U.S. Intelligence Powers French Air Strikes
Paris hits Islamic State after deadly terrorist attacks
On Nov. 15, French warplanes flying from bases in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates pounded Islamic State base camps in the group’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa. The strikes followed a horrendous series of terrorist attacks that left at least 129 people dead in Paris two days earlier.
In the aftermath of the shootings and suicide bombings, French Pres. Francois Hollande described the violence as an “act of war” by the Sunni extremists.
During the latest mission, a dozen French jets dropped 20 smart bombs on an Islamic State command center – which doubled as a recruitment office and supply cache – and a training camp, the French Ministry of Defense explained in an official statement.
American intelligence was a major factor in the latest French bombardment, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal.
On the same day, U.S. defense secretary Ash Carter and his French counterpart had talked on the phone about what actions their governments were taking in response to the Paris attacks.
“They agreed on concrete steps the U.S. and French militaries should take to further intensify our close cooperation in prosecuting a sustained campaign against ISIL,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a press release after the call, using a common acronym for Islamic State.
Cook didn’t give any specifics on what these measures were, but another recent strike in Raqqa shined some light on the importance of American snooping and cooperation with allies. On Nov. 12, a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone killed Mohammed “Jihadi John” Emwazi with a Hellfire missile in the city.
A British national fighting with Islamic State, Emwazi had been responsible for or involved in the public and gruesome murders of at least six foreign reporters and aid workers. A Royal Air Force Reaper had teamed up with two American pilotless attackers for the strike.
A member of the so-called “Five Eyes” partnership, Britain was probably working hand-in-hand with Washington’s spies and fliers even before the missile streaked toward Emwazi. Five Eyes is the nickname for intelligence sharing collective involving the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
In recent years, London has benefited greatly from its membership in Five Eyes. In 2013, the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency was working with its British counterparts on six different projects, according to annual history War Is Boring obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Censors redacted one of these “key programs.”
The Reaper was one of these points of cooperation. The RAF got its own MQ-9s shortly after the Air Force started receiving its first Reapers. As a result, British drone crews depend on close relations with America’s remote pilots.
On top of these unmanned planes, American airmen helped the RAF get its Airseeker spy planes into action. The British version of the RC-135W Rivet Joint, these four-engine airliner-sized aerial spooks listen in on enemy communications.
“Our latest Airseeker plane will be delivered next month, seven months ahead of schedule and will be operational shortly after that in the skies above Iraq and Syria,” British defense secretary Michael Fallon said on July 21. “No one, except the U.S., matches our efforts.”
To better coordinate American and British activities, the U.K. has its own “node” called Crossbow to connect to the Air Force’s version of the Distributed Common Ground System, or AF DCGS. The AF DCGS puts information scooped up by the listening gear, still picture and video cameras and radars on spy planes, drones and satellites in a single place where analysts can work to make sense of it all.
In turn, those spooks put out “actionable” intelligence that can translate into targeted strikes like the attack on Jihadi John. Crossbow conducts “24/7 exploitation,” according to the Air Force’s historical review.
Two years ago, the Air Force was also attending meetings of the Air and Space Interoperability Council – which only includes Five Eyes members – and so-called weapons and tactics gatherings, or WEPTACs. ASIC’s mission is to make sure all five countries are on the same page regarding military activities in the skies and outer space. WEPTACs are meetings where members discuss the best combat tactics.
Of course, France won’t get the benefits of this sort of deep, long-standing cooperation. Despite being a major NATO ally, Washington doesn’t appear to have invited Paris into the Five Eyes clique.
Still, the Pentagon will no doubt continue to supply target information to French commanders. While France might not get its own link like Crossbow, it will get some of the benefits of AF DCGS and the rest of the American intelligence machine.
“New instructions … will enable U.S. military personnel to more easily share operational planning information and intelligence with our French counterparts on a range of shared challenges to the fullest extent allowed by existing law and policy,” Cook added in a statement on Nov. 16.
American forces have already supplied intelligence and other support to French troops fighting terrorism in Mali and Somalia. In January 2013, American spy planes or drones worked with French commandos during the failed attempt to rescue spy Denis Allex from the Somali militant group Al Shabaab. The Al Qaeda-linked fighters killed Allex during a protracted firefight.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear whether France will be able to make full use of all the intelligence the Pentagon might pass along. While France has a highly professional and well equipped military, it is relatively small and already stretched thin around the world.
France sent 10 Rafale and Mirage 2000 fighter jets for the Nov. 15 strike on Raqqa — two thirds of all French combat aircraft permanently deployed to the Middle East. Paris also has Atlantique 2 spy planes, an E-3F radar plane and a KC-135F tanker flying missions in the region.
In comparison, the Pentagon has dozens of warplanes at a constellation of bases in the Middle East.
Two of France’s three Reapers – along with its Harfang drones – are busy flying in central Africa. So far, none of these pilotless planes have weapons like the U.S. Air Force’s MQ-9s or the older MQ-1 Predators.
At the end of February, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle had added its own Rafale Ms and Super Étendards to the mix. But with only one flattop, the naval contribution ended when the Charles de Gaulle moved on two months later. The ship is slated to return to the fight this month.
The Pentagon has also hinted at a lack of viable Islamic State targets in Syria. In the end, the intelligence French officials receive from their American counterparts might not be as “actionable” as hoped.
Still, from his comments, Hollande seems determined to do everything in his power to make France’s presence felt. And Washington has made it clear that it will stand behind its allies.
“Those who think that they can terrorize the people of France or the values that they stand for are wrong,” Pres. Barack Obama declared after the attacks in Paris. “We’re going to do whatever it takes to work with the French people and with nations around the world to bring these terrorists to justice.”
No one should underestimate France’s ability to strike back. And Islamic State should be even more worried about the Pentagon helping out.