Pinning down IS targets impedes airstrikes

Airstrikes have also been constrained by a concern about civilian casualties, particularly in western Iraq.

More than three months into the US-led air campaign in Iraq and Syria, commanders are challenged by spotty intelligence, poor weather and an Iraqi army that is only now starting to go on the offensive against the Islamic State, meaning that warplanes are mostly limited to hitting pop-up targets of opportunity. 

Weekend airstrikes hit just such targets: a convoy of 10 armed trucks of the IS near Mosul, as well as vehicles and two of the group’s checkpoints near the border with Syria. News reports from Iraq said the IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been wounded in one of the raids, but US officials said they were still assessing his status. In Iraq, the air war is tethered to the slow pace of operations by the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces. With relatively few Iraqi offensives to flush out militants, many IS fighters have dug in to shield themselves from attack. 

The vast majority of bombing runs, including the weekend strike near Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, are searching for targets of opportunity, such as checkpoints, artillery pieces and combat vehicles in the open. But only one of every four strike missions - some 800 of 3,200 - dropped its weapons, according to the military’s Central Command. 

In Syria, the US has a very limited ability to gather intelligence to help generate targets. Many IS training compounds, headquarters, storage facilities and other fixed sites were struck in the early days of the bombing, but the military’s deliberate process for approving other targets has frustrated several commanders. In neither country are US commandos conducting raids on militant camps or safe houses, operations that in Afghanistan and in the Iraq war generated a continuous trove of information for additional missions. 

Airstrikes have also been constrained by a serious concern about civilian casualties, particularly in western Iraq. Commanders fear such casualties could alienate Sunni tribesmen, whose support is critical to ousting the militants, as well as Sunni Arab countries that are part of the US-led coalition. Another challenge is weather, as sandstorms have thwarted many surveillance missions needed to identify targets. 

President Barack Obama’s decision last week to double the number of US trainers and advisers in Iraq, to about 3,000, and request more than $5 billion from Congress for military operations against the IS was viewed as clear acknowledgment of the challenges in fighting a limited war. They are especially acute when Washington’s allies on the ground in Iraq and Syria need far more training to battle a formidable adversary that offers little in the way of clear targeting. 

In an interview broadcast last week, Obama said he had made his decision in order to accelerate the mission by taking a set of fresh, if incremental, steps toward greater involvement. 

“What it signals is a new phase,” the president said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “What we knew was that phase one was getting an Iraqi government that was inclusive and credible, and we now have done that,” he said. “And so now what we’ve done is rather than just try to halt IS’ momentum, we’re now in a position to start going on some offence. The airstrikes have been very effective in degrading IS’ capabilities and slowing the advance that they were making. Now what we need is ground troops, Iraqi ground troops, that can start pushing them back.” 

Critics of the air campaign describe an often cumbersome process to approve targets of opportunity, and say there are too few warplanes carrying out too few missions under too many restrictions. To some veterans of past air wars, the campaign fails to apply the unrelenting pressure needed to help fulfill Obama’s objective to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist organisation. “Air power needs to be applied like a thunderstorm, and so far we’ve only witnessed a drizzle,” said David Deptula, a retired three-star Air Force general who planned the US air campaigns in 2001 in Afghanistan and in the 1991 Persian Gulf war. 

The campaign has averaged fewer than five airstrikes a day in both Iraq and in Syria. In contrast, the NATO air war against Libya in 2011 carried out about 50 strikes a day in its first two months. The air campaigns in Afghanistan in 2001 averaged 85 daily airstrikes, and the Iraq War in 2003 about 800 strikes a day, according to the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. US officials say targeting is more precise than in past campaigns, so not as many flights are needed. 

To be sure, this air campaign has achieved several successes. It has blunted the advance of IS fighters in most areas by forcing them to disperse and conceal themselves. Allied warplanes have attacked oil refineries, weapons depots, command bunkers and communications centers in Syria as part of a plan to hamper the IS’ ability to sustain its operations in Iraq, and for its senior leaders to communicate with one another.
 High costs

Overall, through mid-October, the operation was costing the Defence Department more than $8 million a day, or $580 million since airstrikes began in Iraq on August 8. But senior US officers acknowledge the limitations of air power, and say the campaign is more about providing breathing room to build up Iraqi and Syrian ground forces than an all-out effort to destroy IS from the skies. 

“The airstrikes are buying us time. They aren’t going to solve the problem by themselves,” said Gen Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff and a former top commander in Iraq. “It’s going to take people on the ground, ground forces.” Odierno said the priority was developing “indigenous forces” to retake territory from IS.

“Over time, if that’s not working, then we’re going to have to reassess, and we’ll have to decide whether we think it’s worth putting other forces in there, to include US forces,” he said. 

The effort to rebuild Iraq’s fighting capability, however, risks allowing the IS to use the months to entrench in western and northern Iraq and carry out more killings. The allied air campaign is being run out of the allied command center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, led by Lt Gen John Hesterman III of the Air Force. 

In addition to the US, countries that have conducted airstrikes in Iraq are Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France and the Netherlands. Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have joined the United States in carrying out attacks in Syria. 

Other countries are also providing surveillance, transport and refueling planes. Non-American members of the coalition are flying 15 to 20 per cent of all strike and support missions, a figure that military officials said was likely to creep up as more allies joined the fight. 

Senior US commanders are preaching patience and warning against trying to replay previous air campaigns on the shifting battlefield of Iraq. 

“Every air campaign is different and can’t be a reflection of a past one,” said Maj Gen Jeffrey Lofgren of the Air Force, deputy commander of coalition air forces in the Middle East. “A lot of people would like us to drop hundreds of bombs and make the problem go away, but it’s not that kind of war.” 

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