Inside the Air War

60 Minutes gets the first-ever look inside the U.S. command center for the air war against ISIS

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The following is a script from "Inside the Air War" which aired on October 25, 2015. David Martin is the correspondent. Mary Walsh, producer.

The United States and its allies have been bombing ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria for more than a year now and all we've seen of it is a handful of videos released by the Pentagon. So 60 Minutes asked for permission to witness the air campaign first hand. And we were allowed into the war's $60 million command center located in the Persian Gulf country of Qatar. There we followed -- from start to finish -- an American bombing mission against what had been identified as an ISIS bomb factory. We have agreed not to disclose any classified information but what you're about to see is the first ever look inside the air war.

60 Minutes films live bombing of ISIS target

The American air crew -- two pilots and two weapons officers -- board their B-1 bomber at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar for a mission that will take them 1,000 miles north over enemy territory in Iraq. Like all the flyers we met they did not want their names used because of ISIS death threats. ISIS doesn't have weapons that can shoot down a B-1, so this pilot's biggest concern is an accident.

David Martin: What's the most dangerous part of the mission?

Pilot: Takeoff.

David Martin: Takeoff.

Pilot: Oh yeah. You're so heavy and it's so hot out here. The runway's not very long. Takeoffs are real scary.

The B-1 is carrying 17.5 tons of bombs and 170,000 pounds of jet fuel. It strains to get airborne in the reduced lift of 100 degree heat. It will take nearly three hours to reach the target with two aerial refuelings along the way.

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B-1 bomber CBS News

David Haworth: Well, Mr. Martin, welcome to the combat operations floor.

David Martin: Yeah.

Lieutenant Colonel David Haworth takes us into the command center to watch as the B-1 and all the other aircraft carry out the day's attack plan against ISIS.

David Haworth: It doesn't have any windows but it's got a nice view. A good look at the Arabian Gulf, all the way back in through Iraq and Syria.

The air war's been going on for 14 months but this is the first time news cameras have been allowed into its nerve center.

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Inside the command center CBS News

David Haworth: The weapon of choice here is information because the more information we have both about the enemy and about our friendlies, the better we're able to make decisions.

On one wall a giant map showing the location of every plane -- green are American and allied aircraft; the blue are commercial aircraft. On another, a video feed from an unmanned drone, one of dozens orbiting over Iraq and Syria.

We make our way around the floor to a spot in the center called "the crow's nest."

David Haworth: You are standing at right now the nexus. This is the center of the air campaign against ISIL and Daesh.

"The weapon of choice here is information because the more information we have both about the enemy and about our friendlies, the better we're able to make decisions."

60 Minutes is here to follow that B-1 bomber on its mission against ISIS. Air Force Lieutenant General Charles Brown is the commander of the air war.

David Martin: How much of an effort does it take to, to mount a strike like that?

Charles Brown: From just that one airplane, scheduling-wise, about a three-day process and some of those targets we've looked at for, you know, for days, weeks and sometimes months.

David Martin: I can't from here see any human activity around there.

There's today's target -- up on the wall of the command center -- that's a live video feed from an unmanned drone pointing its camera at a cluster of buildings believed to be hiding ISIS explosives.

We can see the green track of the B-1 on the screen as it approaches the target. While the drone takes one last look it, Gen. Brown explains what's happening.

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David Martin and Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Brown CBS News

Charles Brown: The target today is actually a weapons cache as well as a vehicle-borne IED.

David Martin: A car-bomb factory.

Charles Brown: Exactly.

The first planes over the target are a pair of Dutch F-16s.

David Martin: Look, there it goes.

Charles Brown: There you go.

David Martin: Now is-- that is a secondary?

Charles Brown: That's probably a secondary.

David Martin: So that means there were explosives in there that are . . .

Charles Brown: That's correct.

David Martin: . . . that are going off. So, I guess if there was anybody in those other three that you would have seen them running out by now.

Charles Brown: Exactly.

David Martin: There goes a vehicle. I wonder what he's thinking.

Charles Brown: Right.

Next comes the B-1 with its 2,000-pound bombs.

David Martin: Oh, gee, look at that.

Charles Brown: A lot of secondaries are going off there. Gives you a good indication there were some level of explosives inside of those buildings.

U.S. using technology to fight ISIS

A total of 16 weapons have hit the target.

Charles Brown: That was multiple weapons. And it's probably a weapon for each one of those buildings.

In the last month and a half, U.S. and allied planes have struck 47 facilities like this one.

David Martin: But aren't they just gonna go set up another factory in another building some place.

