U.S. Moves Toward Air Power in Iraq War

In mid-December, the U.S. military increased its use of air power against the Iraqi insurgency as the country prepared for elections. U.S. officials say reliance on air power is likely to continue this year as Washington begins to draw down its ground forces.

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Now as insurgent tactics evolve, so do American moves. NPR's Vicky O'Hara reports on the increasing use of US airpower.

VICKY O'HARA reporting:

American airpower has changed dramatically since the first Gulf War in 1991. General John Jumper, who retired as Air Force Chief of Staff last summer, remembers that communications and coordination between the different military services were so poor as, in his words, "to be almost criminal."

General JOHN JUMPER: We had to fly the air tasking order from the shore out to the carrier-based aircraft every single day. Computer shoots, stakes of computer shoots that made up the air tasking order because we didn't have the communications to transmit it from the shore to the sea.

O'HARA: Jumper says the services spent the next 15 years trying to improve integration. The results are on display in Iraq. Unmanned aerial vehicles, such as the Predator, perform daily reconnaissance and surveillance. The intelligence they gather is relayed instantly to US ground forces, also to Navy, Marine and Air Force fighter pilots. General Jumper says air assets give the military unique capabilities in fighting Iraq's insurgency.

Gen. JUMPER: You will find a Predator UAV actually firing a helifire missile into a window of a building to take out a sniper that they aren't able to get any other way.

O'HARA: Air Force Colonel Michael Cosby(ph) is staff director at the Combined Air headquarters in Qatar which coordinates US air campaigns in that region. He notes that traditionally air power has been used against clearly defined masses of troops. Iraq, Cosby says, is different.

Colonel MICHAEL COSBY (US Air Force): As we evolved in Operation Iraqi Freedom, obviously, the insurgents moved from the open desert into the population centers.

O'HARA: And US forces increasingly have gone after them with close air support. Cosby says that air strikes against the insurgents numbered 20 or 30 a month last summer and escalated to 60 a month in the fall in the run-up to Iraqi elections. But using airpower in populated areas is risky. This week, US fighter jets struck a building in Bayji, a town north of Baghdad. US Central Command says that three suspected suicide bombers were believed to be inside. But Iraqi officials say the air strike killed an Iraqi family of 12. A Washington Post correspondent on the scene wrote that the bodies of three women and three boys were removed from the house. The US military says it's investigating what happened, but Colonel Cosby emphasizes the military takes every possible precaution to avoid harming innocent civilians.

Col. COSBY: In fact, on many occasions, they elect not to engage with particular types of weapons and choose other options to fight the insurgents.

O'HARA: Sunni Arab officials complained bitterly about civilian casualties caused by US air strikes. Professor Robert Pape of the University of Chicago previously taught air strategy to the US Air Force and he warns that air strikes in Iraq create political fallout.

Professor ROBERT PAPE (University of Chicago): If we use airpower in urban areas in the Sunni area to extend search-and-destroy missions deeper into the Sunni triangle, then this will undoubtedly be viewed as a punishment campaign by the Sunni population and could actually increase the number of guerrillas in order to lash back at what will be viewed as excessive use of military force.

O'HARA: US officials acknowledge the risks, but say that until an Iraqi air force is reconstituted, US aircraft will stay on the job. Colonel Cosby says that as US ground troops stand down, US airpower will become even more important, supporting Iraqi security forces. Cosby says that currently, American controllers call in any air strikes by US forces, but he acknowledges that could change over time.

Col. COSBY: We are planning in the future to train Iraqis in order to be able to have assets available to them in an emergency.

O'HARA: But before Iraqi controllers would be allowed to call in US fighter jets, Cosby says, the US military has to figure out how to avoid the possibility that Iraqis would call in American pilots to settle their old ethnic scores.

Vicky O'Hara, NPR News, Washington.

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