US Air Force: 40% of strikes on Syria’s Manbij carried out by drones

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U.S. Air Force. File photo: Stacey Knott

ARA News

In 2016 MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper aircrews assisted US-led coalition’s partners in the reclamation of Manbij city, Syria, from Islamic State (ISIS) militants, the United States Air Force reported. In total, Reapers and Predators provided 40% of strikes during the two-month-long battle for Manbij last year.

Pilots and sensor operators assigned to squadrons across the 432nd Wing and the 432nd Air Expeditionary Wing provided the close air support and reconnaissance needed for coalition partners to drive ISIS fighters out of the Manbij city.

When thousands of US-backed fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched an offensive in late May to take back the city, the drone aircrews were there for support.

“From May to August 2016 over the two month campaign to free Manbij from the rule of ISIS, MQ-1Bs and MQ-9s flew nearly 500 sorties from our cockpits in the continental United States,” said Col. Case Cunningham, 432nd WG/432nd AEW commander. “Those sorties resulted in nearly 11,000 hours of persistent attack and reconnaissance in direct support of our partnered forces on the ground.”

While supporting the Kurdish-led SDF on the ground, the aircrews experienced some challenges during the urban fighting in Manbij.

“It was significantly difficult in the end because there were snipers and improvised explosive devices in the city center, making it hard for the SDF to advance,” said 1st Lt. Gregg, 432nd WG MQ-9 pilot. “We had to maintain very specific look angles down alleys while maintaining a close eye for civilians. That required very precise strikes and MQ-1 and MQ-9s were able to fulfill that role.”

Not only did the aircrews have to employ within close proximity to civilians, but ground forces as well.

“One of the things I saw in Manbij that was truly unique was the proximity we were finding a lot of the targets to friendly forces,” said Lt. Col. Ronnie, a 432 WG squadron commander. “They were sometimes within 100 meters and sometimes inside of 50 meters.”

Ronnie said that employing weapons so close to friendlies, while nerve-racking, required the best his aircrews could deliver.

“During a danger close event, we have to be very cognizant of where the friendlies are in real time, if they’re moving or not, where the enemy is and how the trajectory of the weapon will impact,” Gregg said. “It takes more brain bytes to keep everything in order because you want to eliminate the enemy, but also don’t want to jeopardize the friendlies. It’s more stress than in other shots.”

“The [coalition] had to trust that we were able to precisely put munitions where they needed without harming them or civilians,” he said.

This represents the biggest challenge for sensor operators who are responsible for successfully guiding the weapons by laser to the target.

“We would be doing a normal scan and then go right into a troops in contact situation. Within three minutes we would engage the enemy,” said Staff Sgt. John, 432nd WG MQ-9 sensor operator. “The hardest part was staying mentally and physically focused because at any minute we would have to engage the enemy.”

During the Manbij offensive, MQ-1 and MQ-9 aircrews employed over 300 AGM-114 Hellfires against ISIS which accounted for approximately 40 percent of the total kinetic strikes conducted by any coalition aircraft during the two month battle. MQ-1 and MQ-9 aircrews also guided weapons from other coalition strike aircraft by using their laser to designate the target.

Despite the large number of strikes, the MQ-1 and MQ-9 aircrews employed through precise engagement with the use of Hellfire missiles, designed for low collateral damage.

“The people we were fighting were not the residents of Manbij,” Ronnie said. “We didn’t want to completely uproot the populace and, ultimately, as a fighting force we wanted for them to have a home to go back to.”

On 12 August of 2016, the MQ-1 and MQ-9 aircrews, with coalition partners successfully eradicated the ISIS presence in Manbij. Aircrew knew they had a significant impact when they saw footage of the locals reclaiming their city.

“Initially you don’t realize the impact you’ve made, but upon reflection, you realize it’s a significant achievement to take the city back from ISIS,” Gregg said. “Being able to see civilians return home to live their normal life is an amazing feeling.”

“It’s an amazing experience to have such a role in this offensive and bring peace back to Manbij,” John said. “I know every day when I go to work I’m making a difference. Regardless of if I’m gathering intelligence or on the front line dropping munitions I know that when I go home we did something to better the world.”

“For the past 70 years, the Air Force has been breaking barriers as a member of the finest joint warfighting team on the planet and what the joint warfighting team accomplished in Manbij with our coalition partners in the air and partnered forces on the ground is evidence of the fact that the military defeat of ISIS is inevitable,” Cunningham concluded.

Reporting by: Wladimir van Wilgenburg | Source: ARA News

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