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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But it's all potentially useful intelligence for analysts, who make air targeting decisions here, hundreds or even thousands of miles from the physical battlefield. They spend much of their time here trying to establish a "pattern of life" around potential targets—recording such things as the comings and goings of friends, school hours, and market times. Despite the distance, the real-time video feeds often give them a better vantage point than an Army unit has just down the street from a group of insurgents.

And finding insurgents—what officials here call "going hunting" or "putting warheads on foreheads"—is now a major focus of the Air Force and a prime mission for the armed Predators. "What we're doing in a counterinsurgency war is looking for individuals and small groups," says Lt. Col. Walt Manwill, chief of combat operations here. "To do that, we have to find them, and make sure they are who we think they are."

With that emphasis must come caution to avoid killing or wounding civilians, officials here add. In the Air Force's counterinsurgency-driven combat operations, casualty avoidance can be the targeting team's most time-intensive task. Says one military official: "We're definitely in quality-control mode, especially for Afghanistan."

Careful calculations. The center painstakingly plans its strikes, says an officer in the targeting team. Analysts calculate the size of bomb fragments and the distance they travel from the strike site, using detailed maps and video footage to gauge potential for human casualties and property damage. In another area, analysts don 3D glasses to read maps that show precise heights of palm trees and the walls of any given compound to help determine "collateral concerns."

Air Force personnel also are finding ways to be more accurate. In Iraq, they found that insurgents would shoot mortars and quickly make their getaways in cars moving at 50 to 70 mph. Because of lag time, laser-guided bombs were missing their targets. "We decided that we've got to have a weapon that can hit something moving pretty fast," says Lt. Gen. Gary North, air component commander for U.S. Central Command. "We were tired of dropping a weapon that falls short."

One solution would be to use bigger bombs, with a larger blast radius, but the downside is that those raise the likelihood of civilian casualties. So in just eight months, the Air Force developed another variant of a laser-guided type of bomb. The weapon was was recently put to use in Iraq. The Air Force is also ramping up its production of Reapers, the ominously named larger cousin of the Predator that can carry more bombs and Hellfire missiles. With real-time video feeds and the long periods they can loiter over an area, UAVs give Air Force targeters more precision and flexibility in attacks.

Despite such high-tech resources, officials say some of the most important Air Force advances of late are decidedly low-tech. Until recently, the Air Force's smallest bomb weighed 500 pounds and carried about 192 pounds of explosives. But airmen adopted a Marine trick: Pouring concrete in the nose of the bomb, leaving less than 30 pounds of explosives, mainly in the tail. That shortens the range of flying bomb fragments by as much as a third, reducing the chances of hitting bystanders.

The Air Force has come up with other adaptations, such as a longer bomb fuse. Delaying an explosion by just a few milliseconds can mean that a bomb gets buried deeper into the ground before exploding, buffering its explosive force. "A lot of this is ad-hoc," Crowder says. He notes, for instance, that one of the innovations early in the war came from a staff sergeant who screwed a piece of wood onto a Predator frame and wrapped it with wire to make an antenna so his AC130 gunship could receive the Predator's video feed. "So when his gunship shows up, he knows, 'This is a mosque, and these are the bad guys,' " says Crowder.

True to counterinsurgency tactics, the Air Force is mindful of operating in a way that tries to avoid damaging economic conditions. So, for instance, planners try to operate in a way that doesn't obstruct commercial air traffic passing over Afghanistan, where fees received for airline flyovers from other countries are a top source of income for the government.