The American military has failed to publicly disclose potentially thousands of lethal airstrikes conducted over several years in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, a Military Times investigation has revealed. The enormous data gap raises serious doubts about transparency in reported progress against the Islamic State, al-Qaida and the Taliban, and calls into question the accuracy of other Defense Department disclosures documenting everything from costs to casualty counts.
In 2016 alone, U.S. combat aircraft conducted at least 456 airstrikes in Afghanistan that were not recorded as part of an open-source database maintained by the U.S. Air Force, information relied on by Congress, American allies, military analysts, academic researchers, the media and independent watchdog groups to assess each war's expense, manpower requirements and human toll. Those airstrikes were carried out by attack helicopters and armed drones operated by the U.S. Army, metrics quietly excluded from otherwise comprehensive monthly summaries, published online for years, detailing American military activity in all three theaters.
Most alarming is the prospect this data has been incomplete since the war on terrorism began in October 2001. If that is the case, it would fundamentally undermine confidence in much of what the Pentagon has disclosed about its prosecution of these wars, prompt critics to call into question whether the military sought to mislead the American public, and cast doubt on the competency with which other vital data collection is being performed and publicized. Those other key metrics include American combat casualties, taxpayer expense and the military's overall progress in degrading enemy capabilities.
U.S. Central Command, which oversees military activity in all three war zones, indicated it is unable to determine how far back the Army’s numbers have been excluded from these airpower summaries. Officials there would not address several detailed questions submitted by Military Times, and they were unable to provide a full listing of annual airstrikes conducted by each of the Defense Department's four military services.
"It is really weird. We don’t track the number of strikes from Apaches, for example" said a U.S. military official with knowledge of CENTCOM's data collection and reporting practices. The official, who spoke to Military Times on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss internal procedures, was referring to AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, which the Army has used prolifically in combat over the last 15 years, most recently in support of American allies battling the Islamic State.
"I can tell you, unequivocally, we are not trying to hide the number of strikes," the official said. "That is just the way it has been tracked in the past. That’s what it’s always been."
It’s a significant discrepancy, though, and one for which the full scope remains unclear. Airstrikes, according to definitionsestablished and followed by members of U.S.-led coalitions, can involve fighters and other jets, attack helicopters and drones, and they can include any combination of munitions.
A single airstrike can be carried out by multiple aircraft on multiple targets, and use multiple bombs, missiles, rockets and machine gun rounds. It can include combat sorties with predefined targets and attacks carried out during the course of close air support operations.
The Army views things differently, though.
"It seems to me the collection or distribution of airstrike data is not an Army Title 10 responsibility," a senior Army official told Military Times on the condition of anonymity. Title 10 of the U.S. Code sets the laws that dictate the military services' roles, responsibilities and missions. "This responsibility should lie with the operational or combatant commander. Additionally, Apaches for example, conduct close combat attacks as a maneuver element supporting a ground force in contact with the enemy. I would not consider this in the category of 'airstrike.' "
The Air Force's open-source database includes all such missions as part of its airstrike totals. The media and others have depended on these figures for years with the understanding they are a comprehensive rollup of all American and coalition activity. And while the data has been cited in countless reports — from newspaper articles to academic research to analytics provided to lawmakers — no one from the military ever has come forward to clarify that it is wholly incomplete.
As recently as December, an Air Force official told Military Times that its monthly airpower summary of activity in Iraq and Syria specifically represents the entire U.S.-led coalition "as a whole, which is all 20-nations and the U.S. branches." It’s unclear whether this statement was intentionally misleading, or simply indicative of widespread internal ignorance, confusion or indifference about what’s contained in this data. Regardless, it does include airstrikes conducted by the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps — but not the Army.
Financial implications, if any, are unclear. The Pentagon discloses its top-line expenditures for each of these ongoing military operations, but that data is not readily broken down by the number of sorties flown by specific U.S. aircraft and the amount of munitions they deploy. Consider, though, that Apache helicopters can carry a variety of weapons, including Hellfire missiles with a per-unit cost of $99,600, according to figures maintained by AeroWeb, a defense marketing intelligence firm that closely tracks international defense acquisition.