U.S. Flew 2,700 Iraq Missions Before Obama’s New Push

Iraq Conflict
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters hold a position during fighting against Islamic State militants in Rashad, on the road between Kirkuk and Tikrit, on Sept. 11, 2014. Photographer: JM Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft flew more than 2,700 missions to combat Islamic State in Iraq even before President Barack Obama announced an expanded military campaign against the Sunni extremists.

The 2,749 sorties through yesterday include surveillance and refueling aircraft, providing a fuller measure of the scope of operations than the 156 airstrikes that have been announced through today in statements by U.S. Central Command.

Surveillance aircraft spot potential targets, and refueling in flight lets U.S. combat aircraft loiter over an area, perhaps for hours, to observe, classify, verify and in some cases attack militants’ positions. That’s allowed U.S. fliers to drop 253 bombs and missiles that destroyed 212 Islamic State targets such as Humvees, checkpoints and armed vehicles, according to the Pentagon.

Obama said in his televised speech last night that he’s ordered a “systematic campaign of airstrikes” against Islamic State in Iraq, beyond the original rationales of “protecting our own people and humanitarian missions.”

However, Obama, senior military officers and outside analysts all have emphasized that airpower alone can’t destroy or even significantly degrade Islamic State. Underscoring that, the Central Intelligence Agency today increased its rough estimate of the number of fighters the extremist group can muster in Syria and Iraq to a range of 20,000 to 31,500, up from 10,000 in May, according to the agency.

New Recruits

The new total reflects stronger recruitment after the group’s battlefield successes and its declaration of a caliphate, greater battlefield activity and additional intelligence from multiple sources, according to the spokesman, who discussed the estimate on condition of anonymity.

“This is not a precise figure, but an estimate with a range and one that will likely continue to change as the situation develops on the ground,” the CIA said in a statement. “The gap between the low and high points indicates there is uncertainty about the exact number of fighters in ISIL.” ISIL, or the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant, is another name for Islamic State.

Navy Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, told reporters today that the pace of airstrikes will accelerate based on Obama’s direction.

“We are going to intensify our efforts inside Iraq, no question about that,” Kirby said. “The direction we got from the commander in chief was very clear -- we are going to be more aggressive in supporting” Iraqi security forces, he said.

Syria Airstrikes

Kirby said that “we are going to be as transparent” as “we can about what we’re hitting and why we’re hitting it.”

Expanding the scope of airstrikes beyond Iraq, Obama also said “we will not hesitate to take action” in Syria.

Kirby added, “We’re not going to be held by geographic boundaries when it comes to taking action.”

Asked if the U.S. would notify the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, whose ouster the U.S. supports, of any strikes in its territory, Kirby said, “There’s not going to be any effort to coordinate our military options” with the regime.

The Pentagon faces a challenge in attacking Islamic State without benefiting Assad. The U.S. backs what it calls vetted “moderate” rebels in Syria over Islamic State.

That leaves open the question of whether the Obama administration might try to reduce the danger Syria’s air defenses pose to U.S. aircraft by seeking a way to notify the Syrians through a third party that any attacks are targeting only Islamic State. The alternative, a standard Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses campaign, would risk unintentionally benefiting the extremists.

Assad’s Turf

“It is going to be our policy to separate Assad, who is mostly in the western part of Syria, in a certain corridor, from the eastern part of Syria, which he doesn’t control,” Secretary of State John Kerry told CNN today in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. “ISIL controls that part. So it is clearly not a very difficult task to target ISIL.”

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, told reporters today that “the president has gotten guidance about targets that are available and would be critical to denying ISIL a safe haven, both in Iraq and in Syria.”

The U.S. also is reviewing what types of manned, armed surveillance aircraft will be deployed to an airbase at Erbil in northern Iraq as part of the expanded campaign, Kirby said. Aircrews and maintenance personnel are among the 475 added U.S. military personnel that Obama said will be deployed to Iraq, bringing the total in the country to about 1,600.

Inevitable Risks

While Obama pledged in his televised speech that American troops won’t engage in ground combat, he alluded to the dangers of a plane shot down or military advisers coming under attack.

“Any time we take military action, there are risks involved, especially to the servicemen and women who carry out those missions,” he said.

The president also echoed what top military officers have been saying for weeks in cautioning that American airpower alone “cannot do for the Iraqis what they must do for themselves” in fighting Islamic State on the ground.

Two days into the U.S. air campaign, Army Lieutenant General William Mayville, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters “we’ve had a very temporary effect, and we may have blunted some tactical decisions” by the extremists.

“We assess that U.S. airstrikes in northern Iraq have slowed” the group’s “operational tempo and temporarily disrupted their advances toward the province of Erbil. However, these strikes are unlikely to affect” its “overall capabilities or its operations in other areas of Iraq and Syria,” Mayville said.

No ‘Magic Wand’

Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said in an e-mailed statement, “Airpower is not a magic wand to make the enemy go away. It cannot seize and hold ground.”

“It is most useful when combined with other military capabilities like conventional or special forces,” White said. “Most enemies can and will adapt to air attack, which means the use of airpower also has to be adaptive. Nevertheless airpower can impose limits on enemy operations and degrade his capabilities.”

Mark Gunzinger, an airpower analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, said in an e-mail that in an expanded campaign “target identification may be the most significant challenge.”

‘Challenging Terrain’

The Defense Department “has made great strides in producing target-quality intelligence from airborne and national assets, but there may be some targets in challenging operational terrain such as urban areas that require cueing from ground forces,” he said.

Bomb-damage assessments also may be a challenge “if we do not have much of a footprint on the ground,” Gunzinger said. “To determine strike effectiveness against small, very high-value targets such as terrorist leaders, we may need assistance from assets on the ground.”

Asked whether U.S. special operations forces may serve as spotters for air attacks, Kirby said only, “There’s not going to be a combat role for U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq.”

Central Intelligence Agency officers also can direct strikes and pilot unmanned aircraft, as they have in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. U.S. intelligence agencies haven’t commented publicly on any role they may play.

Bombs Away

Air Force fighters, bombers and drones dropped 202 bombs and missiles through yesterday, while Navy fighters flying off of the aircraft carrier USS George W. Bush in the Persian Gulf have dropped 51 munitions, according to the U.S. Central Command in Stuttgart, Germany.

The Air Force has flown KC-135 tankers, F-16 and F-15E fighters, B-1B bombers and Predator drones; the Navy F/A-18 fighters and EA-6B Prowler electronic-jamming aircraft.

Destroyed targets included 88 armed vehicles, 37 U.S.-made Hummer vehicles Islamic State captured from Iraq forces, five mortar positions and one U.S.-made armored Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle, according to a Pentagon statement.

The statistics on sorties and munitions give investors in defense contractors a sense of how much has been spent on flying time and ordnance that will have to be replaced in future defense budgets.

Boeing Co. makes the GBU-54 laser- and satellite-guided bomb dropped by Navy fighters, while Raytheon Co. makes the AGM-65 air-to-ground missile that’s been used by the Air Force. Lockheed Martin Corp. makes the laser-guided Hellfire missile that’s been used in Iraq.

(Corrects analyst’s name, affiliation in 24th paragraph.)
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