Bombing our way to 'victory' in Iraq

As part of Operation Phantom Phoenix in Iraq, the US is stepping up its use of air power.

American bombers and fighter aircraft dropped 40,000 pounds of bombs on suspected militant hide-outs, storehouses and defensive positions in the southern outskirts of Baghdad on Thursday, the United States military said.
In one of the largest airstrikes in recent months, two B-1 and four F-16 aircraft dropped 38 bombs within 10 minutes near the Latifiya district south of Baghdad, the military said. The airstrikes were accompanied by a large Iraqi and American ground assault.
38 bombings in 10 minutes in Baghdad alone. Operation Phantom Phoenix is nationwide, so I'd assume many more air operations throughout the country, especially in Miqdadiyah (in Diyala province) and Samarra (source). That is a bad thing.

Airpower --> collateral damage --> pissed off Iraqis --> creating more insurgents --> bad counterinsurgency practice. Airpower in terms of dropping bombs didn't work for the Israelis in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, and it hasn't worked for the US in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"No, we don't use airstrikes because we don't have enough troops. We use airstrikes because they're in our repertoire."

Check out this Abu Muqawama post on airpower in counterinsurgency if you are interested.

Also on Iraq, this piece by Brian Katulis and classmate Peter Juul on "Four Ticking Time Bombs" in regards to Iraq:
  • The collapse of “bottom up” reconciliation among Sunnis
  • Increased instability in northern Iraq
  • The continuing plight of refugees and internally displaced Iraqis
  • Continued deadlock among Iraq’s national political leaders


Mike said...

While I would agree with the general characterization of less kinetic airpower being better, I would hesitate to dismiss this particular operation out of hand. It sounds like this is closer to a case of catching insurgents out in the open and using the most effective weapon and less of bombing a house in downtown Baghdad just because we can and ending up leveling half a block.

It would appear that the area is rather rural and that the U.S. has contact with the tribal leaders in the area and let them know what was happening.

As I said before, I still think the U.S. uses too much airpower in low intensity warfare, but I think in this case the strikes were good strategy.

Adrian said...

From the NYTimes article:


"During a house search in Diyala on Wednesday, six American soldiers and an interpreter of unknown nationality were killed when insurgents detonated a bomb inside the structure.

Thursday’s bombing run was intended to avoid that kind of trap. Colonel Ferrell said that insurgents near Latifiya and Arab Jabour had built elaborate defenses, including roads lined with powerful bombs, booby-trapped houses and ambush positions.

“Specifically, we were looking to clear the ground against known targets and threats that could harm our soldiers, the Concerned Local Citizens and the Iraqi security forces,” Colonel Ferrell said. “We were targeting caches and improvised explosives devices.”"


Too me, that makes it sound like the targets of the airstrikes were booby-trapped houses, roads with IEDs on them, and ambush positions. This makes it a tricky thing. We have robots and such to take out IEDs on roads, etc., (I'd guess not enough?) but maybe in this particular operation they didn't have time to use robots (doubtful as this operation was announced in the US press a few days ago).

Also one of the dangers when you let locals target your airstrikes (or anything else) is that the people you kill might have nothing to do with Al Qaeda, they just end up being local rivals. That's something much easier established when you send boots on the ground.

I think you are right about it being a rural area - see this photo of Latifiya. But as we've seen in Lebanon, the Caucasus and elsewhere, one of the big ways airstrikes kill civilians is by becoming unexploded ordinance. That kills whether in rural or urban places.

Mike said...

I would say that the strikes seemed to be mainly targeted against booby trapped houses and insurgent caches, along with whatever groups of insurgents they could find out in the open. The problem you run into there is that the counter-IED robots don't work that well inside a booby trapped house. A single IED on a stretch of road is one thing, a series of booby traps in a cramped house is quite another. Another issue to consider is speed of clearance. While it may be technically possible for a robot to clear inside a house (or even on a road) in this scenario it may not be possible tactically to wait in order to maintain the speed of the sweep. It's one thing to wait for a robot to clear a road on a convoy, another to wait while you're conducting a sweep trying to catch insurgents.

