The Associated Press headline is a bit misleading: “Air Force Quietly Builds Presence in Iraq,” suggests that the service has somehow returned to the war, after taking a bit of a breather.
In the article that follows, AP “Special Correspondent” Charles Hanley tries to clarify matters a bit, stating the the Air Force has “quietly built up its hardware inside Iraq, sharply stepped up bombing and laid a foundation for a sustained air campaign in support of American and Iraqi forces.”
Squadrons of attack planes have been added to the in-country fleet. The air reconnaissance arm has almost doubled since last year. The powerful B1-B bomber has been recalled to action over Iraq.
Statistics tell the story: Air Force and Navy aircraft dropped 437 bombs and missiles in Iraq in the first six months of 2007, a fivefold increase over the 86 used in the first half of 2006, and three times more than in the second half of 2006, according to Air Force data. In June, bombs dropped at a rate of more than five a day.
But the “numbers” also tell another story, namely of an Air Force that has been continuously engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan since the start of those conflicts, and will remain in the skies long after ground units begin their redeployment. While Mr. Hanley deserves credit for focusing attention on an almost-forgotten element of the war, his reported “surge” is actually more of a sustainment effort than an increase in operations tempo.
In support of our theory, we decided to compare numbers from the daily “Airpower Summary,” released by U.S. Central Command Air Forces (USCENTAF). At random, we selected daily totals for 10 July 2007, and 30 July 2006. The totals–in most categories–are remarkably similar. Figures for last Tuesday (10 July) are listed first, followed by totals for a similar period in 2006.
Close Air Support Msns in Iraq 53 46
Close Air Support Msns in Afghanistan 21 45
Intelligence, Surveillance and Recce Msn in Iraq 21 17
Airlift Sorties (Iraq and Afghanistan) 155 170
Tanker Sorties (Iraq and Afghanistan) 51 42
Judging by those totals, you might think the “real” surge is occurring in Afghanistan, given the major jump in close air support (CAS) missions over the past year. But we’re also reminded that statistics are often deceiving. Totals for CAS sorties–and other combat missions–are a reflection of many factors, including platform availability, weather conditions, and most importantly, the ground situation. After all, one of the primary reasons for an air force’s existence is to support friendly troops on the ground.
And, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, allied forces have been on the attack in recent months. More troops in contact typically means an increase in CAS requests, although there’s another element at play in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, in anticipation of a spring offensive by a resurgent Taliban, U.S. commanders made a conscious decision to unleash air power on enemy marshaling points and troop concentrations, using helicopter gunships and fixed-wing assets. These efforts have continued into the summer months, with notable success.
In Iraq, Mr. Hanley’s report of an “airpower” surge is based (in part) on a noticeable increase in the number of munitions dropped. According to information provided to the AP, Air Force and naval aircraft expended 437 bombs and missiles against Iraqi targets in the first half of 2007, compared to 86 during the same period last year. That’s obviously an indication of the on-going troop surge, but it’s also a product of better intelligence (from UAVs and ground-based sources) and introduction of the new, small-diameter bomb (SDB), which minimizes collateral damage, even in densely-populated urban environments. The SDB can be carried by a variety of Air Force platforms, ranging from fighters like the F-15E and F-16, to heavy bombers like the B-
While Hanley acknowledges the impact of the surge on air operations, other elements of his story are just plain wrong. He believes the U.S. is “laying to foundation for sustained bombing campaign,” based on such developments as the A-10 attack aircraft to a base in western Iraq; introduction of advanced, Block 50 F-16s at Balad AB (near Baghdad), and the redeployment of B-1s from Diego Garcia, to a base in the Persian Gulf region.
In reality, the number of available Air Force assets in theater has increased only slightly over the past 12 months. The service has long had the capability to carry out a sustained bombing campaign, using aircraft and personnel deployed to the region (as part of the Air Expeditionary Force concept), and other resources that could be dispatched with relatively short notice. At least two Air Force wings are currently based in the region, a number that has remained relatively constant over the past two years. Indeed, most of the recent increase in “deployed” fighters is the result of additional Navy carriers operating in the Persian Gulf.
Hanley’s article also ignores the contributions of other airman, who were “surging” long before the recent increase in ground support missions. More than 3,000 Air Force members are currently performing “non-traditional” roles in the theater, conducting convoy operations, providing convoy security, interrogating detainees and guarding prisoners–functions normally performed by the Army. Additionally USAF SOF personnel (gunship and helicopter crews, combat controllers and pararescuemen) have been in the thick of the fighting since 2003. Ditto for Air Force EOD personnel, who disarm IEDs and VBIEDs in Iraq every day.
The AP writer even suggests that there might be a shortage of airpower, noting that during one recent day, 16 of 48 requests for air support went unfilled. But there are a number of reasons that an air request doesn’t always result in a fighter or bomber dropping ordnance on a target. In some cases, the firefight ends before the aircraft arrive; in other cases, fire support can be better handled by ground-based artillery, multiple rocket launchers or Army attack helicopters. We’re guessing that most of these “unfilled” requests were handled in that manner, but you wouldn’t know that by reading the Associated Press account.
Truth is, the Air Force has been in continuous combat operations in the Middle East since January 1991, along TACAIR assets from the Navy, Marine Corps and the RAF. The mission (and adversaries) have evolved over the years, along with the aircraft and weaponry, but the fundamental responsibility–delivering combat airpower–has never changed. This might come as a shock to Mr. Hanley, but the Air Force “presence” in Iraq (and the region) was built long before the spring and summer of 2007.