Friday, December 1, 2006

The air war(s) for Nov. 30

A 500-lb. GBU-38 bomb

The Air Force has released its air war report for Nov. 30. One of the odd conventions of these daily reports is that they are titled with the date of the day following the day on which they actually report. So the report on Nov. 30 activity is titled CENTAF releases airpower summary for Dec. 1 (AFPN) 12/01/06.

They report that in the Afghanistan War, "48 close-air-support missions were flown in support of ISAF [NATO] and Afghan troops, reconstruction activities and route patrols". Another convention of these reports is that the air strikes reported are all described as "close-air-support missions". The passive voice in that standard sentence also doesn't distinguish between American and other allied forces, though presumably most of them are American. The Brits are also conducting air war operations in Afghanistan.

Another convention of these reports is that apparently no air strikes are ever conducted in urban areas or villages. They are always close to something, not right in the middle of a town or city. In this report, we have more specific descriptions of air strikes "near" Kabul, "near" Lashkar Gah, "near" Asadabad and "near" Kndahar in Afghanistan, and in Iraq "near" Baghdad and Bayji, "in the vicinity of" Baghdad, and "in the vicinity of" Basrah.

The summary formula for Iraq is similar but not identical to that for Afghanistan: "In total, coalition aircraft flew 33 close-air-support missions for Operation Iraqi Freedom. These missions included support to coalition troops, infrastructure protection, reconstruction activities and operations to deter and disrupt terrorist activities." Note that more air strikes are reported in Afghanistan than in Iraq.

These distinctions in the mission catagories are as interesting as they are inscrutable. How do you use air-launched rockets, cannons or bombs to support "reconstruction activities"?

My guess is that virtually all of these operations reported were actual combat operations involving American soldiers, not some vague support "reconstruction activities" or "infrastructure protection". Some may have been air strikes on suspected enemy sanctuaries.

But we also know that a great bulk of the fighting in Iraq has been in urban areas, with a lot of casualties also coming from roadside bombs. But I'm guessing that there are very few "close-air-support missions" being flown against roadside bombs. In other words, some large number of those 33 aerial strikes on Thursday were probably in urban areas of some kind. If independent reporters were able to investigate, they would almost certainly find that "near" and "in the vicinity of" of a city often means "inside" the city in these Air Force reports.

Here are the details given for one of the missions in Afghanistan:

An Air Force B-1B Lancer provided close-air support to ISAF troops in contact with enemy forces near Asadabad. The B-1B expended GBU-38s on enemy positions.

So this mission involved the use of two and possibly more GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs). explains the GBU-38:

The GBU-38/B is a 500lb JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) manufactured by Boeing using the Mk82 bomb body. Composed of a MK-82 with the joint direct attack munitions guidance system, the GBU-38 is considered a "lightweight" compared to most of the other munitions loaded on F-16s.

In this case, the aircraft used was a B-1B bomber, originally designed as a nuclear bomber but later reconfigured to function also in conventional-war settings. also reports:

On October 29, 2004, Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 34 of Carrier Air Wing 17, embarked aboard USS John F. Kennedy (CV 67), dropped the Navy’s first two 500-pound GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) during combat operations in Iraq. VFA-34’s weapons destroyed the target. The successful strike was the culmination of a noteworthy effort by Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), Commander, Fleet Forces Command, and Commander, U.S. 5th Fleet, to rapidly test, procure and deploy a new weapon system to satisfy an emergent operational requirement. The GBU-38 completed its initial operational evaluation Sept. 28 from NAVAIR test ranges in southern California. The successful evaluation resulted in an early operational capability Oct. 8, eight months ahead of its scheduled initial operational capability, ultimately bringing this capability to the warfighter much sooner than expected.

Some of the language in that description appears to come from this official Navy press release:

Navy Drops First 500-Pound JDAM in Combat Navy NewsStand 11/8/2004, which also reports:

"The 500-pound JDAM is perfect for the urban warfare that's taking place now in Iraq," said JDAM program manager Capt. Dave Dunaway. "Precision, reliability, and accuracy is exactly what the warfighter was asking for, and we are pleased that we could respond quickly."

The Navy's newest weapon, the JDAM, also known as a GBU-38, provides the warfighter with greater flexibility and accuracy. ...

The JDAM guidance kit converts existing unguided bombs into precision-guided "smart" munitions. (my emphasis)

Greater precision in a bomb does not translate into fewer noncombatant casualties. On the contrary, when bombing urban targets, the fact that the bomb is more likely to hit the target instead of missing and blowing up in a field or a park means that there are likely to be more civilian casualties.

Leaving aside for the moment legal issues particular to the American position in Iraq on whether any aerial bombing is legitimate, there are legitimate urban targets for bombing or other aerial attacks. If a private residence or a religious facility is being used to shelter snipers or as a base for insurgents, it's a legitimate target. But it's foolish to pretend that "smart" bombs mean no noncombatant casualties.

So whether this heavy reliance on air power makes sense in a counterinsurgency war, particularly one that's almost exclusively urban like the one in Iraq, is a serious question. If a sniper takes refuge in your neighbor's house and an American aircraft blasts it with a 500-lb. bomb (which packs considerably more punch than a hand grenade, no matter how well it's targeted), and some of your own family are killed and injured in the attack, you aren't going to say, "Gee, it's too bad my wife and my son got killed. But they were just 'collateral damage' and a small price to pay for the blessings that Dear Leader Bush is bringing us by giving us freedom and democracy." Things just don't work that way.

Reuters runs a daily "factbox" on military action in the Iraq War. Their report for Nov. 30 (which is actually dated Nov. 30), FACTBOX-Security developments in Iraq, Nov 30, mentions none of the 33 air strikes the Air Force reports, giving a good glimpse at how much of this war is going largely unreported to Americans.

The Reuters Iraq FACTBOX for Dec. 1 passes on a military statement about one clash involving the use of air power:

U.S. ground and air forces killed 14 insurgents and wounded two after they attacked their convoy with machinegun fire in southwest of Samarra 100 km (60 miles) north of Baghdad on Thursday, the U.S. military said in a statement.

Notice that this is also "southwest of" someplace, not "in" the city. I'll be curious to see if and how the Air Force reports this tomorrow.

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