U.S. Options Limited by Lack of Drones Over Syria

With hardware tied up in Afghanistan, the U.S. military is forced to make tough choices.

Photo by MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

As a U.S.-led coalition of nations tries to prevent the Syrian town of Kobani from falling into the hands of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, failure to do so could have as much to do with resources as it does with the flaws of a strategy that, for now, is mostly reliant on airstrikes alone.

That’s because U.S. Central Command, or Centcom, is balancing growing demands for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets across Iraq and Syria with keeping an eye on Afghanistan, where the United States and NATO allies still have roughly 40,000 troops stationed.

A senior Defense Department official told Foreign Policy that with so many of Centcom’s ISR capabilities tied up in Afghanistan, there is a limitation on what can be done in Iraq and Syria.

Ticking off the number of towns and cities that the U.S. military has been called upon to protect, the senior Pentagon official said: "You can’t defend Kobani, Baghdad, Mosul, Erbil, and Sinjar," plus conduct strikes against the Islamic State in places such as Raqqa, with a limited number of ISR orbits to collect necessary intelligence. In the end, choices have to be made about what’s most important, he said.

In Syria, the United States has also been monitoring the actions of the Khorasan Group, a shadowy cell of senior al Qaeda operatives who are reportedly plotting attacks against Western targets. The United States struck the group on Sept. 22, the first night of strikes in Syria.

But there are mounting calls for the United States to do more, especially in towns like Kobani, where Syrian Kurdish fighters have been holding off the Islamic State for weeks.

On Tuesday, Oct. 7, the U.S. military said strikes around Kobani destroyed five Islamic State armed vehicles, a tank, and a unit of fighters. According to Centcom, the United States has conducted 13 strikes near Kobani and one at the Kobani border crossing with Turkey.

But before U.S. jets or drones can attack a target, the military has to meticulously build an intelligence picture of the targeted area. It does this predominantly through full-motion video feeds collected by unmanned aircraft, such as the U.S. Air Force’s Predator or Reaper drones. In Iraq, but especially in Syria, where there is no U.S. ground presence, building an accurate intelligence picture through airborne ISR is also crucial to avoiding civilian casualties.

In late August, President Barack Obama authorized manned and unmanned reconnaissance flights over Syria to start building an intelligence picture that could help develop specific Islamic State targets to attack. About a month passed between when the United States starting flying recon missions to when it launched airstrikes.

There have been more than 700 ISR sorties flown in support of operations in Iraq and Syria, according to Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, the Pentagon’s assistant deputy chief of staff for operations, plans, and requirements.

"We’re working very closely with Centcom to understand what the requirement is, because, as I alluded to earlier, the situation continues to develop, and we’re better understanding where we need assets, when we need assets, so that continues to be a discussion," Harrigan told reporters at the Pentagon on Sept. 29.

When asked whether the demand for ISR orbits is limiting U.S. military action in Iraq and Syria, a Centcom spokesman said he would not comment on matters pertaining to intelligence resources.

For the military, an orbit usually means keeping one aircraft flying over the target area 24/7. According to Mark Gunzinger of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, it requires three to four aircraft to support a 24/7 ISR orbit using manned or unmanned aircraft. A Reaper orbit (or combat air patrol) requires four MQ-9s; a Predator orbit requires four MQ-1s.  

About half of Centcom’s ISR orbits are tied up in Afghanistan, with no big shift in resources since airstrikes began in Iraq in Aug. 8, the senior Defense Department official said without divulging the actual number of orbits.

But that’s all about to change, as the United States plans to draw down the number of troops in Afghanistan to just 9,800 by January.

Speaking to reporters last week via video link from Kabul, Gen. John Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said he’s expecting his air platforms — to include ISR, close air support, and medevac — to be "greatly diminished" as the number of troops goes down.

That means there will be more eyes flying over Iraq and Syria, but fewer flying in Afghanistan, which poses its own risks — both to U.S. troops and to the Afghan security forces.

