Air command hamstrung by White House mandates
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.
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.”