Lt. Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., commander of US Air Forces Central Command, keeps a chart in his office at Al Udeid AB, Qatar, that he calls his “EKG chart.”
The lines on the graph jump up and down, like those for a heart monitor. This EKG chart tracks which aircraft are deployed to help in the fight against ISIS. The line drops when a squadron returns home and jumps back up when more aircraft deploy. There are peaks and valleys, as aircraft from the US Air Force and coalition partners deploy to the area of operations and return.
“That’s the reason the chart for me is so important, because I can actually articulate well in advance and start having the discussion,” Brown said. He knows: “There will be another valley, and I want to make sure we are prepared for that valley.”
In February, despite B-1s returning to the US the month before, the coalition had a peak of aircraft assigned to the fight, Brown told Air Force Magazine at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla. This includes the US aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman and French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. A brief drop is coming, however, as the carriers leave before the Air Force’s oldest bomber joins its newest war. B-52s will deploy to the Central Command area of operations in April, with upgraded B-1s returning in August, said Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command.
The Air Force’s operations in the Middle East have changed so dramatically that what was standard procedure is now out of date. The AFCENT Brown took over in June 2015 is completely different from the current command, he said.
“Sometimes back in the day is last week, or back in the day yesterday,” Brown said in Orlando. “Because … your facts and assumptions based on your deployment experience have completely changed, which drives how we plan and execute our air operations. We’re always looking at what’s changing dynamically” within the area of responsibility.
Since Operation Inherent Resolve began in June 2014, the coalition’s pace against ISIS has continued to increase. As of early February, it has flown approximately 10,000 strikes, employing 37,000 munitions, with an overall count of 80,000 sorties, including refueling and surveillance. These are “indeed having an effect” on ISIS, including recent strikes on the group’s oil infrastructure—meaning they are having financial problems in addition to losing territory.
The beginning of the campaign had a largely singular focus: preventing the fall of Baghdad to ISIS. At that time, ISIS was rapidly gaining ground, moving through areas in large convoys and flying black flags. This made them prime targets for air strikes. Since then, the group has adjusted. They are hiding in population centers, going underground, using civilians as cover, Brown said.
“Before, I don’t think they understood airpower,” Brown said of ISIS. “Now they do. When they hear airplanes and understand we’re close by, they take precautions.”
The coalition has needed to change how it operates—relying on long-term surveillance and intelligence to develop targets. While this has made targeting harder in some ways, it hasn’t slowed the pace of operations, Brown said. Every month since July 2015, the coalition has exceeded the monthly average of air strikes from the first 10 months of the campaign. In January 2016, coalition aircraft dropped 2,695 bombs, some 200 more than January of 2015.
“The effect did not happen overnight,” Brown said. “It’s taken time to understand this adaptive enemy and over time we’ve been able to watch and learn more about this particular adversary. … Time has given us the ability to precisely strike an increasing number of lucrative targets.”
These operations have continued, despite the more-recent Russian “distraction” in the neighborhood, Brown said.
Russia’s operations in western Syria have largely avoided their stated goal of attacking ISIS and instead assisted the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to reclaim territory, including the large city of Aleppo. Even with the additional aircraft crowding the skies, Russia and the US have been able to stay professional and show a “mutual respect” to avoid any incidents, Brown said. The US and Russia speak daily to ensure communication lines are open, and there are regular larger-scale video conferences with top Defense Department and Russian Ministry of Defense officials to keep the process open, with a recent one occurring on Feb. 29.
Russia, when it first deployed to Syria in September 2015, would fly close to US aircraft to “check them out,” Brown said, but that practice died down when a Turkish F-16 shot down a Su-24 in November. Russia was then wary of US and coalition aircraft, but Brown said he believes Russia is sure of the coalition’s professionalism in the sky. The coalition does not worry about Russian or Syrian aircraft during missions, and “we have and will continue to operate where we need to,” he said.
The basis for deconfliction came in October, when the two countries agreed on a memorandum of understanding on flight operations. During this debate, Russia repeatedly asked for more information on US operations and even combat search and rescue assistance. That request was rejected because “we have barely enough” assets to do CSAR for ourselves, Brown said.
The Air Force has positioned combat search and rescue forces in Turkey, Iraq, and Kuwait to quickly respond to potentially dangerous missions into ISIS territory. USAF has even kept pararescuemen airborne during certain strike missions because of how ISIS operates, Brown said.
The operations in Iraq and Syria have continued while Central Command remains committed to other responsibilities. The command has a US air liaison team in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to help in that country’s air war against Houthi rebels and other extremist groups in Yemen. The Air Force is also flying air refueling support “daily” to aid aircraft in that campaign, said Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II, commander of Air Mobility Command, at the Orlando symposium.
The biggest commitment outside of Operation Inherent Resolve, however, remains in Afghanistan.
US air advisors have faced some “fits and starts” in training Afghanistan’s fledgling air force, but the service is on the right path as Afghanistan fields A-29 Super Tucano light air support aircraft and MD-530 helicopters. The country is accepting more cadets into its air academy and has improved its “esprit de corps” during continued operations.
The US is still busy flying air strikes in Afghanistan, with a recent dramatic increase in kinetic support in early 2016.
After President Obama expanded the ability of commanders in Afghanistan to target ISIS forces, the US in January flew 51 sorties that resulted in a weapons release. There were 128 US bombs dropped in Afghanistan that month: the highest number of bombs dropped in Afghanistan since October of last year.
The US has not deployed more assets or changed its operational tempo, but now with the authority to go after ISIS in Afghanistan is doing so regularly, Brown said.