Drone ‘Shortage’ Hampers ISIS War

The American campaign against the Islamic State is being largely fought from the sky. And even that aerial effort is being shortchanged, military insiders tell The Daily Beast.

US Air Force Photo/Alamy

The president has declared the fight against ISIS to be a top priority. But within some corners of the U.S. military, there are growing concerns that the fight isn’t getting the resources it needs. Specifically, senior military officials tell The Daily Beast, there’s a “shortage” of drones and other surveillance planes needed to keep tabs on ISIS militants in Iraq and in Syria.

By now, he coalition’s difficulties in monitoring ISIS have been well documented. ISIS forces are operating in smaller groups and inside the civilian population to avoid being spotted from the sky. And the militant group’s leaders are using encryption or human couriers to send messages. Just last week, key members of the U.S. government met to discuss how hard it’s been to track the militant group.

Until now, most of the internal criticisms about the American-led intelligence effort have largely centered around the lack of U.S. spies on the ground. These American military officials are making a different point: There simply aren’t enough American surveillance flights over the ISIS battlefield. The reason, they add, is because the war in Afghanistan continues to receive preferential treatment, even though it is winding down.

“A shortage of ISR exists,” one Air Force official told The Daily Beast, using the military’s acronym for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. “Afghanistan has the first draw on resources. With it being a NATO-based alliance, there is more face to lose if the U.S. diverts resources to Iraq or Syria against the ISIS tasking. As the troops draw down [in Afghanistan], they will need more, not less, ISR.”

A senior Pentagon official agreed that there is a shortage of surveillance planes needed to track down ISIS. But he disagreed with the Air Force official about the reason for it is the prioritizing of Afghanistan.

“Fair to say that we currently have more ISR requirements than we have the capacity to fulfill,” the official said. “Probably less about ‘losing face’ by diverting any more assets from [Afghanistan] than the need to continue to support the commanders’ high-priority ISR requirements during the drawdown.”

“As the transition stabilizes at the end of the calendar year, that should free up some ISR assets for use in Iraq and Syria,” the same Pentagon official said. “But the demand signal for [the ISIS fight] will still likely be greater than the ISR assets that we’ll be able to provide.”

In some ways, this is an age-old military problem. No commander is ever completely satisfied with the amount of information he has on his enemies. That’s especially true of today’s military leaders, who’ve grown accustomed to having a spy drone overhead.

Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, the newly installed head of Air Combat Command, called the appetite for overhead reconnaissance an “addiction.”

“Demand has never gone down ever,” Carlisle told reporters Monday. “It just continues to grow.”

When asked a question about whether there was a shortage of surveillance assets, Carlisle answered, “We don’t have enough of any of it.”

A spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which oversees the conflicts in both the Middle East and Afghanistan, disputed this notion. “U.S. Central Command ISR resources are sufficiently allocated to meet sustained and persistent coverage for respective missions and operations throughout their area of responsibility,” Maj. Curtis Kellogg told The Daily Beast in an email.

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But Lukman Faily, Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S., told The Daily Beast that he believes the fight against ISIS is being shortchanged.

“The feeling we get back home [is that] there’s no [American] sense of urgency in dealing with the threat of ISIS,” Faily said. “The intensity of the airstrikes needs to reflect that urgency.”When asked about whether the Americans were withholding surveillance aircraft from the ISIS fight in order to keep those planes flying over Afghanistan, the ambassador replied, “This was more than a month ago that we heard that—that other theaters of operations limited their desire to send more surveillance.”

During the last war in Iraq, the American military had a string of air bases from which to launch drone flights. Today, that’s not the case. The U.S. is relying more these days on bases outside the country. That may work for launching fast-moving fighter jets. For slow-going drones, it’s less than ideal.

“It’s an infrastructure issue. When you don’t have local bases, you’re not getting as much air coverage,” a former special-operations officer who is familiar with current operations against ISIS told The Daily Beast. “When you’re getting [drones] coming from outside the country, there’s the fuel issue; they’re not going to be able to stay in the air as long.”

