The Washington Post

Here’s how F-18s likely targeted Islamic State forces in Iraq

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Almost four years after combat operations ended in Iraq, a pair of F/A-18s bombed Islamic State artillery outside of Irbil in northern Iraq on Friday, according to the Pentagon. Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said the jets dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on their targets.

The aircraft were flying off the aircraft carrier the George H.W. Bush, with a full complement of ordnance.

U.S. officials did not immediately indicate whether American troops on the ground helped to guide the munitions, but F-18s are capable of designating targets with their own on-board lasers. The practice is known as “self-lasing,” or “buddy-lasing.” The latter term indicates that one of the aircraft uses its laser to designate the target for its wingman.

A U.S. Navy F-18 fighter jet flies over North Beach on the opening day of the Chicago Air and Water Show in August 2012 in Chicago. (AP Photo/Sitthixay Ditthavong)

Laser-guided munitions are more accurate than the use of Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, which rely on GPS receivers to hit their targets.

Pilots “use laser-guided bombs for point targets like trucks or artillery,” said Colby Howard, a former Force Reconnaissance Marine and tactical air controller.

While F-18s have the ability to laser designate their own targets, that doesn’t rule out the use of ground forces for targeting information.

“In Iraq and Afghanistan there were certain situations in which pilots could not positively identify a target without cooperation from a ground unit prior to ordnance release,” said John Strobridge, a Marine tactical air controller.

F-18s rely on advanced sensors mounted on the bottom of the aircraft that show pilots an image of the ground while they are thousands of feet above it. While the sensors provide invaluable information to the pilot, the image quality can sometimes be poor.

Strobridge, who did not have direct knowledge of Friday’s operation, asked if the data acquired from the sensors would be sufficient enough to allow commanders to approve the release of ordnance, without direct communication to forces on the ground who could accurately distinguish the target.

“How can they tell if it’s an ISIS truck or an Iraqi army truck?” Strobridge asked. “If you’re the pilot you might need guys on the ground telling you what you’re looking at.”

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Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a staff writer and a former Marine infantryman.
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