ABOARD USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH — Under a blanket of stars, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, miles from the coast of Greece, a U.S. Navy carrier is bustling with activity. Twinkling lights in the distance that look like stars move fast toward the ship, but they are F/A-18 fighter planes returning from their missions, some over Syria or Iraq.
The USS George H.W. Bush carrier, a part of the Navy’s 6th Fleet, sends out more than 20 “sorties” or missions each day to support military air strategy and conduct airstrikes against the Islamic State.
More than a dozen strikes hit northern Iraq almost daily while Iraqi forces on the ground fight to push out the remaining ISIS fighters. But damage and casualty numbers from the U.S. led-coalition airstrikes are raising heavy concerns for human rights groups.
Airwars, an advocacy organization tracking airstrike casualties, says there have been at least four thousand civilian deaths from coalition strikes since last August in Iraq and Syria. But the U.S. has only acknowledged causing around 400 fatalities based on its own investigations. Yet in Iraq specifically, American planes have carried out at least 68 percent of the total airstrikes.
Yahoo News spoke via Skype with Chris Woods, the director of Airwars, which is based in London. He described his organization’s mission as “engaging with militaries, engaging with governments on the issues of civilians being killed and trying to get those numbers down.”
Airwars’ concern is shared by other groups. Last month, Human Rights Watch issued a statement, saying, “Rising civilian casualties from aerial operations have heightened concerns regarding coalition and Iraqi forces’ use of airstrikes. The use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects such as air-dropped bombs of 500 lbs and above, … in densely populated civilian areas of western Mosul may be resulting in civilian casualties. … Such disproportionate military attacks are prohibited under international humanitarian law.”
But naval pilots say while they are aware of the feedback on the ground, they are more focused on the tactical implications of their work, and they argue that following protocols helps keep them from making mistakes.
Lt. Commander Scott “Butters” Welles, an F/A-18 pilot based on the George H.W. Bush, told Yahoo News, “We are certainly aware of what is discussed and presented as popular opinion of what’s going on, but frankly we don’t get too tied up because we’re doing what’s been asked of us.”
Welles, 36, is a tall, blond fighter pilot and full of energy. He believes in the U.S. mission and has no objections about his orders.
He explained there are briefings before and after their sorties to evaluate their mission and that pilots are in constant communication with controllers before they strike a target. “There’s always an assessment of the implications of a strike to include potential civilian [casualties],” and so far, he said, he hasn’t made any serious mistakes that would have impacted his mission.
Another pilot, Lt. Andrew Wolfe, said he gets an accurate picture of the situation on the ground ahead of time. “We get an intelligence update from a ground officer — a liaison officer,” he said, “so we’ll know specifically where the bad guys are, where the good guys are and what progress has been made.”
Wolfe’s concern is focused on what to do in the moment and how the friendly forces on the ground need his help. “Where do [they] need my bombs right now? I feel comfortable with how much we know and what we don’t,” he said.
Pilots are fairly isolated onboard the ship. While there are TV screens in the briefing rooms, showing reports from CNN, Fox News and other organizations, the ship’s Internet service is relatively slow, limiting regular access to social media or other sites. Some of the sailors on the ship even use pay phones hanging on the walls.
Airstrikes in Syria and Iraq by the U.S. Navy and 21 other coalition forces are coordinated by ground-based controllers in various locations in the Middle East, including Baghdad.
In Baghdad, U.S. Army Gen. Rick Uribe, the deputy commanding officer for coalition forces, believes they have a “process” for determining a strike protocol that is “solid.” Uribe describes “five pillars” in the decision-making process U.S. forces follow to determine if a strike is warranted, both for “deliberate” strikes, or those initiated by U.S. intelligence, and “dynamic” strikes, which Iraqi forces and other coalition partners can request when they are in need of tactical assistance.
Uribe explained to Yahoo News, “We have to have proper intelligence that says ‘we’ve got positive identification’ of a target.” Then, he said, commanders “assess in that area whether or not there is a civilian pattern of life.”
