Bombs Away

Air Force Pilots Say They're Flying Blind Against ISIS

Obama’s no-boots-on-the-ground pledge is keeping America from fighting an effective air campaign in Iraq and Syria.

10.10.14 9:55 AM ET

Within the U.S. Air Force, there’s mounting frustration that the air campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq is moving far more slowly than expected. Instead of a fast-moving operation with hundreds of sorties flown in a single day—the kind favored by many in the air service—American warplanes are hitting small numbers of targets after a painstaking and cumbersome process.

The single biggest problem, current and former Air Force officers say, is the so-called kill-chain of properly identifying and making sure the right target is being attacked. At the moment, that process is very complicated and painfully slow.

“The kill-chain is very convoluted,” one combat-experienced Air Force A-10 Warthog pilot told The Daily Beast. “Nobody really has the control in the tactical environment.”

A major reason why: the lack of U.S. ground forces to direct American air power against ISIS positions. Air power, when it is applied in an area where the enemy is blended in with the civilian population, works best when there are troops on the ground who are able to call in strikes. From the sky, it can be hard to tell friend from foe. And by themselves, the GPS coordinates used to guide bombs aren’t nearly precise enough; landscape and weather can throw the coordinates off by as much as 500 feet. The planes need additional information from the guys on the ground. The only other option is to use laser-guided bombs, but even then the target has to be correctly indentified beforehand.

But putting the specialized troops the Pentagon calls “Joint Terminal Air Controllers,” or JTACs, into combat comes with a cost. “The problem with putting JTACs on the ground is that once you get American boots on the ground—and one of those guys gets captured and beheaded on national TV or media,” the A-10 pilot said.

The Pentagon has compensated for this, in part, by easing back in Syria on the restrictive rules used in Afghanistan to minimize civilian casualties. But in many other aspects, current and former Air Force personnel say, U.S. Central Command is fighting the war against ISIS in largely the same way it operates against the Taliban in Afghanistan. “The strategic problem posed by [ISIS] is different than that in Afghanistan,” one former senior Air Force official said. “So the similarity of the minimal application of airpower, along with excessive micromanagement by the CENTCOM bureaucracy, is a symptom of not recognizing that this is a different strategic problem.”

After all, ISIS isn’t simply a collection of terrorists. The group holds territory, and manages an inventory of heavy military and civilian equipment. There’s a reason they call themselves the Islamic State. So instead of worrying about individual air strikes, this former official said, the CENTCOM needs to run a wider more free-ranging air war where more targets are hit much more quickly. “Very few in the military today have experience in planning and executing a comprehensive air campaign—their experience is only in the control of individual strikes against individual targets,” the official added. “There needs to be constant 24/7 overwatch, and immediate attack of any [ISIS] artillery, people, vehicles, or facilities that they are occupying.”

But that is a view shared mainly by those within the Air Force—which has, for decades, argued that it has the ability to win wars though strategic bombing.

Even in the case of the campaign against ISIS, there are many officers from the Army, Navy and even the Air Force who told The Daily Beast that they agree with the restraint shown by CENTCOM leadership—noting it is pointless to bomb the wrong target and antagonize the local population.

Further, the challenge for CENTCOM is further compounded by the lack of workable intelligence in Syria. It’s hard to untangle the convoluted alliances and entanglements between friend or foe. Often, so-called moderate rebel forces cooperate with the hardcore Islamic fighters in their fight against the Syrian government or even ISIS. (That’s why, late last month, a moderate camp was almost hit by an allied airstrike; the bombs were meant for the al Qaeda outpost next door.) Additionally, there is little to no cooperation or coordination with moderate rebel forces and the U.S. military.

Because of those factors, there are often too few suitable targets to attack, sources told The Daily Beast. A partial solution to that—even though it is not quite as effective as having troops on the ground—is to use an airborne controller. That usually means a low, slow flying warplane like the Air Force’s A-10 Warthog, which can stay in a target area for a long time and tell other aircraft where to drop their weapons. “It doesn’t have to be an A-10, it can be an Apache [attack helicopter], but they are slow and vulnerable—so that’s one drawback for a helicopter vice fixed-wing,” the A-10 pilot said.

He conceded that the Air Force does have some F-15E Strike Eagle supersonic fighter-bomber crews who are trained to do that mission too. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps also use the supersonic F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter to guide other jets to their targets.

Right now, there are no Warthogs deployed to the fight against ISIS, however the Indiana Air National Guard will send a dozen of the jets to the area this month. The Army, however, has deployed some AH-64 Apache gunships into Iraq to strike at ISIS from close in.

“We’re using AH-64s because they’re the best platform to get in and visually identify the targets and either take them out or designate for someone else to take them out,” said one former Army aviator with extensive Apache experience. “ISIS does have armor, so Hellfires [anti-tank missiles] will be very effective against them, and we all know how devastating a weapon the 30mm [cannon] is against troops.”

But the Apaches are short range and need maintenance troops to deploy with them into a location within Iraq itself. “The only disadvantage is contrary to President Obama, we definitely have ‘boots on the ground,’” the former Army officer said. “They’re unsupportable otherwise.”

There’s another reason the campaign against ISIS is proceeding slowly: the unwieldy coalition of foreign countries put together by the U.S. to fight in this new war. There are differing ways of doing things and different countries have different objectives, which makes for a long process, the A-10 pilot said.

There have also been instances during this air war when combat aircraft are not available in time to strike a target that pops up. For example, the A-10 pilot said, if a Predator drone finds a target, it can take warplanes like a B-1 bomber or an F-15E Strike Eagle fighter—up to two hours sometimes—to arrive at the target area. Often times, the target is simply gone by then. “You bring in assets like the A-10 or Apaches, and you bring them in close, that’s a whole lot easier to handle,” the A-10 pilot said. “That’s one way to speed it up.”