today, unlike the past, our joint task forces are able to operate with much smaller numbers, across great distances and inhospitable terrain because they can be sustained over the long-haul… by air.”

When Gen. Stanley McChrystal imposed strict new guidelines on airstrikes, the number of attacks from the sky immediately dropped in half. Many pilots weren’t sure exactly why they were flying. Some troops complained that they couldn’t fight the Taliban effectively.

But during the last few months of McChrystal’s tenure, those airstrike numbers had stabilized, and began to move ahead of their mid-2009 lows. In June and July of 2010, the Air Force flew 5,500 “close air support” sorties — missions over ground troops locked in active combat. On 900 of those flights, the planes fired weapons. The previous year, those figures were 4,600 and 809, respectively.

The unanswered question, of course, is whether all this extra air power will have much of an effect. Right now, NATO has more troops going into more places and encountering more resistance than at any point in the war.

Violence is way up. And it’s not clear if additional eyes in the sky or warplanes buzzing overhead will alter that lethal equation.

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