"It’s not really the risk that you don’t have something overhead to shoot a bad guy when you need to. The risk is that there may be some group plotting an attack that you’re just totally unaware of," said Paul Scharre, who before joining the Center for a New American Security worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2008 to 2013 on ISR policies, among other issues.

"We continue to work with the Afghans on what we will be able to provide and what we won’t be able to provide to the Afghans starting on Jan. 1," Campbell said.

The final decision will come out of discussions with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani; Afghanistan’s new chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah; Centcom commander Gen. Lloyd Austin; and the head of European Command, Gen. Philip Breedlove, according to Campbell.

The original plan to redistribute ISR assets from Afghanistan to regions outside Centcom’s purview will probably be revisited, said Scharre. "Now, it’s looking likely that a majority of them will stay within Centcom and be tasked with flying in Iraq or Syria."

The insatiable demand for ISR is not a new problem, said Scharre, but the situations in Iraq and Syria are bringing new urgency to address it.

"There’s always been more demand than supply for airborne surveillance," he said.

Because most of those military assets are already in Centcom, pulling more from other regional commands isn’t an answer to the problem, Scharre said. Instead, the Pentagon needs to change its business model for how it supplies ISR assets — otherwise it will never keep up, he added.

The number of aircraft is an issue, but a much bigger constraint is the number of people it takes to man each platform and, more importantly, the number of analysts required to sift through all of the information they’re collecting. Roughly, the military needs about 30 people to operate a Predator or Reaper orbit, but to analyze the information coming in, it needs another 80 people.

The Pentagon has to find technological solutions that change the cost equation, Scharre said. This could include longer-endurance platforms, multi-aircraft control by one person, or bringing in more automation on the information-processing side, said Scharre.

According to the senior Defense Department official, members of the coalition against the Islamic State are making small contributions in terms of ISR capabilities, but it’s going to take time to get them more fully integrated.

U.S. export policy is partly to blame for the limits on coalition members when it comes to airborne surveillance, Scharre said. "The U.S. has been very reluctant to export its unmanned aircraft, even with close allies."

"There are countries we will export the Joint Strike Fighter to, but that we will not sell an armed Reaper to," he said.

Arab partners are using precision-guided air-to-ground weapons in the fight because there has been a concerted effort to sell them more of these and then train them on it, Scharre said. "That’s brought up the level of participation, but we’re not seeing that on the unmanned side."

With demand high and always growing, it may come as a surprise to know that the Pentagon had been planning to cut back in this area.

"The Air Force will slow the growth in its arsenal of armed unmanned systems that, while effective against insurgents and terrorists, cannot operate in the face of enemy aircraft and modern air defenses," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in February at a briefing on the 2015 budget.

Instead of increasing to a force of 65 around-the-clock combat air patrols of Predator and Reaper aircraft, the Air Force will grow to 55, he said.

"Given the continued drawdown in Afghanistan, this level of coverage will be sufficient to meet our requirements, and we would still be able to surge to an unprecedented 71 combat air patrols under the plan," Hagel said.

According to Scharre, these cuts stem from the Pentagon’s institutional preference for high-tech capabilities. It would prefer to invest more in stealthy drones versus the worker-bee unmanned aircraft that provide hours upon hours of full-motion video feeds in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

"It’s a prejudice of the Department of Defense to focus on very exquisite, expensive, and capable military hardware, assuming the biggest threats to the United States come from countries with sophisticated militaries, but that’s not necessarily the biggest risk to the United States, certainly not in the near term," Scharre said.

Places like Kobani could be forcing the Pentagon to rethink that calculation.

In September, Michael Vickers, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, told an audience at the Intelligence and National Security Summit that the Pentagon is already reconsidering its plans to shrink its drone fleet.

He said the military would likely end up with a different mix of drones next year thanks to the rise of the Islamic State.

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen