ABOARD THE U.S.S. CARL VINSON, in the Persian Gulf — More than a dozen Navy F/A-18 warplanes roar off this aircraft carrier every day to attack Islamic State targets in support of Iraqi troops battling to regain ground lost to the militants in June.
These Navy pilots face an array of lethal risks during their six-hour round-trip missions. Surface-to-air missiles and other enemy fire lurk below, as the downing of an Iraqi military helicopter late Friday underscored. About 60 percent of the aircrews are still learning the ropes on their first combat tours.
The United States-led coalition improvises how the Iraqis call in airstrikes: Iraqi troops talk by radio to American controllers at Iraqi command centers, who in turn talk to the Navy pilots to help pinpoint what to hit. Senior commanders have said that placing American spotters with the Iraqi troops would be more effective, but they have yet to recommend that step knowing that President Obama opposes it.
In the initial weeks of an air campaign that started in August, Iraq’s troops were tentative. Fighters from the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, quickly learned not to move in large numbers to avoid being struck. Three out of every four missions still return with their bombs for lack of approved targets.