They Will Come from the Skies: As the US Gets Ready to Reduce Ground Forces in Iraq, It Is Stepping Up Its Air War against Insurgents

Article excerpt

AS THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION, battered by growing domestic opposition to the war in Iraq, moves towards reducing the number of ground troops there, expect the air war to intensify. This facet of the conflict has received little attention in the media or Congress, but it is the cause of a large number of casualties among Iraqi civilians. And those numbers will increase as the Americans turn towards air power to make up for troop withdrawals in the months ahead--just as they did in South Vietnam in the early 1970s when the US decided to abandon a war it realised it could not win.

An analysis of US Central Command communiques underlines how the daily tempo of air strikes by the US Air Force, Navy and Marines has been accelerating, although none of this has raised so much as a ripple in the US.

In January 2005 the monthly total of air strikes was around 25, rising to 30 in the summer. But in recent weeks, particularly during the run-up to the December parliamentary elections, the number rose steadily to a monthly average of 120+ in November and reached 150 in December. The Central Command Air Force public affairs office says the air sorties total, including surveillance and support flights by refuelling tankers and the like, swelled from 1,111 in September to 1,492 in November.

That, of course, is only a fraction of the number of missions flown by coalition aircraft during the March-April 2003 invasion, which included B-2 and B-52 bomber operations, but it underlines the extent to which the Americans are employing air power against the insurgents in support of ground forces, a deadlier version of the Royal Air Force's campaign against unruly Iraqi tribesmen between the world wars.

According to US press reports, "A key element of the drawdown plans, not mentioned in the president's policy statements, is that the departing American troops will be replaced by American airpower. Quick, deadly strikes by US warplanes are seen as a way to improve dramatically the combat capability of even the weakest Iraqi combat units."

That's putting it mildly. The Iraqi forces are seriously under-armed compared to US ground units. They have no armour or other heavy weapons, such as artillery, and no combat aircraft of their own. They are often outgunned by the insurgents, as was underlined on 26 December when an elite eight-man Iraqi SWAT team was wiped out in an hour-long gunbattle with insurgents in the town of Baqouba, an insurgent stronghold in western Iraq.

Amid all the talk by the administration about starting to reduce the strength of US ground forces, thereby cutting politically unacceptable US casualties in the run-up to mid-term congressional elections, from the current level of around 138,000 personnel, and handing over primacy in combat operations to the Iraqis, there has been little mention of how US air power will have to be intensified to plug the gap and prevent the collapse of the nascent US-trained post-Saddam Iraqi force, in which desertions are reportedly increasing alarmingly.

The primary focus of the escalating air war is in the Anbar province, the core of the insurgency that is largely concentrated in the so-called Sunni Triangle north and west of Baghdad. And if history is anything to go by, the air campaign will intensify with considerable ferocity. After Richard Nixon announced, in mid-1969, his Vietnamisation policy, reducing the number of US troops by around 500,000 over three years, the tonnage of US ordnance dropped in air attacks in Vietnam increased rapidly.

The bulk of the combat missions in the Iraq conflict are carried out by US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons and F-15 Eagles from the main US air base at Balad north of Baghdad, Navy F/A-18s from carriers in the Persian Gulf and Marine Corps F/A-18s deployed at Al Asad air base in the western Anbar province. But despite all this activity, the Central Command and indeed the Pentagon have released amazingly few details of the air war, particularly the weapons used and how effective they have been in combating the insurgency. …