Pentagon Relaxes Air Strike Rules, Sends B-52s to Blast ISIS in Iraq
More air power for Mosul campaign
by DAVID AXE
A series of enormous explosions in northern Iraq signaled a major escalation of America’s air war against ISIS.
The blast at a militant-held weapons depot in Qayarrah, 50 miles south of Mosul, ISIS’s main stronghold in Iraq, was the result of a raid by at least one U.S. Air Force B-52 heavy bomber, flying the type’s first combat mission in the Middle East in 13 years.
The B-52 struck the depot with several guided bombs, as depicted in an overhead surveillance video the U.S. Defense Department released on April 21.
Six of the eight-engine B-52s — America’s biggest warplanes — deployed from their base in Louisiana to an airfield in Qatar starting on April 8. There they joined a U.S.-led aerial armada that is bigger and busier than at any point in America’s two-year-old campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
More warplanes are flying more missions and dropping more bombs and firing more missiles, all in an effort to help the beleaguered Iraqi army as it struggles to wrest Mosul and surrounding towns from ISIS.
And the intensive air support appears to be working. Slowly and with tremendous effort, Iraqi troops are chipping away at the militants’ defenses. But the progress on the ground comes at ever-higher cost to U.S. taxpayers and greater risk to civilians in the war zone.
In June 2014, ISIS routed the poorly-led Iraqi army and seized Mosul, then a major center of oil production with a religiously diverse population exceeding two million. The militants hijacked the city’s oil infrastructure, destroyed many of its ancient Christian religious sites, imposed a tax on non-Muslim residents, forced potentially thousands of Mosul women into sex slavery and reportedly executed hundreds who refused to submit.
Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the city.
American advisors helped to retrain and re-equip the Iraqi army, and on March 24, the Iraqis counter-attacked toward Mosul under U.S. and allied air cover.
As the Mosul offensive got underway, the Pentagon assembled its most sophisticated aerial armada in many years. Air Force B-1 bombers that had flown bombing raids from Qatar since 2003 — hitting militants in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria — departed the Middle East in February, but the gigantic B-52s took their place.
Capable of flying thousands of miles while lugging 35 tons of bombs, the B-52s — heavily upgraded since entering service in the 1960s — are among the world’s most powerful warplanes. They joined a regional air coalition of more than a hundred U.S. Air Force F-22, F-16, F-15 and A-10 fighters, U.S. Navy and Marine Corps jets, manned U.S. spy planes and drones and U.S. Army Apache gunship helicopters — not to mention dozens of planes from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Jordan, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom and other countries.
Army colonel Steve Warren, the Pentagon’s main spokesman for the war on ISIS, praised the B-52s for pulling off the “same type of precision strikes that we’ve seen for the last 20 months here in this theater.”
The bombers’ arrival coincided with an uptick in coalition air strikes. In March 2016, U.S. and allied pilots dropped 1,982 bombs, according to Defense Department statistics. That was around 300 more weapons than the coalition dropped in March 2015 — a nearly 20-percent increase.
On April 20 alone, coalition planes struck 21 times in Iraq, compared to the average of 13 strikes a day that U.S.-led air force has managed since first intervening in the country in the fall of 2014. Six air raids on ISIS forces in Mosul on April 20 together destroyed five militant “tactical units” and seven “assembly areas” plus three vehicles, a supply dump and a command post, according the Pentagon.
To keep the sky clear for more of its own warplanes, on Feb. 29 American planners called their Russian counterparts to discuss safety protocols. In late 2015, Moscow deployed around 40 warplanes to western Syria to help bolster Syrian president Bashar Al Assad’s battered forces. Since then U.S. and Russian warplanes have repeatedly found themselves flying in close proximity.
To prevent a collision — or worse — the American and Russian planners agreed on rules of conduct and established radio hotlines.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Defense Department relaxed its rules of engagement, increasing the number of civilians casualties it was willing to accept as a result of the riskiest air strikes. Before, the rules barred most strikes that might kill innocent bystanders. Now commanders are allowed to jeopardize as many as 10 civilians in high-priority bombing raids, Navy Times reported on April 19.
The Defense Department has acknowledged accidentally killing 41 civilians in Iraq and Syria since late 2014, although the true total is surely much higher.
The looser air-raid rules could result in more dead civilians — and bad press for the Pentagon. The B-52s could exacerbate this problem. Many people associate the Cold War-vintage bombers with the carpet-bombing raids they flew in Vietnam in the 1970s — or worse, the nuclear-attack mission they were originally designed for.
Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz dramatically reminded Americans of this history when, in December, he threatened to nuke ISIS if elected. “We will carpet-bomb them into oblivion,” Cruz said. “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.”
Pentagon officials condemned Cruz’ comments but, a few months later, mobilized the B-52s anyway. Brian Laslie, an historian and author of The Air Force Way of War, told War Is Boring he questioned the decision. “In the current political climate where ‘carpet bombing’ was getting needlessly thrown around, I was not a fan of the optics of using the B-52,” Laslie said, adding that smaller, less-politicized warplanes could be just as effective against lightly-armed militants as the bombers are.
But it’s clear that U.S. forces are operating under fewer constraints in Iraq than they were just a few months ago. That’s evident in the steady progress Iraqi troops have made recently. On April 20, the Pentagon announced that the Iraqi army had liberated Hit, a city in western Iraq that was a key node in ISIS’ supply lines connecting Mosul to the territory the group holds in Syria.
ISIS has reportedly lost as much of 22 percent of its territory since early 2015. And if coalition air strikes continue at their current, elevated pace — and the Iraqi army can continue taking advantage of the aerial cover — the militants could lose Mosul next.
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