Anatomy of an air strike: Three intelligence streams working in concert
In a fast-moving war with an elusive foe like the Islamic State militants, information is as important as guns, jet fighters and bombs.
Sometime early this summer, U.S. Special Operations Forces launched a raid into Syria in an effort to rescue several American hostages being held by the group. But the commandos’ information was out of date. The captives were no longer in the target area.
The attempted rescue, which the Obama administration revealed one day after a graphic video was posted depicting an Islamic State member beheading kidnapped American journalist James Foley, underscores the importance of timely intelligence. The Pentagon’s escalating campaign against Islamic State fighters in Iraq depends completely on reliable information.
It’s about collecting as much intelligence as possible and piecing it together. Two schools of intelligence have often vied for primacy — signals intelligence from electronic eavesdropping and aerial surveillance versus human intelligence. Yet the most effective military attacks call on all sources of information.
American intelligence agencies and military spies had largely withdrawn from Iraq when the last regular U.S. combat troops left the country in late 2011.
Iraq became a U.S. blind spot. Only recently have U.S. intelligence assets returned in response to the jihadist Islamic State’s attacks.
The reinvigorated intelligence effort includes aerial surveillance and probably air-based and ground-based electronic eavesdropping — what the military calls “signals intelligence” — plus traditional “human intelligence,” people on the ground who spot the target with their own eyes.
Now American intelligence collectors are back at work in the embattled country, accompanying U.S. Special Operations forces that are advising Iraqi and Kurdish troops. The intelligence experts are helping to find and track militants and guide U.S. close-air support — or CAS, in military parlance — as well as attacks by Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
Besides human spotters on the ground, the main U.S. intelligence assets in Iraq include armed surveillance drones fitted with cameras, radar and communications eavesdropping gear. Jet fighters also carry camera pods under their wings. The intelligence-gathering effort includes the most high-tech ground-based and space-based communications eavesdropping equipment. Drones and camera-equipped jets were the first surveillers to return to Iraq after 2011. The Air Force had pulled its 21 Predator drones from Iraq that year, redeploying them to Kuwait for patrols over the Middle East.
As early as December last year, Iraqi officials asked Washington to reroute some drones to watch western Iraq and help keep tabs on Islamic State fighters advancing on the city of Fallujah.
The militants captured Fallujah and continued toward Baghdad. In June, the Pentagon sent hundreds of military advisers to Iraq and ordered the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush into the Persian Gulf. The ship’s F/A-18s began regular reconnaissance flights. Later that month, Pentagon officials stated that armed U.S. drones also were flying over Iraq. Both enabled Washington to track Islamic State forces.
By the end of June, the Navy fighters and aerial robots combined were flying 30 to 40 missions a day, according to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, including surveillance and close-air support.
The drones and fighters work as a team to find and strike targets, sometimes without outside help. Assuming the targets can easily be identified as hostile.
That’s apparently what happened on Aug. 9, when Navy jets and armed drones destroyed four Islamic State vehicles used to fire on Yazidi refugees who had sought shelter on Mount Sinjar near Iraq’s northwestern border with Syria. The militants were easy to distinguish from civilians nearby — because they were shooting at the civilians. The drones’ and jets’ infrared cameras see gunfire as bright white flashes.
It helps that the Navy has assigned its two-seat F/A-18Fs to perform close-air-support missions in Iraq rather than sending in single-seat planes. While the pilot in the F/A-18F’s front seat steers the jet, the crew member in the back seat operates sensors and visually scrutinizes the ground.
“People think about CAS being a simple employment of ordnance from the air,” Brad Lyons, an Air Force F-16 pilot, explained in 2010 interview. “But CAS is all about coordination, about rapidly sharing information so everyone understands the same problem.”
The less obvious the target, the more extensive the intelligence work that must precede an attack. That often begins with listening in on phone calls and radio traffic.
Among the military’s busiest intelligence assets for the mission in Iraq are a joint signal intelligence and human intelligence effort – aboard RC-135 surveillance planes. The Air Force stations several of its four-engine RC-135s at Al Udeid air base in Qatar. From there, the planes can orbit the region for hours at a time at 30,000 feet — high above the maximum range of any antiaircraft weapons Islamic State conceivably possesses.
