“When you start seeing people going back to their homes, when we see cities being liberated, that’s success,” a Navy F/A-18 Hornet pilot who goes by the call sign “Bacon” told The Daily Signal in an interview. The pilot, a lieutenant, agreed to be photographed, but asked that his full name not be used due to security concerns.
“We’re in the driver’s seat, we’ve got them on their heels,” Bacon said.
Operation Inherent Resolve uniquely fuses in a single mission the lessons learned from the Cold War with the past 16 years of post-9/11 counterinsurgency warfare.
The battle space in which the U.S. military operates to fight ISIS, over the skies of Iraq and Syria and in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, is as eclectic and challenging as any in U.S. military history. There, U.S. personnel face myriad threats and fulfill multiple combat roles on every sortie.
“We train to all these mission sets, we just haven’t put it all together in one mission before,” Bacon said. “If you’re not learning, you’re wrong. There’s nothing comfortable or routine about what we’re doing.”
On each mission, U.S. pilots face legitimate air-to-air and surface-to-air threats—threats that were virtually nonexistent to supersonic fighters during the majority of the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We certainly have to honor the capabilities of any asset out there that’s not U.S.-flagged,” McCall, commander of Carrier Air Wing Eight, told The Daily Signal. “But we’re not here to fight the Syrian regime, we’re not here to fight the Russians. We’re here to fight ISIS.”
Once on station, the U.S. warplanes and their aircrews face the more familiar role of providing close air support and aerial surveillance to ground units. But there’s a twist—coalition partner ground forces operate with only a shadow U.S. ground presence, often removed from the front lines against ISIS.
Therefore, without reliable direct communications with the ground units they’re supporting, U.S. pilots commonly rely on airborne ISR sensor feeds from manned and unmanned aircraft to search for their targets and keep an eye out for civilians. It’s a challenging task, in which the U.S. military leans on battlefield experience and technology advancements born from the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Our situational awareness, which then leads to precision targeting, is completely different than when I was a part of Desert Storm and Desert Shield,” Whitesell, the Carrier Strike Group Two commander, said.
For 16 years, U.S. military personnel have observed the ground-level behavior of insurgent groups from the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan. Due to that education, U.S. tactics and technology are now able to prosecute a counterinsurgency campaign almost exclusively from the air, clearing the way for foreign ground forces to advance with a minimum U.S. ground footprint.
“It’s mentally tough,” Lt. Cmdr. Scott Welles, an F/A-18 pilot who goes by the call sign “Butters,” told The Daily Signal. “The most effective approach we can have is definitely being concerned with more than just the actual execution of a specific task. We strive to have the full understanding of what we’re being asked to do, where it is, what the impacts could be. It’s very much a two-way back and forth with whomever we’re talking with on the ground.”
U.S. pilots decide when to drop bombs based on pattern of life observations. That’s to say, by observing, over a period of time, the behavior and movements of individuals on the ground who appear only as black and white images on a small screen in the pilot’s cramped fighter jet cockpit.
Command and control staff at ground operations centers analyze those images and approve airstrikes, but it ultimately falls on the pilot or airborne weapons system operator to make the final call before releasing weapons. It’s his or her hand on the button, and if something doesn’t look or even feel right, it’s their prerogative to abort.
“From the air, nobody’s wearing, ‘Hey, I’m the bad guy’ clothes,” Whitesell said.
One of our pinnacle moments was when we were cleared to do a strike into one of the areas. And the pilot was able to look and see, look through his device, and what he saw was a group of people coming out of a house, and they just kept coming out of a building … and they started walking along a street. And that pattern of life did not equate to what ISIS would [do]. Even though he was cleared for that strike, he decided to abort … and then relay back to command and control organizations that it looks like we’ve got refugees in this town moving out of this building… you just don’t drive in if you’re approved for the strike.
That kind of judgment and clear thinking under pressure comes from years of combat experience distilled into effective training programs.
When you have seconds to decide whether a group of people walking toward friendly forces is a unit of ISIS fighters or a gaggle of refugees, there is no black and white set of criteria upon which to rely. It’s more akin to an art than a reproducible, workmanlike checklist. And the consequences for making the wrong decision are catastrophic.
“As long as we’re operating within those rules of engagement that the commanders have given us, we’ll operate to the fullest extent,” Rogers, the F/A-18 pilot, said. “And a lot of that is focused on not having any civilian casualties; to do everything we can to make sure the enemy is being engaged and that every single effort is done to minimize civilian casualties.”
U.S. military operators perform their jobs according to their commanders’ stated intents and clearly prescribed rules of engagement. But no commander’s guidance or rule of engagement is ever perfectly crafted to cover every possible situation. It takes judgment and training to properly apply the spirit of those decision-making templates to the reality of the battlefield as it is.
“So, is it a bellwether for things to come? I have no idea,” McCall said. “What I can tell you is I believe the United States is going to be relentless in pursuing ISIS around the globe. And if they try to run somewhere, we’re gonna follow them.”
U.S. Navy aviators say they frequently encounter Russian warplanes over Syria. There is a direct phone line set up between American and Russian three-star generals in their respective operations centers to deconflict air operations, and Whitesell said it’s used several times every day.
“If we see something in the air that we don’t understand we call back to the command and control organization and they get the message back to the CAOC [Combined Air Operations Center] and someone gets on the phone and talks to the Russians immediately so that we can resolve any misunderstanding that we’ve got over any of these areas,” Whitesell said.
“There is open communication between the Russians and our military,” McCall said.
“That allows us to enjoy some perspective on what their operations are and what our objectives are … it does allow for some deconfliction of airspace and roles within the skies. And that allows an overall de-escalation of potential tension.”
At sea, the USS George H.W. Bush carrier strike group has frequent run-ins with a gamut of Russian naval vessels. Unlike in the air, however, there is no unique agreement moderating U.S.-Russian naval interactions in this theater. Instead, the two navies rely on a Cold War-era agreement called “Incidents at Sea.” They use their bridge-to-bridge radios over a common frequency, communicating with each other through a series of codes hashed out in 1972.
“The funny thing about that is when I first came in the Navy quite some time ago that was something we trained on quite a bit because it was the end of the Cold War,” Capt. Benjamin Nicholson, commodore of Destroyer Squadron 22, told The Daily Signal, referring to the Incidents at Sea agreement.
And as we went into a time post-Cold War, we really didn’t have these interactions with the Russians … Well, the publication and the agreement is still on the books, and it’s something that over the last several years has been coming back quite a bit … to communicate with the Russians to ensure that there is no misinterpretation of what the other one is doing … We talk to the Russian ships that are here and tell them what we’re doing so we can position ourselves and not have something be mistaken for something threatening.
Going to School
American military personnel mostly shrug off brushes with Russian naval vessels and warplanes as part of their daily routine, whereas civilian media and political leaders typically characterize the encounters as a much bigger deal.
“Not to dampen the excitement, but frankly they’ve been fairly routine,” McCall said, referring to encounters with Russian warplanes over Syria.
Ultimately, it’s the mutually shared overtures of professionalism between Russian and U.S. military personnel that prevent interactions at sea or in the air from escalating into a conflict.