An image made available on the jihadist website Welayat Salahuddin on June 11 shows militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant posing with the trademark jihadist flag after they allegedly seized an Iraqi army checkpoint in the northern Iraqi province of Salahuddin. (AFP/Getty Images)
The military is increasing surveillance flights over Iraq to identify possible targets for air strikes, President Obama said Thursday, while a team of airmen waits outside the country to set up and secure air operations if needed.
President Obama told reporters Thursdaythat the military is increasing its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights in Iraq to track fighters with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and counter the threat posed by the insurgents.
“Because of our increased intelligence resources, we’re developing more information about potential targets associated with ISIL and going forward, we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it,” Obama said.
The announcement comes as two key senators call for U.S. airstrikes to stop ISIL advances.
“Air power does not win conflicts, air power alone can not,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on the Senate floor Wednesday. “Air power can have a significant effect on the morale of your people, on your capability of inflicting some damage, and of changing the enemy’s plans.”
The Air Force has a wide range of aircraft in the region, including B-1B Bombers, F-15E Strike Eagles and RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance drones, in addition to mobility aircraft such as refueling tankers and air lifters. Navy F/A-18 Hornets have already been flying reconnaissance missions over Iraq.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told reporters Wednesday that the Air Force has a “variety of assets” in the region that could be moved when ordered.
“I’m very confident that if the order comes down ... our Air Force will be ready,” James said.
The Defense Department announced this week that about 100 troops, including airmen, are positioned outside Iraq while more than 160 Army and Marine Corps troops have made their way into the country to fortify defenses at the U.S. Embassy.
Obama said the U.S. is prepared to send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq to help train and support Iraqi security forces, in addition to the 275 who have been sent to help with security in the country.
The troops on standby are equipped for a “wide-range of missions” including airport management and support, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Tuesday. The Air Force’s unit that handles airfield control is the 621st Contingency Response Wing based at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. The wing is made up of six Contingency Response Groups and about 1,500 airmen who are trained to quickly open airfields and establish air mobility operations.
Public affairs officials with the wing and Air Mobility Command referred questions on the status of the contingency response groups to the Defense Department.
Airmen in the wing, which also includes a unit at Travis Air Force Base, California, have been busy in Africa this year. In January, airmen with the 571st Contingency Response Group deployed to Rwanda to assist African Union troops in their battle against insurgents in the Central African Republic.
Other airmen already in the region are security forces airmen with the Air Force’s 824th Base Defense Group, which deployed to Jordan for exercise Eager Lion and has remained since the operation ended earlier this month. The mission of the unit, whose home base is Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, is to keep airfields secure for air operations.
In addition to the troops on the ground and standing by, the U.S. has moved several warships into the Persian Gulf to provide other options to protect U.S. interests.
On Monday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the amphibious transport dock Mesa Verde, part of the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, to enter the Persian Gulf. It joins the carrier George H. W. Bush, which Hagel ordered to enter the Gulf on Saturday.
The carrier brings F/A-18 Super Hornets that could provide air strike capability over Iraq. The Mesa Verde carries more Marines, all members of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, along with MV-22 Osprey transport aircraft that will be in standby in case the State Department needs support to evacuate the embassy in Baghdad.
Also entering the Persian Gulf Saturday was the guided-missile cruiser Philippine Sea and the guided-missile destroyer Truxtun. The ships carry Tomahawk missiles that could reach inland Iraq.
Insurgents with ISIL have been advancing on Baghdad and appear to be about 40 miles away from the capital. Kirby told reporters that Iraqi defense forces appear to be “stiffening” their defenses in and around Baghdad.
As ISIL forces have taken cities in Iraq, they have seized American-made military gear, including Humvees. The Defense Department doesn’t have a “perfect inventory” of what has been taken, Kirby said, reiterating that it is Iraqi equipment, not American property, that has been taken. He could not confirm reports that ISIL fighters have U.S.-made Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.
“We’re watching the events unfold,” Kirby said. “We’re watching as closely as we can.”
Staff writers Gina Harkins and Andrew Tilghman contributed.