U.S. Air Force Missions Increase in Iraq

One of the busiest airports in the world is Balad Air Force Base near Baghdad. While the Army has sent in more troops to Iraq in the so-called "surge," the Air Force has also taken part by sending in more planes. F-16s and B-1 bombers are being used at a far higher rate in Iraq than in the past.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One of the busiest airports in the world can be found in Iraq. It's the Balad Air Force Base in Baghdad, or near Baghdad. While the Army has sent in more troops to Iraq in the surge, the Air Force has also taken part by sending in more planes. F-16s and B-1 bombers are being used at a far higher rate in Iraq than in the past.

NPR's defense correspondent Guy Raz, who's in Balad, explains why.

GUY RAZ: About every 90 seconds, something takes off or lands at Balad Air Base.

(Soundbite of C-130)

RAZ: There's C-130 cargo planes.

(Soundbite of helicopters)

RAZ: There are helicopters.

(Soundbite of fighter jets)

RAZ: There are fighter jets.

And those are just a fraction of the 40 different kinds of aircraft that use this base. It's not just busy, it's really busy. Actually, the busiest Pentagon-run air base in the world and the second busiest airport in the world, over all.

Lieutenant Colonel CARL CROFT (Commander, Blacksnakes squadron 122nd Fighter Wing): This runway right here is the main fighter runway. The other runway off to the west over there, as you could see, where that's what most of the cargo airport crafts take off on.

RAZ: On a clear day from up inside the air traffic control tower, Colonel Carl Croft can see just about the entire 17-square-miled base.

Unidentified Man #1: (Unintelligible) traffic is three miles north to your position, 200 feet.

RAZ: There are about a dozen Air Force troops, or airmen, inside this control tower. Anything that moves in the air within 20 miles of Balad Air Base is coordinated by this tower. And at any given time in the skies above the base, F-16s, unmanned drones, helicopters, cargo planes - they're all flying in different directions and at different speeds all at the same time.

Now, you may wonder why there's so much activity here. Well, the Air Force says it's all related to the so-called surge of ground forces that started back in February.

Brigadier General STEPHEN MUELLER (United States Air Force): The extra brigades that we have - 20 brigades - all require more air. So just the pure volume increase gives you some of that effort.

RAZ: This is Brigadier General Stephen Mueller. He is the number two Air Force commander in the region. He explains that while the army's been ratcheting up its offensive operations, so too has the Air Force.

So, so far, just this year, the Air Force has dropped more bombs over Iraq than in the previous three years combined.

Brig. Gen. MUELLER: One of the side effects of securing Baghdad is that the insurgents and al-Qaida are pushed out of Baghdad. And we're very reluctant to drop weapons in Baghdad because of the collateral effect that you have. But as soon as you can get into the countryside, you can be that much more affective with your weapons, and, therefore, you can use them more freely.

RAZ: Mueller estimates that this year alone, air strikes have killed about 200 of what he describes as al-Qaida operatives. Now, he concedes that the increase in airpower does have some collateral price.

The Air Force doesn't officially track non-combatants killed by air strikes, but the British-based anti-war group, Iraq Body Count, does. And it estimates about 50 Iraqi civilians are now killed by air strikes every month.

Here's General Mueller again.

Brig. Gen. MUELLER: Occasionally, we're going to run into situations where non-combatants are injured or killed. We're very sorry about that. Obviously, we do not want that to happen. But the ability to separate that out, sometimes is not there.

RAZ: The Air Force describes the use of airpower in two ways - kinetic and non-kinetic power. It's basically military jargon. Kinetic means destructive power like an air strike, for example. And non-kinetic means non-destructive power, like this sound…

(Soundbite of F-16 flying)

RAZ: …which is the sound of an F-16 flying low overhead. These flyovers account for the majority of what's called close air support missions. They drop no bombs, they just make a loud, terrifying sound. You can feel it in your chest when the planes fly over like a thumping amplifier on steroids. It's a sound designed to remind Iraqis that their sky is controlled by the United States. And those F-16s can strike anywhere in their country within 10 minutes.

Right now, more than a dozen times a day, they're called on by ground forces to provide that close air support.

One officer I spoke with, who didn't want to talk on tape, described what he called modern gunboat diplomacy in Iraq. He told me about a recent incident where an army commander somewhere in Iraq - he wouldn't say where - was trying to convince a tribal sheikh to cooperate on some matter. The commander gave the sheikh 20 minutes to think about it.

Nearby, there was an F-16 hovering high up in the sky, ready to swoop down at moment's notice, just to send the message - which it did - and the message was received. The sheikh cooperated.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Guy Raz.

This is NPR News.

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