A fascinating new book reveals aspects of modern aerial warfare that have not previously been aired in unclassified forums, I think. The ever-changing and politically-charged Rules of Engagement (RoE), the role of the lawyers sitting alongside the operators, the development of targets, and the weaponeering, it’s all here.

“Hunting The Caliphate” is a collaboration between former US Army Major-General Dana Pittard and former US Air Force Joint Tactical Air Controller (JTAC) Wes Bryant. Both played key roles in US and allied air operations over Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. We all knew that these were complex engagements requiring intricate collaboration between partners, and with the friendly ground forces of the three countries under threat. But the book lays bare just how awkward this could be.

This reader had previously assumed that all the key decisions in the air war were taken in the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) in Doha. Not so. The authors describe a command and operational structure stretching from CENTCOM and US Air Force Reaper control units in Creech AFB, NV, through a variety of ad-hoc strike cells in Iraq manned by US personnel.

Contrary to long-established practice, those cells were usually the nearest that the JTACs got to the actual fighting. That was thanks to political control from Washington that insisted that there were only minimal American “boots on the ground” in Iraq. However, thanks to modern sensors and communications, it seemed to work.

Some actions are described in great detail. For instance, on one occasion ISIS drove an armour-plated 16-wheel truck towards a large column of Iraqi troops trying to retake the Bayji oil refinery. It was a huge suicide weapon, and Iraqi government spies had seen it emerge from an auto repair shop in Bayji town. An American Predator or Reaper UAV found the advancing truck, and two coalition F-16s that were airborne nearby were told to standby.

But then staffers in US Central Command (CENTCOM) headquarters in Tampa, FL wanted to know why the US-manned strike cell in Iraq knew it was an ISIS truck, whether it had ‘hostile intent’, and whether there were civilians onboard. This took time, and with the truck rapidly approaching the Iraqi column, Maj Gen Pittard intervened to approve the attack. But now the F-16 pilots had to consult their own country’s chain of command to ensure that its RoE were satisfied. After clearance, they fired AGM-65 Maverick missiles – which missed. So did their subsequent 20mm gun attack. With less than three minutes remaining before the truck reached the column, and with two replacement American F-16s still five minutes away, the strike cell authorized the UAV crew thousands of miles away to attack with a Hellfire missile. That worked.

Maj Gen Pittard believes that he was instrumental in getting the Iraqi armed forces to fight back after ISIS captured so much territory in the first half of 2014. He was able to negate the defensive mentality in the Iraqi command that put defending Bagdhad above all else. He had to overcome tensions between Iraq’s regular army, Shia militias, and Kurdish forces, even though all regarded ISIS as the common enemy.

There is a perception amongst some military analysts that the US is less careful than other countries to avoid civilian casualties. Not so, if this book is to be believed. They describe how two collateral damage analysts sat in the strike cell to validate each target, sometimes suggesting a smaller ordnance or a change of attack parameters. ISIS forces came to understand the constraints, and increasingly hid and operated from urban locations amongst innocent civilians.

The work-arounds and innovations that were necessary are also described. For instance, Iraqi troops who retook Mosul Dam from ISIS were given an app on their smartphones so that they could send accurate targeting information to Iraqi headquarters, where an American JTAC validated the targets before clearing US or coalition combat aircraft to attack. The troops were instructed to take photos of the readings on their hand-held GPS to depict their location, and moving map screenshots to show their own location plus the azimuth and distance to their intended target. That way, the tendency of the Iraqis to relay the wrong grid coordinates was overcome.

My only criticism of this book is that the ever-changing chain of command experienced by the two authors is described in too much detail. Otherwise, there are many lessons to be learned from it.

“Hunting The Caliphate – America’s War On ISIS and the Dawn of the Strike Cell” by Dana Pittard and Wes Bryant, Post Hill Press, 2019.

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