Pajamas Media has this interesting sighting in the skies over Baghdad. Omar Fadhil of Iraq the Model snapped a photo of an Air Force B-1 Lancer bomber, patrolling the skies over the Iraqi capital on Wednesday. The bomber circled for almost two hours, in broad daylight. Omar can't remember seeing a B-1 over Baghdad since the U.S.-led invasion almost four years ago. I'm guessing that B-1s have operated periodically in the Baghdad area since that time, but the flights may have occurred under the cover of darkness, or at higher altitudes. Observers estimate that the B-1 was cruising above the Iraqi capital at an altitude of only 3-4 kilometers (roughly 12-14,000 feet), putting it within range of shoulder-fired SAMs used by insurgents.
So why was that B-1 circling above Baghdad on Valentine's Day? At least four reasons come to mind; the first is an old-fashioned show of force--a reminder to the terrorists that the U.S. will use all available resources to secure the Iraqi capital, including airpower. With satellite-guided weapons and the new small diameter bomb, even heavy bombers like the B-1 are effective in an urban environment, allowing pinpoint strikes, with minimum collateral damage. It's been reported that radical Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr fled to Iran because the feared the U.S. Air Force would come calling. Based on yesterday's sighting, his fears might not have been exaggerated.
Another possibility for the aerial show is crew training/familiarization. Even in an age of satellite imagery, and "fly through" mission preparation simulations, there's no substitute for cruising over an area you may be operating in--particularly if high value targets are located in that particular neighborhood or sector. Yesterday's mission may have been something of a dress rehearsal for potential bomber strikes against terrorist strongholds in Baghdad.
There's also the possibility that the B-1 was being used as "bait," aimed at luring terrorist MANPAD gunners out in the open and getting them to take a shot at the circling bomber. The B-1's on-board defenses offer excellent protection against shoulder-fired SAMs, so there was little danger of the terrorists actually hitting the aircraft. However, if we were trying to set some sort of trap for enemy gunners, ground observers might have heard or seen other aircraft --including attack helicopters and UAVs--operating in the same area, ready to strike when the MANPAD teams revealed themselves. Omar doesn't mention the presence of other aircraft with the B-1, so it seems doubtful that the bomber was being used as MANPAD bait
The most likely scenario (in my view) is that the B-1 was "on call" for potential strikes in the Baghdad area, awaiting tasking from troops on the ground. With extended loiter times and heavy payload, bombers are ideally suited for that type of mission, prepared to attack when ground forces need them. It's a tactic that was used frequently--and successfully--in Afghanistan in 2001, and during the toppling of Saddam's regime two years later. And, if yesterday's observation is any indication, it's a tactic that may be returning to the Baghdad area.