The latest deployment of 475 American forces to Iraq includes 150 advisers who will be working closely with Iraqi brigades at the headquarters level to coordinate the Iraqi military's offensive operations against ISIS.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the advisers "will help the Iraqis conduct campaign planning, arrange for enabler and logistics support, and coordinate coalition contributions."
"To be clear, if we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I will recommend that to the president," said Dempsey, using one of several acronyms for the militant Islamic group that has taken over a large swath of Syria and Iraq. The group calls itself the Islamic State.
Dempsey later explained that he was specifically referring to Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC’s) who serve with ground units and can directly request airstrikes from U.S. jet fighters above.
He told the committee that he currently does not see a need for American troops to serve as JTAC’s with Iraqi units, though he could change his recommendation as events warranted.
Dempsey said that Gen. Lloyd Austin, who oversees U.S. Central Command, had initially recommended using American JTAC’s with the Iraqi and Kurdish forces that retook the Mosul Dam last month, but ended up using work-around technologies. Dempsey said he does not currently see the need to embed the controllers with Iraqi forces, “but I'm not walking away from what I said. If we get to the point where I think we need the JTAC with the Iraqi security forces, I will make the recommendation.”
He said President Obama has given the order for no combat troops in Iraq, but “he has told me as well, to come to him on a case-by-case basis.”
Dempsey later told the panel that having an international coalition to take on ISIS allows the U.S. to provide unique capabilities like training, planning and air power. But if it does not work, and there is a threat to the United States, then “we’ll have to go back to the drawing board.” In which case Dempsey said “I, of course, would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.”
During his testimony Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that with the lifting of airstrike restrictions the broader air campaign "will include strikes against all ISIL targets and enable theIraqi security forces - including Kurdish forces - to continue to stay on the offensive and recapture territory from ISIL and hold it."
Dempsey said the broader air campaign for Iraq and Syria won't look like the "shock and awe" effort that began the 2003 war in Iraq. He said it wouldn't look like that "because that is not how ISIL is organized, but it will be persistent and sustainable."
The general predicted that with an international coalition "I believe we can destroy ISIL in Iraq, restore the Iraqi-Syrian border, and disrupt ISIL in Syria."
That's in keeping with the four part strategy that Hagel has laid out including: a broader air campaign, training and equipping moderate Syrian opposition fighters, maintaining humanitarian assistance, preventing ISIS from becoming a threat to the U.S. homeland.
Hagel said the training program for Syrian moderate fighting forces will include a "rigorous vetting process" that will be critical to the success of the program. The program will begin in Saudi Arabia with training for up to 5,000 fighters. The rebels will be provided with small arms, vehicles, and basic communications equipment. They'll be monitored closely to make sure the weapons they've provided with don't fall into the hands of extremist forces.
"As these forces prove their effectiveness on the battlefield, we would be prepared to provide increasingly sophisticated types of assistance to the most trusted commanders and capable forces," Hagel said.
"There will always be risk in a program like this, but we believe that risk is justified by the imperative of destroying ISIL - and the necessity of having capable partners on the ground in Syria," he said.
The House of Representatives will begin debate Tuesday on the authorization the administration needs to have the U.S. military train and equip a non-government fighting force.