Making the Case for JTACs in Iraq, Syria

In a tense and often heated debate with Pentagon leaders, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) went to bat for pilots frustrated at the lack ordnance being dropped in the air campaign against ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria. Of the roughly 5,000 airstrikes conducted by American pilots, nearly “75 percent” of the sorties return without ever having dropped a weapon, said McCain during the SASC hearing on Tuesday. “If there’s ever a compelling argument for forward air controllers it seems to me that’s the case,” he argued. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey compared the numbers to a “similar period in the Afghanistan conflict,” noting that in 2012 the number of aircraft “that returned with their ordnance because there were not targets available on the ground was 83 percent” compared to “63 percent in Iraq right now.” The joint terminal attack controllers “and the special-force observers are not the silver bullet to the destruction of ISIL; the silver bullet is getting the Iraqis to fight,” said Dempsey. McCain wasn’t buying the argument, however. “Any experienced pilot will tell you that if you have a forward air controller on the ground to identify those targets, then the number of targets hit is dramatically increased,” said McCain. “We have no forward air controllers on the ground, and that, I can tell you, is incredibly frustrating to the young pilots who are flying these six-and-a-half hour sorties, who feel they are not achieving anything.” (See also Deptula Op-Ed Debated During HASC Hearing and A New Way to Use JTACs.)