Aug. 11 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Navy and Air Force are flying as many as 100 attack and reconnaissance missions daily over Iraq, according to a U.S. military official.
They include as many as 30 daily missions by Air Force refueling tankers, according to the official, who asked not to be identified before the information is announced. The sorties are mostly, but not exclusively, over northern Iraq.
Since Aug. 8, U.S. aircraft have been attacking mortar positions, mobile artillery, convoy vehicles and armored personnel carriers under President Barack Obama’s authorization for air strikes against Islamic militants to protect religious minorities and American personnel in Erbil, the seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Most of the 100 daily flights are for surveillance and on standby patrol to strike if suitable targets are identified. The technology being used against small, independent targets such as convoys reflects a decade’s war-fighting advances, said former Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz.
Progress “in targeting methodology and associated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities have enabled precise engagement of small, tactical and fleeting targets,” Schwartz, now president of Business Executives For National Security, said in an e-mail.
Advances include better sensors on drones and the targeting pods on tactical aircraft used for surveillance, he said, adding that there also are available archives of surveillance imagery, “which facilitates rapid target identification.”
If needed, the Pentagon also could also employ B-1B bombers stationed in the region that each are capable of carrying 80 satellite-guided bombs, said Mark Gunzinger, an air power analyst with the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.
“Used effectively,” U.S. airpower might put militant forces “on the horns of a dilemma: Stay in one place too long and you could be attacked, or move and you will be seen and attacked,” Gunzinger said.
Obama authorized the strikes after pleas from Kurdish leaders trying to blunt the advance of the Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that’s terrorized religious minorities, including Yezidis trapped in a mountainous area.
Among the U.S. aircraft in the region are F/A-18s from Carrier Air Wing 8 on the USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf.
Only the Navy aircraft have been identified publicly because the carrier is in international waters in the Persian Gulf. Air Force planes are being launched from land bases in the region, and identifying them may cause sensitivity for host countries, according to the official.
The Air Force has about 90 aircraft in the region capable of supporting air strikes, including F-15E fighter-bombers made by Boeing Co., F-22 and F-16 fighters from Lockheed Martin Corp. based in Bethesda, Maryland, armed drones from San Diego-based General Atomics and B-1B bombers.
The Air Force has aircraft stationed at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar and Ali Al Salem in Kuwait, as well as aerial tankers at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, a NATO ally.
Among the ordnance dropped by Navy and Air Force pilots has been the AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missile and the newer GBU-54 smart bomb from Chicago-based Boeing. The GBU-54, which the Navy declared fully operational a year ago, can be aimed with an aircraft’s laser designator or programmed with Global Positioning Satellite coordinates.
The manned aircraft have been joined by MQ-1 Predator drones launching Hellfire laser-guided weapons.
The manned aircraft, with tanker refueling, “can stay in the area for hours, observe movements on the ground, accurately determine locations of enemy versus friendlies or civilians, and then rapidly engage as the situation requires,” David Deptula, a retired three-star Air Force general who was in charge of service reconnaissance and surveillance, said in an e-mailed statement.