GOOSE LAKE, Iowa (AP) — Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush frequently pans the Obama administration's war against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria for being too timid in its bombing campaign. But some statistics he cites to bolster his argument are wrong or outdated.
The former Florida governor says 75 percent of the bombing missions into Iraq and Syria come back without dropping bombs. And he charges that every mission must be approved by the Defense Department — complaining that the White House is micromanaging the war — but overstates the approval process.
Bush, whose father and brother served as wartime presidents, has been wading more frequently into national security and military issues.
Speaking this week in Iowa, he said that "75 percent of the sorties that leave the air bases to go drop their ordnance are sent back without dropping them."
That statistic has been making the rounds of administration critics for the past year, based in part on various interpretations of the Pentagon's monthly summary of airstrikes. In addition to being outdated, it reflects a simplistic view of a military bombing campaign.
Pentagon data show that as of Oct. 31, about 58 percent of the 24,255 air combat missions flown since August 2014 returned without dropping munitions. Even those numbers can be a bit misleading, however, because some of the fighter jets are escorts that are designed to protect other coalition aircraft and, while they are armed and can drop munitions, they don't have assigned targets. They often come back without launching weapons.
Also, as the campaign against IS has escalated, expanded into Syria, and included more coalition member countries, that percentage has steadily dropped. In October, about 40 percent of the combat air missions returned without firing a shot. Newer figures show that proportion dropped further, to 35 percent, in November.
Regardless of the numbers, military leaders say it's misleading to use those statistics to represent the effectiveness of the war. They fail to account for the different types of missions and the ongoing need to avoid killing innocent civilians, they say.
When fighter jets reach their target areas, the pilots may find that the trucks they were supposed to bomb have left, or the buildings they were going to level are now filled with civilians or children. They also may encounter bad weather, sandstorms, equipment problems or other issues that cause them to return without launching weapons.
Complaining about White House micromanagement, Bush also said: "Every sortie has to be approved by the Department of Defense."
Top Pentagon and White House officials set the rules of combat and define when and how troops can use force. But day-to-day airstrike missions for Iraq and Syria are approved by the air combat commander at the Combined Air and Space Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
In most cases, intelligence analysts and other specialists in the targeting center develop a list of potential targets. The orders, which include the target, the designated aircraft and its home country, are approved by the CAOC commander, currently Lt. Gen. Charles Brown Jr., the head of U.S. Air Forces Central Command. In certain cases, high-risk operations such as rescue missions or other special operations do get higher approval from senior military or Pentagon leaders, or if needed, the White House.
Baldor reported from Washington.