Balad’s two runways, among the world’s busiest, launch 27,500 aircraft a month, hundreds of them bomb-laden jets flying close air support for U.S. troops moving against insurgents.
But as the U.S. Army “stands down” and the Iraqi army “stands up,” will American combat pilots likewise fly into battle behind Iraqi ground units?
“That’s a good question,” says the Air Force’s tactical commander in Iraq.
That good question may grow pressing as the year wears on, if Iraqi officers begin asking for U.S. airstrikes on questionable targets in Iraq’s shadowy, many-sided conflict.
One U.S. counterinsurgency expert foresees a much-changed situation.
“I seriously doubt that we would ever bomb any targets just on the Iraqis’ say-so,” said James Corum, an instructor at the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
The U.S. command in Baghdad says it expects Iraqi security forces to control 75 percent of this country’s territory by the end of summer, as U.S. units increasingly withdraw from the action and into large bases — and some possibly from Iraq completely.
'A long time training'
This summer and for some time after, Iraqi air power will be almost nonexistent. Since the U.S. invasion of 2003, this nation that once flew more than 600 Soviet-made MiG and Sukhoi fighters — now destroyed or derelict — has reassembled only a tiny fleet of transport and reconnaissance aircraft under U.S. guidance.
Because of that, an Iraqi-led counterinsurgency would still have to rely on U.S. air power.
“The U.S. Air Force will be the last people to leave. We’ll be here for a while,” predicted Lt. Col. Peter Gersten, commander of an F-16 fighter squadron at Balad.
The work of ground-air liaison, directing supersonic warplanes to targets in support of ground troops, is a highly skilled business. For the Iraqis, “it’ll be a long time training,” Gersten told a visiting reporter.
But not yet. “There is no JTAC (joint tactical air control) training now and none in the foreseeable future,” said Army Lt. Col. Michael Negard, a spokesman for the Multinational Security Transition Command-Iraq, the U.S. Baghdad command overseeing Iraqi training.
An Air Force spokesman reinforced the point. That kind of Iraqi role “is a future capability that hasn’t been defined,” said Lt. Col. Frank Smolinsky at al-Udeid Air Base, the U.S. Central Command’s forward base in the Gulf state of Qatar.
In place of Iraqi controllers with Iraqi combat units, U.S. planners talk of embedding American air liaisons with the Iraqis, in what may become a years-long struggle against Sunni Arab insurgents. But Brig. Gen. Frank Gorenc, the Air Force tactical chief here, refers to that as “theory.”
Gorenc, commander of the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, headquartered at this sprawling base in central Iraq, said discussions were under way along those lines, but they hadn’t yet become “serious.”
The U.S. command says that one in every three anti-insurgent operations these days is all-Iraqi. But Gorenc said his attack squadrons thus far have “little to no” relationship with Iraqi ground forces.
American commanders in Iraq may be wary of repeating what happened in Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion there in 2001, when Afghan factions tried to get U.S. air power directed against tribal and political enemies.
In one costly episode, U.S. fighter jets were misled into attacking a convoy of Afghan tribal elders loyal to pro-U.S. President Hamid Karzai, killing 15 of them and dozens of nearby residents.
In Iraq too, tribal feuds and ethnic enmities, as well as spreading sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, overlie the mostly Sunni insurgency that targets the U.S. occupation and U.S.-sponsored government.
In such a complex picture, American air liaisons working with Iraqi units may not always be able to judge how legitimate an airstrike is. Human rights monitors fear a rise in civilian casualties if Iraqi units have U.S. air power at their disposal.
In the short term, “it’s not clear how the U.S. could instill the Iraqi military with the legal and technical understanding necessary to undertake such operations,” said Marc Galasco, a former Pentagon air-targeting specialist now with Human Rights Watch in New York.
“The Iraqi army is still working on very basic skills, and air-ground coordination is a very advanced skill,” said Corum.
Operations that are all-American already raise concerns.
In January, a U.S. airstrike targeting a house in Beiji, miles north of here, killed about a dozen civilians, including women and children, according to journalists at the scene.
“We work tremendously hard at eliminating collateral damage,” Gorenc said of that episode.
Then, speaking of the Iraqis, he said that until a ground force “develops that capability” to follow strict rules of engagement and assess the potential for collateral damage, “I think that air power like we see it today can’t support the ground forces.”