Amid the 25th anniversary of the devastating Desert Storm air war, the Obama administration is bombing the Islamic State terrorist army so carefully that commanders are falling well short of enemy destruction allowed by international law.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a key planner of both the Desert Storm air campaign and the invasion of Afghanistan, says he realizes that the hundreds of daily strikes against Iraq, which kicked off on Jan. 16, 1991, are not required today to dismantle the Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS.
But he said that U.S. Central Command’s 17-month aerial war — of more than 500 days — is only averaging six U.S. strikes daily in Syria, where the Islamic State directs and exports its murder sprees. He said the command is adhering to a meticulous, zero civilian death objective, as if it were conducting a counterinsurgency against mostly tactical targets — when the enemy is actually a functioning state with many strategic targets.
“This nonsense that this is going to take years — it only takes years if you want it to take years,” Mr. Deptula, a former F-15 combat pilot, told The Washington Times. “We can put together an operation that can have such a devastating impact on the Islamic State. It would cause them to stop being able to function as they have been.”
Mr. Deptula said international law acknowledges that some civilian, or collateral, casualties will happen when legitimate military targets are hit. As a seasoned air war planner, Mr. Deptula is an authority on what an air force may and may not do under the laws of armed conflict, which derive from the 1949 Geneva Conventions and subsequent amendments.
The U.S. owns the most precise satellite- and laser-guided munitions, unleashed by the world’s most advanced warplanes. Yet Mr. Deptula has watched in frustration as the Obama team put in place rules of engagement so strict that critical operations in Raqqa, Syria, the Islamic State’s nerve center, go untouched.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State keeps killing people, meaning a light air campaign is actually leading to more civilians deaths, not fewer, he argues.
“The logic that is being applied with these excessive restrictions is actually creating greater civilian casualties because it has allowed the Islamic State to exist and to continue their heinous operations of killing innocent men, women and children,” Mr. Deptula said. “Drawing out of a campaign, with the anemic, absolutely ridiculous low level of effort that [has] been conducted, is creating greater civilian casualties.”
Told of complaints by Mr. Deptula and other former war planners, Air Force Col. Patrick S. Ryder, a Central Command spokesman, told The Times:
“The Desert Storm air campaign was very different from the current Operation Inherent Resolve air campaign to defeat ISIL. In Desert Storm we were fighting against a conventional army who operated in large, massed formations with a very hierarchical Iraqi military chain of command. ISIL, however, is a hybrid force — employing conventional tactics but also operating like an insurgency, hidden among the population and putting innocent civilians at great risk.
“As has been the case from the beginning of this campaign, we have continued to strike ISIL targets wherever we’ve seen them, and we continue to put intense pressure on the terrorist group in numerous locations — to include Raqqa. As indigenous anti-ISIL ground forces continue to make progress on the ground against ISIL, the intelligence and information we’ve gleaned from this has allowed us to keep up the momentum in our strikes and significantly impact ISIL’s command and control capability, logistics, infrastructure, financial resources and capacity to conduct offensive operations.”
Targeting oil trucks
The Obama administration has left the power on in Raqqa, and apparently has spared a network of operations centers that includes the Islamic State’s vaunted social media propaganda that draws in foreign fighters.
Said Mr. Deptula: “I can tell you, the headquarters buildings, the buildings in which they administer their finances, control their oil production, their electricity generations, their prison system, their police system — those are all physical locations in Raqqa that have not been struck as a result of this zero civilian/collateral damage standard.
“They have been going through excess amounts of time and analysis to determine whether or not a target can be struck to achieve zero civilian casualties. You can understand from that standard that, therefore, there are many, many, many targets that are critical to allowing the Islamic State its ability to operate,” he said.
The frustration of American fighter pilots has leaked out in a few emails. They tell of holding fire until they receive permission to attack, only to see the targets disappear, or their aircraft run low on fuel, forcing their return to base — ordnance still in place.
No target set has come to symbolize the painstaking air war more than the Islamic State’s fleet of oil trucks, from which it derives much of its cash on hand. The tankers were off limits until two months ago, and still pilots must go through several steps to ensure the drivers are given a chance to run.
“Are you kidding me?” said Mr. Deptula. “We spend 15 months before we start hitting oil trucks because we were concerned about notifying the drivers they might be the subject of an attack. That’s not a requirement in the laws of armed conflict. Why did we wait 15 months to do that? Meanwhile, you’ve pumped over $600 million dollars into the coffers of the Islamic State to allow them to conduct their crimes against humanity.”
Ex-fighter jockeys in Congress also have vented when Defense Secretary Ashton Carter testified about counter-Islamic State strategy.
At a House Armed Services Committee hearing last month, Rep. Martha McSally, a former Air Force A-10 pilot and the first U.S. female pilot to fly into combat, recalled air power seminars that called for the maximum strikes possible.
“You identify those centers of gravity or critical capabilities and vulnerabilities, and then you unleash American air power that overwhelmingly goes after them,” said Ms. McSally, Arizona Republican. “We’re just now realizing oil trucks are moving. It’s been reported from the very beginning. I’m deeply concerned about the lack of using American air power for all it brings to the fight.”
Six airstrikes a day
Last month Mr. Carter also appeared before the Senate Committee on Armed Services, and ran up against its incredulous chairman, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a Navy combat pilot and POW in Vietnam.
Mr. Carter said it was only recently that the command developed the intelligence on how to identify oil trucks, but Mr. McCain apparently wasn’t buying the defense chief’s explanation.
“We knew those fuel trucks were moving back and forth,” the senator said. “We saw them through ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance], and the decision was not made in the White House to attack them or not. You can’t tell me they were moving all that stuff back and forth for over a year and we didn’t know about it. I mean, it’s just not possible given our technological capabilities.”
Mr. Carter, who has spoken this month of accelerating the war against the Islamic State by injecting more special operations troops into Iraq and Syria, explained the overall targeting philosophy.
“We have and continue to try to withhold attacks upon that part of the general infrastructure — energy, electricity, water, etc. — that is also necessary for the people of Syria,” he testified. “And we’re trying to peel off that which ISIL uses and commands and controls for its own revenue source. We’re now able to make that distinction, which is what enabled the airstrikes.”
As of Jan. 10, Operation Inherent Resolve has unleashed 3,029 strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria by U.S. aircraft and 190 more by the allies. Over more than 500 days, the pace works out to an average of a little less than six strikes a day.
In Desert Storm, the first air war to feature precision-guided weapons, the U.S. conducted about 1,200 strikes daily over 43 days against Saddam Hussein’s far-flung military, security and industrial complex. The campaign also took out power generation.
Mr. Carter told the Senate committee that commanders had ramped up air attacks on oil-related targets.
“Because of improved intelligence and understanding of ISIL’s operations, we’ve intensified the air campaign against ISIL’s war-sustaining oil enterprise, a critical pillar of ISIL’s financial infrastructure,” he testified. “In addition to destroying fixed facilities like wells and processing facilities, we’ve destroyed nearly 400 of ISIL’s oil tanker trucks, reducing a major source of its daily revenues. There’s more to come, too.”