The U.S. air war over western Mosul has come under more scrutiny after an American airstrike on March 17 appears to have killed potentially more than 100 civilians.
The Iraqi city’s labyrinth of tight city streets, multistory buildings and large population of residents illustrate the complexities of dropping bombs in densely populated neighborhoods. In the first week of March, the airstrike monitoring group Airwars.org estimated that roughly 75 people were killed by U.S.-led airstrikes. American generals have warned that as fighting continues into the densest areas of the city, even more civilians will die.
The U.S. military has expansive protocols on how to use air power in support of ground forces. Yet for airstrikes in cities, or what the Pentagon calls “urban terrain,” the guidelines are even more rigorous, and — strangely enough — informed by a notorious Russian military campaign in the 1990s that led to the death of roughly 30,000 civilians.
Russia’s 1994 war in Chechnya was one of the first times a modern military force fought insurgents in a large city. A 2009 military document used to teach U.S. troops how to call in close air support emphasizes that the Russian experience in Grozny provides a key historical example for understanding air operations in an urban terrain.
“The urban area provided the Chechens protections from fires, resources, interior lines, and covered and concealed positions and movement. Given such advantages offered by the environment, smaller or less sophisticated military forces have similarly chosen to fight in urban areas,” the document says. “However, the Russians learned many things to counter these actions with close air support.
The documents outline key lessons from the Russians focused on better communication between ground forces and aircraft.
The Russian air force’s initial foray into Grozny was on par with some of its earlier bombing campaigns in World War II. According to a report in Vestnik, a journal of Russian and Asian studies, only 2.3 percent of Russian airstrikes in the first Chechen war used some sort of guided munitions. Currently, roughly 20 percent of the strikes carried out by Russian aircraft in Syria have used guided weapons, while the U.S. military uses them exclusively.
Aside from relying on dumb bombs, Russian aircraft over Chechnya had poor communication with the troops on the ground. To counter this, Russian forces pushed closer to the fighting troops who were trained in calling in airstrikes from the ground — personnel known as forward air controllers.
The U.S. military has routinely kept its forward air controllers at the front lines in past wars. Initially in the fight for Mosul, the reliance on Iraqi forces and desire to keep American troops out of harms way forced the Pentagon to rely more on drones and aerial surveillance to call in strikes. But in recent months, U.S. commanders have pushed their troops forward to make strikes more responsive to Iraqi requests.
“We have had to return to what is our actual U.S. military war fighting doctrine for offensive operations,” said the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, on Tuesday.
Townsend likened the fighting as some of the worst street-to-street combat since World War II.
Much like the Chechen rebels did in Grozny, Islamic State fighters have turned Mosul into a fortress, digging tunnels between buildings and using the tight streets as ambush points for advancing forces. From the ground, Iraqi troops are looking through the equivalent of a soda straw, while from jets circling above, everything can look the same. The disparity in perspective can make the identification of targets extremely difficult and has ultimately put a large amount of responsibility on drones — with their ability to stay in the air longer — to identify places to strike.
A 1997 article written for the U.S. Air Force’s professional journal noted that one of the takeaways from the 1994-1995 battle of Grozny was the need for more “unmanned assets” over the battlefield. At the time, Russians sparingly used reconnaissance drones, namely the Russian Shmel-1, to help coordinate helicopter strikes.
More than 20 years later, the fight for Mosul is awash in surveillance aircraft. After the March 17 strike that reportedly killed more than a 100 civilians, a Pentagon spokesman said the military was reviewing roughly 700 feeds of video to understand what happened.
The journal article also lists a number of key lessons from Grozny that are oddly prescient for the current fight in Mosul. Some points are listed below.
- Air superiority is no guarantee of victory, even against a foe with no air force!
- Guerrillas can use high-tech information assets (cellular phones, etc.) as easily as modern armies nowadays, allowing them to quickly contact others, mobilize assets, and access information. Plans for suppressing these capabilities need to be made in advance.
- Timely and accurate reconnaissance information is vital for pilots.
- Guerrilla tactics must be studied closely.
- Helicopter and frontal aviation strikes must be integrated, and ground commanders must learn to work closely with and put more confidence in pilots.
- Forward Air Controller training must be integrated into subunit training plans at the earliest possible time. FACs must remain sensitive to guerrilla attempts to capture, mortar, or intercept their positions.