US commander: Lack of intelligence assets slowing down ISIS war

US commander: Lack of intelligence assets slowing down ISIS war
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A shortage of intelligence assets is slowing down the air war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), according to the commander of the air campaign.

With most U.S. forces far away from the fight in the Middle Eastern region, commanders are relying heavily on surveillance drones to develop targets before sending aircraft out on bombing runs, a process the military calls “deliberate targeting.”

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Drones are also helping with "dynamic targeting " — when pilots see opportunities to strike midflight — especially with targets where there may be a risk of civilian casualties.

"If there's one piece that I know that the Combined Joint Task Force and the ground component ask for is more ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance]," said Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Q. Brown at a recent press briefing.

"Because what it helps me to do is develop targets so we can strike at the same time as we develop those targets. The more ISR I have, I can minimize the risk to civilian casualties and continue the precision air campaign that we have," he said at the May 27 briefing. 

Military officials say intelligence is especially important as U.S.-backed Iraqi forces push into Fallujah, where the U.S. estimates about 50,000 civilians are holed up. 

"As the enemy wraps itself around the populace, over-watch and ISR becomes increasingly important," said Air Force Col. Christopher Karns, director of public affairs for Air Forces Central Command. 

"While it is unrealistic to expect zero civilian casualties, zero is always a goal. Without ISR, it arguably makes this goal more difficult to achieve," he added. 

A recent Rand Corp. study found that the ISIS air campaign could be enhanced by using a more "intelligence-driven approach" that would require more ISR assets and for those assets to be shifted toward deliberate targeting versus dynamic targeting.

"This may produce fewer strikes, but they would be of higher value. The measures of effectiveness should not be simply the number of fighters killed or the number of buildings or tanks hit, but whether actions cripple the organization’s ability to command, control, and sustain its operations," said Rand analyst Linda Robinson. 

Karns said Brown has "what is required to place the necessary pressure." 

But Robinson said in her study, which published last month, "The overall supply of ISR was limited, and the lack of dispersed U.S. ground forces limited intelligence collection." 

The Air Force has 314 drones in its arsenal: 118 MQ-1 Predators and 196 MQ-9 Reapers, with 17 Reapers used for testing and training. 

Officials don't specify where they are allocated or how many are being used in the ISIS war.

Drone experts say the shortage is not in machines as much as manpower.

"To the extent that there's a shortage, there's a shortage of pilots than drones," said Konstantin Kakaes, a fellow at the International Security Program at the New America Foundation. 

Another limiting factor is that the Air Force has temporarily decreased daily combat air patrols from 65 to 60 in order to reduce stress on the drone pilot force. It has initiated a “Get Well” plan to recruit and retain more pilots, as well as to raise the number of daily patrols 50 percent by 2019.

Brown said about 150 to 160 aircraft are airborne over Iraq and Syria around the clock daily, including command and control aircraft, strike aircraft, and tankers.

The most recent official cost estimate for the war shows that through May, the U.S. spent an average of $80,696 a day on ISR, compared with an average of about $5.5 million a day on flying operations. 

Other coalition partners also contribute ISR, though most contributions are kept private. The Rand study shows the Iraqi military has 10 ISR platforms. 

Robinson also said that operations in Afghanistan "continue to claim a portion of the U.S. stock of drones."  

Statistics published by Air Force Central Command show twice as many ISR sorties in Afghanistan than in Iraq and Syria, 7,012 compared with 3,028, between January and April. 

Karns said "to avoid touching upon operational security matters, I am unable to go into specifics as to why more ISR missions have been conducted in Afghanistan in 2016."

While not having enough ISR has become a common refrain from every combatant commander, Brown has the unique pressure of trying to conduct the most precise air war in history. 

Brown has been urging his team to not solely rely on full-motion video produced by surveillance drones and other assets to develop targets, and use the whole suite of intelligence tools available to them from all services and government agencies. 

"I joke with our staff here — you know, when I came to the Air Force, we didn't have full-motion video. And we were able to go strike and execute campaigns without, you know, being able to look at some of those things. 

"Sometimes it's breaking a little bit of the paradigm and the mindset, and looking for opportunities," he said.