Marines may now need extra help keeping up the pressure on the Islamic State
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
After nearly three months of air strikes, the Pentagon has shuffled up its forces bombing the Islamic State in Libya — swapping out an aircraft carrier for a smaller ship equipped with helicopters and drones.
On Oct. 21, 2016, the amphibious transport dock USS San Antonio arrived off the Libyan coast to take over the mission from the larger amphibious assault ship USS Wasp — which operates AV-8 Harrier jump jets.
Since Aug. 1, 2016, Wasp’s Harriers and AH-1 SuperCobra helicopters had pounded Islamic State fighters in and around the city of Sirte.
San Antonio will “continue the mission of providing support to Government of National Accord-aligned forces fighting to retake Sirte from the grasp of Daesh,” the U.S. military’s headquarters in Africa announced.
“Air strikes have significantly reduced Daesh’s ability to utilize heavy weapons and enemy fighting positions, as well as having reduced the number of vehicle-born[e] improvised explosive devices.”
Between Aug. 1 and Oct. 22, 2016, American pilots flew more than 330 strike missions, according to U.S. Africa Command. However, how the Pentagon defines a “strike” varies — as a single strike can mean multiple bombs destroying dozens of enemy positions.
As a result, U.S. planes, choppers and drones have likely destroyed an even larger number of targets than this tally outwardly suggests. In October 2016, the U.S. aerial campaign expanded dramatically. American pilots flew 150 strikes between Oct. 1 and Oct. 18 alone.
It’s unlikely San Antonio can meet this kind of demand by itself. Unlike Wasp and her Harriers, San Antonio has a much smaller flight deck and can only launch helicopters and small drones.
The San Antonio’s SuperCobra gunships have flown missions over Libya at least as early as Oct. 23, according to Navy photographs. These helicopters have a 20-millimeter cannon under the nose and can carry up to eight Hellfire missiles, more than 50 70-millimeter rockets, or a mix of both.
However, the gunships have a relatively short maximum range of 365 miles and cannot refuel in flight. At times, Wasp’s Cobras spotted in recent photographs carried just two missiles, likely to trim weight to fly farther.
SuperCobras taking off from San Antonio have sometimes lugged four Hellfires — including at least two with powerful thermobaric warheads. It is possible American commanders decided the situation was safe enough to send the ship closer to shore.
In addition to the AH-1s, San Antonio has several lighter UH-1Y Venom helicopters armed with machine guns and rockets. On top of that, troops could launch RQ-21 Blackjack drones to find terrorists or track their movements. We don’t know if the UH-1Ys or RQ-21s have gone into action over Libya.
But we do know the frequency of American strikes declined since San Antonio took over from Wasp. On Oct. 18, American fliers bombed 10 Islamic State positions in five separate attacks. Between Oct. 21 and Oct. 23, the Pentagon reported just seven strikes on eight individual targets.
Of course, the drop in missions is not necessarily related to San Antonio or her helicopters. But, at the same time, the mission has dragged on longer than expected while the terror group doggedly hangs onto parts of Sirte.
“Amaq News Agency, an Islamic State propaganda arm, has reported far fewer suicide attacks in the city in recent weeks,” Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explained at the Long War Journal.
Still, “the so-called caliphate has trumpeted its continued presence in the city, even as its safe haven has shrunk.”
Given the fragile situation, the Pentagon’s allies in Libya might not be happy to see a slump in strikes. Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord and allied militia leaders have openly questioned the commitment and motives of their American allies.
“The air strikes were useless and inaccurate and their aim is clear to all,” Ibrahim Bait, a spokesman for the military council in the nearby city of Misrata, said on Oct. 5, 2016. “We can go without the U.S. air strikes from the beginning, but the government wants an endless war with limited air strikes.”
Bait’s comments coincided with the expanded aerial campaign earlier in October. In August and September, Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar, now nominally in control of the country’s armed forces, slammed the U.S. air strikes as “illegal” and simply “propaganda” for officials in Tripoli.
In any case, American commanders can also summon warplanes based in Europe, if they feel it necessary. With the help of aerial tankers, U.S. Air Force F-15 and F-16 fighter bombers could quickly reach Sirte from airfields in Italy, Greece or even the United Kingdom.
In fact, it’s how America began its war on the Islamic State in Libya. In November 2015, an F-15 killed militant leader Wisam Al Zubaidi there. In February 2016, F-15s struck again, killing dozens of Islamic State fighters at a training camp around 50 miles west of Tripoli.
Predator and Reaper drones are in range of Libya from bases in Europe and Africa, too. However, the Pentagon has been tight-lipped about which of its services are involved in the operation.
“U.S. forces use a variety of platforms to conduct the air strikes in support … [of] ground operations to liberate Sirte from Daesh control,” Charles Pritchard, a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command, told War Is Boring in an email.
“For operational security reasons, we cannot specify which platforms were used nor the specific unit designation of the U.S. forces conducting the air strikes.”
Strikes in Libya have come from the U.S. Navy base in Sigonella, Italy and elsewhere in Europe, according to an Oct. 24, 2016 report from the Washington Post.
In addition to the forces sailing in the Mediterranean, the Marines sent another group of Harriers — also able to refuel in flight — to Souda Bay in Greece on Oct. 13, 2016. The base on the island of Crete is approximately 500 miles from Sirte.
Nevertheless, the task of ultimately defeating the Islamic State in Sirte will fall to Libyan troops on the ground, no matter how many bombs the Pentagon drops.