Come along for a rare glimpse at op­er­a­tion that tar­gets ter­ror­ists from the skies

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Jim Michaels @jim­michaels

Air Force Maj. Gen. Jay Sil­ve­ria ex­am­ined the pho­tos ar­rayed on a table in a con­fer­ence room. The grainy pic­tures showed a small oil well and col­lec­tion pool op­er­ated by the Is­lamic State in the Syr­ian desert. The tar­get­ing of­fi­cer gave Sil­ve­ria a brief pitch: This was an op­por­tu­nity to hit a key source of Is­lamic State rev­enue. No civil­ians were around, and a pair of U.S. A-10 at­tack planes could get there quickly. The gen­eral turned to a mil­i­tary lawyer to see whether he had any le­gal con­cerns. He didn’t. Sil­ve­ria gave his OK, and the planes de­stroyed the oil well.

The strike is one ex­am­ple of how the U.S. op­er­a­tion against the Is­lamic State mil­i­tants in Iraq and Syria has be­come the most tightly man­aged air cam­paign in the his­tory of war­fare. USA TO­DAY was granted rare ac­cess to the com­mand cen­ter to wit­ness how the team car­ries out that cam­paign.

Every strike has to be ap­proved by an of­fi­cer with the rank of a one-star gen­eral or higher. The tar­gets are scru­ti­nized not only for their po­ten­tial for col­lat­eral dam­age but also “pro­por­tion­al­ity” — whether the mil­i­tary value of the tar­get is worth the time and cost of a strike and fur­thers the aim of the over­all cam­paign.

Staff of­fi­cers have de­vel­oped com­plex for­mu­las for es­ti­mat­ing the po­ten­tial for civil­ian ca­su­al­ties on any given tar­get and what type of bomb to use to achieve a spe­cific goal. Pre­planned, or “de­lib­er­ate” tar­gets, which can in­clude a cash ware­house, car bomb fac­to­ries or mil­i­tant com­mu­ni­ca­tion fa­cil­i­ties, take an av­er­age of four to six weeks for ap­proval. “Dy­namic” tar­gets of op­por­tu­nity, such as the oil well, ac­count for 85% of the strikes and can be ap­proved in min­utes if a high-level of­fi­cer signs off.

The highly con­trolled air cam­paign re­flects a height­ened sen­si­tiv­ity to civil­ian ca­su­al­ties in an era when so­cial me­dia draw the world’s at­ten­tion to a sin­gle er­rant bomb.

The num­ber of con­firmed civil­ian deaths in nearly 15,000 coali­tion strikes since the air war be­gan in 2014 is 55, ac­cord­ing to U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand. Seven al-

lega­tions are un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and ac­tual ca­su­al­ties are prob­a­bly higher, since the mil­i­tary’s es­ti­mates in­clude only those it has con­firmed through a rig­or­ous process.

“Most times we’re try­ing to drive it to zero civil­ian ca­su­al­ties,” said Lt. Gen. Jef­frey Har­ri­gian, com­man­der of the air cam­paign in the Mid­dle East.

Crit­ics say the reg­u­la­tions to avoid non-com­bat­ant deaths are ex­ces­sive and have un­der­mined the air cam­paign. Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man John McCain, R-Ariz., com­plained last year that three-quar­ters of the coali­tion’s air­craft came back to base with­out hav­ing dropped their weapons.

“It’s a very con­vo­luted sys­tem for fight­ing a war,” said Chuck Horner, a re­tired Air Force gen­eral who com­manded air oper­a­tions dur­ing the Per­sian Gulf War in 1990-91. “We’re fight­ing with one arm tied be­hind our back.”

The mil­i­tary coun­ters that to­day’s mu­ni­tions are far more pre­cise than the bombs dropped over Iraq dur­ing the Gulf War. In­tel­li­gence also has steadily im­proved. IN­SIDE COM­MAND CEN­TER The air war in Iraq, Syria, Afghanista­n and other parts of the Mid­dle East is run from this sprawl­ing desert base out­side Doha, the cap­i­tal of Qatar. In­side a mas­sive, win­dow­less con­crete build­ing, pro­tected from the sti­fling desert heat, mil­i­tary men and women mon­i­tor banks of com­puter screens in a two-story room. On the walls above their heads are rows of screens, dis­play­ing sur­veil­lance video from through­out the re­gion.

It’s a long way from pre­vi­ous wars, when bomber pi­lots would take off for tar­gets marked on a map and drop “dumb” bombs, hav­ing lit­tle or no com­mu­ni­ca­tion with their home base. The bombs would of­ten flat­ten en­tire city blocks or more.

To­day, tech­nol­ogy al­lows com­man­ders to con­trol events thou­sands of miles away. The process for choos­ing ground tar­gets be­gins with a nom­i­na­tion that could come from an in­tel­li­gence an­a­lyst, ground forces or a pi­lot who sees a po­ten­tial tar­get, such as an en­emy po­si­tion, an oil well or a ware­house where the Is­lamic State stores cash.

