AL UDEID AIR BASE, Southwest Asia — At the coalition airpower hub for operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and across the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, the commander and coalition partners know they are making a difference in the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant terrorists.
“We know from our intelligence that (ISIL) fears coalition airpower,” said Lt. Gen. John Hesterman III, the Combined Forces Air Component commander. “Since Aug. 8, coalition airpower has significantly degraded (ISIL’s) ability to organize, project and sustain combat power while taking exceptional care to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties.”
Made up of 18 nations, the coalition airpower team is committed to defeating ISIL and has had many successes on the battlefield.
Coalition airpower has helped ground forces regain territory, removed significant numbers of fighters from the battlefield, and eliminated the majority of ISIL oil refining capability. However, numbers don’t tell the whole story.
“The success of coalition airpower throughout this conflict is proven by (ISIL’s) response to our aircraft,” said Maj. John Easton, the Air Forces Central Command tactics officer. “Early in the conflict, (ISIL) paraded themselves in open convoys and brazenly identified their positions with flags as many other fielded forces do. Coalition airpower’s ability to find and target the enemy was so successful that (ISIL) has since modified their tactics. We know now that they hide amongst the civilian populace and employ decoys in an attempt to be untargetable.”
With all of the changes the coalition has seen in (ISIL) tactics, it would seem an impossible task to find and strike them, but the coalition integrates intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance analysis and strikes to keep after ISIL.
“As the enemy’s tactics change, so have our airpower tactics, and we are still finding and eliminating (ISIL) fighters,” Easton said. “(ISIL) is very much afraid of our ability to strike them.”
Each of the coalition nations contributes something significant to this fight.
“The fact that we have a coalition working together and fighting this enemy is itself a demonstration of combined commitment and overall effectiveness against (ISIL),” said Canadian Brig. Gen. Patrice Laroche, the Combined Air Operations Center director. “Arab, European, Asian, North American — we all understand the importance of defeating (ISIL).”
Operators in today’s fight know just how critical coalition airpower is to enable ground forces to get after the enemy and Hesterman stated that virtually all are very proud of the contribution they are making, and should be.
“I expect my team to lean forward, and they are,” Hesterman said. “Not only has airpower been effective, but it has enabled virtually every victory on the battlefield and given the ground forces time to regroup and get their forces in order. It’s also given all our coalition nations the space and time to execute the international lines of effort for countering flow of foreign fighters; countering (ISIL) financing; providing humanitarian assistance; countering (ISIL’s) messaging; and stabilizing liberated areas, all of which will be necessary to finish (ISIL).”
However, some critics have downplayed airpower’s effectiveness and compared this conflict to Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, but those are false comparisons according to Lt. Col. Dave Haworth, the CAOC Combat Operations director.
“While pilots struck large numbers of targets in Desert Storm and the opening days of OIF, those fights had extremely different and available target sets,” Haworth said.
“In previous campaigns, we were fighting against a conventional military that massed in the open, away from the civilian population,” Haworth continued. “Those target sets don’t exist in this fight now. We’re fighting an enemy that hides behind civilians. You simply can’t compare then to now.”
Targeting an enemy that hides among the civilian population is difficult, according to Haworth.
“It’s really, really complex to find the enemy, but we are doing it,” Haworth said. “(ISIL) leadership is on the defense because the more we learn about this enemy, the more targets open up. It’s a growth industry.”
Army Capt. Matt Mraz, the Joint Personnel Recovery Cell deputy director, added that persistent air attack exploits ISIL’s weaknesses, and it is clearly having an effect in concert with ground forces.
“Our senior leaders have always said this fight will be difficult and that it will take time, but we’re committed as a coalition team,” Mraz said. “I’m confident that we are going to be able to take down these kidnappers, rapists and murderers for the good of all nations.”
Hesterman said he’s very proud of the young men and women of the coalition who are risking their lives every day to go after the ISIL terrorists, and give the world the time it needs to galvanize the multiple lines of effort that will ultimately finish ISIL.
“They’re exceptionally proud of what they’re doing and their impact on the enemy,” Hesterman said. “They deserve the deep respect of every one of us.”