The Foreign Policy In Focus a think tank, reports increases in the role of the US Air Force in Iraq.
These assaults are part of what may be the best kept secret of the Iraq-Afghanistan conflicts: an enormous intensification of US bombardments in these and other countries in the region, the increasing number of civilian casualties such a strategy entails, and the growing role of pilot-less killers in the conflict.
According to Associated Press, there has been a five-fold increase in the number of bombs dropped on Iraq during the first six months of 2007 over the same period in 2006. More than 30 tons of those have been cluster weapons, which take an especially heavy toll on civilians.
The U.S. Navy has added an aircraft carrier to its Persian Gulf force, and the Air Force has moved F-16s into Balad air base north of Baghdad.
Balad, which currently conducts 10,000 air operations a week, is strengthening runways to handle the increase in air activity. Col. David Reynolds told the AP, “We would like to get to be a field like Langley, if you will.” The Langley field in Virginia is one of the Air Force’s biggest and most sophisticated airfields.
The Air Force certainly appears to be settling in for a long war. “Until we can determine that the Iraqis have got their air force to significant capability,” says Lt Gen. Gary North, the regional air commander, “I think the coalition will be here to support that effort.”
The Iraqi air force is virtually non-existent. It has no combat aircraft and only a handful of transports.
Improving the runways has allowed the Air Force to move B1-B bombers from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to Balad, where the big aircraft have been carrying out daily strikes. A B1-B can carry up to 24 tons of bombs.
The step-up in air attacks is partly a reflection of how beaten up and overextended U.S. ground troops are. While Army units put in 15-month tours, Air Force deployments are only four months, with some only half that. And Iraqi and Afghani insurgents have virtually no ability to inflict casualties on aircraft flying at 20,000 feet and using laser and satellite-guided weapons, in contrast to the serious damage they are doing to US ground troops.
Besides increasing the number of F-16s, B1-Bs, and A-10 attack planes, Predator flight hours over both countries have doubled from 2005. “The Predator is coming into its own as a no-kidding weapon verses a reconnaissance-only platform,” brags Maj. Jon Dagley, commander of the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron.
The Air Force is also deploying a bigger, faster and more muscular version of the Predator, the MQ-9 “Reaper” — as in grim — a robot capable of carrying four Hellfire missiles, plus two 500 lb. bombs.
The Predators and the Reapers have several advantages, the most obvious being they don’t need pilots. “With more Reapers I could send manned airplanes home,” says North.
At $8.5 million an aircraft — the smaller Predator comes in at $4.5 million apiece — they are also considerably cheaper than the F-16 ($19 million) the B1-B ($200+ million) and even the A-10 ($9.8 million).
The Air Force plans to deploy 170 Predators and 70 Reapers over the next three years. “It is possible that in our lifetime we will be able to run a war without ever leaving the US,” Lt Col David Branham told the New York Times.
The result of the stepped up air war, according to the London-based organization Iraq Body Count, is an increase in civilian casualties. A Lancet study of “excess deaths” caused by the Iraq war found that air attacks were responsible for 13% of the deaths — 76,000 as of June 2006 — and that 50% of the deaths of children under 15 were caused by air strikes.
The number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan from air strikes has created a rift between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United States.
“A senior British commander,” according to the New York Times, has pressed U.S. Special Forces (SF) to leave southern Afghanistan because their use of air power was alienating the local people. SFs work in small teams and are dependent on air power for support.
As I have been stating for awhile, the increase in the use of the Air Force is being accelerated. The notion of drones being piloted from Nevada is more disturbing than if they were piloted from the Green Zone or the Air Force base George Bush visited recently. Still, the beat goes on and on.