Sun, Oct 05, 2014 - Page 5 News List

US faces limits of air power in Syrian town

GROUND CONTROL:Analysts said that restrictive rules of engagement have limited the impact of US airstrikes against Islamic State fighters near the border with Turkey


Young Syrian refugees wait behind barbed wire to be transferred to a camp after crossing the border at the Yumurtalik gate near Sanliurfa, southeast Turkey, yesterday.

Photo: EPA

The US is facing the limits of air power in the Syria border town of Kobane, where Islamic State extremists are steadily closing in on Kurdish fighters despite a series of US bombing raids.

Fighter jets and drones from the world’s most powerful air force have carried out at least eight attacks near Kobane over the past week against the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — among several other monikers — but the raids have failed so far to turn the tide in the battle for the strategic town near the border with Turkey.

For some analysts and former US officials, the town’s plight illustrates how bombing from the air has serious limitations without troops to guide the strikes to a target or a well-organized ally who can take advantage of the air raid.

The Kurdish defenders are far from a coherent army and are badly outgunned, former adviser to US special operations forces Seth Jones said.

“At this point, it looks like Kurdish fighters face a well-organized and well-funded [Islamic State] force,” he said. “This is a notable concern across Syria, where US air power is not being coordinated well with ground forces — in part since there are a plethora of rebel groups in Syria.”

The number of US strikes near Kobane has been limited and on a smaller scale compared with other locations, which some say reflects limited intelligence resources.

Without forward air controllers in Kobane, fighter pilots likely find it difficult to distinguish friend from foe, particularly as the extremists seek to move among civilians to conceal their location, retired US Marine Corps intelligence officer Ben Connable said.

“We probably don’t have good enough intelligence to separate all the prospective targets from friendly fighters,” Connable, now a senior analyst at the RAND Corp think tank, told reporters.

Even with the advanced cameras and sensors on US warplanes, clearly identifying an enemy target remains difficult — and is even more challenging in poor weather, Connable said.

“It’s hard to tell,” he said. “You may think you have identified something in a video, but you may not have.”

However, Kurdish leaders and some critics in Washington have accused US President Barack Obama of taking an overly cautious approach, arguing that airstrikes could stop the extremists in their tracks if the full potential of US air power was unleashed.

Retired US Air Force lieutenant-general David Deptula said the air crews flying the combat missions are hampered by cumbersome procedures and restrictive approval rules for strikes that undercut the impact of the campaign.

“There is a sense and there is feedback that there are too many people trying to micromanage the application of air power,” said Deptula, who oversaw air campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Kobane, “there needs to be 24/7 constant overwatch, and every time there are [Islamic State] troops, vehicles, weapons that are observed — they need to be hit immediately,” he said.

The elaborate approval process for strikes is a legacy of the war in Afghanistan, he said, where US forces took extra precautions after disastrous mistakes that left civilians killed. Yet he added that the war in Syria and Iraq is a much different situation, where the targets are troops in trucks moving down roads and clearly on the move.

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