The U.S. and its allies last month dropped the fewest bombs on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria since June, even though defense officials say the campaign to defeat the terrorist group has been accelerating.
U.S.-led forces dropped 2,054 munitions last month, down from 2,694 in January and 3,139 in December, according to Air Force data. That’s the fewest since 1,683 last June and reflects a continuing decline from a peak of 3,227 weapons dropped in November. A partial ceasefire went into effect in Syria on Feb. 27, but that agreement doesn’t cover attacks on Islamic State targets.
While Defense Secretary Ash Carter has said the drive against Islamic State is gaining momentum, some Republican presidential candidates have been calling for more intensive bombing.
The number of “weapons dropped does not necessarily provide a 1-to-1 correlation for total pressure being applied” against Islamic State, according to Army Major Roger Cabiness, a Defense Department spokesman. Intelligence gathered through reconnaissance sorties “enables the coalition to become increasingly effective at striking strategic targets that put intense pressure on” the terrorists, he said via email.
The decline in munitions hasn’t been mentioned publicly by Pentagon and Air Force officials. They have focused on the more-than-55,000 combat sorties flown since the U.S.-led air campaign against Islamic State began over Iraq in August 2014, a total that includes reconnaissance and surveillance flights and aerial refueling missions. Nor does U.S. Central Command disclose how many bombs are dropped in its daily summary of targets struck.
While Pentagon officials have said that the U.S. inventory of smart bombs has declined, Cabiness said that hasn’t affected the pace of bombing.
“We strike targets when and where we find them,” Cabiness said. “There will be periods of time when these numbers vary because of factors such as weather, requirements for strike packages and the number of available targets.”
The surge of munitions in November may have reflected air support for Iraqi forces as they prepared for the successful campaign to retake Ramadi that began late that month, Chris Harmer, an analyst for the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, said in an email. “If/when the long-rumored assault on Mosul commences, those numbers will spike again.”
The U.S. has dropped fewer munitions per sortie against Islamic State targets than in any operation since the Cold War ended because this campaign “has been extremely difficult to prosecute,” Harmer said. Maneuvering in “small groups of dismounted infantry, largely unsupported by artillery, tanks, and fighting vehicles, makes it difficult for U.S. aircraft to accurately acquire targets,” he said. That’s been compounded by a lack of U.S. ground personnel functioning as target spotters, he said.