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What Has Changed Since Airstrikes Against ISIS Began?


The capture of the Jordanian pilot is a reminder that the U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS has been going on for nearly five months. And to talk further about how that's been going and what's changed since the campaign started we turn to Eric Schmitt. He covers national security and terrorism for The New York Times. Welcome to the program.

ERIC SCHMITT: Thank you.

CORNISH: So you just returned from a visit to the U.S.S. Carl Vinson - that's the aircraft carrier the U.S. uses to launch some of these airstrikes. Give us a sense of how often the strikes are happening.

SCHMITT: Sure, there are about a hundred aircraft that fly off the aircraft carrier every day, about 20 of those are actually flying what they call strike missions into either Syria or Iraq. That's about a quarter of the overall total that the U.S.-led coalition is conducting every day. These are, obviously, aircraft that are flying from a number of European countries as well as about half a dozen countries in the Middle East.

And so what they're doing is they're either looking for targets that had been preplanned - they're going to strike a warehouse, for instance, or a bunker that they've identified - but most often what they're doing is they're supporting the Iraqi troops on the ground and any trouble they get into. If they get into a firefight, these are aircraft that can come down and give what's called close air support - drop bombs on the enemy in support of the Iraqi troops on the ground. That's the majority of the missions that are being flown right now.

CORNISH: So between Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition, what progress has been made in destroying the weapons capabilities of ISIS?

SCHMITT: Well, ISIS was able to assemble a pretty vast arsenal. They had a number of weapons already before they swept into northern Iraq in June. And when they did that they overtook a number of Iraqi depots and took a lot of equipment that the Iraqi army had that the United States has provided them. We're talking about armored personnel carriers, artillery, a lot of small arms rifles and ammunition.

A lot of this stuff was carted back to Syria where they'd then - the ISIS has been using it in their campaign there. A lot of it continues to be used in the ISIS campaign in Iraq against the Iraqi security forces, including the peshmerga, which is the militia in Kurdistan in the northern part of Iraq.

CORNISH: You know, we heard that U.S. military officials say that they do not believe that the Jordanian jet was shot down, but when you talk about that weapons arsenal, I mean, what dangers do coalition planes face when they strike ISIS?

SCHMITT: Well, and in talking to the pilots aboard the Vinson, they are very concerned about the weapons. It can be anything from basically turning up machine guns - high-powered machine guns - up in the air if you're flying really low, which is dangerous for helicopters. For these kind of fighter jets that are typically flying in fairly high altitude it's much harder. But ISIS has been able to either buy or acquire a number of surface-to-air missiles, some of which are shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missiles, and they've already downed three or four Iraqi helicopters.

And it's enough of a concern for the American pilots that they fly well above 20,000 feet in carrying out their bombing missions, which is outside the range of most of these missiles. So it's a threat, but mostly only if you come down, you know, in the lower altitudes.

CORNISH: In the meantime, that weapons arsenal, is it boosted by their own kind of manufacturing, smuggling or is it all just based on the arms that they were able to take from Iraqi forces in those early days?

SCHMITT: A little bit of all of the above. They had a pretty vast arsenal from when they started. They were able to take over the depots that I've said. They do benefit from some smuggling from the region, its porous borders that allow them to basically place orders if they need specific items. What they also do is a lot of their bombs they manufacture themselves. They call them factories, but they're basically warehouses where they assemble these small, improvised explosives and many times they'll mine roads or mine buildings with these type of explosives.

Some of the initial Iraqi offensive into an area called Baiji, which is a large oil refinery area, took many, many, many days because the Iraqis had to clear mines out of the roads to get to these facilities. And so this has been the weapon of choice for militants for well over the past decade. It's very cheap - cheap to manufacture - but very effective in blunting or at least slowing the advance of a more modern military.

CORNISH: You've been following the U.S. coalition effort these last few months. What do you see, as they've described, as the biggest concern when they look at the weapons capabilities of ISIS, or the so-called Islamic State?

SCHMITT: In large part it's just the volume of material. By some estimates the Islamic State has two or three year's worth of ammunition. Even at the rate they're being attacked now, they have such an arsenal stored up that military officials say that they probably have enough to wage a pretty significant war on both countries for a couple of years.

CORNISH: New York Times terrorism correspondent Eric Schmitt - Eric, thanks so much for coming in.

>>SCHMITT You're welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.