GRAND FORKS AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. — Military chiefs are prepared to give President-elect Donald Trump the options he wants to intensify the fight against the Islamic State, including the possibility of granting commanders greater leeway to use secret cyber-warfare and space weapons, the top Air Force leader said.
"We’ve heard him loud and clear that he’s going to be looking for options,” Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, told USA TODAY.
Goldfein said the recommendations may center on permitting field commanders more flexibility to deploy an array of weapons against the militants, who are waging a terrorism campaign beyond their bases in Iraq and Syria.
“If we want to be more agile then the reality is we are going to have to push decision authority down to some lower levels in certain areas,” Goldfein said during a December trip to this air base. “The big question that we’ve got to wrestle with … is the authorities to operate in cyber and space.”
Capabilities in those two areas are among the military's most closely held secrets, and their use now generally requires approval at the highest levels of government.
The military has the ability to use cyber weapons to shut down terrorist websites and disrupt communications, but it is cautious about authorizing such actions because of unanticipated effects beyond its intended targets, such as disrupting legitimate websites and servers.
Last May, Defense Secretary Ash Carter urged the military space community to "join the fight" against the Islamic State, though he declined to describe how. The Air Force controls satellites for GPS and communications.
Cyber capabilities are already in use against the Islamic State, also called ISIL or ISIS. "We're ... using cyber tools to disrupt ISIL's ability to operate and communicate over the virtual battlefield," Carter said in February.
Delegating authority to generals in the field would allow for a faster response to opportunities that arise from striking militant leaders or their operations or disrupting or shutting down their communications.
The discussion about ramping up the war against the Islamic State will likely go beyond cyber and space. During his campaign, Trump said he would give military commanders 30 days from taking office to come up with a plan for soundly defeating the Islamic State.
Goldfein did not go into detail about the new options. Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said it is important to keep such advice to the president confidential.
President Obama’s strategy has centered on backing ground forces in Iraq and Syria in order to destroy the militant's so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The administration has supplied the ground forces with weapons and ammunition and supported them with airstrikes and advisers.
Analysts say it is unlikely Trump would approve the deployment of large numbers of U.S. conventional ground forces in the Middle East or expand bombing if that puts civilians at risk — despite his get-tough rhetoric during the campaign, when he vowed to “bomb the sh-t out of” militant-controlled oil fields.
The U.S.-led coalition air campaign is extremely precise and among the most tightly controlled military operations in history.
“There might be some who say let’s just unleash this military and let them just go,” Goldfein said. “If that unleashing results in us backing away from our values than the longer term consequences … will outweigh any short-term value.”
“We go to war with our values,” Goldfein said.
One way to intensify the campaign against the militants would be to broaden airstrikes beyond those that support the local ground forces in Iraq and Syria.
The current approach has been successful in pushing the Islamic State out of most of Iraq and it is making headway in Syria, where a collection of irregular forces are closing in on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital.
Since the military launched that campaign in 2014, the militants have lost at least 20% of the territory they had captured in Syria and about half what they once controlled in Iraq. The U.S.-led coalition estimates it has killed about 45,000 Islamic State fighters since the air campaign began more than two years ago.
But analysts said the current strategy is missing opportunities to target the Islamic State’s entire global organization and leadership.
David Deptula, a retired three-star Air Force general who has been critical of the administration’s strategy, said Obama’s approach is too closely tied to the ground wars in Iraq and Syria, and its airstrikes are “anemic.”
“The current U.S.-led coalition strategy is to secure the sovereignty of Iraq before decisively dealing with the Islamic State in Syria,” Deptula said. “This is precisely backwards.”
Deptula said the Islamic State has all the trappings of a state and should be massively targeted. “Rapid and comprehensive air attacks can still liquidate the capacity of the Islamic State to wage war, and prevent the spilling of more blood,” he said.
“The first and most promising option is to put in place an overwhelming and focused set of attacks to crush the Islamic State in a matter of weeks — not episodic, antiseptic bombing,” Deptula said.