The Secret Air War Over Iraq

The Secret Air War Over Iraq


Just last week, in a typical air strike of the Iraq War, two missiles were fired at targets somewhere in the city of Ramadi, capital of al-Anbar province in the heartland of the Sunni insurgency, in the course of a battle with American forces stationed there. According to newspaper accounts, “18 insurgents” were killed.

Air power has, since World War II, been the American way of war. The invasion of Iraq began, after all, with a dominating show of air power that was meant to “shock and awe”–that is, cow–not just Saddam Hussein’s regime, but the whole “axis of evil” and other countries the Bush administration had in its mental gun sights. Among the largest of America’s “permanent” megabases in Iraq is Balad Air Base with the sorts of daily air-traffic pile-ups that you would normally see over Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. And yet, as has pointed out numerous times over these last years, reporters in Iraq almost determinedly refuse to look up or report on the regular, if intermittent, application of American air power especially to heavily populated neighborhoods in Iraq’s cities.

Now, the Bush “surge” is officially beginning. Little about it is strikingly new or untried–except possibly the unspoken urge to ratchet up the use of air power in Iraq, the only thing a Pentagon with desperately overstretched ground forces really has to throw into the escalation breach (as in recent months it has drastically escalated the use of air power in Afghanistan). Pepe Escobar, the superb globe-trotting correspondent for Asia Times, has recently warned that the new Bush administration “plan” signals “the dire prospect… of a devastating air war over Baghdad” in which “Iraqification-cum-surge” will prove “a disaster mostly for every Baghdadi caught in the crossfire.”

Just last week, Julian E. Barnes of the Los Angeles Times reported that the U.S. Air Force has the Iraqi itch and is getting ready to scratch it. Air Force commanders are preparing for a “heightened role in the volatile region.” They are, he reported, already “gearing up for just such a role in Iraq as part of Bush’s planned troop increase” — an expansion of air power that “could include aggressive new tactics designed to deter Iranian assistance to Iraqi militants… [and] more forceful patrols by Air Force and Navy fighter planes along the Iran-Iraq border to counter the smuggling of bomb supplies from Iran.”

In preparation for all this the Air Force has signaled, according to, that it too is “surging” its forces–bulking up both personnel and fighter planes in preparation for the President’s new offensive in Iraq. “We have increased our force posture in Iraq in anticipation of the surge,” comments Air Force spokesperson Lt. Col. Clint Hinote. “We’ve brought over more fighters to better provide overwatch for the ground units in Iraq… We’re also preparing to deploy more [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] assets to provide more information to ground ops.”

Until now, U.S. air power in Iraq has been a non-story–if you weren’t an Iraqi. In the coming months, however, it may force its way onto the front pages of our papers and onto the nightly TV news–but not if the Pentagon has anything to say about it. Doing some journalistic sleuthing, Nick Turse has discovered just how secretive the Pentagon has been about offering any significant information on the size, scope, and damage involved in its air operations over Iraq. For the first time at, he tells what can be known about the history of the Pentagon’s secret air war often over Iraq’s heavily populated urban areas.

In the last weeks, there are hints that the air war in Iraq–at least the helicopter war–is becoming decidedly two-sided. Five American helicopters have gone down, at least four of them due to enemy fire, in less than three weeks. As Noah Shachtman at the website pointed out recently, there is speculation among Air Force personnel that Sunni insurgents “have gotten their hands on a new, more deadly strain of surface-to-air-missiles (SAMs).” Whether a change of weaponry or of tactics is responsible for these downings, we don’t know at this point; but given the reliance of the American military in Iraq on helicopters for transport and air support, this is no small thing. When Russian helicopters began going down in Afghanistan in the 1980s (due, in part, to the Stinger missiles the CIA was supplying to the Mujahedeen), it was a signal that their occupation was in real trouble. Could the same be true in American Iraq?

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