A Look Inside the Air Force's Control Center for Iraq and Afghanistan

Far from the physical battlefields, analysts and targeters hunt the enemy and initiate airstrike.

The Combined Air and Space Operations Center at an undisclosed Mideast location.

The Combined Air and Space Operations Center at an undisclosed Mideast location.

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COMBINED AIR AND SPACE OPERATIONS CENTER, MIDDLE EAST—As the grainy intelligence video unfolds, one of Iraq's many jauntily decorated trucks rolls to a stop carrying passengers who are, according to U.S. military officials, insurgents from outside of Baghdad. An unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, has detected infrared signals—traces of heat—on the antiaircraft artillery gun mounted on the flatbed, which suggests that it has been recently fired.

At the same time, there are some unsuspecting neighbors strolling by the area. "Here you have three people who have just been shooting Americans," explains Col. Gary Crowder, commander of the 609th Air and Space Operations Center, pointing at the truck on the screen. "But there"—he points at the unsuspecting walkers—"you have innocent people. The question now is, how do you engage"—meaning to strike—"when, and under what circumstances?" In short, he says, "the question now is, what do we do?"

In this case, the answer comes serendipitously. The neighbors walk a safe distance away, and the insurgents pile out of the truck and head to a nearby tree line. "There they are, giving themselves high-fives for shooting Americans," says Crowder, offering his narration of the video. "Aaand...," he pauses for a moment. There is a bright flash. "That's the A-10." The powerful ground-attack jet is unseen, but its effect is evident as the insurgents vanish in a burst of light. Their truck meets a similar fate.

The strike is the result of fast intelligence analysis and a lucky break. Such breaks seemed hard to come by as recently as a year ago, when America was harshly rebuked for a spate of highly publicized civilian casualties in Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai angrily charged the United States with being cavalier about Afghan lives during a year in which the number of Air Force bombs dropped in Iraq and Afghanistan increased to 5,019, from 371 in 2004. Similar complaints have come from Iraqi government officials as the United States has increased airstrikes targeting insurgent bomb-making factories, safe houses, and weapons stockpiles.

In some cases, the U.S. military says it is confident that allegations of civilian casualties are false, intended to fan local anger. It is hard, says Crowder, to counter the claims of an insurgent in Afghanistan who drags a body to the scene of a bombing, "throws some toy animals there and says, 'Hey, they're killing civilians.'"

But behind the scenes, the outcry has been a wake-up call for a U.S. Air Force that opened the Iraq war with "shock and awe" megastrikes. Today, it is grappling with an evolving counterinsurgency role that requires pinpoint hits against discrete targets, such as a mobile group of insurgents. One particular source of tension has been getting the Air Force's pilot-in-the-cockpit culture to embrace UAVs, which are less costly and, in some cases, more effective for both reconnaissance and attack missions. Just last month, the Air Force was publicly rebuked by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who charged it with being "stuck in old ways of doing business." He added that getting the force to adapt and to send more UAVs and other assets to the Middle East has been "like pulling teeth."

Today, at the combat operations air center, where the Air Force makes its key targeting decisions and coordinates the air wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials say that they are working hard to hone "an airman's view" of counterinsurgency as more UAVs are put to work. U.S. News was granted access to the operations center on the condition that its location wasn't mentioned because of host-country political sensitivities (although its whereabouts has been widely reported).

Outside an innocuous-looking warehouse, a wind chime made of artillery shell casings tinkles softly in the breeze. Inside, on the hectic combat operations floor, Air Force personnel sit at computer terminals. On the wall in front are large maps of Iraq and Afghanistan, marked with locations of UAVs and military action. Smaller screens display real-time video from Predator drones (or, during occasional quiet spells, broadcasts of sports events). On individual sets of computer screens, analysts monitor dozens of secure chat rooms in which troops process observations of Predator feeds. One shows two men riding bicycles. Another is trained on a high-walled compound with palm trees, where nothing seems to be happening.