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Naval Power Bolsters U.S. Airstrikes in Iraq

by Kris Osborn on August 8, 2014

George H.W. Bush is supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.

Navy assets deployed to the Persian Gulf are responsible for providing the advanced fire power and weaponry used in targeted U.S. military strikes August 8 against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant artillery positions, Pentagon officials told Military​.com.

Two F/A-18 aircraft dropped 500-pound laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece near Irbil, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement. ISIL was using this artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending Irbil where U.S. personnel are located, he said.

The fighter jets were launched from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, which has been forward deployed in the region for months.

Navy officials said the service’s move to position key platforms and assets in strategically vital areas is designed for precisely this reason – to be able and ready to quickly respond should they receive orders to conduct strikes or take military action.

“We were already where we needed to be,” a defense official said. “We maintain a continuous presence in the region.”

Although Friday’s initial strike was limited to a truck-towed artillery unit threatening U.S. personnel and facilities near Irbil, the military involvement is also designed to help ongoing humanitarian efforts to airdrop supplies into another area where displaced civilians are seeking refuge.

The decision to bomb the target was made by the U.S. Central Command commander under authorization granted him by the commander-in-chief, Kirby added. The the U.S. military will continue to take direct action against the group when it threatens U.S. personnel and facilities, he said.

Later in the day, the U.S. conducted two more bombings in the same area — one using a drone aircraft against a terrorist mortar position and another using four F/A-18s against a ISIL convoy of seven vehicles and another mortar position, according to a separate statement from Kirby.

The Bush carries as many as 44 F/A-18s, including both Hornets and the more technically advanced Super Hornets. In fact, Navy Hornet and Super Hornet pilots have been flying surveillance missions over Iraq for weeks, in part to use their on-board electro-optical cameras and infrared sensors to identify potential ISIL targets. These missions were done in anticipation of a potential order to conduct strikes, defense officials said.

F/A-18s are configured with a host of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons such as the two GBU-54 500-pound laser-guided bombs dropped near Erbil, Iraq. Laser-guided bombs are directed by a laser-designation from the air or nearby ground forces.

The GBU-54s used in the strike are known as Laser Joint Direct Attack Munitions or LJDAMS. Many JDAMS also rely on GPS guidance to pinpoint their targets.

The GBU-54 is a 581-pound glide bomb with a range of up to 15 nautical miles, service officials said. The weapon uses semi-active laser guidance as well as GPS and inertial navigation systems.

Navy officials said standard laser-guidance packages on bombs prove exceptionally accurate in clear conditions against stationary targets. However, with significant amounts of environmental factors such as dust, smoke, fog, or cloud cover, the guidance packages can have difficulty maintaining “lock” on the laser designation while pursuing moving or maneuvering targets, officials said.

This is why the GBU-54 was engineered — it’s a dual-mode precision-guided bomb designed to destroyed fixed and re-locatable or moving targets, Navy officials said.

GBU-54

The Super Hornet is also configured to fire AIM-9X sidewinder air-to-air missile, the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile, or AMRAAM, the Joint Standoff Weapon, the Small Diameter Bomb and the Mk-84 general purpose bomb, Navy officials said.

On the deck of the USS Bush, the F/A-18s are joined by five EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft, four E-2 Hawkeye surveillance planes, two C-2 cargo aircraft and as many as 12 MH-60 Sea Hawk helicopters, Navy officials said.

In the Arabian Gulf, the USS Bush is joined by the USS Philippine Sea, a cruiser and two destroyers, the USS Roosevelt and USS O’Kane. Two amphibious assault ships are also part of the forward-deployed force, a big-deck amphib called the USS Bataan and a dock landing ship called the USS Gunston Hall. Another destroyer, the USS Arleigh Burke, is nearby in Bahrain, defense officials said.

As the U.S. military launches targeted airstrikes against ISIL, some analysts are wondering how the latest in surveillance and air-power technology might target small groups of ISIL fighters on-the-move – should strikes continue or escalate.

Given the prospect that more air attacks may follow these initial strikes, attacking ISIL may be more challenging than previous air attacks against fixed targets such as the initial bombing campaigns in the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

A dispersed group of fighters deliberately blending in with the civilian population and travelling in small groups in vehicles like pick-up trucks and armored vehicles might prove difficult or high-risk to pinpoint from the air with even the best precision-guided weaponry.

Nevertheless, one of the key architects of the air-power strategy used in the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom, called “effects-based” warfare, says using some of those same concepts may still apply when attacking a mobile insurgent terrorist group such as ISIL.

Retired Air Force Col. John Warden, known for his strategic involvement in creating and implementing “effects based” warfare, helped the George H.W. Bush administration prepare for the use of precision air-power in the Gulf War.

Effects based warfare is based on the premise that precision air power can achieve a particular strategic “effect” without necessarily attacking large numbers of fielded forces or the infrastructure of the attacked area. Success is achieved by attacking and disabling the enemy’s centers of gravity, referred to by Warden as the five rings – leadership, system essentials, infrastructure, population, fielded military forces.

“The concept of the five rings says that anytime you have more than one person operating against you, such as a group, you have the formation of a system,” Warden told Military​.com in an interview.

Warden explained that this means any group, such as ISIL, would have the elements of the five rings such as leadership, supply lines or system essentials and places to store things such as infrastructure, fielded forces and potentially some support from the elements of the local population.

“ISIL looks pretty straightforward,” he said, suggesting that some elements of “effects-based” warfare could potentially prove useful against ISIL if attacks continue, despite the fact that they are largely a guerrilla force on the move and not a country or area with a fixed infrastructure.

The idea of effects-based warfare is to achieve what’s called strategic paralysis and render an enemy force unable to fight by targeting leadership headquarters, command and control and supply lines, Warden explained.

Avoiding civilian casualties through the use of strategy and precision technology from the air – all while preserving much of the infrastructure of the attacked area – is fundamental to effects-based warfare. The advent of precision weaponry such as GPS and laser-guided bombs has, to a large degree, made this possible.

This approach proved quite successful during the Gulf War and opening attack or “shock and awe” conducted at the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“Where we have had success it is not because we have killed every guy that has a bomb,” Warden said. “It is because we have succeeded in destroying the ability of the opposition group to function in an organized and coherent way by attacking the leadership, attacking their communications, and attacking their supply lines — for the most part — without doing any significant damage to general infrastructure and little or no damage to the population that they are operating in.”

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