In September, President Obama essentially declared war on a terrorist organization, known as ISIS, ISIL, or IS, that has wrought havoc in the Middle East, beheading two American journalists held hostage in Syria and posing a threat to Westerners in the Middle East, Europe, and the Western Hemisphere.
“In a region that has known so much bloodshed, these terrorists are unique in their brutality. They execute captured prisoners. They kill children. They enslave, rape, and force women into marriage. They threatened a religious minority with genocide. And in acts of barbarism, they took the lives of two American journalists—Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff,” said Obama in a Sept. 10 address to the nation.
“So ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East, including American citizens, personnel, and facilities. If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States.”
That’s why, roughly one month after the US began conducting “targeted air strikes” against ISIS forces in Iraq, Obama outlined a four-point strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist network.
First, said Obama, the “systematic campaign of air strikes” will continue. At the same time, the US will work with the newly established Iraqi government to “expand our efforts … so that we’re hitting ISIL targets
as Iraqi forces go on [the] offense.”
The second part of the strategy, he said, is the addition of 475 service members in Iraq to support “forces fighting these terrorists on the ground.”
Third, the US will “redouble” its “efforts to cut off” ISIS funding; “improve our intelligence; strengthen our defenses; counter [ISIS’] warped ideology; and stem the flow of foreign fighters into and out of the Middle East.”
Finally, the US will continue providing humanitarian aid to civilians “displaced” by ISIS.
By early October, US Air Force C-130s and C-17s had dropped thousands of gallons of water and tons of food to “as many as 20,000 Yazidis,” a mostly Kurdish-speaking minority, who were stranded on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. “And our mobility forces will likely be called … again in the future,” said Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James in her address at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference in National Harbor, Md., in September.
As air strikes continued against tactical targets in Iraq, military planners were hard at work preparing a strategic air campaign against ISIS command and control, financial, and support facilities in Syria.
Obama made it clear he would “not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq,” but first he needed to build a broad coalition of support, particularly among the Gulf nations.
On Sept. 22, US and partner aircraft, cruise missiles, and US naval vessels launched the first strikes on ISIS targets in Syria. Combat aircraft included the US Air Force’s F-22 Raptor in its combat debut.
Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates also participated in the assault, later dubbed by Lt. Gen. William C. Mayville Jr., the Joint Staff director of operations, as a “credible and sustainable, persistent” air campaign. More than 40 additional countries “have offered help” in the battle against ISIS, the President said.
The coalition also is growing in Iraq: Belgium, Britain, Denmark, and the Netherlands have agreed to join the US and France in the air campaign in Iraq, said Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in late September.
“The strength of this coalition makes it clear to the world that this is not America’s fight alone,” said Obama on Sept. 23. “Above all, the people and governments in the Middle East are rejecting ISIL and standing up for the peace and security that the people of the region and the world deserve.”
Although intelligence reports have not indicated any specific ISIS plots against the US, Obama noted the growing number of foreigners, “including Europeans and some Americans,” who have joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
He cited intelligence estimates of more than 15,000 foreign fighters from 80 nations who have traveled to Syria since the civil war broke out there three years ago. Many of those fighters have joined ISIS.
Obama and other national security leaders, including Hagel and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson, said the possibility that these fighters could return to their home countries to carry out deadly attacks is a very real threat.
“This is not the end of the story,” and the nation needs to remain vigilant, cautioned Johnson during the AFA conference.
Johnson said ISIS is not only a terrorist organization; it is an insurgent army that brings in more than $1 million per day in revenue—and occupies large parts of Iraq and Syria.
“We know [ISIS] is capable of, and has, killed Americans in a depraved manner just because they were Americans,” he said.
Although Pentagon leaders said the mission cannot be accomplished by airpower alone, there is no doubt it is the vital component. James said airpower will help to “secure the battlefield as we eradicate over time this cancerous terrorist network.” Airpower also will help “roll back ISIL advances and create space on the ground for Iraqi and Kurdish forces to go on the offense,” she added.
Since the operation began in Iraq on Aug. 8, airmen have “conducted the lion’s share of the air strikes in northern Iraq, always in partnership with our naval aircraft partners, and we’ve also led approximately 30 refueling sorties per day in order to sustain those operations,” said James.
“We’ve been working with our coalition partners and sister services for years to develop the full array of airpower capabilities we are bringing to this fight,” Maj. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, assistant deputy chief of staff for operations, plans, and requirements on the Air Staff, said at the Pentagon on Sept. 29.
In their first combat role, F-22s took out an ISIS command and control center in Ar Raqqah, Syria, located along the Euphrates River some 75 miles from the Turkish border. The flight of F-22s, assigned to the 1st Fighter Wing at JB Langley-Eustis, Va., and deployed to the Persian Gulf region, used GPS-guided munitions to target “only the right side of the building” where the command and control center was located, said Mayville.
