Strike team advances precision, pace of war

With high-tech weaponry, group targeted leadership

War In Iraq

April 20, 2003|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The final hours of Gen. Ali Hassan al-Majid, the dreaded cousin of Saddam Hussein known as "Chemical Ali," began when he was spotted by a British special operations soldier heading into his villa in Basra. His fate was sealed when that nugget of intelligence sped its way to a windowless building at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia.

There, a team of U.S. pilots, weapons experts and intelligence officials -- known as the Time-Sensitive Targeting Cell -- sprang into action. Its members pulled up a satellite image of the villa on a computer screen, then selected the aircraft, the desired bomb and the best angle of attack for the warhead.

Before long, an Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon was screeching toward the villa carrying 500-pound bombs that slammed into the house and killed al-Majid, who earned his nickname for ordering the poisonous gas attacks against thousands of Kurds, including women and children, in 1988.

The April 5 airstrike also allowed the British to begin moving into Basra, which had been attacked by the fedayeen, the paramilitary forces dressed as civilians who had pledged their lives to Hussein.

Al-Majid "had a grip on the fedayeen forces," said a military officer familiar with the bombing. "After that strike, the problem went away."

Of the estimated 16,000 strike sorties flown by aircraft, the team accounted for about 100 targets. But they were among the most crucial, from the March 19 air attacks that opened the war and destroyed a Baghdad bunker in which Iraq's senior leaders were believed to be gathered to an April 7 strike on a house in the Mansur neighborhood in the capital that might have killed Hussein himself and at least one of his two sons.

The team orchestrated bombing runs on the Baath Party headquarters in Basra, surface-to-air missiles sites in Baghdad and on Iraqi troops and equipment threatening U.S. special operations forces in Iraq's western desert.

The little-known team of officers and enlisted troops spends its days and nights seated at a bank of computers at the U.S. Combined Air Operations Center at the Saudi base under a sign that reads "TST Cell," waiting for that snippet of intelligence from a spy, a camera-toting drone aircraft such as Predator or a satellite.

Large wall screens display illuminated maps of Iraq or live shots of planes, shown as glowing green icons, on their way to targets.

Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the unprecedented fusion of intelligence, communications and precision weapons by U.S.-led forces was a key in overwhelming the Iraqi government.

"In a sense, if you look at how we handle time-sensitive targets, it really comes to life," Myers told the Navy League last week.

`Unsung' and `secret'

On some occasions, the time-sensitive group was able to place a stream of bombs on an enemy target within 20 minutes of receiving the intelligence. Dressed in flight suits or desert camouflage uniforms, each member wears a shoulder patch embroidered with a hooded skeleton figure carrying a scythe and holding a globe.

"Time-Sensitive Targeting is one of the greatest success stories and demonstrates how we will fight in the future," said Air Force Col. Allen Wickman, chief of operations and strategy for the air war, in a telephone interview from the Prince Sultan base. "It allowed us to capitalize on the inherent flexibility of air power."

A Pentagon official termed the unit "one of the unsung, successful and secret ways" the U.S.-led operation toppled Hussein's government in less than three weeks.

The 50-member unit is broken into two, 12-hour shifts of 25 members each, who in turn are divided into six teams to cover separate parts of Iraq.

Specialized strike teams were possible because of technological strides made since the 1991 Persian Gulf war, especially in satellite communications and precision-guided weapons, officials said.

With rapid-fire communications and bombs that can be fine-tuned to pinpoint accuracy, warplanes can be dispatched to targets within minutes and drop bombs in any weather, even sandstorms. New coordinates, even pictures of the target, can be electronically sent to a pilot's console while streaking toward a target.

"We could move them literally in real time to a new mission," Wickman said.

One Pentagon official said the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan served as the laboratory for time-sensitive targeting. Special operations troops working with Northern Alliance fighters were able to call in satellite-guided bombs against Taliban and al-Qaida forces, while Predator drones provided real-time pictures of enemy positions.

"That really was the test bed," Wickman said.

Afghanistan was a small-time sensitive-targeting effort, headed by Air Force Col. Jeff Hodgdon and a team of five members a shift at the Prince Sultan base. Hodgdon, a 45-year-old officer from Portsmouth, N.H., oversees the expanded team focused on Iraq.

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