President Obama is playing too nice in the air war against the Islamic State and the Khorasan Group, critics say, pointing to a spared bombing target in Syria as an example.
Photos of the aftermath of a U.S.-led airstrike late Monday showed that the Islamic State finance center’s rooftop communications array had been destroyed, but the building itself was left intact.
The limited effectiveness of the airstrikes is further diminished by the Iraqi security forces’ decidedly mixed results in combat and inability to reverse most gains of the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIL and ISIS.
Iraqi troops also lack a key skill in a badly needed mission: finding and designating ground targets for U.S. warplanes, making the American air campaign more difficult.
“I was mad as hell when I saw the hit on a supposed ISIL building,” said Bart Bechtel, a retired CIA operative. “The right question is: Why not the whole building?”
“This, in my humble opinion, was all designed as a PR move for the American people to try to show that Obama is taking real action,” he said. “Nonsense. If you want to destroy ISIL, how about destroy the entire buildings. The military is frustrated, I am sure.”
A retired Air Force general who has remained in touch with the jet fighter community says the U.S. air war is too narrow: not enough planes, heavy ordnance or sorties.
Before the first assaults in Syria on Monday night, U.S. Central Command had conducted 190 airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq since Aug. 8 — less than an average of four per day.
“Unfortunately, we did not use the right weapons,” said the retired officer, a former fighter pilot. “For example, blowing an antenna off the top of buildings. Hit the building with a 2,000-pounder, not cruise missiles.
“It is a start, but we need many more sorties,” he said.
At a Pentagon briefing Tuesday, Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, showed overhead images to explain to reporters how the missile attack took out the communication suite atop an Islamic State finance center in Raqqa, Syria, the terrorist group’s headquarters.
“The Tomahawk cruise missiles detonated as air bursts with the effects focusing on the communications array,” Gen. Mayville said. “And, as you can see, on the right-hand side in the picture, the after picture, the rooftop communications is heavily damaged, while the surrounding structure remains largely untouched.”
Early Wednesday, U.S. Central Command announced that it had reduced the tempo of the airstrikes, conducting a smattering of hits in Iraq and one in Syria. But later in the day, U.S. fighter jets and aircraft belonging to two Arab partner nations began dropping missiles on Islamic State-controlled oil refineries in eastern Syria.
The targets chosen by Central Command have not been so much to degrade the Islamic State inside Iraq as they have been to stop it from moving in one direction or another, or to break its hold on particular locations such as dams or small towns.
The target list typically includes vehicles, fighters and riverboats, but not command sites that the Islamic State has set up across Iraq in urban-type surroundings that are more difficult to strike.
The air war continues without American combat troops on the ground to uproot Islamic State positions. Iraqis have shown little ability to carry out such missions or to spot targets for U.S. warplanes.
Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, Central Command chief, wanted to put U.S. spotters on the ground, but Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Joint Chiefs chairman, convinced him that other tactics could be used. Mr. Obama has decreed “no boots on the ground.”
Under the current setup, joint command centers radio the positions of the enemy to Iraqis and U.S. pilots based on video feeds from unmanned aircraft and other intelligence assets.
“That is a recipe for disaster once we get into close-in combat,” said a retired military officer who visits Baghdad routinely and works with Iraqi defense officials.
The former officer explained the mission gap. Ground spotters need a critical piece of equipment: a multiband radio that connects them to other combatants and to pilots overhead. Conventional forces also have no specialized units set up to spot targets.
That capability resides with Iraqi special operations forces, but they have limited experience, the former officer said.
This role is not as important while U.S. pilots target Islamic State fighters in relatively open terrain, but it becomes crucial if the reorganized Iraqi units begin to fight in close combat in congested areas where pilots need exact locations.
“I’d like to see more of everything,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales. “A real air campaign with sorties delivered against the ISIS leadership.”
Without more intensive strikes, he said, “Over time the enemy learns to obviate the killing effects and becomes used to seeing planes orbiting overhead. Also, of course, he learns to hide and dig in. So if strikes come in drips, then the effects are more aggravating than lethal.”
The Pentagon said the air campaign could go on for years.
The Iraqi army has shown itself unable, or unwilling, to stand up to the Islamic State. The country’s special operations arm, also referred to as counterterrorism units, are more proficient. They fought alongside Kurdish peshmerga fighters to take back the huge hydroelectric dam near Mosul, with cover from U.S. airstrikes.
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