U.S. Air Force F-35A Joint Strike Fighters and F-15E Strike Eagles dropped 36,000 kilograms, or nearly 80,000 pounds, of bombs on an island in Iraq's Tigris River that ISIS had been using as a transit hub to move men and materiel from Syria and other points west deeper into Iraq. However, an official press release from the U.S.-led coalition fighting the terrorists in Iraq and Syria did not say that strikes had killed any militants or destroyed any specific targets. At the same time, the statement's wording suggests the airstrikes may have actually been a so-called "terrain denial" operation to simply blast away vegetation and other natural cover that might have offered concealment for ISIS, also known as Daesh, and their supply caches.
The strikes occurred on Qanus Island in the Tigris on Sept. 10, 2019. Qanus is approximately 175 miles northwest of Baghdad, some 55 miles southwest of the Kurdish regional capital in Erbil, and around 100 miles east of the Syrian border. The sorties were ostensibly supporting the 2nd Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) Battalion's still-ongoing ground clearance operation, nicknamed Operation Black Dirt, to root out ISIS elements in the area. Though the U.S.-led coalition, known formally as Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), declared that it had destroyed the terrorist's "physical caliphate" in December 2017, the group has continued to be a persistent security threat in both Iraq and Syria.
"We're denying Daesh the ability to hide on Qanus Island," U.S. Air Force Major General Eric Hill, presently commander of Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (SOJTF-OIR), the coalition's main special operations component, said in a statement. "We're setting the conditions for our partner forces to continue bringing stability to the region."
However, exactly what this particularly massive burst of airstrikes achieved is somewhat unclear and the coalition did not immediately offer information about what types of aircraft were involved, how many total planes actually conducted strikes, or what munitions they employed. Official pictures that accompanied the press release did show F-35As and F-15Es, both of which are presently forward deployed to Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, taking part in the operation. There are also presently Air Force B-52H bombers deployed to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which would have been well suited to this mission, but there is no indication that they participated.
The F-15Es appeared to be carrying loads of at least five 2,000-pound class GBU-31/B Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) GPS-guided bombs. The Joint Strike Fighters had their external wingtip rails for the AIM-9X Sidewinder
fitted, but did not appear to be carrying any of those air-to-air missiles. They were not carrying any other external ordnance, suggesting that they were likely each carrying two additional GBU-31/Bs.
It would have taken 40 of these JDAMs in total to account for the 80,000 pounds of bombs the U.S. military says it dropped on Qanus Island. Official video footage of the strikes, seen near the beginning of this story, does not show 40 separate impacts, though it very possible that it does not cover the full extent of the operation.
In addition, despite identifying Qanus Island as a transit hub for ISIS movements, the coalition has not specified if the strikes were targeting any personnel, structures, or supplies. "Coalition Forces used 80,000 pounds of munitions on the island to disrupt Daesh the ability to hide in the thick vegetation," is how the release described the objective of the airstrikes.
The description sounds very much like what the U.S. military calls "terrain denial," which literally involves using air and artillery strikes, among other methods, to physically destroy foliage, rock outcroppings, and other types of natural cover to prevent enemy forces from using them. The War Zone has reached out for clarification, but, at the time of writing, we have not yet received a response.
The Air Force notably conducted a number of similar missions in Afghanistan between 2016 and 2017, involving B-52H bombers armed with unguided bombs, something The War Zone was among the first to report on. There is no indication that the strikes on Qanus island involved any dumb bombs and the strike video shows all the hallmarks of precision-guided munitions, including the near-perfect and highly efficient spacing between impact points. The mission to simply evenly saturate the island with bombs would have offered a "targeter's dream" of sorts.
“Area denial missions can range from shaping enemy force maneuvers to denying key terrain to the enemy,” an Air Force public affairs officer had told The War Zone in November 2017. “These terrain denial strikes are useful in enabling freedom of maneuver for our forces, elimination of cover and concealment by enemy forces, an [sic; and] affecting enemy pattern of life in such a way that allows us to gain invaluable intelligence on their networks.”
Given how the U.S.-led coalition has framed ISIS' use of Qanus Island, conducting a terrain denial mission there would offer many of the same benefits. It would deny the terrorists a concealed base camp, which could include man-made structures and fortifications that make use of natural cover. It could also disrupt their operations in the area more broadly and potentially force them to move out into the open, at least in the immediate future.
At the same time, if these airstrikes were indeed part of a terrain denial mission, it only serves to underscore how ISIS continues to enjoy considerable freedom of movement within Iraq nearly two years after the U.S.-led coalition declared that the group was no longer able to actively control physical territory. Denuding an island of vegetation to prevent the terrorists from using it as a base of operations points to the limits of the Iraqi government's ability to exert control in many areas. This also follows a recent U.S. government inspector general report that highlighted significant shortfalls in the Iraqi military's ability to conduct its own aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, including having just one Chinese-made CH-4B drone that is mission capable.
Concerns have been building for some time that various unrelated tensions, including Turkey's separate campaign against Kurdish groups that it views as terrorists, could be giving ISIS space to consolidate their resources and regroup in Iraq, as well as neighboring Syria. A recent string of reported Israeli strikes targeting Iranian-backed Iraqi militias and other Iranian interests in the country have added yet another dimension to what is already a complicated geopolitical environment.
The apparent Israeli air campaign led the Iraqi government to declare in August that it would prohibit foreign military aircraft from flying any missions inside its airspace without prior approval on a case-by-case basis. The U.S. military said it would abide by this decision, but also began talks with Iraqi authorities about how exactly to proceed in the future. These strikes, directly in support of an ISOF operation, were clearly conducted in coordination with the government of Iraq.
Whatever the exact targets of the Air Force's extensive airstrikes on Qanus island were, it certainly makes clear that ISIS remains a real threat and one that Iraqi authorities, together with the U.S.-led coalition, continue to take very seriously.
UPDATE: 7:30pm EST—
The CJTF-OIR Media Operations office has declined to say whether or not the objective of these particular strikes on Qanus Island were part of a terrain denial mission. However, they did confirm that coalition forces have conducted terrain denial strikes in the past.
"The island is believed to be a major transit hub and safe haven for Daesh," the media operations office added in their statement to The War Zone. "Currently the investigation is still ongoing so we cannot disclose the number of militants on the Island at the time of the operation."
It is not clear if this is a routine investigation. We have reached out again for additional clarification.
The CJTF-OIR Media Operations office has provided the additional clarifying statement:
We would call this a terrain denial mission and Iraqi-led ground clearance operation.
The ground assessment is being conducted by the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service. We will have to refer you to them for details about the assessment.
The coalition applies rigorous standards to our targeting process and takes extraordinary efforts to protect noncombatants. We cannot speculate on the outcome of an ongoing assessment.
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