The US Army and marines are creaking under the strain of the Iraqi occupation, seeing reduced rest-times, longer tours and recruitment shortfalls. In order to compensate, the Pentagon is quietly turning to the Air Force - which means heavy bombers are back over Iraq for the first time since 2003.
Away from the headlines and debate over the ``surge'' in U.S. ground troops, the Air Force has quietly built up its hardware inside Iraq, sharply stepped up bombing and laid a foundation for a sustained air campaign in support of American and Iraqi forces.Airstrikes are the exact opposite of good counter-insurgency strategy, especially when they involve fast-moving heavy bombers dropping 24 tons of explosive over a wide area. Every civilian casualty reinforces ill-will and creates new militants willing to fight.
Squadrons of attack planes have been added to the in-country fleet. The air reconnaissance arm has almost doubled since last year. The powerful B1-B bomber has been recalled to action over Iraq.
The escalation worries some about an increase in ``collateral damage,'' casualties among Iraqi civilians. Air Force generals worry about wear and tear on aging aircraft. But ground commanders clearly like what they see.
``Night before last we had 14 strikes from B-1 bombers. Last night we had 18 strikes by B-1 bombers,'' Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch said approvingly of air support his 3rd Infantry Division received in a recent offensive south of Baghdad.
Statistics tell the story: Air Force and Navy aircraft dropped 437 bombs and missiles in Iraq in the first six months of 2007, a fivefold increase over the 86 used in the first half of 2006, and three times more than in the second half of 2006, according to Air Force data. In June, bombs dropped at a rate of more than five a day.
...Those big bombers were moved last year from distant Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to an undisclosed base in the Persian Gulf. Since February, with the ground offensive, they have gone on Iraq bombing runs for the first time since the 2003 invasion.
...Iraq Body Count, a London-based, anti-war research group that monitors Iraqi war deaths, says the step-up in air attacks appears to have been accompanied by an increase in Iraqi civilian casualties from air strikes. Based on media reports, it counts a recent average of 50 such deaths per month.
The Air Force itself does not maintain such data.
But Tours for airmen in Iraq are for four months at a time, sometimes even shorter, in comparison to the repeated 15 month tours that soldiers must endure. The Air Force can keep this up indefinitely and intends to do just that. Even though the pitifully small Iraqi air force has no plans as yet to buy an airplane that mounts so much as a pop-gun, Lt. Gen. Gary North, overall regional air commander, says that "until we can determine that the Iraqis have got their air force to sufficient capability, I think the coalition will be here to support that effort."