Nearly 75 percent of U.S. bombing runs targeting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria returned to base without firing any weapons in the first four months of 2015, holding their fire mainly because of a lack of ground intelligence and raising questions about President Obama’s key tactic in pushing back an enemy that continues to expand its territory in the war zone.
Key lawmakers are growing increasingly frustrated by the slow rate of U.S. bombing sorties, a frustration shared by a former Navy pilot who said in an interview that U.S. forces are clearly needed on the ground in Iraq to help provide targets for these pilots to hit.
Without ground forces, argues Cmdr. Christopher Harmer, a retired Navy helicopter pilot, U.S. airmen are essentially flying half-blind and, as a result, are returning to base with their bombs still in the bay.
“As long as the body politic or president or whoever is making decisions absolutely refuses to put American air controllers on ground, essentially pilots are flying with one eye closed,” Cmdr. Harmer said. “It’s almost impossible for pilots to designate between [Islamic State] fighters and coalition fighters.”
The U.S. conducted 7,319 sorties over Iraq and Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve in the first four months of 2015. Of those, only 1,859 flights — 25.4 percent — had at least one “weapons release,” according to data provided by United States Air Force Central Command. That means that only about one in every four flights dropped a bomb on an Islamic State target.
The slow tempo of strikes has long been a source of frustration for Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Armed Services Committee. The Arizona Republican said at a hearing this year that missions that don’t drop bombs needlessly put American pilots in danger and that U.S. boots on the ground would produce better intelligence that could lead to more effective bombing missions.
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Cmdr. Harmer, who now serves as a senior naval analyst with the Middle East Security Project at the Institute for the Study for War, said airstrikes can hit big, static targets such as bridges, runways and tanks without on-the-ground guidance. But to be effective in hitting moving targets such as enemy troops in a firefight, U.S. pilots need American joint terminal attack controllers to give specific directions from the ground to guide their missiles precisely.
Col. Pat Ryder, spokesman for U.S. Central Command, told reporters Friday that while pilots can often place bombs on targets “within minutes,” it’s very important to be very precise and exercise tactical discipline to protect civilian populations.
“We’re dealing with a hybrid adversary who often hides among the population,” he said. “It’s more important for us to accurately target the enemy with a high degree of precision in order to minimize civilian casualties than it is to strike with such speed or force that would risk disenfranchising the very population we’re there to protect.”
Although most defense analysts agree with Cmdr. Harmer, not all agree that the absence of more U.S. forces on the ground is the only reason many of these airstrike missions are coming back with their bombs still in tow.
There may just be fewer targets that pilots can hit in a war, and all agree it cannot be won by air power alone, said Janine Davidson, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council for Foreign Relations.
“It makes sense that, over time, you’re going to run out of targets,” she said. “There’s a point at which now you’re in a race against time, [and] you have to get ground forces up to a point to take over [the] fight while you can still do what you can to hold things at bay with air power. It could just be a reflection of where we are in this campaign.”
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Victory, she said, is now based not on the pace of bombings, but rather on the training and effectiveness of Iraqi troops, which were recently questioned by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter following a major defeat for government forces in Ramadi.
Cmdr. Harmer said restrictive rules of engagement that try to eliminate civilian casualties are also partly to blame for fewer bombings, but he feels also those restrictions are reasonable.
However, given where the U.S. is in its campaign against the Islamic State — and the fact that intelligence is limited because the U.S. doesn’t have its own ground forces — there aren’t any fixed military targets left that U.S. pilots can strike under the current rules.
For example, while the U.S. may have intelligence on the location of an Islamic State headquarters site, military leaders may be unwilling to strike because of its proximity to civilian sites, he said.
Still, he said there are many more dynamic targets where American air power could be effective in combat and help Iraqis gain an advantage on the battlefield if the U.S. had monitors on the ground.
But to make things work without a ground force and employing only air power, the rules of engagement must change, argues Richard Brennan, a senior political scientist at Rand Corp.
Mr. Brennan said the Islamic State, in adapting and responding to U.S. airstrikes, has started to intermingle its fighters with civilians to frustrate U.S. attacks from the air.
In an effort to protect civilian lives, the strict rules of engagement are doing the opposite by giving the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, the opportunity to kill civilians, he said.
“Even though the United States isn’t doing the killing, by its inability to use force in all but the cases where they’re sure of not having collateral damage, we’re ceding the advantage to ISIS in many situations,” Mr. Brennan said.