Based on usmc.mil photo
Ten years ago, taking out Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi with F-16s would have been an impossible task. Air strikes were planned days or even weeks in advance. Pilots weren't trained to change missions mid-stream. Sensors and weapons weren't accurate and flexible enough to spot and hit fleeting targets.
But during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Air Force pioneered the prosecution of what it calls Time Sensitive Targets, or TSTs. Since then, the Navy and Marine Corps have gotten in on the game too, and these days, over Iraq, it's typical for jets to launch with only the vaguest idea of what's out there. New sensors and weapons, high-tech surveillance drones and better training have resulted in a minor revolution
of which the Zarqawi attack
is just one result.
The Air Force has been mum on the subject, but it's entirely possible that the F-16 drivers who eliminated Zarqawi were just flying a routine patrol before orders came to hit the safehouse. In stark contrast to the rigid preplanned sorties that were typical during the 1991 Gulf War, these days over Iraq, fighters from the Air Force and its sister services launch in two-jet sections carrying sensor pods and laser- and satellite-guided bombs. They have no specific targets in mind. Orbiting over their assigned areas, they scan the ground below with sensor pods and helmet-mounted sights, use datalinks to pass around video imagery and the GPS coordinates of potential targets and coordinate with ground-based forward air controllers to hit insurgents who appear in crowded cities or crawl onto highway medians to plant improvised explosive devices. Hitting a safehouse is relatively easy by comparison.
Sensor pods are perhaps the most visible technology in the military's efforts to take on TSTs. Pods contain day and night cameras, GPS for employing satellite-guided bombs and laser designators and trackers for laser-guided bombs. The cigar-shaped pods are slung under jets' wings or fuselages.
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