The RC-135s hoover up a wide range of electronic signals — including radio and cellphone calls — and can also locate their sources. Predator drones, meanwhile, carry smaller and less capable versions of the RC-135s’ listening gear.
In addition, the Army deploys truck-mounted antenna systems, called Trojans, that can intercept communications from hundreds of miles away.
In one famous example, on Nov. 3, 2002, a Trojan sitting at an Army base in Kuwait intercepted a call on a phone that the National Security Agency knew belonged to Qaed Salim Sinan al Harethi, an al Qaeda operative who had helped plan the 2000 attack on the Navy destroyer Cole.
Listening in real time, the NSA analysts in the United States confirmed that al Harethi was on one end of the line. The Trojan operators helped pinpoint the phone’s location in a truck in Yemen. The CIA routed one of its missile-armed drones over the area and destroyed the truck, killing al Harethi.
For even more complicated surveillance work, the military’s National Reconnaissance Office operates highly secretive satellites that do the same work as the RC-135s and Trojans but over a wider area and a longer span of time.
Over time, military analysts can use this data to map out militants’ communications networks and begin to figure out who’s doing the most talking or the most important talking that tends to precede major attacks. This can provide clues about who’s in charge and where they are hiding.
Working together, the drones, RC-135s, Trojans and satellites paint an intelligence “picture” that diagram for fighter crews where to drop their bombs. Yet even this high-tech assistance sometimes isn’t enough. The U.S. military can also call on hundreds of well-trained air controllers, whose sole job is to accompany ground troops with laser and range-finding computers to guide air strikes.
It’s not clear whether the Pentagon has deployed any American air controllers to Iraq. But U.S. advisers have trained Iraqi and Kurdish troops in U.S. warfare tactics and practices, which surely include coordinating with warplanes.
Local forces in Iraq do possess some air-controller skills. In June, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Aerospace Force deployed three Su-25 attack jets to Al Rashid air base near Baghdad. By early July, the jets were carrying out as many as five strikes a day guided by personnel on the ground near militants’ positions.
Kurdish troops fighting the Islamic State in northern Iraq are now coordinating with the U.S. military, according to Kurdish officials. The Kurds may well be providing some of the human intelligence on the ground. On Aug. 12, however, the Pentagon announced it had added 130 more Marines and Special Operations forces to Erbil, bringing the total number of U.S. troops in Iraq to 905.
In contrast to the high-tech and often dangerous work of eavesdropping on communications and guiding airstrikes, the Pentagon is combing through social media for scraps of information on the militants’ locations. The Islamic State is active on Twitter and Facebook, posting sometimes gruesome photos of its fighters’ atrocities – seeking to further terrify its enemies.
These images can reveal the militants’ locations and the kinds of weapons, uniforms and equipment they use, all useful information for American fighter pilots looking for telltale signs of insurgent activity. Social-media sites provide such a treasure trove of intelligence that U.S. officials have approached at least one social-media company, urging them to keep militants’ accounts open rather than deleting them.
As of Aug. 19, U.S. airstrikes are ongoing in Iraq. American targeting of militant forces has helped Iraqi and Kurdish troops recapture lost ground, and there have been no reports of bombs accidentally striking civilians. Those are strong indications that U.S. intelligence-gathering, working together from the air and space and on the ground, is succeeding in pinpointing Islamic State’s fighters.
PHOTO (TOP): A MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Pratt/Handout
PHOTO (INSERT 1):F/A-18F twin-seater Super Hornet aircraft. WIKIPEDIA/Commons/U.S. Air Force/handout
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga troops watch as smoke billows from the town of Makhmur during clashes with Islamic State militants, August 9, 2014. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
PHOTO (INSERT 3): An MQ-1B Predator from the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron takes off from Balad Air Base in Iraq, June 12, 2008. REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Julianne Showalter/Handout/Files
PHOTO (INSERT 4): U.S. Air Force RC-135U Combat Sent aircraft flies a training mission from a Nebraska airbase, June 18, 2004. REUTERS/Courtesy of Air Force.
PHOTO (INSERT 6): A still image captured from Navy video shows Navy ordnancemen aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush building GBU-54 500-pound bombs in the Arabian Gulf, August 9, 2014. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Preston Paglinawan/Handout via Reuters