The last three weeks of airstrikes in Mosul have been "the most kinetic three weeks in the campaign in Iraq" against the Islamic State, the top Air Force general in Iraq said Thursday.
Brig. Gen. Matthew Isler, deputy commanding general for Air, Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command, Operation Inherent Resolve, said in an interview that coalition aircraft above Mosul have dropped more than 500 precision-guided munitions a week so far in March — even hitting as high as 605 weapons in one week. The weapons released were all in support of Iraqi Security Forces pushing further into the western part of Mosul, Isler said.
The increased airstrikes over Mosul come as the number of weapons released against ISIS overall continues to grow. According to Air Force statistics, military aircraft from the U.S. and other coalition nations released more than 7,000 weapons against ISIS in January and February — the most of any two-month stretch since the ISIS war began more than two and a half years ago.
But at the same time, a growing number of civilian casualties in Mosul has human rights groups such as Amnesty International raising concerns that the coalition isn't doing enough to protect civilians. Most recently, the coalition on March 25 acknowledged carrying out a March 17 strike at the request of Iraqi Security Forces that may have killed anywhere from 100 to 200 civilians.
On a typical day, the coalition flies A-10 Warthogs, Navy F/A-18s, Marine Corps Harriers, French Rafale fighters, Belgian F-16s, British Typhoons, and U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortresses to support the fight, run out of the Combined Air Operations Center. They are supported by dozens of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft — manned and unmanned, and some armed — and six electronic warfare aircraft, as well as tankers providing 430,000 gallons of gas a day to allow fighters and bombers to fly longer. On Thursday, for example, Isler said 32 fighters and bombers flew above Mosul to directly support Iraqis.
Since the Mosul battle began Oct. 17, Isler said the coalition has released 8,700 precision-guided munitions — "every one approved by an Iraqi general officer or a Kurdish leader."
Isler used the example of a joint terminal attack controller he would only identify as Capt. C, serving with the commander of the Iraqi army's 9th Division at his headquarters, to illustrate how U.S. and other coalition forces are carrying out their "advise and assist" mission of backing up Iraqi troops as they lead the fight against ISIS.
On March 22, Isler said Iraqi Security Forces took two villages north and west of Mosul with the assistance of air power facilitated by Capt. C. A week later, as Isler spoke to Air Force Times, he said Iraqi troops were continuing to press the fight within Mosul.
"All of that is enabled by an incredible amount of coalition support," Isler said.
When Iraqi troops from the 9th found themselves facing a counterattack from ISIS fighters out of Tal Afar, they woke up Capt. C, who then coordinated the airstrike that put down that counterattack, Isler said.
And the day before, Isler said, Capt. C directed the release of 82 precision-guided bombs to provide close air support for Iraqis, destroying three of ISIS' vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or car bombs, two mortar positions, and 15 tunnels to allow the Iraqis to advance.
A C-17 landed March 22 at Camp Taji, Iraq, for the first time since January 2015. The Air Force's 1st Expeditionary Civil Engineering Group repaired broken parts of the runway at Taji in phases over the last several months, allowing heavy C-17s to once again land there and bring in crucial supplies for the ongoing fight in Mosul.
Photo Credit: Cpl. Kyle Genner/Marine Corps
Isler said the coalition was conducting airstrikes against ISIS in Mosul to shape the battlefield for practically all of 2016, well before the ground offensive began last October. The coalition targeted the infrastructure ISIS needed to operate as a state, he said — banking system, oil systems, information operations, and command and control. At that point, he said, about 90 percent of airstrikes in the Mosul area were for battlefield shaping, and the remaining 10 percent were to provide close air support defending Iraqis under fire from ISIS.
But once the Iraqis began maneuvering, the ratio flipped, so 90 percent of airstrikes were to back up the Iraqis, and the small remaining fraction was to shape the battlefield.
Through September, shortly before the battle began, airstrikes began targeting ISIS' operational-level capabilities to clear the way for Iraqi troops, Isler said. That included taking out storage and production facilities for car bombs and mortars, as well as defensive fighting positions and housing for ISIS fighters. In the 10 days before Iraqi forces marched on Mosul from the south, Isler said coalition aircraft released 158 weapons that hit 33 significant targets to prepare the battlefield.
