U.S. air power is making progress but not achieving nearly as much as it could in the battle against the Islamic State because American pilots or forced to go through a long bureaucratic chain before receiving permission to attack obvious targets such as convoys and atrocities being committed in real time.
Rules of engagement have long been a point of frustration in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the restrictions placed on pilots are getting renewed attention following a Sunday blog post by retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Francona, a former intelligence officer who is now a commentator for CNN.
In the post, Francona quotes a pilot using the pseudonym of “Chris.”
“The level of centralized execution, bureaucracy and politics is appalling. Pilots have no decision making authority in the cockpit. Unless a general can look at a video from an ISR sensor, we cannot get authority to engage. I’ve spent hours watching a screen in my cockpit as ISIS commits atrocities, but I cannot do anything. The fear of making a mistake is now the hallmark of American military leadership,” said the pilot.
Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula says that analysis is spot on. Deptula served 35 years in uniform and held command positions in Operation Northern Watch in Iraq in the late 1990s. He also played key roles in orchestrating the air campaign against the Taliban in 2001 and spearheaded the response to the devastating South Asian tsunami.
When it comes to the fight against the Islamic State, Deptula says our air campaign is having noticeable results but it’s only a fraction of what is possible.
“While what’s going on has been very very effective and air power has halted the further movement of ISIL, we could be so much more effective is we actually put together a coherent, comprehensive air campaign,” said Deptula.
The first problem, he says, is the limited amount of activity in the air campaign.
“We have to apply air power like a thunderstorm, not like a drizzle. So far, we’ve been applying it like a drizzle,” he said.
Deptula says the difference between the air campaign in the Gulf War versus the current operation could not be more different. In the 43 days of Operation Desert Storm, he says there were 1,100 attack sorties and a total of 3,000 air sorties per day.
“The average since the 22nd of September of 2014 in Syria has been less than a handful, on the order of 5-10 strike sorties a day. To date, we’ve accomplished about 2,700 attacks since September. If you put that in Desert Storm terms, that’s about two days worth of attacks,” said Deptula.
While the circumstances may be different between the two conflicts, so is the mindset of U.S. military planners. Deptula says American leaders are terrified of making a mistake.
“There appears to be a disproportionate focus on the objectives being to completely avoid any collateral damage to the exclusion of inflicting the greatest amount of impact on the adversary,” said Deptula.
The main frustration for pilots is that while they are authorized to carry out their pre-planned missions, they are not permitted to exercise their own judgment if they spot an enemy convoy or even witness the Islamic State committing barbaric acts against innocent victims.
Just as “Chris” noted in Col. Francona’s blog, Deptula says there is a maddening and time consuming chain of command that pilots must follow.
“That pilot has to make a request to a tactical operations center, who then has to approve or discern that there are no possibilities for collateral damage or friendly fire in the area. Then they have to pass that request to higher headquarters, who then has to sign off on it,” said Deptula.
Deptula says the bureaucracy sometimes goes further than that and opportunities to attack are frequently squandered.
“In some cases, depending on if you’re in Syria or in Iraq, then there are other officers from other nations that get involved in the approval process. So just from what I’ve been telling you, you can see we’re not talking about a matter of seconds or minutes. In some cases it may be as long as hours or it may not happen at all,” he said.
When it comes to civilian casualties, Deptula says there is often confusion about whether laws or the military’s rules are at issue He says the facts are quite clear.
“The laws of international armed conflict understand that warfare is ugly and that casualties will occur. But there’s a big difference between causality of casualties and the responsibility for who accomplishes that,” said Deptula.
The general says if civilians die because they’re used as human shields by the Islamic State, the responsibility for the deaths belongs with the enemy.
“There is this misplaced concern about creating negative impressions in the media that can be used against those who are actually applying force,” said Deptula.
“The sad part of all of this is that adversaries like ISIL, if they are co-mingling with civilians, in accordance with the laws of modern conflict, they are the ones responsible for any casualties, not those applying the force in a legal fashion against the adversary,” he added.
Deptula says the effort to avoid civilian casualties at any cost actually winds up getting more people killed.
“If we get over-consumed with casualties and collateral damage avoidance, that is going to lengthen the campaign and ultimately increase overall civilian casualties. The best way to minimize casualties is to conduct a swift, rapid and focused operation to eliminate ISIL,” said Deptula.
For Deptula, the solution is simple: trust the pilots.
“You need to delegate execution authority and engagement authority to the individual who has the greatest situational awareness at the time, and that’s the pilot who can clearly see and discern what is going on,” said Deptula.
This is not just military theory for Deptula. He says that strategy was very effective while he served as Joint Task Force Commander during Operation Northern Watch, a mission enforcing no-fly zones in Iraq in 1998 and 1999.
“Instead of having my pilots have to ask, ‘Mother, may I?’ for engagement authority, I delegated to them engagement authority based within the context of the pre-brief rules and the degree of certainty of what they were engaging,” said Deptula.
How much of a difference would we see in the fight against the Islamic State if pilots had engagement authority? Deptula says it would be instant and obvious.
“You’d see the difference immediately and it’d make a big difference, because now you’re not missing valid, legitimate and timely targets that have been missed because of an excessive vetting process and an over-subscription to a focus on casualty avoidance as opposed to mission accomplishment,” said Deptula.