U.S. warplanes have been flying close air support missions for Iraqi and Kurdish forces through a complex tactical arrangement that avoids having U.S. troops on the front lines to call in the strikes, an Air Force general said Monday.
"We think it’s being very effective right now," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, the assistant deputy chief of staff for Operations.
Harrigian said that Kurdish and Iraqi forces in close contact with Islamic State fighters have been calling in suggested targets to U.S joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs) based at Joint Operations Centers in Baghdad and the Kurdish capital of Irbil.
The JTACs then check the suggested targets with live stream video from intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets overhead "so that we know where the front lines are" to plan strike missions, Harrigian said.
"We are planning with them and working closely with them," Harrigian said of the Kurdish and Iraqi fighters, to avoid hitting friendly forces in the close air support missions.
President Obama has ruled out the use of U.S. ground troops in Iraq and Syria, but several retired generals and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates have said that ground troops inevitably will have to be committed, particularly to provide close air support.
Since the air campaign began on Aug. 8, the Air Force has flown the vast majority of the airstrikes as well as the ISR and refueling missions, Harrigian said.
The U.S. Air Force has conducted 74 percent of the more than 240 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria carried out by the U.S., and 50 percent of the airstrikes that began in Syria last week.
Overall, the Air Force has flown 70 percent of the total of 3,800 sorties by all types of aircraft, including 95 percent of the 1,300 tanker refueling missions, Harrigian said.
The air campaign has had a deterrent effect on the Islamic State fighters, but going forward "we recognize that that airpower alone is not going to destroy ISIL," Harrigian said, using another acronym for the Islamic State.
Harrigian, an F-22 pilot, did not state how many missions were flown by the F-22 Raptor, but said the stealth capabilities and advanced avionics of the F-22 were crucial in the first airstrikes in Syria last Monday.
Because of the air campaign, the Islamic forces are no longer able to mass as they did in sweeping into Iraq over the summer, Harrigian said. Their command and control capabilities and their oil resources have also been impacted, Harrigian said, but "they’re a smart adversary" and will adapt as the air campaign progresses.