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For Generals Fighting the Islamic State, a Sense of Déjà Vu

For Generals Fighting the Islamic State, a Sense of Déjà Vu

Too few drones. No technology for preventing deadly roadside IEDs from detonating. No strategy for countering the message of violent jihad being spread by Islamist fighters.

Top U.S. special operations commanders have been complaining about those perceived shortfalls since shortly after American troops swept into Iraq in 2003. The Pentagon has dutifully opened its wallet wide and spent tens of billions of dollars to fix them. To hear today’s military leaders speak, however, you’d think that nothing had really changed.

In speech after speech at last week’s Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Fla., senior military officials listed weaknesses that American taxpayers have been trying to fix since the earliest days of the U.S. military’s campaign in Iraq, much of which is now in the hands of the Islamic State, then asked for more help in solving them. “These are solutions we need now,” said Brig. Gen. Kurt Crytzer, a Special Forces officer who recently returned from a six-month tour commanding the special operations forces advising the Iraqi military in its fight against the Islamic State.

Their complaints raise questions about what the United States has received for the money it has sunk into projects designed to solve problems like the IED threat — and whether the Pentagon’s slow-moving bureaucracy is capable of effectively addressing challenges rather than simply lamenting them. The Pentagon created the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO, pronounced “jie-dough”) and gave it a mission that encompasses training, intelligence analysis, and technological efforts to reduce the IED threat. Since 2006, the organization has spent $24.4 billion — not enough to prevent Crytzer appealing to industry representatives at the conference for technological solutions to problems that were the very reason for JIEDDO’s creation.

U.S. commanders have hungered for more surveillance drones since al Qaeda in Iraq first reared its head under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2004. While almost any aircraft can perform some form of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), the term is usually reserved for the manned and unmanned aircraft designed primarily for those functions. In the first years of the Iraq war, top Joint Special Operations Command officers gathered an ad-hoc collection of aircraft (known as “the Confederate Air Force” because of the wide variety of aircraft types) to try to keep tabs on the metastasizing insurgent threat.

The use of surveillance aircraft to provide what JSOC called an “unblinking eye” focused on targeted individuals became a key component of the command’s approach to manhunting and was copied by other special operations organizations. The MQ-1 Predator drone, which can loiter for hours watching a target before destroying it with a Hellfire missile, soon became the iconic weapons system of the post-9/11 era. The Air Force now boasts 135 Predators and 185 of their larger and more heavily armed cousins, the MQ-9 Reaper, not to mention a wide variety of manned surveillance aircraft.

In 2008, at the height of the U.S. troop “surge” in Iraq, there were 9,358 ISR flights supporting an average of 157,800 American service members, or roughly one surveillance flight a year for every 17 troops. During the first four months of this year, surveillance flights conducted as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, numbered 2,680. But because the United States only has 3,000 troops in Iraq, when averaged out over a year that equates to almost three flights per service member, or 45 times more flights per individual soldier. Nonetheless, commanders are still complaining about a paucity of ISR assets.

“There simply isn’t enough ISR to actively support the fight in our theater,” Crytzer told the conference. While Reapers represent the “Cadillacs” of the ISR fleet, Crytzer asked the audience of industry representatives to work on developing “Yugos” for U.S. Central Command’s special operations component, of which he is the deputy commander. The cheaper drones available to his task force suffered from insufficient range or problems flying through bad weather, according to Crytzer. “We still experience problems in adverse weather conditions, which allows for an advantage to the enemy,” he said.

The drone shortage even affects the well-funded and super-secret Joint Special Operations Command, according to a senior officer there. JSOC has a task force in Iraqi Kurdistan focused on Islamic State targets, but, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Albert “Buck” Elton II, surveillance aircraft continue to be “the pacing item” for counterterrorism operations. (The military uses the term “pacing item” to describe the piece of mission-essential gear in shortest supply, the availability of which therefore determines the tempo at which the unit or task force can operate.)

