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The 'Poo Hunt': In An Unconventional War, Creative Use Of Air Power

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  • The 'Poo Hunt': In An Unconventional War, Creative Use Of Air Power
    August 18, 2005

    The 'Poo Hunt': In An Unconventional War, Creative Use Of Air Power

    By David Wood, Newhouse News Service

    Well before dawn one night in January, several dozen U.S. troops were creeping into position around an insurgent stronghold outside Baghdad when the commander's radio crackled to life: Four Iraqi men were escaping from a house several doors down, carrying weapons. The urgent voice on the radio gave the grid coordinates and a curt message: "I'm watching these guys."

    That was the pilot of an F-16 streaking in a whisper thousands of feet overhead. Through his infrared targeting system, he could see the insurgents clearly. And he could talk directly to soldiers on the ground: Go down the block, turn right, 50 meters ahead of you ...

    "He walked us right to them," said Lt. Col. Tim Ryan, an Army officer who gave chase along with his Air Force air controller and another soldier.

    But Ryan lost the insurgents in the darkness along the Euphrates River -- until the F-16 pilot "painted" them, cowering in the weeds, with his laser designator -- an infrared beam invisible to them but daylight-bright in the soldiers' night vision goggles. The bad guys were arrested.

    "I'd walked right by them," Ryan marveled. "Ten years ago it would have taken the whole battalion to run these guys down."

    Under the pressure of fighting a bloody insurgency, the U.S. military is finding novel uses for air combat technology. And while employing a $30 million F-16 to hunt down four insurgents may not be a sustainable tactic over the long haul, air crews are hampering and harassing the enemy in ways that ground forces cannot.

    Air Force strike F-16s, F-15s and A-10s, along with Navy and Marine F-18s, were designed in the 1960s for high-tech war with the Soviet Union, their targeting sensors and laser designators intended to find and destroy columns of tanks and military-industrial structures.

    Now the enemy is four guys on the run, somebody planting a homemade bomb, or a sniper in an abandoned building. "Typical of any war, you adapt," said Navy Capt. Michael W. Broadway, senior intelligence officer for air operations in Iraq.

    In most cases, the goal is not to kill insurgents with bombs, rockets or the lethal 20 mm cannon that strike fighters carry. Instead, the air power pinpoints their location so ground troops can move in to detain and interrogate them.

    Fighter jocks call these "poo hunts" -- "poo" standing for "point of origin," meaning the place where insurgents hang out. Poo hunts take up about 75 percent of U.S. combat and reconnaissance flights over Iraq and Afghanistan. Pilots are cleared to kill only "when there's a no-kidding (identification) on a guy who's fired on our forces," Broadway said.

    "Almost all the weapons we drop are in self-defense," said Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan III, who commands all air operations in the Middle East. "An indigenous enemy able to hide in amongst the innocent civilian population remains a problem."

    Together, the Air Force, Marines and Navy are flying about 71 strike and reconnaissance missions a day, up from about 65 daily in 2004. Increasingly, these include flights by Predators and other unmanned spy planes and by such new arrivals as the Horned Owl, a manned experimental aircraft that can detect some insurgent bombs shallowly buried in roads frequented by U.S. military traffic.

    In this war, altitude and distance are meaningless. From a Predator at 4,000 feet or an F-18 at 20,000 feet, the view is comparable to peering at the street from the roof of a two-story building.

    A Predator pilot is likely to be "flying" the aircraft from Creech Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, with the pictures data-linked to a ground station at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

    There, analysts pore over the data and handle requests e-mailed from the field and posted in secure chat rooms. "Hey, we wanna look behind these buildings across from us," a company commander may write from the rubble where his men are pinned down outside Najaf at 2 a.m. "Whaddya got?"

    He may get back a satellite photo or imagery from a recent U-2 spy plane run. He may be connected to an orbiting F-15. Or he may get a message that says, "We're putting a Predator overhead, stand by." In a few minutes, the commander may be watching a live video feed on his laptop computer.

    Such quick, real-time intelligence is invaluable in this kind of war, said Brig. Gen. Robert E. Milstead Jr., who commands the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) based at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq's violent Anbar province.

    "You don't want to go right in and start blowing hell out of everything," Milstead explained. "I have no heartburn about killing bad people, but the value we put on human life is the reason we are over there in the first place."

    Lt. Col. Jeff Baumert, an F-18 pilot and squadron commander, was flying a nighttime mission in mid-August when he got word that Marines were taking fire. Watching through infrared sensors from well above 15,000 feet, he and his wingman tracked the insurgents to a house and kept watch until Marines could mount a raid.

    "They tested those guys for gunpowder and they came up positive," Baumert, a Marine reservist who flies for Delta Air Lines, said in a phone interview from Iraq. The five flexicuffed insurgents were bundled away to be questioned.

    A while back, the crew of a JSTARS plane -- a souped-up 707 crammed with electronic sensors, ground radars and data processors -- saw an explosion on an oil pipeline deep in the Iraqi desert. JSTARS was designed to track hundreds of armored vehicles. This time it worked against a single perp.

    Watching their videotape in slo-mo reverse, the JSTARS crew saw the saboteur walk backward to his car and drive backward to his house. They noted its exact location -- the "poo." Hours later U.S. forces pounced on the saboteur and arrested him.

    The key to these operations is the ability to loiter overhead for long periods of time. "It's days and weeks of looking and one day a guy says, `Hey, I think I see something here,"' said Col. Steven Pennington, commander of the Air Force Operations Group at the Pentagon. "It's forensics."

    But expensive forensics. The JSTARS plane cost $225 million to build. Its operating costs, including flight and maintenance crews, fuel and spare parts, are significant.

    And the stress of operating in the dusty heat of Iraq is taking its toll on aircraft. The Air Force fleet, built around F-15s, F-16s and A-10s, now averages 25 years old -- beyond the initial design limits, said Col. Steven Schumacher, who supervises maintenance on all Air Force airborne weapons systems. So far, the service has accumulated almost $4 billion in repair and refit costs for aircraft wearing out in the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a recent estimate by the Congressional Budget Office.

    Whatever the ultimate cost-benefit ratio of using aircraft in the fight, the effort continues.

    "Everybody wants to win," said Army Lt. Col. Ryan, speaking about innovative air-ground coordination. "People are just shuckin' and jivin' to make it happen."
    "So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand." Thucydides 1.20.3

  • #2
    An interesting, but not unexpected use of airpower. However this us really a UAV's job. They have the price and loiter time to make this work.


    • #3
      Predator's task.