Technology Widens Cockpit View of Iraq

ABOARD THE USS HARRY S. TRUMAN — Lt. Shawn Hall spends his days thousands of feet above Iraq in his F/A-18 fighter jet, dropping GPS-guided bombs in support of American troops on the ground.

He also can watch Iraqis playing soccer 15,000 feet below.

A new generation of technology is allowing U.S. pilots — like those who conducted air strikes on Shiite militiamen in Basra in recent days — to connect with soldiers on the battlefield with far greater speed and precision.

The combination of advanced infrared cameras inside U.S. warplanes and the ability to stream that video to ground forces is seen as a major improvement in helping coordinate attacks — from identifying insurgents to trying to avoid civilian casualties that have brought U.S. forces at odds with Iraqi allies.

“You almost feel like Big Brother in the sky, kind of looking down on these people as they go about their day-to-day lives,” said Hall, speaking aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the Persian Gulf after returning from a recent mission to Iraq.

“You almost feel like you want to tell them, ‘Don’t do anything weird because it’s going to get my attention,'” he said.

The infrared sensor, known as ATFLIR, was introduced by the Navy at the end of 2003, but it has taken several years for the service to equip all its F/A-18s flying over Iraq. The Air Force uses similar sensors on its jets.

Navy pilots say the new sensor represents a quantum leap in terms of range and precision from the previous surveillance technology on the warplanes.

That is critically important in Iraq, where crowded air space means combat pilots have to provide air support from relatively high altitude to avoid hundreds of manned and unmanned aircraft closer to the ground.

Even if the pilots operated at the lowest possible altitude permitted in the stacked air space, “it would not be anywhere near low enough to allow us to identify (roadside bombs), discern human beings, distinguish automobiles from tracked vehicles” using the old system, said Cmdr. Bill Sigler, head of an F/A-18 squadron on the USS Truman.

“These are all done with relative ease with an ATFLIR,” said Sigler — even 15,000 feet above the ground.

The U.S. has spy satellite technology that can produce even finer images, but the infrared sensors on the jets are linked to a laser targeting system that allows pilots to drop bombs with far higher accuracy. Also, unlike satellite imagery, the sensor video is immediately available to pilots and ground troops.

The new technology was used when U.S. planes conducted air strikes in the southern city of Basra in support of Iraqi troops battling supporters of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Navy F/A-18s, along with Air Force F-16s and AC-130 gunships, dropped precision-guided bombs and fired at suspected Shiite fighters.

But Basra also showed how U.S. and Iraqi officials often disagree about who is killed in airstrikes.

The U.S. military said 16 Shiite fighters were killed in the strikes but Iraqi police claimed eight civilians died. The differences often reflect both imperfect information and the loyalties of the Iraqi officials involved.

For U.S. pilots, the capability of the new sensors is only half the story. Also key is the ability to send the footage immediately to target-pickers on the ground.

Without the ability to see the same image, soldiers had to talk a pilot onto a target, a process that took time and left a degree of uncertainty that both were looking at the same object.

“It’s that old story that if I whisper something to you and you whisper it to Steve, it’s not going to be the same thing,” said Rear Adm. William Gortney, commander of the USS Truman carrier group and a fighter pilot himself.

The challenges of close air support are amplified in Iraq. Potential targets like insurgents setting roadside bombs may be vulnerable only for a short time — and are often in close proximity to friendly forces and civilians.

Killing civilians in a counterinsurgency campaign is both a tragedy and a strategic setback because winning the hearts and minds of local people is critical.

“The last thing you want to do in an insurgency is hurt the indigenous people,” said Gortney.

But the new ability to stream images from a fighter jet’s sensors directly to the laptops of soldiers on the ground picking targets has reduced “talk-on” time for a target from 10 minutes to 30 seconds in many cases.

The streaming technology was first used by Navy F/A-18s in 2006 and is also employed by the Air Force.

“From the sky, I know from some of our early missions you see people running around and that kind of gets our attention,” said Hall. “But the (controllers) can look at it and say, ‘No, that’s the local soccer field, and all they are doing is playing soccer.'”

Thomas Keaney, an expert on air power at Johns Hopkins University who was on the ground picking targets for pilots during the Vietnam War, said the new technology has improved effectiveness radically.

“For the first time in 60 years since they have been trying, they are really able to do this quite well, and that’s without even considering the accuracy of the weapons,” Keaney said.

Coordination between pilots and soldiers is now fast enough that sometimes troops can call in a “show of force” rather than outright bombing or cannon fire. The fighter jet flies extremely low to the ground to scare and disperse unruly crowds or even potential attackers.

Jody Jacobs, an air power expert at the RAND Corporation, said the use of new technology to “employ non-lethal methods” in Iraq provides the military with a powerful way to protect its forces on the ground without endangering innocent civilians.

But the ringside seat to violence on the battlefield can have a downside for pilots.

Sigler said one pilot recently flew over a U.S. Stryker vehicle that had been hit on the ground just minutes before he passed overhead. From the air, the pilot could see troops on the ground still trying to extract wounded U.S. soldiers.

“That’s a whole new level of impact,” Sigler said.

Overall, the pilots say the new technology has significantly improved response time and reduced margin of error.

“Anything that lends clarity to the fog of war is huge,” he said.

Back to Top