As the head of U.S. Air Forces Central Command since June, Lt. Gen. Charles Q. Brown is leading the aerial campaign against the Sunni insurgent group calling itself Islamic State.
Since the campaign started 15 months ago, there have been nearly 8,000 airstrikes at a cost of about $11 million a day, according to Pentagon figures. In a wide-ranging, exclusive interview Thursday with The Tampa Tribune, from his headquarters at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, Brown talked about gains from the new offensive in the Iraqi city of Sinjar, the overall mission of Operation Inherent Resolve, his take on sharing the skies with the Russians, and the value of the Eisenhower-era KC-135 Stratotanker jets — 16 of them at MacDill Air Force Base.
MacDill is a place familiar to Brown. He did two tours in Tampa, serving as deputy director of operations at U.S. Central Command from 2011 to 2013. A pilot with nearly 3,000 hours flying time in F-16s, AC-130s, B-1s, B-2s, B-52s and other aircraft, Brown, like other U.S. military leaders, prefers the Arabic acronym Daesh when talking about Islamic State.
Q: How are the current operations against Daesh going from your perspective?
Brown: As we work with forces on the ground and the folks who are advising them, we do a level of coordination as far as where we are going to strike, the timing of our strikes in support of their movement. So we’ll do some strikes ahead of their movement and some strikes in support of the actual movement itself.
Q: Talk about the success of this particular mission, with 250 airstrikes in support of the Peshmerga.
Brown: The importance of it is, one, the coordination and number of strikes, but also regaining territory that was once held by Daesh — a major thoroughfare between Mosul in Iraq and Ar Raqqa in Syria. Cutting that off will cut off Daesh being actually able to move back and forth between Iraq and Syria.
Q: What is the overall success of the air operations against Daesh in both Iraq and Syria?
Brown: If you rewind the clock to about a year ago, you could see in the open media where they were actually riding in big convoys and waving flags. We don’t see that anymore. And now, because of the pressure we’ve put on them, from the air campaign and taking strikes to Daesh, they are less overt about their operations and have changed their tactics as a result of the airstrikes. And so from my perspective, we are having an impact and success. It does take a little time, but as I read the intel, the feedback that I am getting is that when you start impacting their morale, their ability to fight, that’s where I am seeing we are having an impact, and over time, Daesh will be destroyed,
Q: Why the increase in air strikes in Syria?
Brown: One of our goals is to continue to put pressure on Daesh in different areas and Syria is one of those, particularly up in northeast Syria, where there’s a bit of movement by the ground forces up there that actually increases our opportunity to strike. Just like you are seeing around Sinjar. So the more opportunity there is on the ground, the more opportunity there is to strike. So that stirs up Daesh and they move, and we pick up that movement and we are able to do some additional strikes. We’ve also increased our focused targeting effort in order to hit some more very lucrative targets as we strike across northern Syria all the way out to northwest Syria as well,
Q: What are those lucrative targets?
Brown: Revenue-type targets. Oil production targets as well the gas product itself. The other piece of that is we’ve been doing this for over a year; Daesh didn’t exist as an entity until probably a year and a half ago, and we learn more and more about how they operate, how they resources themselves, how their leadership works, and that allows us to have better targets, and more lucrative targets to be able to strike against
Q: What’s the effect of the strikes against oil production?
Brown: What I see as I look at the photos, we’re being pretty effective there,
Q: Who is advising the troops on the ground? Do you have forward ground controllers that are Peshmerga? U.S. Special Forces?
Brown: We have folks that are sitting back in the operations centers that are helping coordinate. There are some coalition (special operations forces) members, not necessarily U.S., in certain forms or fashion, I don’t really have the details on who is doing this in particular. I know we have folks sitting in the operations center sitting very closely with the Kurd or Peshmerga leadership, to help with coordination.
Q: But are there forward coalition ground controllers with the Peshmerga?
Brown: I can’t speak to that, Howard, particularly on this one.
Q: Would the campaign be improved by having JTACs (joint terminal attack controller) on the ground?
