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CAMP ANACONDA, Iraq — The focus of U.S. air power has shifted from dropping bombs to giving U.S. troops a “God’s-eye view” of what’s on the ground, said Lt. Col. Pete Gersten, commander of the 4th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Balad Air Base.

“My mission, my goal is to support ground forces,” said Gersten, 40, of Layton, Utah.

More than 96 percent of his aircraft’s time in the air is spent looking for possible roadside bombs, obstructions, ambush sites and insurgents, he said.

He explained the Army and Air Force work out which convoys on the ground will need air support, and then fighter aircraft such as the F-16s stationed at Balad relay real-time information to airmen on the ground with U.S. troops.

However, there is only so much pilots can do from the air, Gentry said.

“To get down there and no kidding say ‘That is a [roadside bomb]’ is not something we can do. We can identify suspected [bombs] and we can identify suspected points of origin. Our advantage is we can do a lot of it very fast. We can help sector down what the … coalition ground forces has to go investigate,” he said.

Lt. Col. Kerry Gentry, commander of the 332nd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron at Balad, said his F-16s are equipped with targeting pods — thermal and TV cameras used to spot targets.

Now pilots are using these pods for reconnaissance and surveillance, said Gentry, 42, of Egg Harbor Township, N.J.

“You’re flying along looking and you go, ‘You know what, that just looks out of place,’ and they’ll feed it to the ground commander, and the ground commander makes a determination when he’ll sound out folks, whether its significant or not to investigate,” he said.

After a recent attack on Camp Anaconda, F-16s used the pods to find some people outside the wire making a quick getaway, Gentry said.

The planes followed the men to a building, allowing troops on the ground to catch them, Gentry said. Tests later revealed the men had been near explosives, he said.

In another incident west of Baghdad, U.S. F-16s tracked down two people who escaped a U.S. raid on a building, he said.

Gentry said F-16s can get to a scene much quicker and have much more firepower than a Predator or other unmanned aerial vehicles. Pilots can also put the information they are seeing in context for the ground troops below, he said.

“You’re not just looking at a city block, you’re looking at the city block, the neighborhood and the city,” he said.

Still, fighter aircraft and Predators work well together, as shown in one incident in which a Predator found people who launched a rocket attack on Camp Anaconda and helped two F-16s kill them, he said.

“Anytime there’s more sensors on station, it’s better. It helps you compile more data on the situation,” Gentry said.

He stressed that the purpose of his mission is helping ground troops succeed.

“They’re the ones who have it tough,” Gentry said.


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