If the U.S. military attacks targets in Iraq, it’ll be a long way from the “shock and awe” bombing campaign that opened the 2003 war. Think of it more like a delicate smattering of smaller bombs and missiles designed to pick off elements of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as they try to consolidate the gains they have made over the past week against the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki.
Ideally, you’d want to base your aircraft as close to your targets as possible, to maximize the number of sorties each plane could fly, instead of spending hours en route to the targets. The U.S. may press Maliki for permission to base U.S. aircraft inside Iraq, if the White House agrees that doesn’t violate President Obama’s bar on putting combat troops inside the country. They also could be based in the Kurdish north of the country, or in neighboring nations.
But missiles without good intelligence to guide them to the right targets are simply indiscriminate IEDs that could kill friendly forces, or even civilians. That’s why some military experts argue there need to be U.S., or at least allied, spotters on the ground—no one is willing to trust targets selected by Maliki’s military—to ensure destruction happens in the right place. “You could put [U.S.] Special Forces on the ground with the Iraqis to advise them and get frontline intelligence and to control air strikes,” says Anthony Zinni, a retired four-star Marine general who served as chief of U.S. Central Command. But that, too, could run afoul of Obama’s bar on U.S. troops on the ground inside Iraq.