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Commander: ISIS driven back under continued, targeted strikes

The task at hand was to monitor the situation unfolding during the Russia-Crimea crisis in 2014. Lt. Gen. Charles Brown Jr., then the director of operations and strategic deterrence at U.S. Air Forces Europe, was laser focused on what the U.S. might do next should tension with Russia escalate. Then, he was called to lead a campaign that would counter a rising threat making headlines across the globe: the Islamic State.

Since Brown, Air Forces Central Command commander, came into his role one year ago, "what we've done here as the air component is focus on targeting," Brown said in an interview with Air Force Times on July 15. "We've been able to get some processes in place, between the air component working with the rest of the Air Force, the rest of the intel community, the combined joint task force to focus on area," he said of the strategy to execute strikes over Iraq and Syria.

"When you ask me what my biggest accomplishment was during this time of my command, [strategic] targeting. That was it," Brown said. "In the last 15 years or so, we've done a lot of close-air support for troops in contact and overwatch, and the deliberate targeting process we lost a little muscle memory from what we had in the past, so … I think this is something that's going to help us in the [Central Command area of operations] and in other contingencies later on that we as a nation or we as the coalition team may face in the future."

Before Brown moves into his new role as deputy commander of U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, Air Force Times caught up with him to discuss the progression of the air war against the Islamic State in the Middle East. Comments have been edited for clarity and brevity. (Brown uses Daesh as the Pentagon-preferred term for the Islamic State group).

Q. With the call for 560 more U.S. troops to the theater, will this change how you operate with ground forces?
A.
 It's more to help the [existing] ground force than the air. Some of it is for district support as we work toward Mosul [Iraq], some of it is advise and assist for the Iraqi Army. But what I've seen since I've been here, with time, the Iraqis are growing more and more confident in their capabilities, their training. And, for example, Ramadi took several months. Fallujah took about a month. When you look at that, that's the indication they have confidence and also the effect of the air component, taking to Daesh from the air, the combination of the two is effective and is gaining momentum.

Q. Commanders on the ground can now call in airstrikes. How has that changed the dynamic within the chain of command?
A. It speeds up the process. Part of what allowed us to do that is that as we continued to work through the campaign, we gained more confidence. We have good, solid processes in place that [Central Command] felt comfortable with getting down to [Lt.] Gen. [Sean] MacFarland's level. It helps with ... some of the more challenging targets.

Q. What are a few examples of technologies pilots, etc., are using to carry out strikes more effectively?
A.
 We're able to take the video from the remotely piloted aircraft and push that to where [joint terminal attack controllers] are, but you can also use video coming off of some of the turning pods coming off of some of the fighter and bomber aircraft, so that the JTAC can look and see what he's seeing from the RPA and what he's seeing from the aircraft and match those up and get us to strike faster, because then we can confirm that both are looking at the same thing. We use laser tracking, laser spotting, those kinds of things to pinpoint targets. A lot of this really isn't new, it's just how we use it. It helps us [expedite] the process. Those kinds of tools help us cut down on communication and errors and make sure we minimize civilian casualties and collateral damage.

Q. How have the U.S.-led coalition partners worked together toward establishing a range of targets? 
A.
The biggest thing was to get focused. You have to look at Iraq and Syria at large and all the different activity from northwest Syria all the way back toward Ramadi [Iraq]. The Ramadi counter attack took off when I got here. And so part of that is we have a number of folks looking at the problem, but what we didn't have before was a bit more focus. ...  ….Because each part of the enterprise was looking at different parts .,.. they all had ... different priorities. One thing that was established by Lt. Gen. [James] Terry, [former commanding general, United States Army Central] and [Lt.] Gen. [Sean] MacFarland [current commander, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve] was battlefield geometry. What it allows us to do is look at different parts of the battlespace and put focus on it, whether it’s by a regional focus or functional focus. For example, Ramadi or oil targets. And with that, what the ... intel community all focused on was particular areas at the same time so that we could actually pull our resources and get to more effective targeting sooner.  

Q. For a while, tThe coalition was sharing munitions for a while when bombing the enemy. Is the coalition still sharing bombs, and what impact does this have on building up the stockpiles?
A. We try to manage that so that we ensure, as we work with our partners, [we] help them continue to be a part of the campaign while making sure that we’re well postured to sustain a campaign and prepare for future contingencies. A year ago when we started this, and started looking into it, I don’t think any of us forecasted that we would be employing the amount of precision-guided munitions that we’ve been employing for the past two years. So when you do something like that unforecasted, that does impact your stockpiles. In order to get ahead of that, we have to be a couple years ahead of that. ... ….We’re actually doing pretty good [right now] and part of it is actually how we work very closely with the coalition, with the strike sales, to make sure every munition counts. Because of our targeting effort, now when I drop a precision-guided munition, I have a lot more confidence that we’re having a greater effect particularly when we’re going after some of [the Islamic State’s] resourcing. We look at how much we expend every day, and based on that, we forecast when we’ll need our next resupply, and or to give that back to the Air Force and other services to make sure we’re posturing the stocks for [not just us] but for the worldwide force. So, we’re doing okay, but it is something we have to be paying attention to. 

