Airborne Intelligence Playing Greater Role in Irregular Warfare

Controllers in the Combined Air Operations Center at an air base on the Arabian Peninsula monitor the status of military operations in Iraq.
Controllers in the Combined Air Operations Center at an air base on the Arabian Peninsula monitor the status of military operations in Iraq. (By Royal Air Force Sgt. Gareth Davies -- British Defense Ministry)
By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A recent U.S. airstrike in Iraq's Diyala province killed a group of al-Qaeda fighters whose positions were exposed.

The back story of the successful strike tells a lot about how the U.S. military stalks and kills its insurgent enemies these days.

Air Force Col. Eric J. Holdaway said last week that the strike was the result of close cooperation between his air intelligence component and the U.S. Army brigade combat team commander and his intelligence staff, who had done "a very good pattern-of-life analysis of the targets."

Holdaway has been director of intelligence for U.S. Air Forces Central since June. He said the goal is to somehow get inside the minds of enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan with the assistance of airborne intelligence, which involves monitoring, tracking and targeting them.

He described this process to reporters last week in a teleconference from the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid air base in Qatar.

"The problem we deal with now is . . . with enemies that not only hide amongst the population but also will open fire on our ground forces from amongst the population," he said. "So characterizing how they operate, trying to understand them, becomes even more important."

Holdaway detailed the "patterns-of-life analysis" that U.S. intelligence operatives are developing on individual Afghans or Iraqis who are targeted. Working with the help of human intelligence and tips, ground commanders assemble lists, which are supplemented by intelligence gathered from the air.

Holdaway said, "We use a lot of the full-motion video from platforms like Shadow and Predator and Warrior Alpha to do that kind of work and try to be very, very patient in doing that," referring to three types of unmanned airborne reconnaissance vehicles.

Holdaway recalled that during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, "we had . . . maybe four or five reconnaissance aircraft airborne at any one time throughout the theater, and that's a drop in the bucket compared to what we can do now."

He said that since mid-2007, overhead intelligence capability has tripled in Afghanistan and grown more than 150 percent in Iraq. The exact numbers are classified, but about 200 Predators and 30 Reapers, a newer version of the Predator, along with larger numbers of smaller manned and unmanned aircraft, are said to be in the Central Command area.

"Once you've flown the aircraft, you've taken the image or collected the signal, that's really only the beginning of the work," Holdaway said. Some data are sent down, mostly in real time, to ground stations in the continental United States and overseas, where the information is processed, analyzed by experts and disseminated to operational units. Some data go directly to intelligence airmen in the combat theater who are assisting ground troops.

Such material allows commanders to study an individual's activities. Holdaway said it reduces the element of the unknown, such as "is there likely to be someone in that building he went into that is a noncombatant, or not? Or can we get this guy out in the open in a place where it's -- you know, it's him and his driver in a car, or maybe just him in a car or on a motorbike."

Before any strike, a collateral-damage analysis is performed "based on where the target is, what is near it and the destructive potential of the weapon that we're planning to employ," he said. "Ideally . . . we want to get a guy out in the open, where there's no potential for noncombatant casualties or collateral damage," he added.

It does not always work that way.

Holdaway said an enemy counter-tactic is to use noncombatants as human shields. He said, "You'd almost call it Taliban air defense."

When the United States is initiating the attack, Holdaway said, "we can afford to be patient. And if we lose an opportunity, we can be patient . . . keep working on the target and eventually get another opportunity." When the strike is in response to American troops calling for help while under fire from a building, he said, "unfortunately, in more than one situation . . . in the aftermath, we find that there were noncombatants in there with the insurgents."

One of the target areas is the eastern border of Afghanistan, along which Holdaway said he has learned there were "278 distinct mountain passes" to Pakistan. Tribes live on both sides of the border, which to them "is more theoretical than anything," he said. That makes it difficult to distinguish insurgents from smugglers or tribesmen going to the other side.

Holdaway would not disclose how the United States determines who the bad guys are, saying the information is classified, but he made clear that intelligence is gathered from experienced U.S. units on the ground whose members talk to local tribesmen. "Some form of positive ID" is needed before missiles are fired or bombs are dropped, he said.

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