Brown: I think what we have in (the operations centers) has been sufficient and has actually worked out pretty well, because they have access to the leadership as well as working very closely with the leadership from the ground forces to do the level of coordination in planning and execution.
Q: Talk about concerns and challenges posed by the presence of Russians in Syrian airspace,
Brown: Let me start off by saying we have a job to do and my focus is on destroying Daesh. And in my opinion the Russians to me are more of a distraction. We are going to fly where we need to fly, and operate where we need to operate, and so that’s my focus. This does add an additional wrinkle, but one thing I will tell you is one of the things we do is maintain a safe separation and a safety of flight and the Russians are about the same mind-set. You might have heard about the recent MOU (memorandum of understanding). Really, that’s to maintain safety for flight because we don’t want to have a midair collision between our aircraft and I don’t think they want to have that happen either.
Q: Any recent close calls with the Russians?
Brown: No, not since we signed that MOU, and even before the MOU, there was a little interaction before that, but since the MOU was signed we have not had any interaction with the Russians.
Q: Can you talk about the electronic warfare and other ground-to-air and air-to-air systems the Russians have? Why do they have them? Daesh has no air force.
Brown: I’d have to almost defer to them about why they have those systems, but we have not seen them having any impact or affecting our operations based on the systems that they have brought in so far.
Q: Any concerns about threats they pose to manned or remotely piloted aircraft?
Brown: No, and I think part of that is the MOU that we have. We work with the Russians and the intent is to have save separation and safety of flight, so we are not looking to get into any engagement, or fights with the Russians and them not with us. And I want to share with you I was also at Ramstein at the United States Air Forces in Europe in my last job and I was there about the same time the Russians were in Crimea and we increased our Baltic air policing around the Baltic States, and our operations in the Black Sea. And the Russians would come out and intercept and those intercepts, those had been professional as well, just like any interactions we have had. We have not seen any type of hostile act or hostile intent by the Russians
Q: What’s the effect of not having a U.S. aircraft carrier in the region?
Brown: It does decrease a bit of our flexibility, but the one thing I see when we have a decrease in capability, what it forces us to do is to spend a little extra time looking at how we do business. In some cases this is maybe a little bit of a blessing because we have a chance to review our procedures, how we are using the assets, and it will force us to look at new ways of increasing the capability and capacity and ability to operate.
Q: So not really a critical loss?
Brown: Not necessarily. It’s a lot of capability. In addition, our carrier fleet around the world provides combat capability and a deterrent value and as I look at the job I have here, its not just Iraq and Syria. I pretty much have Egypt all the way out to Pakistan and having the additional capability in the area is a positive. We are still doing things in Afghanistan.
Q: Talk about the air operations there.
Brown: We have a strike assets as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets there. It’s in support of the counter terrorism fight as well to help the development of the Afghan air force, and those are both going well from my perspective.
Q: What can the Afghan air force do?
Brown: They are able to do strike in support of the ground forces. They’re able to move people and cargo, and so they have some basis air force capabilities and they continue to build those with the folks we have there helping to advise them.
Q: What’s your role over Yemen?
Brown: It’s a Saudi-led coalition. We provide some tanker support, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for that operation.,
Q: This is a tanker town. Talk about value of KC-135 aerial refueling tanker.
Brown: We can’t do anything without the tanker fleet that we have here. I was talking to the wing commander yesterday about how they fly a big percentage of all the tanker hours in the world with just a small percentage of the assets. For example, on a daily basis, we’re passing nearly 350,000 gallons of gas, which, if you’re a NASCAR fan, that’s about 58 NASCAR races and that’s every day. It’s not just the operations we do in Iraq and Syria, we do air refueling in Afghanistan as well.
Q: Tell me about the role of the 6th Air Mobility Wing and the 927th Air Refueling Wing - the two wings at MacDill.
Brown: We have nearly 50 tankers between here at Al Udied (in Qatar) and what have in Turkey that rotate every day. I guarantee someone here is from MacDill. MacDill is part of the team. Hats off to the entire tanker fleet and particularly the folks at MacDill.