Iraq, Afghanistan wars coordinated from afar

June 19, 2009
By Michel Moutot

TAMPA, Florida (AFP) — The target may be in Iraq or Afghanistan, but if a US air attack risks killing civilians the decision to strike is taken by leaders at this military base in sunny Tampa, Florida.

In a windowless room at the sprawling MacDill Air Force Base, home to the US Central Command (CENTCOM), several dozen officers monitor developments across the Middle East, the Gulf and Central Asia 24 hours a day.

They also watch events in the pirate-infested waters off Somalia’s shores. …

A huge flat screen monitor on the left broadcasts live images caught by cameras aboard unmanned aerial vehicles, both spy planes and drones. Reconnaissance video streams and attacks are also tracked in real time. …

In the center of the room, another monitor continuously shows updated summaries of key data and information. Digital clocks on the wall gives the time in Tampa, Qatar, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and “Zulu” (GMT). …

Among the computer screens sit two powerful Sun workstations.

“Their job is to use picture and imagery to calculate what weapon to use,” said Schappler, adding that the calculations at CENTCOM are completed simultaneously with others in the field.

“They discuss it and find a common ground. But if they still disagree, it goes to the higher level. So, the decision is taken here. But often, in the meantime, the target is gone.”

Despite all the high-level coordination, there are sometimes mistakes — mistakes that often prove costly in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the US air strikes are deeply unpopular.

US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have their own command posts and operations centers, but personnel at Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas, in the western US state of Nevada, maneuver the pilotless Predator and Reaper drones that fly over Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. …