National Security & Defense

The Pentagon’s ISIS Strategy, By Its Own Accounting, Is a Mess

Flight operations aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt, May 2015. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

On June 5, at a Pentagon press conference, Lieutenant General John W. Hesterman III, Combined Forces Air Component Commander, vigorously championed both the success of the bombing in Iraq and Syria, and the Defense Department’s method for controlling air strikes. The briefing illustrated how, as in Vietnam, the military becomes politicized and loses focus.

A few observations:

Attrition is not a strategy. The general began by saying that bombing was “killing 1000 [ISIS] fighters a month.” These deaths, he asserted, have “a profound effect upon the enemy.”

Stop right there.

Bombing is not a strategy. It is weapon, like a rifle. If attrition were our strategy, then the measure is the number of enemy killed as compared to the total number of fighters plus replacements. For years in Vietnam the CIA and the military claimed that bombing was having a severe effect and that North Vietnamese morale under B-52 strikes was at rock bottom. Maybe so, but North Vietnam eventually conquered South Vietnam.

Pentagon officials shouldn’t be political mouthpieces. It was disappointing that the general asserted, “air power is giving coalition nations the time to execute the effort to finish Daesh. . . . There’ll be tactical setbacks . . . [but] we are fully committed to a strategic defeat of the Daesh terrorists.”

“Fully committed” is a political pledge only the commander-in-chief can make. And President Obama has promised we will not be fully committed. Generals must refrain from being thrust out in front to defend political decisions.

Our mission in Iraq and Syria is incoherent. No can define the American military mission, because it has no clearly articulated political strategy or end state. Yesterday, retired General McChrystal criticized Hesterman’s Air Force briefing. In his book, he wrote, ”I directed all units cease reporting . . . insurgents killed. . . . I wanted to take away any incentives that might drive commanders and their men to see killing insurgents as the primary goal.”

Today, killing is being trotted out as the primary measure of American effectiveness.

Who speaks for American military objectives and means?

Air-strike control is much too centralized. I called in strikes in 1966 on the ground in I Corps. No pilot ever hesitated or questioned me. Over the course of dozens of embeds since 2003 in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I have been on the battlefield with our air controllers and observed the process firsthand. The difference in air-strike control is huge.

Who speaks for American military objectives and means?

In his briefing, Hesterman declined to mention how centralized and difficult it has become for a JTAC or a pilot to release a bomb. Today, a pilot is held morally responsible for satisfying himself that the controller on the ground has made the correct call. The videotape of every bombing is reviewed back at base, often by a lawyer. The pilot shares the responsibility for dropping a bomb, regardless of what the man on the ground tells him. I have been out there on the lines looking at Taliban, and heard the air controller next to me talking to the air officer at battalion, with a lawyer present, talking to higher headquarters, while the pilot circled, asking questions about the certainty of the target. The confirmation loop today is much, much longer than in previous wars, both in terms of time and in the number of personnel involved.

When he was asked about the centralization of air support in his briefing, the general answered with these words: ”we use a multitude of sources to initially ID the enemy. Then JTACS in operations centers do a collateral damage estimate and we de-conflict friendlies. And, a senior officer then clears the sortie . . . JTACs are in operations centers watching with ISR . . . in some cases, [op centers] have better situational awareness because they have more input.”

Let me ‘deconflict’ those elliptical sentences: When an air-support operation is conducted in 2015, operations centers hundreds of miles from the target review what the pilot is watching, record what he is saying, give him advice, and overrule him in those cases where the senior watch officer is not convinced. 

#related#Is the application of air strikes in 2015 more centralized and more sensitive about civilian casualties than it was during Vietnam, or the bombing of Serbia in the 90s, or even the bombing of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003? Of course it is. For the general to imply that the system has not become more centralized during his 32 years as a pilot was disappointing. At the least, our senior military leadership should acknowledge and forthrightly defend this centralized trend.

In sum, the threat in Syria and Iraq will not be eliminated by generals who assert “we are fully committed,” and who take credit for killing from the air without acknowledging serious issues with how we apply air power and whether we are on the path to defeating an enemy we won’t even acknowledge is Islamist.

Bing West — A combat Marine and former assistant secretary of defense, Mr. West embedded over many years with our troops across Afghanistan and has written four books about the war. His most recent is The Last Platoon: A Novel of the Afghanistan War.


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