Although considered less pinpoint than its fast-jet cousins, the A-10 could also play a role in what may be its last military campaign before the Air Force retires the plane. Proponents of the plane say its ability to get low to the ground could help prevent civilian casualties in a situation where the insurgent population may be mixing with non-combatants. (US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — The US campaign against a militant group that has taken control of huge chunks of Iraq has begun. Despite the near-total withdrawal of US ground troops from the country in the past five years, the Pentagon has many options for more airstrikes — and many options on deployment, given the air dominance US forces will have.
On Friday morning, Pentagon officials said a pair of F/A-18 Super Hornets had bombed artillery belonging to Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISL). This was the first US strike against the group, and few expect it to be the last.
“We’re talking a very, very permissive operating environment, at least in the air,” said Mark Gunzinger, a former DoD official and now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. “We have to be concerned about low-altitude MANPADs, but it’s pretty permissive, so that does open up how they might posture forces in an actual concept of operations.”
The US Air Force has a variety of assets in the region, Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, a spokesman for US Air Forces Central Command (AFCENT), said in a statement provided by the Air Force Press Desk. That statement reflects standing information about AFCENT forces and was not newly drafted.
AFCENT has a wide area of responsibility, and can draw on any of its fighters (A-10, F-15E, F-16, F-22), bombers (B-1), surveillance craft (E-3, E-8, RC-135), support vehicles (C-17, C-130, KC-10, KC-135) and unmanned systems (MQ-1, MQ-9, RQ-4.)
“That steady-state force includes approximately 90 US Air Force fighters, bombers or other strike aircraft based in the AOR, including MQ-9 Reaper UAVs that can be more heavily armed,” Sholtis said in a statement. “There are approximately 190 other aircraft in that steady-state force supporting ISR (including MQ-1 Predator UAVs), command-and-control, tanker or airlift missions throughout the AOR.”
It is entirely possible that a sustained campaign would be launched from outside Iraq, relying on long-distance capabilities, Gunzinger noted.
“Since we don’t have a large footprint in country and we don’t have a lot of combat aircraft in country I think anything more than small strikes and raids, if it’s a more concerted effort, will rely heavily on longer-range capabilities,” he said. “This could be a very different kind of an air campaign than we’ve done in the past, depending on the size and duration.”
The mission in Iraq is now threefold. The first is gathering intelligence on the situation, which the US has been doing for some weeks now.
Speaking July 29, Gen. Mike Hostage, the head of Air Combat Command, said he has been using a mix of manned and unmanned systems for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions in Iraq.
“It’s what we call nontraditional ISR,” Gen. Mike Hostage, the head of US Air Force Air Combat Command, said. “We’re using fighter aircraft that have ISR capacities, like targeting pods, and things that give us a lot of awareness on what’s going on, on the ground.”
Hostage did not elaborate on what fighters were doing what, but the F_15, F-16, F-22 and A-10 all have ISR capabilities in one form or another.
The second part of the mission is delivering supplies to Iraqi and Kurdish forces trying to fight back against the Islamic States.
A senior defense official told reporters that the first humanitarian drop came Thursday evening over Kurdish territory in northern Iraq. That included two C-130 and one C-17 cargo planes, which were escorted by two F/A-18 Super Hornets, the official said.
The third arm of the operation, and the one most likely to gather the headlines, is the air strike component.
The F-15E, F-16, F-22 and F/A-18 all have precision weaponry that can be targeted to take out enemy equipment, while still traveling at high altitude and fast speeds to stay clear of enemy fire. Another option is the B-1 bomber, which has also been used for precision strike over the last 13 years in Iraq.
Although considered less pinpoint than its fast-jet cousins, the A-10 could also play a role in what may be its last military campaign before the Air Force retires the plane. Proponents of the plane say its ability to get low to the ground could help prevent civilian casualties in a situation where the insurgent population may be mixing with non-combatants.
The unmanned MQ-9 Reaper is also a likely contributor. Its cousin, the MQ-1 Predator, is another system that may see its last combat operations, as it is slowly being phased out of the service.
Unmanned systems have the added benefit of keeping US airmen out of danger.
“Should we lose one or two of those unmanned systems, you don’t have a need of [combat search and rescue] forces to go in and extract pilots,” Gunzinger noted.
During the Libyan campaign in March 2011, both B-1Bs and B-2 Spirit stealth bombers were sent on long-distance sorties to attack targets instead of being forward deployed.
Three B-2s from the 509th Bomb Wing, Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., flew 25 hours nonstop from their home base to drop 45 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions to destroy military aircraft and facilities at Ghardabiya, Libya.
Also, two B-1B Lancers from Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., left their home base to assist in enforcing the no-fly zone over Libya, returning three days later after hitting almost 100 targets in North Africa.
Brian Everstine and Andrew Tilghman contributed to this report.