"We're here to support the guys on the ground," says 1st Lt. Kevin "Ace" Lampinen, a back-seater in Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 332 "Moonlighters", deployed to Al Asad air base in cold, muddy western Iraq.In Ar Ramadi, Hit, Fallujah and other contested cities in Al Anbar province, Marines and soldiers fight daily battles with Sunni insurgents and foreign fighters slipping across the porous Syrian border. When the going gets tough, the tough call in air support. On one memorable November mission, Ace, his pilot and another crew in their two-seat F/A-18D Hornets dropped below some low clouds to drop 500-pound satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack munitions and laser-guided bombs on insurgents laying siege to some Marine snipers."What else you got?" asked the forward air controller.With their bombs expended, Ace's flight fired their 20-millimeter cannons until they were out of ammo. They handed off to another flight, zoomed home to Al Asad, refueled, rearmed then headed right back to the fight.But it's not all bombing and gunfighting, and in six months of daily flying, the Moonlighters have dropped only a hundred thousand pounds of ordnance. Their bread and butter is surveillance using their new Litening AT targeting pods and reconnaissance with the Advanced Tactical Aerial Reconnaissance System, or ATARS. ATARS provides high-res targeting-quality imagery on magnetic tape that's analyzed post-flight, while the Litening pod can send lower-res imagery realtime to forces on the ground. Their capabilities overlap some, but between the two systems, the Moonlighters can perform the full range of tactical recon tasks, making them essential to the urban fighting in Al Anbar, where the bad guys hide among innocents.The sky over western Iraq is crowded with Marine air. The entire southern side of Al Asad is packed with F/A-18Ds, EA-6Bs, AV-8Bs, KC-130Js, CH-53Es and UH-1Ns. I'm embedded with the Moonlighters for the next week. More to come.--David Axe
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