This helped with the battle for East Mosul, he said, and coalition aircraft later conducted the same kind of battlefield-shaping strikes in the western half of the city to prepare for the next phase of the ground campaign.
"You measure [airstrikes'] success not by what you hit, but by what the effect was on the enemy," Isler said. "And that effect was the enemy was significantly disrupted, [Iraqi forces] were able to move very quickly through their footholds and took the airport, [as well as the nearby military base] Ghazlani, and … very quickly established a foot hold in the southern edge of the city."
Coalition aircraft also targeted ISIS command and control, he said, taking out more than 20 battalion commanders and above, to confuse ISIS as they fought.
But taking the western part of Mosul is presenting its own challenges. Aircraft are targeting specific defensive fighting positions set up by ISIS.
Coalition aircraft are also blasting craters in roads to slow down or stop ISIS car bombs — some of which are up-armored — to give Iraqi forces a better chance of defending themselves.
"When you have a high-speed avenue of approach that's running toward the Iraqis, a lot of times, they need you to emplace a defensive obstacle," Isler said.
Once the coalition has shaped the battlefield as much as it can, Isler said it tries to back up the Iraqis as they press forward. This is where coalition advisers serving alongside Iraqi leaders come into play, as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms watching overhead to find ISIS before they come close to Iraqis.
"Of all the things the Iraqis ask for, that's what they ask for" most, Isler said. "Sometimes, they don't even know all the shaping work that you've done. But they know when they roll in and they see that Daesh isn't in an area and they see the results of those airstrikes, they know that you're enabling their maneuver."
Daesh is a pejorative nickname for ISIS that the group is said to hate.
But ISIS is also preparing the battlefield in West Mosul to their advantage, making it exceptionally dangerous for the Iraqi army's 9th Division.
"In West Mosul, it is a really tough fight," Isler said. "It is demanding urban terrain, and Daesh is doing everything they can to hide from all those capabilities."
ISIS seizes houses in the western part of the city, kicks out the residents, and turns them into defensive fighting positions, Isler said, reinforcing them with sandbags, knocking out windows and drilling holes in the walls to set up "kill zones" designed to trap and ambush Iraqi troops. And because they are indistinguishable from the air from the other residences, the coalition often doesn't find out ISIS is lurking inside until Iraqi troops make contact and ask for air support.
Those strikes are often in exceptionally close quarters, Isler said. During the middle part of the day on which Isler spoke, about 90 percent of strikes conducted were within 500 meters of friendly Iraqi forces, he said, and most of those were within 200 meters, because they were taking direct fire from ISIS in those defensive positions.
Isler said when Iraqis ask the coalition for air support, officials consider where civilian activity has been spotted in the area as they plot out the strike. The coalition tries to predict the kind of damage dropping a bomb will cause and how much damage it will do to all kinds of civilian structures in the area. Coalition officials also judge whether a strike could hurt allied Iraqi troops, and if that's a possibility, discusses it with Iraqi commanders. Judges advocate are also consulted if there are legal questions about an airstrike, Isler said.
If the strike is cleared, it is carried out under the direction of a JTAC, he said.
"There are some times where we don't even strike," Isler said. "Sometimes, the potential to adversely impact civilians is too high, and we will not execute a strike in that case, and we have a very particular dialogue on other ways that we can get around that problem," such as having Iraqi forces go around a dangerous area.
The coalition is also helping the Iraqis with increased logistical support — resupplying them with crucial ammunition and other supplies. For example, on March 22, the first C-17 aircraft landed at Camp Taji near Baghdad since January 2015. The Air Force's 1st Expeditionary Civil Engineering Group — which last year resurrected the demolished Qayyarah West Airfield in time for the Mosul battle — repaired broken parts of the runway at Taji in phases over the last several months, allowing heavy C-17s to once again land there.
"90,000 pounds of ammo is going to the Iraqis as a result of that one C-17 flight," Isler said. "The reason Taji matters is that it's our biggest building partnership capacity site. We do train and equip the Iraqi ground forces, and a lot of that training is done at Taji. It's also a logistics [hub] for equipping them."
Having Taji fully up and running will help the coalition and the Iraqis as they pursue follow-up operations after ISIS is driven out of Mosul, he said.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.