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Trump unleashes American air power

President Trump has unleashed U.S. air power since coming into office, something that was brought into sharp focus this week by the first use of the "mother of all bombs" in Afghanistan.

Trump has been aggressive in his use of air strikes against terrorists and other targets, including the airfield in Syria that the U.S. bombarded with 59 Tomahawk missiles.

The U.S. military has said that the rules of engagement for strikes have not changed, but evidence is mounting of a more muscular approach in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, raising concerns about an increase in civilian casualties.

The publicized strikes have also sent a message to U.S. adversaries like North Korea.

"The actual uses are not that stunningly different from what we've done historically," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. "I don't see a cruise missile strike as a sign of Trump being off his rocker. To the extent that the North Koreans want to believe otherwise, that may be good as long, as he's not really off his rocker."

Former President Obama preferred airpower to ground troops when it came to the use of military force. His strategy for fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) relied heavily on airstrikes, with only a small number of U.S. troops on the ground helping local forces.

But the Obama administration was also accused of "micromanaging" by requiring high-level approval for many strikes. Obama's rules of engagement also went beyond what the law of war requires in terms of civilian casualties and were criticized by defense hawks and some in the military as overly cautious.

Trump came into the White House promising to lift those restrictions and "bomb the s–-" out of ISIS.

Since taking office, he's given the Pentagon more authority to launch airstrikes against al Qaeda in Yemen and al Shabaab in Somalia without White House approval.

Trump's predilection for airpower was on display when he decided to respond to chemical weapons attack against civilians in Syria by launching cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield. That response came just two days after the chemical weapons attack.

The strikes in Syria were followed by Thursday's use of the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb in Afghanistan, which was dropped to destroy a network of ISIS tunnels.

After that bombing, Trump was quick to emphasize the leeway he's given the military.

"Everybody knows exactly what happened," Trump told reporters Thursday. "We have the greatest military in the world and they've done a job as usual, so we have given them total authorization. And that's what they're doing,"

It's unclear how much Trump's ethos influenced the decision to use the MOAB.

A Central Command spokesman told The Hill on Thursday that Trump gave the military the "empowerment to do what we need to do."

But Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said at a press conference in Kabul on Friday the MOAB was chosen simply because it was the "right weapon against this target."

Experts also dispute that bomb wasn't used before because of political constraints; they say the weapon is only suitable for a limited number of targets.

"The Air Force has been looking for something to use the MOAB on for a very long time," said Richard Clarke, a member of the National Security Council from 1992 to 2003. "We didn't have a target that required it before."

Still, O'Hanlon said he doesn't think there's any harm in Trump touting the use of the MOAB as a way to deter adversaries.

"I've never been a big Trump fan, but I don't find anything wrong with talking a little bravado about the MOAB," he said.

Clarke said it's unlikely the recent strikes were launched with the intention of sending a message, but that that's an added advantage.

He also cautioned against linking the MOAB bombing and the Syria strike.

"I always think you got to be careful about looking at pieces of a puzzle on a table and trying to fit them all together," he said. "When you're looking from the outside in and you think there must be some pattern, it doesn't work that way."

Stephen Biddle, an adjunct senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relation, said expanding airstrikes can help defeat terrorists more quickly, but that there are higher chances of civilian casualties and other collateral damage.

"Assuming they did what they said they were going to do, this would be true, and so it's not surprising that there are reports of more civilian fatalities and friendly fire," he said. "If you're in a hurry, then you do it this way."

[Source: By Rebecca Kheel, The Hill, Washington, 15Apr17]

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