APRIL 23, 2015
U.S. Weighs Training Iraqis to Call in American Airstrikes in ISIS Fight
By MICHAEL R. GORDON
WASHINGTON -- A senior Obama administration official said Thursday that the United States was looking for ways to speed up United States bombing attacks on Islamic State militants, including a plan to train Iraqi troops to spot targets for American airstrikes.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq complained during his visit to Washington last week that it had been taking too long for the United States to carry out airstrikes on behalf of Iraqi forces. But a major constraint to shortening the time to conduct such strikes is that the White House has not authorized troops to accompany Iraqi forces on the battlefield and call in American and allied bombing attacks.
The absence of air controllers is a particular complication for urban battles in which Iraqi forces would be in proximity to their enemy, fighters on both sides would be on the move, and Islamic State units could not always be readily identified by American pilots flying overhead.
So the administration is considering whether to train a cadre of Iraqi Special Forces troops to help get American bombs to their targets more quickly. "That might include training Iraqi JTACs," the American official said, using the Pentagon acronym for air controllers who would call in airstrikes.
The use of Iraqi forces as air controllers would be a first since American troops went to Iraq in 2003. It would help fill a gap in Iraq's capabilities as it prepares for the fight to reclaim Mosul, the country's second-largest city, which is expected later this year.
But one risk is that the Iraqis might misidentify targets, which could lead to the unintentional killing of civilians in American bombing missions. So if the plan goes forward, the United States is likely to insist on procedures to confirm the target selection, perhaps by using reconnaissance drones.
"I'd think we would have to have some eyes on through I.S.R. before we did a strike," the official said, using the abbreviation for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Pentagon officials said that it might be possible to reduce the response time for American airstrikes by providing additional training to Iraqi forces on how to identify targets. But Pentagon officials added that the ultimate authority for directing a strike would probably remain with United States forces and that the Iraqis would never serve as full-fledged air controllers.
The administration official did not say how long it would take to determine what role the Iraqi military might play to make airstrikes more responsive or what training might be required. While military experts said it should be possible to train Iraqi forces to serve as air controllers, some said the Iraqis could not be expected to be nearly as proficient as American forces.
"If we want close air support to be as precisely targeted as the American people expect, the controllers on the ground should be Americans," said James M. Dubik, a retired Army lieutenant general who was in charge of training Iraqi forces in 2007 and 2008.
Christopher Harmer, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and a former naval officer, said training the Iraqis to perform such a mission might be feasible, but added that it could slow the effort to reclaim Iraqi territory from the Islamic State.
"They have never, ever done it," he said. "It is possible that it will work, but it will take time and will introduce friction points in the process."
There are a variety of techniques for calling in strikes. Some involve using a laser designator to determine the geographic coordinates of a target and transmitting them to an aircraft. But in fast-moving situations, voice communication is often required, and that, Mr. Harmer noted, would require that the Iraqis be proficient in English.
Faced with such challenges, the United States may yet opt to send small American teams of air controllers onto the battlefield. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said he may recommend that American troops perform such a role when Iraqi forces move to retake Mosul.
Iraqi forces reclaimed Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, before Mr. Abadi arrived in Washington. But the Islamic State responded by attacking Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, and the Baiji oil refinery in northern Iraq. About 100,000 Iraqis fled the Ramadi fighting, and the Iraqis have since counterattacked in both locations.
To take on the Islamic State, the Iraqi government and the United States have begun to work with Sunni tribes. About 80,000 Shiite militiamen are fighting in Iraq, some of whom are at least nominally under Iraqi government control, and the senior administration official said more than 10,000 Sunni tribesmen were also in the fight.
The United States, the official said, recently sent a shipment of arms for Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, including a delivery of about 1,000 AT4 antitank systems and hundreds of Milan antitank weapons.