Although receiving little coverage in the US media, the US air force, navy and marines have flown thousands of missions backing up US ground troops in Iraq this autumn.

 

According to figures provided by Central Command Air Force's public affairs office, the monthly number of air missions, including refuelling and other support flights, grew from 1111 in September to 1492 in November 2005. 

 

The number of US air raids increased particularly in the weeks leading up to last Thursday's election, from a monthly average of about 35 last summer to more than 60 in September and 120 or more in October and November.

 

News reports and the public have focused mainly on ground action by the army and marines, but a variety of US aircraft are carrying out attacks daily. They include frontline air force and navy fighters as well as marines attack planes.

 

American and allied refuelling, transport and surveillance planes are also flying.

 

US raids have included attacks using unmanned Predator aircraft armed with Hellfire missiles.


The air raids have been largely in the west of Iraq, hitting regions where fighters opposed to the US presence remain strong. Targets include Balad, Ramadi and the vicinity of Baghdad, according to the US military's Central Command.


Central Command specifically mentioned a raid on Iraq's election day, 15 December, by an F-16 fighter fired precision-guided munitions at an access road used by fighters near Baghdad.


Arial onslaught

These figures pale in comparison to the aerial onslaught that was unleashed at the start of the war in March 2003, when B-2, B-1 and B-52 bombers were part of the offensive.

Even so, air might has remained a part of the arsenal that US forces routinely use in what is now largely a ground fight.

US air raids increased particularly
in the weeks before the election

The anti-US fighters have had little luck defending against air attacks. Yet it is difficult to know how effective the strikes have been in killing them, disrupting their movements or improving security for ordinary Iraqis.

The nascent Iraqi air force has no offensive strike capability at the moment.

Late last month the crew of one of Iraq's three US-donated C-130 cargo planes flew a mission without a US instructor on board for the first time.

According to brief reports provided by Central Command Air Force officials, recent attacks have included a Predator firing a Hellfire missile on 12 December "with successful effects" at an "improvised explosive device location" near the town of Haditha.

A 7 October report said an F-16 expended 1000 20mm cannon rounds in attacks against fighters near the town of Haqliniya.

Background role

The role of the Predator is not secret but has been largely lost in the clutter of violence on the ground.

At least five times this month an unmanned Predator flown remotely by airmen at flight consoles at a base in Nevada has struck targets in Iraq, mostly in fighters' strongholds in western al-Anbar governorate.

General Michael Moseley, the air force chief of staff, said last Tuesday that Predators were attacking targets in either Iraq or Afghanistan almost every day.

In a more common surveillance role, unarmed Predators are used in Iraq to monitor roads where fighters might plant bombs. They transmit live images to intelligence units that share the information with ground troops.

The aircraft used most frequently for strike missions in Iraq are F-16 and F-15 fighters based at an air base in Balad, north of Baghdad; navy F-18 fighters launched from a US aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, and marine F-18s from al-Asad air base in western al-Anbar governorate.