They blame a bureaucracy that does not allow for quick decision-making. One Navy F-18 pilot who has flown missions against ISIL voiced his frustration to Fox News, saying, “There were times I had groups of ISIL militants in my sights, but couldn’t get clearance to engage.”
He added, “They probably killed innocent people and spread evil because of my inability to kill them. It was frustrating.”
Sources close to the air war against ISIL told said that strike missions take, on average, just under an hour, from a pilot requesting permission to strike an ISIL target to a weapon leaving the wing.
A spokesman for the US Air Force’s Central Command pushed back, “We refute the idea that close air support strikes take ‘an hour on average’. Depending on the how complex the target environment is, a strike could take place in less than 10 minutes or it could take much longer.
A former US Air Force general who led air campaigns over Iraq and Afghanistan also said today’s pilots are being “micromanaged,” and the process for ordering strikes is slow — squandering valuable minutes and making it possible for the enemy to escape.
“You’re talking about hours in some cases, which by that time the particular tactical target left the area and or the aircraft has run out of fuel. These are excessive procedures that are handing our adversary an advantage,” said retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a former director of the Combined Air Operations Center in Afghanistan in 2001.
Deptula also contrasted the current air campaign against ISIL with past air campaigns.
The US-led airstrikes over Iraq during the first Persian Gulf War averaged 1,125 strike sorties per day, according to Deptula. He said the Kosovo campaign averaged 135 strikes per day. In 2003, the famous “shock and awe” campaign over Iraq saw 800 strikes per day.
According to the US-led coalition to defeat ISIL, US military aircraft carry out 80 percent of the strikes against ISIL and average 14 per day.
Deptula blames the White House for the bottleneck.
“The ultimate guidance rests in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” he said. “We have been applying air power like a rain shower or a drizzle — for it to be effective, it needs to be applied like a thunderstorm.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently complained that 75 percent of pilots are returning without dropping any ordnance, due to delays in decision-making up the chain of command.
A senior defense official at the Pentagon pushed back on the comparisons between the air war against ISIL and past air campaigns.
“The Persian Gulf War and Kosovo are not reasonable comparisons. In those instances, we were fighting conventional forces. Today, we are supporting a fight against terrorists who blend into the civilian population,” he said. “Our threshold for civilian casualties and collateral damage is low. We don’t want to own this fight. We have reliable partners on the ground.”