Officials familiar with the program told Air Force Magazine the Raptors dropped 1,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munitions. USAF F-22s can carry two such bombs. Some also are equipped to carry eight Small Diameter Bombs, though officials said the ones operating in the Middle East are not.
In addition to stealth and speed, the F-22’s “greatest capability” is its “integrated” and “fused” avionics, which can be used to improve situational awareness, said Harrigian. He said USAF had performed 74 percent of the strike sorties in Iraq and Syria.
As the fight continues, USAF’s intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance network—to include space and cyber assets—will be called on to build situational awareness for the primarily local forces fighting on the ground.
“Airmen have already used remotely piloted aircraft and precision guided munitions to execute pinpoint strikes on ISIL targets surrounding the Mosul Dam, which allowed Iraqi and Kurdish forces to retake those vital assets,” said James in September. “Airmen in ISR will be equally important as the operation to cut ISIL’s network grows.”
In addition, USAF intelligence specialists interact daily with the other services to provide the information necessary to stop ISIS.
“So for all the talk that we go through in terms of boots on the ground, how many, and what will they do, I for one thank God every day that we have so many US airmen boots in the air,” said James in reference to Obama’s promise not to put US ground forces on Syrian soil.
That includes joint terminal attack controllers, said Mayville. He acknowledged, however, that military planners would of course “prefer” to have someone on the ground to limit the potential for collateral damage, especially in confined environments.
Adding the F-22 to the mix makes the other participating US assets, including F-15E Strike Eagles, F-16s, F/A-18s, B-1B bombers, and unidentified remotely piloted aircraft more lethal and survivable.
“It is not just for the pilot in the airplane, but really for the entire package that is going to execute the mission,” Harrigian stated.
The air campaign had five days earlier involved US, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates fighter jets and remotely piloted aircraft striking 12 “small-scale” oil refineries controlled by the terrorist organization. As of late September, officials said they were still assessing the battle damage of all the strikes, though initial reports indicated a success.
The refineries—located in remote areas of eastern Syria—were known to produce 300 to 500 barrels of refined petroleum per day generating as much as $2 million per day to fund the organization’s terrorist activities.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said the air strikes did not completely destroy the oil refineries, but they did degrade the organization’s ability to use them to support their forces and to fund their black market activities. He later told reporters the US is hoping to disrupt the ISIS organization while also preserving some infrastructure for the Syrian opposition to use once its government stabilizes.
Still, Kirby assured, “They’re not going to be using these refineries for some time.”
Of the 16 fighter aircraft participating in the Sept. 24 strikes, 10 belonged to the UAE and Saudi Arabia and six were US aircraft. No F-22s participated, said Kirby. A total of 41 precision munitions, ranging from 250-pound to 1,000-pound bombs, were used in the strikes; UAE or RSAF aircraft dropped 23.
As of Sept. 26, the US and its Arab partners had conducted 43 air strikes in Syria. The US and France had launched more than 200 air strikes in Iraq, said Hagel.
USAF conducted 70 percent of the more than 3,800 sorties flown in Iraq and Syria, said Harrigian. The Air Force also has conducted 95 percent of the almost 1,300 tanker sorties and 700 intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance sorties for the operation.
Military leaders have repeatedly emphasized that at no time has there been any effort to “coordinate” strikes with the Bashar al-Assad government, though they also said the United Nations ambassador did inform the Syrian government of the upcoming air campaign.
To date, no US aircraft have been lost in the campaign, despite Syria’s well-known anti-aircraft weapons.
Mayville suggested the Syrian government offered no resistance to the air strikes, saying only that coalition aircraft were detected by radar, but it was “passive.” He declined to elaborate.
Leaders have cautioned they are just beginning to implement the strategy to destroy ISIS.
The objectives are clear. US and coalition forces will continue efforts to degrade ISIS’ capabilities and network in both Syria and Iraq. They will continue building the coalition through regional partnerships. They will assist Iraqi and Peshmerga forces as they go on the offensive against ISIS extremists who have taken control of their land. They will continue to work diplomatic options. And they will move forward with the Syrian train and equip mission, though it could take up to a year to see the first vetted fighters on the battlefield.
The US Congress, often gridlocked by partisan politics, approved a measure to arm and train Syrian opposition forces with a bipartisan majority in mid-September. Obama said the move “shows the world that Americans are united in confronting the threat” from ISIS.
The United Nations Security Council on Sept. 24 unanimously approved a resolution to confront the growing threat of foreign terrorist fighters. And the US Treasury Department is leading an effort to cut off the organization’s financing.
“Sustaining our broad diplomatic, economic, and military campaign will require a long-term commitment
from the United States and all of our partners and allies,” said Hagel on Sept. 26. “This will not be an easy or brief effort. We are at the beginning, not the end.”