Dressed Like Santa, American Pilots Delivered Bombs to Islamic State
No Christmas halt for campaign in Iraq and Syria
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
Islamic State got no reprieve from American pilots over the 2016 Christmas holiday. U.S. aviators delivered bombs rather than presents to the terrorist group in the Middle East.
On Dec. 26, 2016, the U.S. Air Force released two pictures of an F-16 from the Vermont Air National Guard’s 134th Fighter Squadron on a mission over Iraq or Syria. Over the Christmas weekend, members squadron were flying strikes against Islamic State from Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates.
The jet had a full load of eight GPS-guided Small Diameter Bombs under its wings along with air-to-air missiles for self defense. But the most eye-catching detail was an unusual piece of gear the pilot was wearing — an iconic red-and-white hat over his or her helmet.
“F-16s are providing … close air support during Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, a multinational effort to weaken and destroy Islamic State,” the official caption explained.
“Many pilots wore a traditional red ‘Santa’ hat while flying on Christmas Day.”
We don’t know if crews added any slogans to their bombs. During World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, American troops routinely wrote tongue-in-cheek messages on artillery shells and other ordnance to their enemies, especially around holidays.
In October 2016, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense released a video showing that Baghdad’s pilots — and possibly English-speaking contractors — were continuing the tradition.
Between August 2014 and November 2016, the U.S. Air Force flew more than 10,000 strikes against the Islamic State extremist group, according to official logs. American pilots lobbed nearly 28,000 bombs and missiles at a variety of targets.
In addition, the Pentagon doesn’t classify troops shooting their artillery pieces in self-defense or in support of Iraqi offensives as a “strike.” As a result, routine notices do not list or describe these operations, no matter how routine.
In short, American and its allies are hitting Islamic State every day with a variety of weapons. Pentagon press releases made it clear that the 2016 Christmas weekend was no different.
On Dec. 24, 2016, coalition forces blasted 12 Islamic State targets in both Iraq and Syria. On Dec. 25, 2016, American aviators and troops and their partners participated in more than a dozen other attacks.
We don’t know what particular mission or missions the Christmas-themed pilots from the 134th flew. However, defense contractor Boeing designed the Small Diameter Bombs specifically for getting at specific targets nestled in tight spaces. With a 250-pound warhead, the weapons are less likely to cause collateral damage, especially in densely-packed cities.
On Christmas Day, coalition crews blew up small “fighting positions” near Raqqa in Syria — Islamic State’s de facto capital in that country — as well as Mosul in Iraq. These targets could have been in and around built-up urban areas with civilians still living nearby.
Pilots likely would have needed bigger weapons to destroy the other targets, which included bridges, warehouses, heavy construction equipment and undefined “tactical vehicles,” as well as vehicles rigged up for suicide attacks. Islamic State has turned cars, trucks and even captured armored vehicles into huge, mobile bombs.
Attack and bomber aircraft took part in the missions, in addition to fighters such as the F-16, according to the Pentagon. A-10 Warthog attackers and their massive 30-millimeter cannons, missiles and bombs and lumbering B-52 Stratofortresses loaded with 2,000 pound bombs would have been ideal for taking on these larger and more heavily-armored targets.
The American strikes are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. In October, Iraqi and Kurdish forces launched an offensive toward Mosul, the Islamic State’s main hub in Iraq.
By December 2016, even in the face of coalition air and artillery attacks, the militants were holding out and inflicting severe casualties. While officials in Baghdad were reticent to give the statistics, reports suggested Iraq’s elite Golden Division had lost half of its fighting strength in the assault.
Plans for Syrian rebels to recapture Raqqa could easily run into similar problems. The Pentagon has conceded the operations won’t be easy.
Islamic State is “still capable of fiercely defending the ground they have taken,” U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top officer leading the coalition fight against the extremists, told reporters on Dec. 14. “ They’re fighting hard to retain the vestiges of their physical caliphate and I don’t think that’s going to get any easier.”
“They’re also capable of launching dangerous attacks in Iraq and Syria and in this region.”
So, American pilots will probably still be striking at the group in both countries well into 2017. Maybe some of the pilots will wear bunny ears in honor of the Easter holiday.