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Pakistan's air war on the Taliban

July 30, 2009 (by Asif Shamim) - The New York Times has published an article about Pakistan's Air Forces improved ability to target and attack militant targets with precision weapons based on information from military officials and independent analysts.

A Pakistani F-16A, #84704, releasing twelve Mk.82's during a medium-altitude dive-bombing run. [PAF photo]

What is surprising is the second paragraph in the article where it implies the military hierarchy in Pakistan were using Google Earth for maps to guide them and have now shifted to sophisticated imagery supplied via spy planes and drones to aid them with precision drops of laser guided bombs.

The change in approach is aimed at avoiding further alienation from the general public who are worried about collateral damage in those areas.

One further reason for the more accurate attacks is the locations in which the Taliban are now found. The rugged region surrounding South Waziristan makes it hard for ground forces to penetrate without sustaining heavy losses. Air strikes with guided weaponry is an asset alongside artillery barrages and helicopter gunship attacks which will help soften the blow in terrain which is often inaccessible by ground vehicles such as tanks.

According to military sources who spoke to the New York Times said Pakistani Air Force F-16s have flown several hundred combat sorties since May. 300 plus against militants held out in the Swat Valley and 100 or so missions in South Waziristan attacking mountain hide-outs, training centres and ammunition dumps.

The article also hints that Pakistani officials have approached the Obama administration with a request to lease Pakistan upgraded F-16s, until its delivery of new block 52 jets in the next couple of years. The use of these jets they argue would allow Pakistani pilots to fly night missions and loiter over the target area for longer periods which is currently impossible with their aged block 15 aircraft. Militants in the affected area have been quick to switch to moving and operating by night to avoid the current air attacks.

Everyday for the past few months Pakistani warplanes have hit targets in the Swat Valley and over South Waziristan. The marked change in these operations has been the improved imagery used by planners when attacking specific targets. Lessons were learned after the Bajaur strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region of Pakistan in the autumn of last year.

"The biggest handicap we had in Bajaur was that we didn't have good imagery," Air Chief Marshal Qamar said. "We didn’t have good target descriptions. We did not know the area. We were forced to use Google Earth".

"I didn"t want to face a similar situation in Swat," he said.

Ten F-16s were equipped with high-resolution, infrared sensor pods, provided by the United States. These jets conducted detailed reconnaissance of the entire valley prior to any of the attacks. In the mean time additional data via secret drone flights gathered a wide array of video which was supplied to Pakistani Army Commanders on the ground.

In most cases, officials said, the Pakistani Army provides target information to the air force, which confirms the locations on newly detailed maps. Identifying high-value targets through the use of army spotters or, in some cases, a new, small group of specially trained air force spotters, the air force was able to increase its use of laser-guided bombs to 80 percent of munitions used in Swat, from about 40 percent in Bajaur, Air Chief Marshal Qamar said.

Even with this new ability to attack targets with more precision has not completely stopped the sceptics from voicing there concerns about the numbers of claims of success mentioned by Pakistani officials. "We don't have access to battle-damage assessment or the information on the actual strike execution, so we cannot make a qualitative comparison of what the intended effect was versus the actual effect,2 said one anonymous American adviser.

Pakistani officials are quick to acknowledge that the 21 or so high priority militant leaders in the affected regions have yet to be killed or captured during these new offensives.

"We're still developing our plans for South Waziristan," Air Chief Marshal Qamar said. "We are preparing to ramp up. I think Baitullah Mehsud is getting the message, and the message is, if he keeps doing these things, we'll hit him."

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