The U.S. is relying mostly on warplanes already positioned in the region for its air war against the Islamic State, as opposed to dispatching a major buildup of aerial forces that happened in previous campaigns.
The set inventory illustrates the slow, methodical nature of the air-to-ground battle that the Pentagon says will go on for some time. A Pentagon official said there are no plans to send additional U.S. aircraft into the theater.
Since the start of the air campaign on Aug. 8, U.S. Central Command has been choosing predominately small tactical targets in Iraq. It so far has held off from targeting harder-to-find objectives in urban environments where the Islamic State, also called ISIL and ISIS, maintains headquarters, start-up regime offices, courts and military installations.
The emerging strategy appears to be to wait for Iraqi Security Forces, still in a reorganization stage, to tackle those targets. Iraqi troops have seen limited action so far. President Obama has ruled out American ground forces.
“The administration’s approach is the least risky in hazarding American lives or committing to a protracted ground campaign, but is also least likely to change conditions on the ground,” said Dakota Wood, a military analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
“Air without ground is a terribly expensive way to deliver explosives that have minimal lasting effect, especially when the enemy possesses very little that he is critically dependent upon that can also be targeted by air,” said Mr. Wood, a former Marine Corps officer who did planning at Central Command.
The coalition is adding aircraft from France and England. In the first strikes on Syria, the Pentagon said 10 aircraft from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates played a role.
In Central Command’s public rundown of targets, it has not mentioned the various Islamic State installations set up to run captured Iraqi cities, such as Mosul, the terrorist army’s largest conquest since swooping in from Syria in June.
As of Friday, the coalition had conducted a total of 243 strikes in Syria and Iraq over 50 days — an average of five per day. Central Command says about 300 U.S. aircraft in the region are available for operations in Iraq and Syria.
“What air war?” asked Jon Ault, a retired Navy fighter pilot. “If we’re going to endanger the lives of our young warriors, then let’s turn them loose and let them do what they’re trained to do. Sending them in harm’s way with so many limitations is dangerous and cruel. We could bomb ISIS into oblivion in a matter of days, if not hours.”
The go-slow approach allows the U.S. to damage the Islamic State when and where it can until American advisers complete the task of reorganizing Iraqi Security Forces into units willing to fight. Once that happens, an Iraqi counteroffensive would, in theory, scatter the terrorists into the open and retake pivotal ground, such as the cities of Tikrit and Mosul.
“Sortie rate and number of aircraft will be driven by targeting,” said retired Gen. Merrill McPeak, the Air Force chief of staff during a very different kind of air war — the full-force 1991 Desert Storm. “I suspect it’s a small target set and, therefore, a low sortie and aircraft commitment.”
Noting that the administration’s prime objective is to defeat the Islamic State’s violent ideology, Mr. McPeak said: “You can’t carpet-bomb an idea, or at least you shouldn’t try to.”
The U.S.’ main aerial workhorses are Tomahawk cruise missiles, as well as the Air Force’s B-1B bomber, F-15E Strike Eagle, F-16 Falcons and the radar-evading F-22 Raptor. The U.S. military is relying on one aircraft carrier, the USS George H.W. Bush, and its F-18 Hornets. Desert Storm, whose target list included many of Saddam Hussein’s regime elements, required six carriers in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.
Central Command is not discussing bases. In the past the U.S. has operated fighters out of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar.
Senior defense officials last week defended the air war’s pace.
Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, press secretary for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, highlighted the bombings by U.S. and Arab planes that destroyed 12 small, modular oil refineries in Syria from which the Islamic State draws millions of dollars on the black market.
He called the hits part of “strategic attacks meant specifically to get at the ways that this group sustains, leads and controls itself. There will be more.”
Adm. Kirby drew a distinction between the air war over Syria, which entails strategic strikes to take away the Islamic State’s infrastructure, and over Iraq, where there are Iraqi ground forces to do that at some point. Thus, aircraft bombing sights in Iraq are focused on smaller, tactical things such as vehicles, boats, checkpoints and small clusters of fighters.
“This is going to take time,” he said. “This is not a short-term effort. And nobody here in the building is taking anything but a sober, clear-eyed view of the challenge in front of us.”
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, said that at some point “we’ve got to have a longer, larger campaign that actually recaptures lost territory.”
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