If the tar­get is se­lected for fur­ther re­view, an­a­lysts will gather sur­veil­lance video and other in­tel­li­gence that will es­tab­lish a “pat­tern of life” around it.

An­a­lysts as­sign the tar­get a col­lat­eral dam­age es­ti­mate based on its prox­im­ity to civil­ians and the ex­tent that dan­ger to them can be less­ened. If there is a risk of hit­ting nearby build­ings, they mit­i­gate the risk by choos­ing smaller bombs or a fuse that can de­lay the ex­plo­sion, so a bomb det­o­nates only af­ter it pen­e­trates the tar­get.

Mil­i­tary of­fi­cers plot each bomb’s point of im­pact on a build­ing or other tar­get, mea­sur­ing pre­cisely the blast ra­dius of each ex­plo­sive they will drop. The se­lec­tion of mu­ni­tions can pro­duce a pre­cise im­pact. Re­cently, a com­mu­ni­ca­tion tower near a school was hit in a way that made it col­lapse away from a clus­ter of nearby build­ings.

The an­a­lysts re­duce risks to civil­ians by de­ter­min­ing when to strike, such as at night when civil­ians wouldn’t be around.

Even af­ter all those pre­cau­tions, pi­lots will abort a mis­sion if civil­ians un­ex­pect­edly ap­proach a tar­get by car or foot as the bomb­ing is about to be­gin.

For U.S. ad­vis­ers or the Iraqi or Syr­ian ground forces they work with, the wait for an OK can be ex­cru­ci­at­ing. In June, coali­tion air­craft un­leashed a mas­sive airstrike on Is­lamic State con­voys flee­ing Fallujah in western Iraq. Ap­proval came only af­ter sur­veil­lance drones viewed the tar­gets for hours to en­sure there were no civil­ians in­side the con­voys. MISSED OP­POR­TU­NI­TIES? Coali­tion com­man­ders point out that in­tel­li­gence has im­proved dur­ing the air war, al­low­ing pi­lots to at­tack an in­creas­ing num­ber of tar­gets, de­spite the re­stric­tions.

Pi­lots dropped an av­er­age of 496 bombs and other mu­ni­tions per week this year, up from 144 in 2014, the year the air war be­gan.

Tar­get­ing the mil­i­tants’ cash ware­houses and oil fa­cil­i­ties has forced the Is­lamic State to cut pay to civil­ian work­ers by 50% and pay to its fighters by 20%, ac­cord­ing to Har­ri­gian, the cam­paign’s com­man­der.

Those fig­ures don’t sat­isfy crit­ics who say some tar­gets are not hit be­cause the ap­proval time is too slow and a more ro­bust cam­paign might in­crease the risk to civil­ians but end the Is­lamic State’s reign of ter­ror sooner.

“I don’t care how much live com­mu­ni­ca­tions you have, there’s no way you get through lay­ers of bu­reau­cracy quick enough,” said Chris Harmer, an an­a­lyst at the In­sti­tute for the Study of War and a for­mer naval avi­a­tor.

“If our prime goal is min­i­miz­ing civil­ian ca­su­al­ties, then let’s just throw in the towel and walk away,” Harmer said. “Peo­ple will ac­cept civil­ian ca­su­al­ties as an in­evitable byprod­uct if they think there is a strate­gic goal of de­feat­ing the en­emy and re­plac­ing it with some­thing bet­ter.”

Ge­of­frey Corn, a for­mer Army lawyer and ex­pert on war­time law, de­fended the mil­i­tary’s em­pha­sis on avoid­ing civil­ian ca­su­al­ties as a nec­es­sary ob­jec­tive to pre­vent a back­lash from the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion.

Hun­dreds of thou­sands — if not mil­lions — of civil­ians have died in pre­vi­ous wars. Global pub­lic opin­ion would no longer ac­cept ca­su­al­ties any­where near that level, an­a­lysts say.

“The ap­pli­ca­tion of force is driven by the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate of the time,” said Dik Daso, a mil­i­tary his­to­rian and pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of South Carolina. “Peo­ple have come to be­lieve that we can re­ally do any­thing with these weapons and there is no ex­cuse for hit­ting civil­ians.”

“It’s a very con­vo­luted sys­tem for fight­ing a war.” Chuck Horner, re­tired Air Force gen­eral


Mil­i­tary per­son­nel mon­i­tor air­craft mis­sions from the Com­bined Air Oper­a­tions Cen­ter in Qatar.


A mem­ber of the U.S. Air Force mon­i­tors radar and com­mu­ni­ca­tion traf­fic from a sur­veil­lance plane over Syria.

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