What surveillance planes the U.S. does have over Iraq and Syria are limited in their effectiveness, because there aren’t American troops or spies on the ground to help verify what the drones are seeing from the air.

On Monday, a group of U.S. Air Force intelligence analysts made a rare, on-the-record admission about these shortcomings in the American surveillance efforts.

“We’re sensitive about what we can provide right now,” said “Jennifer” (whose last name is being withheld due to security), an Air Force senior master sergeant and an all-source intelligence analyst at the 480th Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

She added that in places like Syria and Iraq, it is very difficult to tell an ISIS militant apart from the Kurdish Peshmerga fighter or a member of an allied Iraqi militia. “Ultimately, that’s where additional intelligence comes in,” she told reporters.

480th ISR Wing Commander Col. Tim Haugh noted that in the recent past in Iraq, U.S. Army units would have been in the area providing on-the-ground reports—and more. “The other things we get in addition to human intelligence is just the presence on the ground,” he said. “So if we were looking at something on a street corner, and we were not sure what that was, there was a possibility at that time that there would have been an Army unit that had gone through that neighborhood.”

If there are no ground units available, the Air Force analysts typically rely on the U.S. embassy in the target country. However, in cases like Iraq and Syria, that can be problematic. There is no U.S. diplomatic presence in Syria to speak of while the U.S. Embassy in Iraq is located in Baghdad—far away from ISIS-occupied territory. “You could have a dialogue with them to get context,” he said. “There is no [Army or Marine] captain on the ground to talk to.”

In Congress, senior Republicans have been criticizing the lack of human-intelligence networks on the ground. “The intelligence on ISIS is limited by the fact that we don’t have a presence. So yes, we’re pretty much deaf and blind on the ground,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told The Daily Beast. “I think you need to somehow create networks that could give you better intelligence.”

As for the spies in the air, one Pentagon official said, there are always going to be imperfect tradeoffs between competing priorities. “Given the inherent ‘high demand/low supply’ nature of our ISR assets, we’re constantly involved in prioritizing multiple combatant commands’ requirements to best allocate and balance our scarce resources,” the Pentagon official added. “In this case, another named operation in Iraq and Syria to support just makes the process even more challenging.”

In the coming years, the situation might get even worse, noted Mark Gunzinger, a former B-52 bomber pilot and analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “It would be fair to say that the [combatant commanders’] demand for ISR assets continues to increase nearly unchecked while at the same time the Air Force’s budget is decreasing,” he said.

It’s not all doom and gloom. The Air Force official noted that there is a silver lining that comes with the news that ISIS is become more difficult to target. “If things are slowing down in targeting ISIS, that’s a good thing as long as it proves they cannot mass,” he said, using military jargon for forming large groups. “If they cannot mass, they will not be as effective in taking terrain.”

The Air Force official said that he was optimistic that with the Pentagon’s current strategy, ISIS can be defeated—at least in Iraq, and if the local government steps up to defeat the enemy. “That’s not an absolute thing, of course, but there are great reasons to doubt the veracity of third-party counterinsurgency in Iraq,” he said. “If Iraq is going to be safe and secure, Iraq is going to have to figure out how. Syria is something completely different, but suffice it to say, it’s not going to be a counterinsurgency.”

The Air Force official said that it was his personal belief that ISIS’ intent is to draw the United States into a protracted guerrilla war on the ground. “ISIS’s strategy is to bring U.S. troops back to Iraq, and maybe Syria,” the official said. “For the U.S. to fulfill that would be supremely self-defeating. If bombing ISIS brought their recruiting a little bounce, how many foreign-fighter extremists seeking to kill U.S. troops would a couple [of brigade combat teams] worth bring?”

-- with additional reporting by Noah Shachtman, Tim Mak, and Jacob Siegel