Jet pilots are increasingly acting as airborne target spotters in the campaign against Iraq, circling for hours in the skies to track Iraqi troops and equipment that are on the move and direct bombers to them, according to Navy pilots and commanders.
With Iraqis scurrying to hide themselves on a fluid battlefield, bomber pilots say that some of the best information is coming from these scouts in the sky, as opposed to those on the ground, who may have a limited vantage point.
Using airborne controllers "significantly increases your ability to get eyes on targets," said Capt. Larry Burt, who is coordinating the raids launched by the three U.S. aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. The air wings on the USS Lincoln, USS Kitty Hawk and USS Constellation have flown more than 2,000 sorties since the air war began.
About 90 percent of fighter jets are finding targets to bomb, compared with only about 70 percent last week, an increase tied to the heightened use of airborne controllers, Burt said.
In the early days of the war, some pilots were getting targeting information before they took off. Often they would reach the area and find the target had already been destroyed or hidden.
"I helped some farmer dig a well," is how Lt. James Haigler described a sortie he flew Saturday when he dropped bombs onto Iraqi farmland from his F/A-18 Super Hornet jet. He was supposed to destroy Iraqi tanks, which had been spotted days earlier. They were gone by the time he arrived. He bombed a row of trees, thinking they might be obscuring tanks; they weren't.
By contrast, the airborne controllers often give much more accurate targeting information, tracking the movements of Iraqi forces in real-time, officers said.
The air controllers follow a tradition that dates from the tiny spotter airplanes of World War II. But today's air scouts fly supersonic jets that can drop their own bombs and use their own lasers to direct the trajectory of bombs released by other planes.
The Navy, Air Force and Marines all have pilots functioning as airborne scouts, known formally as forward air controllers airborne. A scout pilot's mission, extended by mid-air refueling, typically lasts two or three times longer than a bombing sortie. The scout is able to circle comfortably over the battlefield because Iraqi air defenses generally have been jammed, destroyed or outmaneuvered since the war began.
"He's up there for six hours, studying the neighborhood," Capt. Scott Swift, deputy commander of the air wing on the Lincoln, said of the typical airborne scout. "He sees anti-aircraft artillery coming from a house and marks that down. He watches the tanks being moved, he sees the revetments."
That makes him invaluable to a fighter pilot, who often has only 15 minutes to a half-hour "on station" over the target before fuel runs low.
"The idea is to use the other aircraft as bomb trucks," said one Navy airborne scout who asked to be identified only by his call sign, Troll. "We find the targets so they don't have to; they just roll in and drop bombs." The result is that targeting is dynamic and by-the-minute, he said.
Once a fighter pilot arrives in the region and makes radio contact with the airborne scout, the scout will talk "the pilot's eyes to the target," Swift said. "He'll say 'Do you see that mosque by the bridge? Follow the road down two blocks. Do you see the river on the right? Do you see the river bend to the left? Follow the bend until you see the field. Do you see the tanks in the field?' "
In the air war as it's now being waged, many pilots are sent to "killbox" areas, sections roughly 30 miles by 30 miles, where they have discretion to bomb any military targets they can positively identify. Others are sent to "stacks," where they fly circles and wait for directions to a target from a controller either on the ground or in the air.
Today, two F/A-18 Super Hornets flew onto the Lincoln from the USS Nimitz, which is en route to the Gulf from the Indian Ocean to replace the Lincoln later this week. The two-seat aircraft flew ahead of their ship so they could immediately begin flying missions as forward air controllers, said Rear Adm. John M. Kelly, who is directing all naval operations in the Gulf.
Bombing hard targets is dramatic "Gucci stuff, but it doesn't win wars," said Capt. Kevin Albright, commander of the Lincoln's air wing.
"What makes a difference is on the ground, the lives we save out there," said Troll, who bombed artillery that was firing on Marines this morning and directed other planes to bomb a half-dozen Iraqi tanks. "A guy is sitting in a tank one minute, the next minute, he's gone."