Hunting IEDs from 10,000 Feet

The F/A-18D Hornet handles a lot of jobs in Iraq, these days including bomb-hunting. Two two-seater plane looks out for improvised explosive devices with its nose-mounted Advanced Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance System, a bank of downward-looking cameras that replaces the Hornet's standard 20-millimetere cannon.Marine_air_3_1.jpgA ground station at Al Asad air base is equipped with a new workstation that allows analysts such as Sgt. Elizabeth Zakar to lay two day's imagery side by side to isolate the differences. This way they can spot disturbed earth, suspicious objects, piles of debris and other telltale signs that insurgents have planted a roadside bomb.It's not easy work, but there's a full-time civilian expert named Kevin White on hand to help. White is my roommate here at this sprawling air base. Besides being a great guy, he's a hard worker too -- for a full year he's worked late nights and long morning in the analysts' tiny little trailer on the compound of the Marine Fighter Attack community. The Marines are making an effort to keep one of their six F/A-18D squadrons in Iraq at all times, and the ATARS is a major reason why.Here at Al Asad, the chowtime talk is all about Ralph Peters, the Army officer-turned-columnist who loves to rail against the Air Force and its budget-hogging ways. A recent Weekly Standard piece by Peters took the Air Force to task for spending billions on a handful of F-22s when less money invested in simpler platforms would, he claims, pay far greater dividends. The fliers of Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 332 agree wholeheartedly, pointing to their bargain-bin Hornets and their huge quiver of weapons and sensors.I'm not quite convinced that the Air Force needs to abandon the cutting-edge of air supremacy. A few Marine aviators here have indirectly sided with the Air Force with tales of getting schooled in air-to-air exercises by aggressive Thai F-16 pilots.--David AxeUPDATE 02/02/06 3:02 PM: There have been a heap of interesting comments on this post. One of the best (as usual) comes from Joe Katzman, who asks:

Why are we using Hornets, that cost thousands of dollars per hour to fly, so we can wear down a fleet that would be useful in a more serious war and deplete US forces down the road (fighters have lives measured in hours put on the airframe)?For the job they're doing, you could use a Cessna. Yeah, the same ones that do traffic reports here at home. Same job, just add cameras and communications. Heck, Cessnas can even be given small gun pods if they feel a need to be able to shoot up a convoy of terrorists in the middle of an IED instalation operation.How expensive do you think that would be to buy? To fly? How easy to transfer the aircraft to Iraqis without a lot of difficulty?Heck, we could even buy Schweitzer's dedicated reconaissance aircraft for that job at a couple million per, and get something that not only has a ton more station time, but is SILENT from observation height so people can't hear it coming. Paint it correctly, and it would be hard to see from the ground as well.Cheap, devastatingly effective, could be bought in numbers and drive the rate of IED attacks (and hence deaths) down.Perhaps someone out there can kindly explain why $40 million ($55-60 million replacement cost) jet fighters are doing this job instead? That was excusable in 2003 when the operation began. In 2006, it's just waste.
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