March 8, 2015

Why is American airpower not stopping ISIS?

USAF airstrikes on the city of Kobani, Syria

The United States-led coalition has been bombing targets of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) since August of last year. Hundreds of targets have been destroyed, and despite claims to the contrary by White House, Department of Defense and Department of State spokespersons, ISIS continues to mount attacks and seize territory. How can that be? Being attacked by the world's best air force - over 80 percent of the sorties are being flown by the U.S. Air Force - seems to have had little effect.

This was driven home to me on a personal level when ISIS stormed several Assyrian villages in the al-Hasakah area of Syria. Several of my Arabic language instructors in the 1970s are of Assyrian descent, in fact many speak Aramaic/Syriac natively.

Last week, the son of one of these instructors called to tell me he had just spoken to family members in Tal Tamr (about 20 miles northwest of al-Hasakah), the first Assyrian town seized by ISIS fighters. The town sits at a strategic intersection.

According to Yoni, 40 trucks - mostly equipped with machine guns - blew into town and killed the first six men they encountered. They then burned the church and rounded up all the women and children they could find. The children were being held in cages under threat of being burned alive. ISIS offered to exchange the women for prisoners held by Syrian Kurds. (Some of these exchanges later took place). His question to me, "Why can't we see 40 armed trucks in a convoy and take them out?"

My thought process as I searched for an answer:

I initially thought that maybe there were not enough targets for the pilots to attack. Then I took a look at the suite of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets - manned, unmanned and strategic - and deduced we must have virtual synoptic coverage of the areas of interest in Syria and Iraq. When you look at a map and the vast areas under ISIS control - about the size of Great Britain - most of it is just empty desert. The main areas of interest are in the river valleys: the Tigris, Euphrates, Khabur, Diyala, etc. Those we can cover.

If we have decent sensor coverage of the area, the problem must be something in the command and control system. I was slow to come to this realization because I thought we had fixed this decades ago. The key to airpower is flexibility.

My own experience in this goes back to the latter stages of the war in Vietnam. I was a Vietnamese linguist monitoring North Vietnamese communications, figuring out where the enemy was, passing that information to command and control elements who would try to direct attack aircraft onto those targets. This was over 40 years ago using the technology of the day. Surely we have improved.

Actually, I know we improved. Those of us who remained in the Air Force after Vietnam developed the intelligence-operations cycle to the point that our collection of information from a variety of sensors - imagery, electronic, communications, signatures, etc. - could be used to put weapons on targets inside of an enemy's decision cycle. In other words, use intelligence to guide kinetic operations before the enemy knows what hit him.

We did this well in Operation Desert Storm. Decisions were made at the tactical level - targets were hit when discovered. We also designated areas in which pilots were free to engage targets as they appeared. One of the tactics was to delineate "kill boxes" in which no friendly forces were present. Anything that appeared to be military was engaged - it had a devastating effect on the Iraqis.

We have regressed. I am not sure why, but we seem to be operating in a zero-defect environment. That is political-speak for not killing any innocent people in the conduct of military operations. While we try to minimize civilian casualties, it is after all, war - people are going to be killed. No one advocates a cavalier attitude toward the application of airpower, but you cannot paralyze your armed forces because innocent people may be killed. (Okay, cue the hate email.)

What follows is from a current U.S. Air Force pilot, who we will call Chris (tac callsign "Hedgehog"). According to Chris, all the lessons learned in Vietnam, and used effectively during the first Gulf War, have been forgotten. This really bothers those of us who fought hard to institutionalize the tactics developed from the lessons we learned the hard way.

In Chris's words:

"The level of centralized execution, bureaucracy and politics is appalling. Pilots have no decision making authority in the cockpit. Unless a general can look at a video from an ISR sensor, we cannot get authority to engage. I've spent hours watching a screen in my cockpit as ISIS commits atrocities, but I cannot do anything. The fear of making a mistake is now the hallmark of American military leadership.

"We are not taking the fight to the enemy. Their centers of gravity are in al-Raqqah, but we don't attack there. Truck traffic flows on the roads between Syria and Iraq unimpeded. We often orbit for hours over a suspected target, waiting for a decision to engage. Trust me, we pilots are trying to get the job done, despite the bureaucracy."

There is a problem, yes, but it is not in the theater of operations - it is in Washington and Tampa (U.S. Central Command headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base). You have placed trained, committed American Airmen in harm's way to execute the military option as part of American foreign policy. Get out of the way and let them do their jobs.

Our pilots know what the bad guys look like - let our pilots kill them.