A missing role in the U.S. strikes against ISIS

WASHINGTON -- The Iraqi army launched an operation Tuesday, aimed at taking Anbar province from Islamic State militants. The government troops were chased out of Anbar's capital, Ramadi, last week - leading to criticism about the troops' will to fight.

The U.S. has been targeting ISIS with airstrikes but has had limited effectiveness because there are no American spotters on the ground in Iraq. The role they play, as we witnessed in an exercise in Ft. Polk, Louisiana, is critical.

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Air Force Sergeant Danny Aboy
CBS News

During the exercise -- using real bombs -- we witnessed Air Force Sergeant Danny Aboy call in strikes from F-16s as U.S. Army troops exchanged fire with the enemy.

"I am the critical link between troops on the ground and the Air Force," explained Aboy.

Aboy is what the Air Force calls a "joint terminal attack controller," (JTAC) the man who talks pilots like Lt. Col. Matt Casey onto the target.

"He's able to talk directly to pilots so that in a minimum amount of time we find out what the Army is asking us to look for," said Casey. "He is definitely our eyes on the ground."

There are no terminal attack controllers on the front lines with Iraqi troops, so pilots flying strikes against ISIS have no eyes on the ground.

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An Air Force pilot takes part in an air strike exercise in Ft. Polk, Louisiana
CBS News

Capt. Shaun Hoeltje, an F-16 pilot, says having a JTAC is important.

"It speeds up the process and it helps us to be more accurate with delivering those weapons," said Hoeltje.

Nowhere are eyes on the ground more important than in urban combat, like the battle for Ramadi. In those situations, Aboy says, fighting is closer and takes more coordination.

Pentagon officials acknowledge strikes flown with controllers would be more efficient. But they are not willing to put Americans on the front lines of a battle the Iraqis have to win for themselves.