AL UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar — In early 2014, people across the globe were horrified by images of a menacing force sweeping across the Middle East, overwhelming superior armies and brutalizing those unfortunate enough to fall beneath its black shadow of terror. Nearly a month after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria announced the establishment of their so-called caliphate, America struck back, delivering the first airstrike against ISIS on Aug. 8, 2014.
In the three years since, coalition airmen and aircraft from 20 nations have delivered more than 94,000 weapons against ISIS targets. Through around-the-clock planning and operations, this lethal air armada, led by American Airmen, has decimated ISIS’ fighting capacity with precise strikes. These strikes have destroyed thousands of fighting positions, command and control facilities, vehicle borne improvised explosive devices and VBIED factories, and helped erase tens of thousands of fighters from ISIS rosters. Many of those foreign fighters no longer pose the threat of returning to their home countries to carry out attacks.
Who are the Airmen responsible for producing the lethal force delivered daily in support of our courageous partner forces on the ground? They’re the 20 year-old mechanics turning wrenches on 60-year-old B-52 Stratofortress bombers in 120-degree heat to enable the delivery of precision munitions against targets in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan to strike fear in our enemies and protect U.S. and partner ground forces.
It’s the young captain serving as a targeting cell chief whose Airmen closely monitor enemy patterns of life with 24/7 persistent surveillance aircraft, developing and vetting targets so as to precisely remove our enemies from the battlefield, yet not harm the people we’re trying to help.
They are the aircrew I remind daily to exercise disciplined patience in an increasingly complex war zone where a split-second decision at 400 knots, like shooting down a Syrian aircraft or dropping a precision guided weapon in an urban setting, can have strategic implications.
What makes the coalition’s air force special are the men and women in its ranks who hail from communities across America and around the world, collaborating against a common threat and empowered to decisively make tough decisions. Over the past year, I have entrusted coalition airmen, from the most junior pilot to the most senior enlisted, to deliver lethal and precise airpower.
Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago more than 40 years ago, never did I imagine one day having the privilege of commanding nearly 20,000 American and coalition airmen serving across the region, from far flung outposts in Afghanistan and Syria to well-established installations like Al Udeid Air Base.
I was fortunate to be raised in squadrons that brought up their junior members by quickly letting out the leash. We made mistakes and learned fast. I would argue that’s a characteristic somewhat unique to the air force; operations at the speed of sound require us to learn fast and empower our people so they’re confident when the stakes are high.
Outside the commander’s office at Headquarters, U.S. Central Command, an image adorns the wall of a young Airman who tragically died loading bombs for an F-15E Strike Eagle mission against ISIS. I think of her family’s sacrifice, and I’m reminded of a hot July day 21 years ago, when 12 of my wingmen and seven other Airmen died in the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia. These memories forever remind me the stakes are high, and the sacrifice real when we step up to the plate in this game.
Some may question if our efforts are making a difference after three years fighting. I have no doubts. I’ve watched my airmen pummel ISIS into a remnant of its former self, unable to focus because of a daily forecast of punishing airpower that has played a decisive role at reclaiming 27,000 square miles – nearly 80 percent of the territory ISIS once controlled in Iraq and 60 percent in Syria.
For the thousands of innocent civilians still suffering at the hands of ISIS, they can be confident knowing they have a formidable force in their corner in America’s Air Force and the coalition airmen I command.
Today marks three years since we delivered our first blow against ISIS. We’ve learned a lot and have them on the ropes. We owe our best performance, not only to our joint and coalition partners courageously carrying the fight on the ground, but to those who have perished at the hands of a heartless enemy in attacks around the globe, from London to Paris to Egypt. This is why American and coalition airpower will continue to annihilate ISIS and prevent them from fighting another day.