U.S. military officials are pushing back against charges that the air war against Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria has been ineffective and amounts more to a "drizzle."
In Pentagon briefings and in Capitol Hill testimony, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, and others have responded that the campaign was killing ISIS fighters at a rate of about 1,000 per month, while taking "excruciating" pains to avoid civilian casualties. Up to 75 percent of the sorties flown have returned to base without firing weapons.
The officials acknowledged the mission has been more effective in supporting the Kurdish Security Force (KSF) in northern Iraq and northeastern Syria than the Iraqi Security Force (ISF). But they attributed the difference to more open terrain and better defined targets in those areas.
They also rejected, at least for now, the call from Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and others to put joint terminal air controllers, or JTACs, on the frontlines with the Iraqi forces to guide airstrikes.
The debate came to a head last week during a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee when Dempsey listened with growing frustration to Rep. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, a former A-10 Thunderbolt pilot, lecture him on the shortcomings of the air campaign and that the command was overly concerned with civilian casualties.
The military should avoid "collateral damage" when possible, the congresswoman said, but "If we are deciding not to hit a legitimate target because there may be a civilian casualty, now we've turned that on its head."
McSally read at length to Dempsey from a recent Washington Post op-ed by retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, the former deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) who's considered an expert on air campaign planning.
Deptula, who was barred last year from doing business with the government until 2016 following charges of lobbying violations, said that "air power has to be applied like a thunderstorm, not a drizzle."
He accused the current mission planners of "an excessive focus on the avoidance of collateral damage and casualties" and asked, "What is the logic of a policy that restricts the use of air power to avoid the possibility of collateral damage while allowing the certainty of the Islamic State's crimes against humanity?"
"I couldn't disagree more" with Deptula, Dempsey replied, adding that killing civilians would be a recruiting bonanza for the terrorist group. Avoiding such casualties was a plus for the coalition air campaign, Dempsey said. "In my judgment, this is not the limiting factor," he said.
In a video briefing from Iraq to the Pentagon last Friday, Marine Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley skirted questions on a U.S. airstrike on the northern town of Hawija earlier this month that allegedly killed dozens of civilians.
Weidley responded in general that "when an accusation of a civilian casualty incident comes into the CJTF (Combined Joint Task Force), we take every one of those allegations seriously."
"We currently have five ongoing investigations" of possible civilian casualties from airstrikes, he said, but "we will not discuss any further details on those investigations at this time."
In an earlier briefing to the Pentagon, Air Force Lt. Gen. John Hesterman referenced the Hawija incident, using another term -- "Daesh" -- referring to ISIS.
"In this case, after a very disciplined targeting process, we dropped a fairly small weapon on a known IED (Improvised Explosive Device) building in an industrial area. The secondary explosion, which was caused from a massive amount of Daesh high explosives, was very large, and it destroyed much of that industrial area," said Hesterman, commander of U.S. Air Forces for Central Command.
"Let's be clear," he added. "What did the damage was a huge amount of high 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."
In the most detailed response to date to the air campaign critics, Hesterman said, "Daesh can be targeted while still protecting civilians, and so far, we can and are doing both."
"Coalition air power's not only been effective, it's enabled virtually every victory on the battlefield. It's helped ground forces regain territory, remove more than 1,000 enemy fighters a month from the battlefield, eliminated the majority of Daesh oil-refining capability," he said.
The general confirmed that up to 75 percent of U.S. planes were returning from missions without dropping bombs. But he added, "We've provided 24/7 presence over the battlefield to get after this enemy whenever we have the opportunity, whenever they show themselves. You know, sometimes they don't, and we bring those weapons back."
Hesterman said, "We're there 24/7, which is different than a lot of the previous air campaigns that people like to talk about" and also is the way U.S. air campaigns "have been conducted over the last 10 years."
He said, "The comparisons being made to conflicts against fielded armies in nation states don't apply in this case, and the folks making them, frankly, haven't been in a fight like the one we're in now."
Hesterman said, "This enemy wrapped itself around a friendly population before we even started. There is no, and never has been, a well-developed target set for that, which is necessary to do what we've done in the past."
Hesterman also rejected critics' charge that the air campaign has been hampered by the lack of JTACs on the ground. He said the controllers are already involved, but they operate out of joint operations centers in Baghdad and Irbil, the Kurdish capital, using intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to assist pilots.
"We have American JTACs here," he said. "We have them in all the different places, you know, the air operations centers throughout Iraq."
Hesterman said, "And they're watching the fight, you know, with the ISR capability that we have and communicating with the aviators and doing the collateral-damage estimates and making sure that we're getting after this enemy."
In some cases, the JTACs at the operations centers have better "situational awareness" than they would have if they were on the front lines, he said. "They're world class," he said, "and we'll take every one of them we can get."
--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com