An F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 81 maneuvers during an air power demonstration over the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), June 6, 2011. Super Hornets are among other aircraft and ships gathered in the Persian Gulf to counteract ISIS in Iraq. / Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Travis K. Mendoza, U.S. Navy
The U.S. has assembled a massive force of eight ships and more than 100 aircraft in the Persian Gulf for the air campaign against ISIS in Iraq.
On Friday, U.S. warplanes conducted two waves of airstrikes in northern Iraq against militants belonging to the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq, who have besieged a religious group and threatened the city of Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, spokesman for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, said the afternoon wave of strikes used a drone to attack a mortar position while four FA-18 fighter-attack planes hit a seven-vehicle convoy outside Irbil.
The morning strikes involved two FA-18 fighter-attack planes that dropped 500-pound, laser-guided munitions on a mobile artillery place near Irbil, the Pentagon said.
The jets for both strikes came from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, according to a Defense Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Bush is in the Persian Gulf along with the amphibious assault ship Bataan; the amphibious dock landing ship Gunston Hall; the cruiser Philippine Sea; and the destroyers Arleigh Burke, O'Kane and Roosevelt, according to the Defense Department.
The amphibious transport dock Mesa Verde is elsewhere in the region, according to 5th Fleet.
The Bush is coming to the end of what would be a normal six-month deployment, but that could be extended if necessary. The carrier Carl Vinson is preparing to deploy to 5th Fleet at the end of August, but is on ready standby as the surge carrier, according to Naval Air Forces spokeswoman Cmdr. Jeannie Groeneveld.
The aircraft taking part in the campaign come from Carrier Wing 8, embarked about the carrier Bush, said Navy Cmdr. Kevin Stephens, a 5th Fleet spokesman. The wing has 24 F/A-18E and F Super Hornets; 20 F/A-18C Hornets; five EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft; four E2-C Hawkeye all-weather airborne early-warning aircraft; two C-2A Greyhound logistics aircraft, which operate from shore and go to and from the ship; and eight MH-60S and four MH-60R Seahawk helicopters. A total of six other MH-60R Seahawk helicopters are on three other ships.
Marines from the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group are prepared to recover aircraft and personnel on short notice in a hostile environment should that become necessary, Stephens said in an email.
More than 2,000 Marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit are aboard the ships in the Bataan's group along with 12 MV-22B Ospreys; eight AV-8B Harriers; four CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters; three UH-1Y Venom helicopters and four AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopters.
The Air Force also has a variety of assets in the region, Col. Tadd Sholtis, a spokesman for U.S. Air Forces Central Command, said in a statement.
AFCENT has a wide area of responsibility, and can draw on any of its fighters (A-10, F-15E, F-16, F-22), bombers (B-1), surveillance craft (E-3, E-8, RC-135), support vehicles (C-17, C-130, KC-10, KC-135) and unmanned systems (MQ-1, MQ-9, RQ-4).
While President Obama has vowed that U.S. troops are not returning to Iraq, about 10,000 U.S. troops - mostly Army - are in Kuwait, a defense official said.
Airstrikes alone probably cannot weaken ISIS, also called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to the point where it no longer poses a threat to the Iraqi government, but the U.S. air campaign can help Iraqi and Kurdish forces regain lost ground, said retired Air Force Gen. Charles Horner, who led allied air efforts during Operation Desert Storm.
"Air power can enable weaker ground forces to prevail," Horner said Friday. "In the late stages of Vietnam, we saw what happened when we refused to put our air power in support of South Vietnam."
The biggest challenge of any air campaign is having enough intelligence to pick the right targets, Horner said. Targets such as tanks and artillery are easily identifiable, while enemy leaders are harder to target because "they look like everyone else from the air," he said.
(Contributing: David Larter)
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