Q. Is the strategy different for conducting airstrikes over Iraq versus over Syria?
A
. Not necessarily. We have two types of targets: deliberate and dynamic. Deliberate we actually spend building a target set ... to go after targets of significance, not areas where we have troops or ground forces are in contact. Oil, bank targets is an example, some [improvised explosive device] factories. Those become harder to do as you move further into the campaign. Dynamic strikes are where you have forces in contact. At the beginning .,.. Daesh was moving [more often] in large convoys, very overt, much easier to target. Once they figured out that air power has an effect on them in that regard, they changed their tactics. They’re trying to conceal themselves. As we’re moving closer toward Mosul and Raqqa [Syria], you’re going to get back into urban environment. So it takes us a little more time and effort to find targets of significance ... and as we work to avoid civilian casualties and collateral damage, that’s where it takes more time and effort. But we do it in both Iraq and Syria … and I think we have very good momentum in the campaign. 

Q. Has there been progress in getting more intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance in theater to help get eyes in the sky before strikes are conducted?

A. Talk to any of the commanders out here, and they will ask for more ISR. But there's a finite set of resources. So when we do that, when we talk about more, we actually prioritize ... within the CJTF to support the different movements. So as things evolve, we'll change location for where we put that ISR. What we'll have to do in certain case when [working] on different parts of the campaign, some folks will get more [ISR] than others. But it's how we use that portion of it. I think we've done that fairly well to maximize that effect across the campaign.

Q. Are you seeing ISIS forces on the ground using new technologies, weapons or tactics to arm themselves or try to outsmart U.S.-backed forces or members of the coalition?
A. Some of the things they're trying to do is just be more covert now. They try to blend in with the civilian population, or they try to move around at certain times of the day. Not moving in large groups. In Fallujah [Iraq] here about two weeks ago that was a one off.* We hadn't seen anything like that, not since I've been here. A big mass of a convoy of any type where you're able to strike. So they're really much more savvy in how they move about. Doesn't mean we can't get them. We're going to be just as cunning as they are, if not more so.

*In the surprise attack, British and U.S. aircraft were responsible for destroying more than 200 vehicles and killing over 300 fighters fleeing Fallujah. Read more about Brown's take on the attack here.

Q. In terms of resources, is there any particular aircraft that you feel is necessary to bring into this fight? Or additional aircraft?
A. I don't think that it's more aircraft. We have a range of capabilities, not only from the U.S. Air Force but from the joint team and coalition. Whether it's something the U.S. Air Force brings, or our partners bring, it adds value. There's nothing that stands out to me that says 'It'll give us more of an advantage.' I think we have everything we need, and we're using it fairly well. I'll say this. If you go to where we were a year ago to where we are today, Daesh doesn't have an offensive punch anymore.

Q. When the F-35 comes online, should it be considered to operate in the air war against ISIS?
A.
The F-35, and any other platform, we'll take. Everybody has capabilities, and that's the neat thing about the U.S. Air Force and the joint coalition.

Q. How do coalition forces ensure that friendly forces on the ground need air support to fight ISIS? How is that distinction monitored between rebel groups? 
A. It's a combination of our intel. We work with forces on the ground to identify areas where our friendly forces are, where Daesh is, and we have a pretty good understanding of where [Assad's] regime is ... in Western Syria, in areas we don't operate in.

Q. It was recently announced we may be striking a new deal with the Russians operating over Syrian airspace. What does that change for U.S. operations?
A. Right now, I'm focused on the execution of the memorandum of understanding [already in place] to ensure safety between the where we're flying [versus] where the Russians are flying. I know there are discussion through other channels about cooperating with the Russians, but I'll leave that to the policymakers. We'll be prepared to execute whatever we get told to execute. The MOU is separate from the new discussions. It really hasn't impacted what we're doing here on a day-to-day basis.

Oriana Pawlyk covers deployments, cyber, Guard/Reserve, uniforms, physical training, crime and operations in the Middle East and Europe for Air Force Times. She was the Early Bird Brief editor in 2015. Email her at opawlyk@airforcetimes.com.

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