I would agree with the statement re: letting the Iraqis pick the targets (I think that was one of our major failings in the past) but I would add that it seems this time we took the time to send in our own troops; we just interfaced with the Iraqis so we would get the best of both worlds: good intel to make sure we were killing the bad guys, and limited collateral damage by moving the good guys out of the way.

Re: UXO, agree in principle again, but here also I think we need to draw a distinction, primarily from a technical standpoint. Doctrine in this sort of situation would stipulate (and I sincerely hope this is the case) that the smallest possible precision guided unitary ordnance would be used. The biggest problem you run into with UXO is either large amounts of unitary warheads or with cluster bombs. The large amounts of unitary warheads is a problem because with one or two unitary warheads, it becomes fairly obvious whether or not you are going to have UXO, whereas with a carpet bomb type strike you aren't going to be able to pick out one or two UXOs from a strike package involving 200+ simultaneous bombs. Cluster munitions should be fairly obvious as to why they pose a UXO problem.

The reason I drew the distinction would be that for the targets indicated, a low number of relatively low yield (500 lbs. or less) unitary precision guided munitions (probably JDAM, possibly LGB) would be the best option, which would make the UXO threat, while not non existent, much lower than if we were dropping cluster bombs all over the place.

Adrian said...

Good points.

The US has used a lot of cluster bombs in Iraq even since the initial phase of operations - 60,000 pounds according to this article. I'd assume cluster bombs would be used to clear roads of IEDs, otherwise you'd need a lot of bombs to cover the whole road.

Also the USAF now has bombs smaller than 500 lb. The 250 lb (only 50 lb of explosive) Small Diameter Bomb was designed to minimize collateral damage. I don't think the Navy uses it yet though. Do you have any info on that?

Mike said...

Hm, for the life of me I can't think of a legitimate use of a cluster munition in a low intensity war. I suppose you could make the case for clearing a road, but given the still relatively high failure rate of the munitions I can't imagine you would want to travel down a road that had been "cleared" by a cluster munition until it had been swept by the EOD guys, which would kind of defeats the purpose. They still have a legitimate use in a high intensity conventional war, but unconventional I can't think of a one.

As for the SDB, right now it only has achieved IOC on the Strike Eagle, but integration is planned for the rest of the USAF's strike fleet (all the heavy bombers, A-10, F-16, F-35, and F-22). As of now, this is a USAF only program, but I can't imagine the Navy wouldn't get onboard at some point. The only problem would be that the SDB uses a completely new kind of ejector rack to mate it to the airframe, so integration is a little more complicated than it would be for a "standard" sized 500 or 2000 lbs. munition.

Also worth nothing that Boeing is developing a variant of the SDB with a composite case and using a type of DIME for the explosive that is supposed to further limit collateral damage.

Adrian said...

Thanks for the info on the SBD.

I agree that there's no legitimate use of cluster munitions in a low-intensity war. But we have dropped 60,000 lb of them, so we must be using them for something.

Mike said...

I'm still trying to figure out a possible use for cluster munitions. I suppose road clearance, but that seems a little counter productive, as I pointed out. Beyond that, I honestly can't think of a single reason we should be using cluster munitions in low intensity war, just from a military standpoint.

Something you might be interested in are the airpower summaries that the USAF releases daily. They have a good roundup of all the munitions employed in the CENTCOM AOR, as well as a tally of the total airlift weight and personnel transported, number of sorties, number of ISR sorties, and amount of fuel offloaded by tankers.

Adrian said...

"Commanders also said they are using air power more creatively, in some cases dropping bombs that explode in the air to detonate insurgent roadside bombs."

"North said the Air Force has used concrete-filled bombs to detonate IED sites and is using 250-pound GBU-39 small-diameter bombs to make blasts safer for civilians."

US boosts its use of airstrikes in Iraq, Washington Post

Mike said...

Thanks for the link, interesting read. The concrete filled bomb is certainly an interesting and novel weapon. The first time I read the military was using those (a few years ago, I think) I did a double take, but on reflection it actually does make a considerable amount of sense.

As for the airburst weapons, that would seem to point to cluster munitions. However, I would point out that a standard HE bomb can be fitted with an airburst fuse which, for the purposes of route clearance anyway, would have a similar effect to a cluster bomb except without the attendant UXO problem.