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Former Gov. Jeb Bush blasted President Barack Obama’s response to Islamic State advances in Iraq and Syria, saying the White House has been creating too many bureaucratic hurdles for the military to clear.
The Obama administration must "take the lawyers off the war fighters' backs and let them go do the job and do it in concert with the neighborhood," Bush told George Stephanopoulos on the Dec. 6, 2015, episode of This Week.
"Up until recently, 75 percent of all the sorties that left the base came back without dropping their ordnances, because there was such a concern about making sure that there were no civilian casualties," Bush said. "The United States will always adhere to the international standards of war, but this administration has imposed even greater challenges."
We wanted to check whether Bush was correct about airstrikes on Islamic State.
The U.S. Air Force tracks how many individual flights, or sorties, are carried out for Operation Inherent Resolve, the campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIS or ISIL. They track weapons use during each combat sortie, which are counted separately from other flights like airdrops and refueling missions.
Between August 2014 and June 2015, there were 18,042 combat sorties over Iraq and Syria, according to U.S. Air Forces Central Command. Weapons (guns, bombs or missiles) were used in 4,175 of them, or 23 percent. That ratio varies per month, but overall, weapons were not used in 77 percent of sorties.
Some critics have used the statistics to say the Obama administration is not properly conducting its air campaign in Iraq and Syria. Defense policy experts told us that weapons use during sorties against Islamic State was low compared with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"There has never been an offensive air campaign in U.S. military history that has had anywhere near as low of an ordnance expenditure rate as has (Operation Inherent Resolve)," Christopher Harmer, senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told PolitiFact Florida.
But the experts also said that the Obama administration had been making an effort to avoid civilian casualties as much as possible. This was in part because ISIS forces purposely try to blend in with civilians, and because the United States did not want to alienate the local population.
"We were perhaps overly concerned about collateral damage," said strategy analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I would say that we did allow ourselves to be over-restrained when dealing with the possibility of civilian casualties."
It is clear that Bush was right to use the qualifier "up until recently," because weapons use has increased quite a bit since the summer as strategies have shifted. Special Operations forces have been called up to aid Kurdish and Iraqi ground forces, and the United States has begun targeting oil supplies controlled by ISIS.
The Air Force told PolitiFact Florida that about 50 percent of all strike missions had one or more aircraft drop weapons in July and August. October was up to about 60 percent and in November it was 65 percent.
That has increased the overall total or weapons use. Statistics through November 2015 show that out of 25,860 sorties, weapons were employed 10,932 times. That means since August 2014, aircraft engaged targets during a mission 42 percent of the time.
There are several reasons weapons are being used more freely, according to a statement from Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Brown Jr., Combined Forces Air Component Commander. Forces are gaining understanding of Islamic State tactics, and the coalition is sharing intelligence more effectively to improve targeting ability. Planes also have been on the lookout for targets of opportunity as they return to base after sorties.
"It’s the impact and the effect we have on Da’esh that we’re most focused on, not the amount of weapons released," Brown said in the statement. (Da’esh is yet another name for Islamic State.) "The numbers are interesting, but the effect we have on Da’esh is what is important."
Some analysts agreed with Brown that weapons use statistics can be somewhat meaningless. Matthew Fay, defense policy analyst at the libertarian Niskanen Center, said in any case, the figures don’t convey whether the military’s true goals are being met. High body counts in the Vietnam War didn’t truly show America’s progress, he noted.
"If civilian deaths in American airstrikes in Iraq and Syria aid ISIS recruiting, increasing the percentage of ordnance dropped with no account for the collateral damage it will inevitably produce is counterproductive to American strategy," Fay said.
Bush said, "Up until recently, 75 percent of all the sorties that left the base came back without dropping their ordnances, because there was such a concern about making sure that there were no civilian casualties."
That 75-percent rate was accurate until this summer, when sorties against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria saw an uptick, so Bush is right to qualify his statement. Experts said the Obama administration did want to avoid civilian casualties, but fighting an unconventional force like ISIS has made airstrikes more difficult than in previous conflicts. Analysts also noted that even at a low rate, citing weapons use as an indicator of achieving strategic goals does not necessarily signify success the way Bush implies.
We rate his statement Mostly True.
This Week, "Jeb Bush Slams Hillary: She's a Focus Group Person," Dec. 6, 2015
Face the Nation, "Face the Nation Transcripts May 24, 2015: McCain, Schiff," May 24, 2015
Washington Post, "Defense Secretary Carter: Iraqis lack ‘will to fight’ to defeat Islamic State," May 24, 2015
Fox News, "US military pilots complain hands tied in ‘frustrating’ fight against ISIS," May 28, 2015
PolitiFact, "John McCain says 75% of airstrike missions against ISIS return without firing a weapon," May 28, 2015
Washington Times, "U.S. bombers hold fire on Islamic State targets amid ground intel blackout," May 31, 2015
Air Force Times, "Many anti-Islamic State sorties don't include airstrikes," June 5, 2015
Air Force Times, "Most combat sorties in Iraq end without striking ISIS," July 8, 2015
CNN, "Syria: Obama authorizes boots on ground to fight ISIS," Oct. 30, 2015
Newsweek, "Majority of Americans Want U.S. Ground Troops to Fight ISIS: Poll," Nov. 7, 2015
New York Times, "U.S. Steps Up Its Attacks on ISIS-Controlled Oil Fields in Syria," Nov. 12, 2015
Washington Free Beacon, "U.S. Pilots Confirm: Obama Admin Blocks 75 Percent of Islamic State Strikes," Nov. 20, 2015
Politico, "Former Obama Terrorism Adviser: Change Your Strategy, Mr. President," Nov. 20, 2015
Associated Press (via U.S. News & World Report), "Bush numbers off on bombing missions in Iraq, Syria," Dec. 2, 2015
CNN, "Obama: U.S. safe against ISIS attack," Dec. 4, 2015
CNN, "Obama: 'This was an act of terrorism'," Dec. 7, 2015
U.S. Department of Defense, Operation Inherent Resolve, accessed Dec. 7, 2015
U.S. Air Forces Central Command, Airpower summaries, accessed Dec. 8, 2015
Interview with Christopher Harmer, Institute for the Study of War senior naval analyst, Dec. 7, 2015
Interview with Allie Brandenburger, Bush spokeswoman, Dec. 8, 2015
Interview with Matthew Fay, Niskanen Center defense policy analyst, Dec. 8, 2015
Interview with Anthony Cordesman, Center for Strategic and International Studies Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, Dec. 8, 2015
Interview with Cory Fritz, U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee spokesman, Dec. 8, 2015
Interview with Army Maj. James Brindle, Office of the Secretary of Defense spokesman, Dec. 8, 2015
Interview with Air Force Maj. Tim Smith, U.S. Air Forces Central Command spokesman, Dec. 8 & 10, 2015
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