WASHINGTON — It's been one year since the United States and partner nations began airstrikes to degrade and destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the fight is far from over.
Now as Russia ramps up its own offensive, the Pentagon faces accusations that commanders do not have a clear strategy or goal for the campaign.
Some blame the perceived lack of progress on President Obama's reluctance to use airpower to its full potential. Critics compare Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) to previous air offensives, pointing out that coalition aircraft flew significantly more strike missions each day during Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom.
But the Air Force is pushing back, arguing that the nature of warfare has shifted drastically over the past few decades. The Pentagon can't fight this war the same way it fought the last few, top officials say.
How Does OIR Stack Up?
By comparison, during the 42-day Desert Storm air campaign against Saddam Hussein in 1991, coalition fighters and bombers flew 48,224 strike sorties, or 1,100 a day. Twelve years later, the 31-day Iraqi Freedom air campaign averaged more than 800 offensive sorties a day.
This limited application of air power to destroy ISIS raises questions about the administration's objectives, according to retired Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, former deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Deptula also pointed out that OIR is lead by an Army general: Lt. Gen. James Terry. This begs the question, he said, if the administration's goal is to take out ISIS through the use of air power alone, why put an Army commander in charge of the air campaign?
The administration's "anemic" action against ISIS has created a void in the region, one that Russia is all too happy to fill, Deptula said.
"They are taking advantage of a less-than-robust US military effort regarding the Islamic State to dramatically increase their presence in the Middle East," he said, adding that Russia's moves in recent days have shown "not only can the Russians walk and chew gum, they can also play chess."
Analyst Mark Gunzinger also lauded airmen conducting the strikes in Iraq and Syria, but blamed the perceived failure to defeat ISIS on the lack of an overarching strategy.
"This really isn't an air campaign as we have thought of them in the past, in terms of numbers of sorties, in terms of targets struck, in terms of intensity," according to Gunzinger, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and former deputy assistant secretary of defense. "It's almost as if the starting point was: 'How can the United States use the least force possible and avoid a deeper entanglement in the conflict?'"
Reality of Warfare Today
But the Pentagon defends its tactics in Syria, with one top Air Force general arguing that OIR is a completely different ballgame than past air campaigns.
For one thing, the battlefield today is much more complex, according to Gen. Hawk Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command. The situation in Syria involves many different players, Carlisle stressed: the Iranian Quds Force, the Shia militias, the moderate Sunnis, ISIS, the Kurds and the Syrians forces, just to name a few.
"When you look at the complexity of that battlefield, if you look at the number of players and the identification of who is who and who is doing what to whom, and you look at the factions that are out there ... this is an incredibly complex battlefield," Carlisle said last month during the Air Force Association's annual air and space exposition.
"I think people have to be cognizant of the fact that this is not the fights we've fought before, it's different."
Since Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, the US has made great strides in precision-guided munitions, Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, deputy chief of staff for ISR, pointed out in an interview with Defense News. Today, the US is deploying primarily precision-guided bombs in the region to avoid collateral damage, he stressed.
This could provide one explanation for OIR's lower strike sortie rate — commanders generally deploy these weapons less frequently than "dumb bombs" because they have a much higher chance of success.
But Deptula doesn't buy it. The Obama administration is placing too much emphasis on avoiding collateral damage, he argued, to an extent that well exceeds the requirements of the laws of armed conflicts. In the meantime, ISIS is busy murdering innocent civilians.
"What is the logic of a policy that limits the application of force to get rid of the evil that is the Islamic State while allowing them to kill innocent men, women and children?" Deptula said. "It's laudatory that Operation Inherent Resolve has resulted in zero civilian casualties ... but how many innocent men, women and children have been killed in that same time?"
One frustration for the Air Force is a lack of assets and intelligence on the ground, Otto noted. US agencies and coalition forces need to do a better job using intelligence, particularly human intelligence, to discern targets the Air Force can then strike from the air, he stressed.
"I think we need to do a better job at holistically using our intelligence to create the targets. So it's using signals intelligence, what we hear with geospatial intelligence, what we can discern from pictures with moving target indicators," Otto said. "That's hard work, but work that we need to improve."
Budget uncertainty is also a challenge for commanders in charge of the strikes in Syria and Iraq, Otto said. The Air Force is stretched dangerously thin, which limits commanders' ability to deploy key assets like remotely piloted vehicles and the Distributed Common Ground System, a global communications architecture that connects multiple intelligence platforms and sensors.
"The key skill sets that we need to do this have been stretched, and the ability to deploy and redeploy some of the key skills has been an issue for us in the Air Force," Otto said. "Those forces are stretched, and we are stretched thin on our target team expertise."
But the news out of Syria is not all bad. The Air Force's new F-22 Raptor, deployed for the first time last year as part of the ISIS strikes, is exceeding all expectations, Carlisle said.
"The reliability of that airplane is extraordinary, the maturity of that airplane — it's really reaching its stride," Carlisle said, adding that the Raptor acts as a complement to fourth-generation aircraft.
"We won't send airplanes into certain areas if they don't have F-22s with them because they make everybody better, they provide a capability that allows those fourth-generation airplanes to be even better than they would be on their own."
The stealthy F-22 is a game-changing air dominance platform, according to Col. Larry Broadwell, commander of the 1st Operations Group. Broadwell emphasized the Raptor's enhanced ability to identify and destroy targets on the ground, adding that the plane's integrated sensors have improved battlefield awareness for both US and coalition aircraft. Raptors from the 1st Wing were the first to deploy with a new air-to-ground capability upgrade, Broadwell noted.
But for all its new technology, the F-22 has some limits. While the Raptor is able to communicate back and forth with other F-22s, the plane does not yet have the ability to send information to fourth-generation aircraft, Broadwell acknowledged. The plane can import information across traditional data links, but can't export data, he said.
Broadwell said he is not concerned this will limit the aircraft's effectiveness in Syria, despite the increasingly crowded airspace.
The Air Force's ISR platforms are also performing well in the region, Otto said. For high-altitude surveillance missions, commanders are using Lockheed Martin's U-2 spy plane and Northrop Grumman's unmanned RQ-4 Global Hawk to gather intelligence.
For medium-altitude ISR operations, the Air Force deploys General Atomics' MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones. These platforms use full motion video to provide a clearer understanding of the battlefield, Otto said.
"The technology is incredible," Otto said. "We're able to do the Global Hawk or the MQ-1s and MQ-9s and fly those from back in the United States, which is when you think about that from a technological standpoint, very very advanced."
But even with the latest ISR technology and fifth-generation aircraft, the Air Force is afraid Russia is catching up.
"They are closing the gap," Carlisle said, noting that although Moscow's platforms pale in comparison to the F-22, the Air Force is concerned a Russian fifth-generation aircraft can give a US fourth-generation plane a run for its money.
"I still believe that we hold an advantage over everybody, and certainly the Russians, in the way we train and the caliber of our airmen, and I think fifth-gen to fifth-gen and fourth-gen to fourth-gen we still own the advantage," Carlisle said. "But their fifth-gen to our fourth-gen — that's a tough fight.