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On Point

Counter ISIL's Truck Bombs with Real Close Air Support


by Austin Bay
May 26, 2015

On May 20, in an "on background" briefing, a "senior State Department official" discussed the recent Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) attack on Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Anbar Province.

Credit the senior official for setting straight Ramadi's history. Iraqi defenders didn't just bug out. ISIL struck Ramadi in January 2014, six months prior to attacking Mosul. When ISIL's blitz failed, Ramadi became a battle of attrition. For 18 months, ISIL fighters controlled "half the city." Attrition is a euphemism for killed and wounded. Iraqi forces suffered "thousands of casualties" in Ramadi. The briefer mentioned no specifics, but in March and April 2015, Iraq's Ramadi forces beat back repeated ISIL attacks.

Then the briefer turned to ISIL's assault of May 14: "Over the course of 96 hours in Ramadi, and what we've been able to collect ... (ISIL used) about 30 suicide VBIDs in Ramadi and the environs. ... Ten of them, I've been told, had the explosive capacity of an Oklahoma City type attack. So just to put that in perspective."

OK, so far. Then this follows: "If you look at the pictures that ISIL has put out of the explosions -- I mean, I have some of them -- it's just they took out entire city blocks."

Concern? That's warranted, but why the sense of breathless surprise at the destructive power of VBIEDs? Islamist terrorists used a VBIED to destroy the Marine barracks in Beirut (1983). An Al Qaeda VBIED leveled the US Embassy in Nairobi (1998). A huge VBIED destroyed the UN's Baghdad headquarters (2003). In March and April ISIL fighters used VBIEDs to support attacks in Ramadi.

VBIED (VBID) is a military acronym for Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device. That translates in civilian as truck bombs, or conceivably, armored car bombs. Pack a vehicle with explosives and detonate it near a target. Oklahoma City domestic terrorist Tim McVeigh parked his truck bomb. In the Middle East truck bombs are typically employed as kamikazes. Suicide drivers guide their trucks to targets. Kamikazes were smart weapons. So are VBIEDs. Drive and die instead of fly and die.

On May 14, ISIL used at least three VBIEDs in a near-simultaneous attack. The bombs detonated, leveling a city block. ISIL fighters followed the blasts with a ground assault.

ISIL's Ramadi tactical plan used VBIEDs the way US commanders employ an artillery preparation or airstrike. The prep fire lashes the target with firepower. If firepower fails to destroy the position, fair bet it momentarily disrupts defenders. That's the moment to assault with infantry and, if you have it, armor.

An example of ISIL professionalism? President Barack Obama endures deserved mockery for calling ISIL a "junior varsity," but -- as noted -- in Iraq assault VBIEDs are a common terrorist tactic.

The senior official later said an armored ISIL bulldozer cleared lanes prior to the VBIED strikes. What a big clue. The briefer indicated the dozer and armored VBIEDs were impervious to available Iraqi direct fire weapons.

Target: ISIL bulldozer conducting combat engineer operation. For a USAF A-10, the dozer is a dead duck.

So where, pray tell, was the close air support from Obama's anti-ISIL coalition?

Our senior official, now sounding disturbingly junior, if not sophomore, said: "We want to be very careful before we do airstrikes, because we're coming from the air, we don't have people on the ground."

No, we don't. And we didn't. Despite months of advice to the contrary, to deploy tactical air control teams. Syrian Kurds credit close air support with securing their victory in Khobane. No one provides close air support like the U.S. does. There is good reason to believe NATO forward observers controlled the air strikes from adjacent Turkish territory.

Yes, ISIL controls territory. Territorial control differentiates ISIL from its al-Qaida predecessor. Territory is a big ISIL propaganda pitch. But ISIL has to defend its territory. Our senior official claimed Iraqi forces are preparing to re-take Ramadi. Good. Will our non-anonymous senior government officials back Iraq's counter-attack with effective close air support?

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