If U.S. forces engaged in the campaign against the Islamic State lack sufficient surveillance aircraft, their Iraqi allies are much worse off. The United States has provided Iraq with a fleet of manned ISR aircraft, primarily small turboprop aircraft like Cessna 208 Caravans and Beechcraft King Air 350s. But by mid-2014, less than three years after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, those planes were “not operational, and all their aircrews had lost currency,” said a U.S. defense industry source familiar with Iraq’s ISR fleet. Rear Adm. Brian Losey, head of Naval Special Warfare Command, told the audience he wanted smaller, cheaper ISR platforms with smaller payloads, so that partner nations could buy and maintain them.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State’s use of IEDs is taking a toll on the Iraqi security forces Washington is counting on to fight the group on the ground because of the White House’s refusal to deploy American combat personnel. The Islamic State and other militant groups “continue to make an art out of the use of these explosive devices, which have devastating effects on our partners,” Crytzer said, noting that “this has obviously been a long-term problem.”

Indeed, the Defense Department has been trying to overcome the challenge of IEDs — which are really landmines, booby traps, and car bombs by another name — since 2003, when the Army established the Counter-IED Task Force, which became a joint task force and then, in early 2006, the Joint IED Defeat Organization. Of the $24.4 billion JIEDDO has spent, $214 million was for special operations-specific training and equipment, with special operations forces also receiving about another $500 million worth of counter-IED gear, according to JIEDDO spokesman David Small.

But although JIEDDO’s website says “the use of IEDs in Iraq has steadily declined since the summer of 2007,” that was not the impression left by Crytzer, who said the militants are not only emplacing the devices along roadways, but are increasingly wiring entire houses to explode, “which dramatically slows the progress of our partnered forces,” he said. In an emailed statement to Foreign Policy, Small also highlighted the Islamic State’s use of so-called house-borne IEDs, which he described as “a new concept in this fight.” Despite their comments, this tactic has actually been a feature of the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan for many years. However, Islamic State fighters are taking the use of suicide vehicle bombs (vehicle-borne IEDs, or VBIEDs, pronounced vee-bids), including those made from U.S. military vehicles captured from the Iraqi military, to new levels. Their recent successful assault on Ramadi was spearheaded by dozens of armored vehicles and bulldozers turned into suicide bombs, including ten as big as that used by Timothy McVeigh in his 1995 attack on Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. “We are fighting a different enemy today using IEDs in a different way,” Small said. “The VBIEDs are being used on a scale we’ve not seen previously with adaptations that make it difficult for the Iraqi forces on the ground to combat.”

“The setbacks we have recently seen in Ramadi and other places of late began with the use of VBIEDs, which are often armor-plated and used in numbers with devastating effects,” Crytzer said. He asked the industry representatives for solutions. “Can technology help to identify VBIEDs, to include the factories in which they are made?” he said. “Can technology help find ways to stop VBIEDs before they get to their intended targets?”

Another problem that plagued the United States and its allies in the years after the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the flow of foreign fighters into the country from elsewhere in the Middle East, as well as from Europe and further afield. Although the foreign fighters comprised a relatively small part of the insurgency, they provided a lot of al Qaeda in Iraq’s suicide bombers, as well as its leadership (including Zarqawi himself, a Jordanian killed in an American airstrike in 2006). Many of the fighters entered Iraq via Syria. The Islamic State now controls large tracts of Syria, and every border crossing between the two countries, with predictable results.

“Recent months have seen an incredible eruption in terms of foreign fighter flow into the Middle East in support of ISIL and its affiliates,” Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, told the conference May 19. “These fighters are coming from all over the world to support an ideology that none of us in this room can truly comprehend.”

Likewise, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Gregory Lengyel, the head of U.S. European Command’s special operations component, there has been “an increased number of foreign fighters flowing through southern Europe” into Syria.

In a final case of déjà vu, the generals also repeated the longstanding concern of senior U.S. military leaders that they are losing the propaganda war to America’s Islamist enemies. Crytzer appealed for “technologies to help win the ideological fight.”

“Groups like Daesh have powerful ideologies that are obviously attractive to subscribers worldwide,” he said, using an Arabic term for the Islamic State. “We have a continuous problem in effectively countering the narrative and consistently struggle in the [information operations] realm. We need to find solutions that allow us to more effectively contest for the ideological battle space.”

Photo credit: JM Lopez/AFP/Getty Images