The Daily Beast reports: Within the U.S. Air Force, there’s mounting frustration that the air campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq is moving far more slowly than expected. Instead of the fast-moving operation with hundreds of sorties flown in a single day — the kind favored by many in the air service — American warplanes are hitting small numbers of targets after a painstaking and cumbersome process.
The single biggest problem, current and former Air Force officers say, is the so-called “kill-chain” of properly identifying and making sure the right target is being attacked. At the moment, that process is very complicated and painfully slow.
“The kill-chain is very convoluted,” one combat-experienced Air Force A-10 Warthog pilot told The Daily Beast. “Nobody really has the control in the tactical environment.”
A major reason why: the lack of U.S. ground forces to direct American air power against ISIS positions. Air power, when it is applied in an area where the enemy is blended in with the civilian population, works best when there are troops on the ground are able to call in strikes. From the sky, it can be hard to tell friend from foe. And by themselves, the GPS coordinates used to guide bombs aren’t nearly precise enough; landscape and weather can throw the coordinates off by as much as 500 feet. The planes need additional information from the guys on the ground. The only other option is to use laser-guided bombs, but even then the target has to be correctly indentified before hand.
But putting the specialized troops the Pentagon calls “Joint Terminal Air Controllers” or JTACs into combat comes with a cost. “The problem with putting JTACs on the ground is that once you get American boots on the ground, and one of those guys gets captured and beheaded on national TV or media,” the A-10 pilot said.
The Pentagon has compensated for this, in part, by easing back in Syria on the restrictive rules used minimizing civilian casualties like it is in Afghanistan. But in many other aspects, current and former Air Force personnel say, U.S. Central Command is fighting the war against ISIS in largely the same way it operates against the Taliban in Afghanistan. “The strategic problem posed by [ISIS] is different than that in Afghanistan,” one former senior Air Force official said. “So the similarity of the minimal application of airpower, along with excessive micromanagement by the CENTCOM bureaucracy is a symptom of not recognizing that this is a different strategic problem.”
After all, ISIS isn’t simply a collection of terrorists. The group holds territory, and manages an inventory of heavy military and civilian equipment. There’s a reason they call themselves the Islamic State. So instead of worrying about individual air strikes, this former official said, the CENTCOM needs to run a wider more free-ranging air war where more targets are hit much more quickly. “Very few in the military today have experience in planning and executing a comprehensive air campaign—their experience is only in the control of individual strikes against individual targets,” the official added. “There needs to be constant 24/7 overwatch, and immediate attack of any [ISIS] artillery, people, vehicles, or facilities that they are occupying.”
But that is a view shared mainly by those within the Air Force — which has, for decades, argued that it has the ability to win wars though strategic bombing.
Even in the case of the campaign against ISIS, there are many officers from the Army, Navy and even the Air Force who told The Daily Beast that they agree with the restraint shown by CENTCOM leadership — noting it is pointless to bomb the wrong target and antagonize the local population.
Further, the challenge for CENTCOM is further compounded by the lack of workable intelligence in Syria.
This claim about a “lack of workable intelligence” is bullshit — as a BBC News report made clear yesterday:
Asya Abdullah, a co-leader of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) representing Syrian Kurds, told the BBC that they were ready to work with US-led coalition forces.
“We have provided coalition forces with the coordinates of IS targets on the ground and are willing to continue providing any help they will request,” she said.
Kurdish commanders on the ground say that some of the latest air strikes have been more effective than previously and that this has helped their fighters to push back IS on several fronts.
A senior female Kurdish commander on Kobane’s defence council, Meysa Abdo, told the BBC: “If the coalition is serious about degrading IS, then Kobane is where they should target IS because they have an effective partner on the ground which has successfully fought back against IS alone.”
CENTCOM might plead that it cannot reliably select targets without Joint Terminal Air Controllers on the ground, but these specialized troops don’t have supernatural powers. The vetted intelligence they provide must depend more than anything else on what they are being told by locals who themselves know much more about the terrain and their adversaries than any American could, having only just arrived on the scene.
The problem is not a lack of military intelligence, but a lack of ordinary intelligence — the kind that would liberate itself from a bureaucratic straightjacket and say, “To hell with senseless directives from Washington about who we can and cannot talk to.”