NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq – The skies over Fallujah (search) are so crowded with U.S. military aircraft that they are layered in stacks above the city, from low-flying helicopters and swooping attack jets to a jet-powered unmanned spy drone that flies above 60,000 feet.
Much of the focus has been on the massive U.S. ground assault to reclaim the insurgent stronghold, but the complex air war is an indication of the effort and equipment the United States has invested in winning the battle for Fallujah.
No fewer than 20 types of aircraft have been thrown into the fight, including 10 fixed-wing planes, three types of helicopters and seven kinds of unmanned drones.
"We call it the wedding cake. It's layered all the way up," said Air Force Lt. Col. David Staven, who leads the ground targeting effort on a U.S. base outside Fallujah.
Much of the air war is being directed by 10 teams of ground controllers, who moved into the city with Army and Marine fighters. The controllers call down bombing raids or rocket attacks on insurgent positions in the city, said Staven, who leads the 9th Expeditionary Air Support Operations Squadron (search).
"You take out the threat from the air so you don't have to get soldiers into the building to clear it on foot," said Staven. "It's better to take the enemy out from a distance than to go face to face with him."
American warplanes relentlessly pounded Fallujah over the past three days, pouring cannon fire, rockets and bombs onto the city, sometimes just blocks ahead of advancing U.S. troops.
A pair of AC-130 gunships fired their entire arsenal of ammunition on Fallujah during Monday night's assault — launching dozens of 105mm shells, hundreds of 25mm rounds and more than a hundred 40mm rounds.
"They'd just walk rounds down the street in front of the Bradley teams," said Staven, 43, of Great Falls, Mont. "They sent two gunships home with no rounds left."
On Wednesday, an Apache gunship sank five boats in the Euphrates River that the military said were used to resupply guerrillas with rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells.
The front line strikes are directed by Air Force or Marine tactical air control teams, who carry computers and laser target designator gear in backpacks, climbing to rooftops of Fallujah and pointing out targets for Air Force, Marine and Navy attack jets.
The teams' laptop computers allow them to glean targeting coordinates from live video transmissions from unmanned spy planes droning above Fallujah.
Some teams are paired with Army or Navy special forces teams or snipers, working on the front lines and calling airstrikes within two blocks of their own positions.
The crowded airspace meant that attack jets bombarding the city Wednesday had a three-minute window to scream down and demolish targets — and then clear out — before another followed on its tail.
Strike jets fly in high-altitude "holding areas" until they are given bombing coordinates, Staven said. U.S. warplanes bombing the city include Marine F-18s and AV-8 Harriers.
The city is also being pummeled by Army Apache and Kiowa helicopters and Marine Super Cobra gunships, as well as the unmanned Predator spy plane, armed with Hellfire missiles.
There are also a slew of unmanned spy planes — including the Hunters and Pioneers — that relay targeting imagery to controllers, as well as a manned Air Force Joint STARS craft monitoring ground traffic and an observation plane that the military requested be unidentified.
At least two aircraft outfitted with "electronic warfare" equipment have flown in the battle of Fallujah, jamming cellular telephones and other communications signals, some of which can be used to remotely detonate insurgents' bombs.
On this Army base outside Fallujah, Staven leads a four-man team watching spy plane video to find mortar teams or rocket launchers and then feeding their positions to pilots flying over the city, or via chat rooms to the nearby Marine air operations center.
"This is how we're controlling the air war," Staven said, pointing to a bank of five computer screens in the dusty, crowded nerve center of the 1st Cavalry Division's base.
The constant air and artillery bombardment has to be demoralizing for Fallujah's guerrilla defenders, Staven said.
"Suddenly you see that mortar team disappear. You never heard it coming. That's got to weigh heavily on their minds," he said.