The monthly scorecards issued by U.S. Central Command’s Air Force component illustrate how carefully — critics would say how inadequately — the White House oversees the air war against the Islamic State.
About half the combat missions actually unleash ordnance. The other aircraft return to base with just as many bombs and missiles as when they left.
“It is not an air campaign,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, a Vietnam War fighter pilot and one of 88 admirals and generals who signed a letter supporting Donald Trump. “In addition, a general in Baghdad must approve every bomb dropped — handcuffs on air power to let ISIS survive.”
The Islamic State is also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh, an Arabic acronym.
The micromanagement reaches higher than Baghdad: A number of military people say the Obama White House wants as close to zero civilian casualties as possible.
In the two-year air war, the Pentagon has sent its most sophisticated and lethal warplanes, including the B-1B bomber and F-22 fighter. But there are many off-limits targets — including buildings in Raqqa, Syria, the Islamic State’s proclaimed capital, and Mosul, Iraq, its largest urban prize — because they house civilians as well as fighters.
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The White House directions reach outside Syria and Iraq to Libya, home to one of Islamic State’s largest armies. The top general for Africa testified he needs White House approval for any airstrike. As a result, such military action has been rare in Libya since 2011, when intense U.S. and NATO bombings led to the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi.
The numbers tell the story in Operation Inherent Resolve, the mission to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
This year the U.S.-led coalition has launched 12,350 combat missions. Of those, 6,575 — about half — dropped one or more weapons.
The count was similar in 2015: 21,113 missions — 9,914 munitions-dropping missions.
Critics say these numbers mean the Islamic State has been allowed to operate for too long. A much more intense campaign could have killed more fighters and saved more innocent lives from Islamic State’s butchery, they say.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula is an ex-fighter pilot and war planner — and one of the air campaign’s fiercest critics.
“We have it within our capacity to demolish the Islamic State, leading to the elimination of their sanctuary to export terror to the United States,” Mr. Deptula told The Washington Times. “However, to do so will require moving beyond the current gradualist, sequential, Iraq-first approach to dealing with them. The anemic application of airstrikes must be replaced with a more robust, comprehensive, rapid and simultaneous use of air power — not simply in support of indigenous allied ground forces, but as the key force in decomposing the Islamic State.”
Air Force Central Command expresses pride in how it is doing the job, calling its campaign of intelligence collection and smart weapons “the most precise in history.”
“Airpower and the ingenuity of Airmen enabled the Air Coalition, in concert with capable ground forces, to apply continued and persistent pressure on Da’esh,” the command said in a July 31 report, its latest. “The presence of civilians, hostages really, requires the Air Coalition to act with discipline and exacting precision to avoid harming the people we seek to protect.”
“This air campaign is the most precise in history. Coalition airpower remains focused on enabling ground forces to dismantle Da’esh’s advance and re-establish control over territory. Eroding revenue streams continued to remain a priority and will be a focus area headed forward,” the report said. “The Air Coalition has contributed to creating effects designed to create Da’esh decision-making confusion.”
The Air Force report takes particular satisfaction in the strike package that destroyed more than 200 trucks and killed 350 fighters as they tried to flee the fall of Fallujah, a Sunni Muslim power center in western Iraq.
“Situations like the Fallujah convoy strike demonstrate the Coalition is having an impact on the enemy’s ability to effectively command and control forces,” the report said. “Airpower will look to continue to create tactical, operational, and strategic effects to embolden partners and demonstrate the Air Coalition’s commitment to taking the fight to the enemy.”
Mr. Deptula applauds the accuracy but not the strategy.
“The danger of attempting to conduct ‘immaculate warfare’ by overconstraining the application of air power is self-defeating, as it perpetrates the misperception that air power is incapable of accomplishing what it is actually very capable of delivering under the laws of war — the rapid disintegration of the Islamic State,” he said.
The former combat pilot said that internationally recognized laws of armed conflict acknowledge that some civilians will get killed when they are in close company with the enemy in a military target, such as a command center or hideout.
“It’s admirable that Operation Inherent Resolve air operations in the past two years have produced precise attacks with the fewest possible number of civilian casualties,” he said. “However, humanity, justice and civilization demand that the timid and feckless current administration policies that are delaying and inhibiting the means to halt the evil of the Islamic State be removed, and that we optimize our asymmetric advantage of air power.”
The Obama administration is taking a methodical approach to Iraq and Syria, on land and in the air. The focus is on rebuilding the Iraqi security forces, which boast a number of ground victories in 2016 as they prepare for the biggest challenge: the invasion of Mosul. Iraq is aided by Iranian-directed Shiite militiamen who are spreading Tehran’s influence throughout the country.
In Syria the battleground is far more muddled. The U.S. is directly aiding Syrian Arab and Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State, while Russia primarily is attacking U.S.-favored rebels fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The battle for the northern Syrian town of Manbij last month illustrated what U.S. air power can and cannot do.
Arab forces captured the town with the help of constant U.S. precision strikes on Islamic State targets in and around the city. But the strict rules of engagement allowed scores of fighters and vehicles to escape because they took innocents along with them.
Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, who took over command of Central Command Air Force in July, told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday that there will be no change in the rules of engagement.
“I can tell you that we will continue to use the very deliberate process that we have for both what we call deliberate targeting and then those situations that require dynamic targeting, which is typically what happens as you start to close in on the enemy, as you saw in Manbij and has happened in Fallujah and Ramadi, all the locations that we’ve been able to defeat Daesh,” Gen. Harrigian said.
He showed a clip of a mass air attack on a pharmaceutical plant that ISIL had turned into a production site for chlorine and mustard gases.
“The strike included U.S. F-15Es, A-10s, B-52s, F-16s and Marine Corps F-18Ds that destroyed more than 50 points of interest, removing a significant chemical threat to innocent Iraqis,” the general said.
He said that his aircraft destroyed more than 110 oil tanker trucks last week.
“My focus remains on creating an insurmountably tough and complex set of problems for Daesh across Iraq and Syria,” Gen. Harrigian said. “We will continue to shape the battle space, going after their revenue streams, killing their leaders and creating organizational dysfunction.”
Talking to reporters on Aug. 30, Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the commander of Central Command, explained his philosophy: “I think it’s well established the level of focus that we put on trying to prevent civilian casualties, and that certainly represents our operational approach, and it represents our values to how we conduct these operations.”
To Mr. Deptula, the major flaw here is that the Obama administration is treating the Islamic State as an insurgency when in fact it is not. It is a functioning state with administration buildings, communications centers, police, oil facilities and banks — all of which support its brutal invasions and occupations.
It took the administration months before it would selectively target cash centers and tanker trucks carrying oil. Still, oil operations and their cash flow continue at a reduced rate.
“A comprehensive air campaign to attack and nullify each of these elements simultaneously could have effectively halted the function of the Islamic State,” Mr. Deptula said. “However, current administration policy, supported by Central Command, [which] has spent more than a decade immersed in counterinsurgency, is treating the Islamic State as an insurgency and applying counterinsurgency-driven rules of engagement when the Islamic State demands a different approach.”