Islamic State’s seizure of Ramadi has revived a debate in the Obama administration about whether to send a limited number of U.S. military specialists to Iraqi battlefields to target airstrikes on the extremists.
The group’s advances in the capital of Anbar province have called attention to the limits of using U.S. airpower to support Iraqi government and Kurdish forces and local militias.
Conducting precision airstrikes that avoid civilian casualties is more difficult without spotters using laser designators and other tools to guide them, particularly in and around cities, said a State Department official who spoke under ground rules requiring anonymity.
A U.S. airstrike in November against a different extremist group in Syria killed two children and wounded two adults, the Defense Department reported Thursday.
President Barack Obama and some of his advisers have opposed sending U.S. forces back into combat zones in Iraq, arguing that they should remain confined to training operations away from the fighting.
While the issue of spotters has been raised before, no recommendation to deploy the specialists known as joint terminal attack controllers, or JTACs, has reached the president, according to the official.
Obama described the fall of Ramadi as a “tactical setback,” and White House officials downplayed the prospect that he might order any major policy shift in its aftermath.
“Those who are calling on a change in strategy, I would encourage them to be specific,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in Washington on Thursday. “And I don’t think that they will find either a lot of support on the part of the American people for a large-scale deployment of military resources to essentially re-invade Iraq or invade Syria.”
A decision to send air controllers wouldn’t necessarily clash with his comment because their numbers would be small, and several military authorities are saying that’s an option the president should consider.
However, a second U.S. official, who requested anonymity to discuss the debate, said one concern is that extremists could kill or capture U.S. personnel deployed in forward areas in the constantly shifting battle.
On Capitol Hill Thursday, retired General Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the Army, said deploying JTACs, also called forward air controllers, could quickly shift the balance against Islamic State by making its fighters more vulnerable to U.S. and coalition air attacks.
The war in Iraq is largely close-combat urban warfare that requires people on the ground to target precision-guided bombs from airplanes, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee during a hearing on Iraq policy.
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“Seventy-five percent of the sorties we are currently running with our attack aircraft come back without dropping bombs, mostly because they cannot acquire the target or cannot properly identify the target,” he said. “Forward air controllers fix that problem.”
Keane was an early advocate for the U.S. troop surge in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, and he told the committee, led by Republican John McCain of Arizona, that Obama should increase U.S. involvement to turn back Islamic State.
The current strategy won’t defeat Islamic State, he said. “We are not only failing, we are in fact losing this war,” he said.
Military analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said in a commentary Thursday that “modern forward air control is critical” along with measures to improve intelligence and training using forward-deployed special forces or Army Rangers.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates also advocated sending forward air controllers, speaking last Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“Sending large numbers of U.S. ground troops back into Iraq would be a serious mistake,” he said. “But I do believe that the rules of engagement for our troops need to be more flexible. We need to have more deeply embedded trainers with the Iraqi, Kurdish, the Iraqi security forces, the Sunni tribes with the Kurds in the north. I think we need to have forward air controllers and spotters. We need to have special forces in there.”
During the battle in October against Islamic State fighters holding the Syrian city of Kobani, Kurdish forces guided the coalition airstrikes that helped rout the extremists. The U.S. has been training some Iraqis as observers to help with targeting, according to the State Department official.
The Iraqis are being trained to call in airstrikes on a general location, not as full-fledged JTACs, according to a Pentagon spokesman, Army Colonel Steve Warren.
One risk is that Iraqis may misidentify a target, resulting in civilian casualties. The U.S. has been cautious in its strikes, most often targeting militants’ vehicles, tanks, fighting positions, makeshift oil refineries and buildings.
U.S. personnel are more highly trained, enabling targeting that is faster and more precise. The latter would be particularly important on confused battlefields where Iraqi military units are supplemented by Iraqi Shiite militias, some closely tied to Iran.
If there are pro-government units outside the formal chain of command, it can be impossible to tell who’s who from the air, said the State Department official. The U.S. doesn’t want a situation in which U.S. warplanes mistakenly strike Shiite militia fighters, the official said.