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Why F/A-18F Super Hornets dropped the first U.S. bombs in Iraq

A U.S. Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet with Strike Fighter Squadron 41, of Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif., is depicted here over the Persian Gulf. It’s no accident that two-seat “F” versions of the Super Hornet dropped the first bombs in Iraq in years, sources tell Checkpoint: They’re built to make sense of a chaotic battlefield with less help from troops on the ground. (Photo by Tech. Sgt Rob Tabor/U.S. Air Force)

When the U.S. military launched its first airstrikes in Iraq in three years on Friday, it was F/A-18F Super Hornets flying off the USS George H.W. Bush that carried the mission out. That’s no accident, defense officials and analysts say. The aircraft is used for the Navy’s “forward air controller-airborne” mission, meaning it is more effective in surveying the battlefield, identifying targets and painting them with lasers for bombs.

What’s the difference? The “F” model of the F/A-18 is a two-seat aircraft, giving the pilot a “back-seater” who also would be able to make sense of what they were flying over and finding appropriate targets, said two sources with knowledge of carrier flight operations. The first strikes were carried out by planes from the “Black Lions” of Strike Fighter Squadron 213, of Naval Air Station Oceana, Va., Navy officials said. Individuals familiar with naval aviation said it’s likely the unit will be relied on heavily as long as the United States is carrying out airstrikes in Iraq without combat troops on the ground.

“I would expect to see the Black Lions to be prominent in the anti-[Islamic State] missions doing” battlefield surveillance and strikes, one source said. “And I’m sure that’s why these first missions were [done by] F-models, because the planners expected the missions would require a lot of orbiting around above a confusing battlefield, having to be careful to identify ground targets before precision-zapping them.”

The George Bush has three other Hornet squadrons on board: the “Tomcatters” of Fighter Strike Squadron 31, the “Valions” of Fighter Strike Squadron 15 and the “Golden Warriors of Fighter Strike Squadron 87, all of Oceana. The Tomcatters fly single-seat F/A-18Es, while the Valions and Golden Warriors fly older single-seat F/A-18Cs, Navy officials said. For other missions, the single-seat aircraft have some advantages, too: The weight of the second aviator’s body and ejection seat cut into the aircraft’s performance.

The Navy has released two recent videos that underscore the use of the F/A-18F in the airstrikes in Iraq. The first shows the view from the cockpit as a Black Lions fighter takes off from the Bush on Sunday, along with footage of the Super Hornets in the air afterward:

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The second shows sailors on board the Bush building GBU-54 bombs on the Bush on Saturday:

As pointed out on Checkpoint on Friday, the acronym stands for “guided bomb unit,” while the “54” differentiates it from other kinds of bombs. The powerful munitions are laser-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, with electronics in the nose that seek where the lasers are pointed. The pilots can set laser guidance on their own, or with the help of another fighter nearby.

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.

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