The leader of the air campaign against the Islamic State said Friday that there have been more than a hundred proposed strikes where the target was found to be a friendly force, highlighting the need for restrictive rules of engagement.
Lt. Gen. John Hesterman, the combined forces air component commander at U.S. Central Command, said it’s difficult to distinguish between friend and foe from the air, and that it’s crucial to know where Iraqi forces are on the battlefield to prevent U.S. strikes on Iraqi forces, or so called “blue-on-green” attacks.
“The thought that we don’t trust our pilots is just wrong. We trust these men and women to prosecute the most complex area of battle that I’ve seen in about 32 years,” Lt. Gen. Hesterman told reporters at the Pentagon via phone from Doha, Qatar. “It’s never been more difficult to identify friend from foe as it is right now in Iraq.”
Some lawmakers and former pilots have criticized the rules of engagement as being too strict, sometimes enabling enemy targets to get away while pilots wait for permission. These rules of engagement, they said, are part of the reason that only about 1 in 4 sorties actually drops any munitions.
But Lt. Gen. Hesterman said that most approvals for unplanned, dynamic strikes come within minutes, and those that are missed because of the delay often wouldn’t have made a difference in the broader fight.
“The relatively few targets we’ve not prosecuted in total wouldn’t have changed the strategic or probably even the tactical field of battle,” he said.
He also said any bombs that return on planes do so because coalition air power is working in an urban environment against an irregular fighting force unlike past conflicts to which critics are drawing unfair comparisons.
“Targeting a fielded army is relatively easy. … That’s not what we’re doing,” he said. “You have to unwind [terrorists] from the population and kill them where you can.”
“It’s not because we’re seeing them and not killing them,” he continued.
Lt. Gen. Hesterman said it’s crucial to minimize collateral damage and that the U.S. takes any report of civilian casualties very seriously, investigating every allegation, even Twitter posts that suggest a coalition strike may have killed a civilian.
Several civilians were killed, according to local media reports, in a U.S. strike that destroyed an improvised explosive device factory near Hawija, Iraq, owned by the Islamic State, also known as Daesh.
When asked specifically about it, Lt. Gen. Hesterman could not confirm any civilian casualties, but said he was familiar with the strike. The U.S. dropped a “fairly small weapon” on the factory, which was located in an industrial area. A larger secondary explosion occurred triggered by the large amount of explosives in the factory destroyed much of the industrial complex, he said.
“We’ll conscientiously look into it as we do every allegation,” he said. “But let’s be clear: What did the damage was the huge amount of explosives that Daesh intended to turn into murderous weapons to kill Iraqi forces and innocent civilians. If there are unintended injuries, that responsibility rests squarely on Daesh.”
Some analysts have said that putting American joint terminal attack controllers on the ground with Iraqi forces would increase the number of targets that can be hit by air while still minimizing civilian casualties, since eyes on the ground can provide intelligence and guide missiles to very specific targets.
But Lt. Gen. Hesterman said that while pilots need good information for accurate strikes, that doesn’t necessarily need to come from American sources.
“Would it be helpful? Probably. Is it necessary? Not so far,” he said.
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