B-1 pilots talk about air ops against ISIS in Kobane

cloudkobaneNew details have emerged about how the Coalition is working with Kurdish forces to coordinate airstrikes against ISIS. A Wall Street Journal article describes how B-1B bombers helped stop, and then defeat, the ISIS drive on Kobane.

See more on Airpower vs ISIS

1mar15 Upate — Just discovered another nugget from that same 22 Oct WSJ article. Seems like the sources are saying there were U.S. military personnel in Kobane at some point. I haven’t seen that anywhere else. And whether they stayed, and actually controlled airstrikes, is not clear.

Impressed by its military performance, the U.S. decided to invite a representative of the group to sit in the coalition’s joint operations center in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, to liaise with special military units in Kobani collecting battlefield intelligence and coordinates for airstrikes.

20feb15 Update — Found more info on the question of how/where airstrikes were being coordinated with the Kurds in Kobane.  Here’s a quote from a key Wall Street Journal article on 22 Oct:

As the U.S. role rapidly evolved, U.S. and Syrian Kurdish commanders began to coordinate air and ground operations far more closely than previously disclosed. A Syrian Kurdish general in a joint operations center in northern Iraq delivered daily battlefield intelligence reports to U.S. military planners, and helped spot targets for airstrikes on Islamic State positions.

Here we go! Eureka and Tally-ho

B1Bofftanker
9th Bomb Squadron B-1B pulls off of a tanker after refueling. USAF image

USAF B-1B bombers from the 9th Bomb Squadron–based out of Dyess AFB, TX–played a significant role in the months-long battle for Kobane, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal. Starting in early October, the big B-1 Lancer (known unofficially in the Air Force as “the Bone”) struck repeatedly and effectively at ISIS positions in and around Kobane, giving direct support to the Kurdish militia fighting to maintain control of the key city.

The WSJ article, by Julian Barnes, packs in a lot of interesting detail about the 9th BS ops and by extrapolation how the air campaign is being conducted. One of the insights it provides is a glimpse of how airstrikes are being coordinated with “friendlies” on the ground, in this case the YPG. Here’s an excerpt:

cloudkobane
Effects of airstrike on Kobane. Getty image

The U.S. had established close communications with the People’s Defense Units, or YPG, a Kurdish secularist group that led the fight to defend Kobani. YPG fighters communicated with liaisons and air controllers in the operations centers set up by the U.S. The Combined Air Operation Center in Qatar then took that information and sent bomb coordinates to the B-1s flying over Kobani.

During as much as eight hours flying over Kobani, the 9th Bomb Squadron would get targets called in to the air operations center from air controllers working with the Kurds. The B-1 crew would get the target, drop a weapon and then get confirmation from the fighters on the ground.

This of course raises the question, who are the “controllers working with the Kurds?” Are they saying there were/are US or Coalition personnel on the ground in Kobane?  Maybe, and maybe not.

There is a single press report from the Daily Star, a UK paper of (ahem) less-than-stellar repute, claiming British SAS troops were on the ground controlling coalition airstrikes in Kobane. But the piece is thinly sourced and seems sensationalized. Widely cited on the web, it portrays SAS soldiers as the “heroes of Kobane”, and then casually mentions “Delta Force” operators also working in the area. Is it accurate? Hard to say, given the closed world that SAS and Delta work in. Update–after seeing more info, this doesn’t seem like a legitimate story.

CAOC coord cell
CAOC coordination cell. USAF image

It looks like the reported “liaisons and air controllers” are either working in Qatar, in the Combined Air Ops Center (CAOC) or possibly in one of the other “operations centers set up by the U.S.”, as mentioned by Barnes. What other ops centers is he talking about? (see the ‘eureka moment’ above)

To shed further light on that, see this article by the USAF itself, on how the air components of the coalition work together. One of the ways operational coordination is achieved is by sending, “U.S. liaison officers (LNOs) to the air operations centers of partner nations. Nations currently hosting Air Defense Liaison Teams include Iraq and all the GCC partner nations except Oman.” That means at least Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain & Kuwait all have US LNOs assigned to and working in their ops centers. Possibly other countries as well.

So where were the “air controllers” coordinating coalition airstrikes (including those by the 9th BS Bone drivers) over Kobane? Hard to say with the info released so far, but somebody had to be reporting on targets and then giving bomb-damage assessments (BDA).  Note, the WSJ article says “The B-1 crew would get the target, drop a weapon and then get confirmation from the fighters on the ground.”

How that happened is unclear (this makes it more clear, and this), but the way the Bone pilots describe the passing of targets and info on friendly forces could be consistent with either boots-on-the-ground controllers (special ops forces? specially trained YPG? someone else?) or a liaison team in an ops center, leveraging airborne ISR assets and continuous electronic contact with YPG forces.

In either case, the strikes and the behind-the-scenes coordination became increasingly effective in taking out ISIS positions and helping the Kurdish forces take back the city. According to the 9th BS squadron ops officer, “It was almost like an orchestra… The information was flowing… almost like clockwork.” And the weapons & tactics officer says, “It felt like two armies going at it over a set line… it was always moving.”

kobanemap
Map by Akhil Kadidal. Click for larger view.

Barnes clarifies that they’re talking about the dividing line between parts of the city controlled by YPG and those occupied by ISIS.  They’re describing a block-by-block fight, in both day and night, in an urban and semi-urban area with a detailed FLOT (Forward Line of Troops) being briefed to the aircrews daily. That implies a very close level of coordination with the ground forces.

“By the time the 9th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron came out of theater the YPG had pretty much taken the entire town.  We take a lot of pride in that because we spent a lot of time overhead.”, said one of the Bone drivers interviewed by WSJ.

–Ajax

In battle for Kobane, US crews recount heavy bombing, AFP, 14feb15
(Another excellent article along same lines, but with a few more details)

 

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