- The Washington Times - Monday, February 13, 2006

AL ASAD, Iraq — Marine Corps aviators at this sprawling air base in western Anbar province are adapting Cold War airplanes and traditional tactics to a new kind of warfare — snooping for insurgents and terrorists who hide among innocent Iraqis, and taking out pinpoint targets in hectic urban fighting.

“It’s not just about dropping bombs anymore,” said 1st Lt. Kevin Lampinen, 26, a flier with Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 332 from Beaufort, S.C., deployed to Al Asad to support Marines and soldiers battling insurgents in contested towns such as Ramadi and Hit.

The squadron flies 12 two-seat Hornet fighter jets that were designed for Cold War battles against other jets and modern armies. But in Iraq, where the enemy is often unseen and the biggest killers are improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, many old tools and tactics don’t apply.

To keep the traditional promise of Marines aviation to support the men on the ground, aviators have adapted. Jets designed to jam enemy radar now are jamming the radio signals that detonate IEDs. And bombers are trading some of their ordnance for new sensors that can spot insurgents in crowded cities.

“Our jets came out here with an upgraded targeting pod called Litening that is a huge step forward,” said Maj. Joseph Reedy, 36, of the 332 Squadron.

Squadron commanding officer Lt. Col. David Wilbur said the pods, which include TV and infrared cameras and can help guide bombs, enable crews to switch easily between looking for insurgents and attacking them, even in poor weather.

The sophisticated pods made their combat debut on Marine Corps jets during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and since have become standard equipment.

“There’s no reason to take off without one,” said Lt. Col. Wilbert Thomas, 42, commander of Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 224, also from Beaufort, which served in Anbar between January and August 2005.

Maj. Reedy describes a November mission in which he and Lt. Lampinen, in a section of two jets, responded to calls for help from Marines participating in “Operation Steel Curtain” — an offensive intended as a “kind of cleansing” of western Iraq, in the words of 332 intelligence officer Capt. Jeremy Demott, 32.

The Marines on the ground “were … taking fire from a lot of different directions,” Maj. Reedy said. “We ended up having to go below the weather to visually seek out these targets … and we actually ended up emptying our guns. I felt we really helped those guys out.”

After expending all their ammunition, Maj. Reedy and Lt. Lampinen switched on their pods to give the ground troops a big-picture view of the battlefield.

Steel Curtain and other recent operations “have caused the insurgency to go underground,” said Capt. Demott, the intelligence officer. This and the continued use of IEDs means quick and detailed reconnaissance is more important than ever, and the 332 Squadron has adopted to the need.

Four of the squadron’s jets can be equipped with nose-mounted cameras that replace the standard gun. The cameras enable analysts on the ground such as Sgt. Elizabeth Zakar, 27, to spot IEDs and report them to ground units. New equipment is coming out to speed up this process.

The Marine Corps is a relatively small force compared with its sister services, and its size means many Marines in different units know each other personally.

“I know that’s my buddy down there,” said Capt. Chris Arms, 29. “So I’m going to do everything I can, squeeze every drop of gas out of the airplane to stay on station as long as I can. With the Marines having Anbar province, that’s our responsibility.”

“It’s all about supporting the ground troops,” Lt. Lampinen said.

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