After that, the coalition determines if they have the right weapon for the target. “I’m not going to strike a machine gun team with a two thousand pound bomb,” Uribe explained. U.S. forces also assess the risk of damage to the structures and surrounding areas, and check whether they are within the rules of engagement and law of armed conflict. Finally and most important, Uribe said, “all strikes must have the permission” of the Iraqi authorities in order to be conducted.
While Uribe did not specify the amount of time it takes for vetting the target, he did say the coalition’s airstrike campaign over Mosul in particular has been “pretty successful.”
Reports from witnesses on the frontlines have said a strike can be carried out within minutes of the initial call. And many civilians on the ground, such as those trapped in Mosul, have said they believe Iraqi forces are aware of their presence when an airstrike is called in — as they say was true of the strike in March in the neighborhood of Jadida in west Mosul that killed more than 200 people.
Iraqi forces have not commented on that strike, but human rights activists are calling for caution over heavily urbanized places such as west Mosul, where it’s estimated as many as 20,000 civilians are still trapped inside, according to the United Nations.
In Erbil, U.S. Gen. Scott Efflandt said making decisions to approve a strike can be complicated because “the enemy gets a vote.” When ISIS fighters use places of worship or hospitals as a base, the decision to strike requires further evaluation of civilian casualties. “We have yet to find a mechanical way to alleviate those hard decisions,” Efflandt admitted. “It’s incomplete facts that lead to an undesirable or tragic conclusion.”
Capt. James McCall, the air-wing commander for the George H.W. Bush, told Yahoo News, “We come back at the end of every flight and debrief [pilots] fairly rigorously. We go through every step of that flight. By our very nature we are very self-critical.” He explained pilots are trained to notice if something on the ground changes and to abort the mission, adding, “that’s something I expect of them.”
Nevertheless, at Airwars, Woods said he has “had detailed briefings with militaries on how they conduct their assessments and I find them problematic.” He believes the U.S. military is limited in their intelligence because they don’t have their own forces on the ground investigating and their own cameras are not enough to determine the number of civilians on the ground.
U.S. military officials consistently expressed to Yahoo News their view that ISIS is an evil enemy using civilians as a weapon and it’s their duty to “annihilate” them, referring to a May statement by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. They believe they’re helping bring freedom to civilians on the ground.
Welles said, “I know there’s always an assessment of the implications of a strike to include potential civilians to be impacted — the way we contribute to the process [is through] the different type of weapons we deploy that can mitigate or change the explosion.”
But from Woods’ point of view, precision is not enough. “We’ve gotten awfully caught up in precision warfare,” he said, but it didn’t help the 4,000 who died. “With technological shifts, what used to be anonymous statistics, we [now] know who many of the civilians are, we know their ages, we know their names, we know the village they grew up in.” The numbers can be counted and so can their identities. Of the 4,000 victims, Airwars has names for more than half.
Back at sea, the carrier crew prepare for the day’s tasks. Inside the pilot watch house, a control room of sorts, young Navy personnel keep the ship on course and maintain careful watch over the flight deck. In a room off the flight hangar, mechanics check air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles.
Welles heads for a dressing room following his morning briefing. The room is lined with flight suits and helmets. After putting on his gear, he walks to the flight deck, where pilots double-check their instruments and line up for takeoff on their assigned missions — ones they believe make the world a better place.
But the results of their efforts and skill and the systems put in place to avoid mistakes aren’t as visible on the ground in Mosul, where much of the city is destroyed. Houses are flattened, rubble covers the streets, cars are overturned and burned out. The city will take years to rebuild and many civilians won’t have a proper home to live in while it’s being rebuilt. Many may not even come home.
For the civilians on the ground, freedom from ISIS occupation comes at a risk — one that could end in their death, killed by a foreign entity from the air that will never know their names and won’t stay to help them start over.
Ash Gallagher is a journalist covering the Mideast for Yahoo News.
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