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Air Force 'hunters' target Islamic State thousands of miles away

By CHRIS CHURCH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 31, 2017

Air Force “hunters” are playing a key role in the wars in Iraq and Syria, using their drones for precision strikes against Islamic State targets in Mosul and conducting reconnaissance over the group’s capital in Raqqa.

The 432nd Wing, known as the hunters, operating from Creech Air Force Base, Nev., has been using its MQ-1B Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones to meet the challenges of urban warfare.

“What we’ve seen is our asset being called on more often to employ weapons because of the lower collateral capability and the high precision of that Hellfire missile,” said Maj. Brian, a 432nd Wing weapons and tactics officer and drone pilot. Brian, whose full name was not disclosed because of operational security, was referring to the laser-guided munitions carried by the remotely piloted aircraft during the campaign.

Still, avoiding civilian casualties in the crowded neighborhoods of Mosul, where Iraqi forces are now fighting, is getting harder and harder, Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, told House lawmakers on Wednesday, after it emerged that as many as 200 people may have been killed in an airstrike on March 17.

Officials have said it’s possible that American aircraft were involved in that strike. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. commander for the campaign against the Islamic State group, said it was possible that Islamic State fighters had trapped hostages inside a building and lured U.S. forces to attack it by positioning fighters on the roof.

The U.S. uses a variety of aircraft beyond drones to conduct strikes, including fighters and bombers. But U.S. Air Forces Central Command spokesman Capt. Kathleen Atanasoff said that while remotely piloted aircraft were in the vicinity of Mosul March 17, none had released weapons over the city. 

Reports of mass civilian casualties are highly embarrassing for Washington, coming in the wake of the Obama administration’s sharp criticism of Russia’s bombing campaign in the Syrian city of Aleppo, which ended in a government victory against the rebels in December.

The drones have exceptional loiter time — they can fly for about 20 hours. Their ability to rapidly change locations gives commanders flexibility that isn’t always available with ground-based intelligence collection. The intelligence gathered by aircraft is often combined with ground-based intelligence for a better battlefield picture, AFCENT said in a statement.

The drone pilot and sensor operator tandem is constantly on the lookout for vehicle-borne explosives, sniper positions, enemy movements and any other dangers to friendly ground forces pushing into the city, Brian said.

“The unique capabilities that we bring to that fight is that persistence,” he. “We are able to sit there and be really patient with what we see with what’s going on and really develop a good picture of what the enemy is doing ... I think that’s one of the biggest differences that we bring to the fight, is that ability to loiter overhead and maintain that persistence.”

The reconnaissance capability, which has been used considerably over the campaign, and currently being employed to prepare friendly forces before they enter Raqqa.

A lot of the tasks the unit has been given throughout the campaign have been “search missions” to find the enemy and its vital assets, such as communication centers and banking facilities, Brian said.

The 432nd Wing’s drones have also been used in other theaters, including Afghanistan. Last year, they provided about 2,800 engagements with their own weapons, assisted 600 others involving other aircrafts’ weapons and provided about 300,000 hours of support worldwide, Brian said.

church.chris@stripes.com
Twitter: @CChurchStripes

 

An MQ-1B Predator remotely piloted aircraft takes off from an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia to support coalition operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, March 21 , 2017.
CHRIS CHURCH/STARS AND STRIPES

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