Charles Brown: Potentially. And our, our goal is to, to haunt them wherever they are and, and, and take those kinda things out so we can actually provide some security and stability here in this region.

David Martin: So how does today, this one day of strikes that we've witnessed, how does that bring the U.S. closer to defeating ISIS?

Charles Brown: Well, I mean, every day we go out and strike it, it's one step closer. I can't tell you how many steps it's gonna take. It's gonna be more than a handful, that's for sure.

And everyday more bombs are unpacked and assembled. These are the 2,000-pound bunker busters used in the attack we witnessed.

Crews insert fuzes and dial in a delay of several milliseconds so the explosives inside won't go off until after the bomb has penetrated its target. Next, tail fins that will guide the bombs are attached. The geographic coordinates of the targets will be programmed into the bombs and GPS satellites -- the same ones you use to navigate your car -- will steer them.

The bombs are hauled out to one of the busiest military air fields in the world and, along with some smaller 500-pounders, loaded aboard B-1 bombers.

The U.S. is spending $10 million a day, launching aircraft from bases in Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Turkey. Counting allied planes, there are up to 160 aircraft over Iraq and Syria on any given day. When the air campaign began last year, President Obama warned it would take time.

It takes a lot of gas to fuel the air war against ISIS

David Martin: But it seems like it's taking even more time than people thought.

Charles Brown: It is in some regard and part of this is that we're not only are we working at the pace of the way we would operate, but it's also the pace of where our, our partners operate. It is a team effort and ideally you know we're like to move-- I think collectively we'd all like to move faster.

One holdup is the Iraqi army, still trying to regroup after being routed by ISIS last year. The strikes are supposed to pave the way for it to retake lost ground.

David Martin: But now Iraqi officials from the prime minister on down are saying publicly, "We're not getting enough airstrikes."

Charles Brown: I'll tell you that's a bit frustrating because we have air power over Iraq 24/7.

David Martin: So just for the record, are the Iraqis calling for more strikes than you're able to deliver?

Charles Brown: No. We've got, we've got a lot of air power up there.

David Martin: But, every time the Iraqis call for a strike, you're able to deliver.

Charles Brown: We're there.

David Martin So why are they complaining?

Charles Brown: You know, that's a good question. Because I think we've been in great support of what the Iraqis been doing. And I guess I take - I have a different opinion. I really do.

The answer, at least according to American military officers, is that the Iraqis are making excuses for their failure to take greater advantage of the strikes, which Pentagon statistics show have destroyed or damaged nearly 14,000 ISIS targets - everything from tanks to buildings to staging areas. And although the Pentagon refuses to put out an official body count Lt. Col. Haworth claims ISIS fighters are dying by the thousands.

David Haworth: What I can tell you is I'm seeing it. I, I'm seeing the enemy fighters being killed in action. They're being killed at a rate that I think is about on par with the numbers you're hearing as about 1,000 a month.

But ISIS has been able to replace its dead with new recruits, so the estimated number of enemy fighters remains unchanged - 20 to 30,000 last year; 20 to 30,000 this year.

David Martin: So as long as they can keep bringing fighters in there, are you just shoveling sand against the tide?

David Haworth: I don't know if that's the way I'd put it. You have to eliminate folks. You have to take the enemy off the battlefield. And as they put new folks in, they're not as seasoned and capable and we'll take them out too.

Perhaps, the best measure of progress is the amount of ground ISIS has lost. The Pentagon released a map to show how much land has changed hands since the air campaign began. Some territory held by ISIS - the areas in green -- have been retaken by friendly forces. ISIS has also made some gains - seen here in dark red. But overall ISIS appears to be the net loser.

David Martin: This is ISIS-controlled here.

David Haworth: You know, that's an interesting term, ISIS-controlled. You know, I've seen a lot of maps and a lot of reports about those pieces. And so there's big large swaths of red territory that ISIS controls. But really you're seeing very small pockets of where ISIL really is. This is vast, open desert. Really they're concentrated in a few small locations along these lines of communications leading back into Syria.

Syria, where ISIS has its headquarters and where the civil war only promises to get hotter now that the Russian air force has intervened on the side of Syria's dictator Bashar al-Assad. The Russians jets -- shown in yellow on the screen -- are tracked by the command center.

Charles Brown: While, they intend to operate in Syria, but we also intend to operate in Syria just like we've been doing for the past year.

David Martin: You don't want the Russians to come too close, obviously.

Charles Brown: Right.

David Martin: How close is too close?

Charles Brown: Well, I don't know if I want to throw a definition out there. But what we don't want to have is a mid-air. And so we want to maintain some level of safe separation between our platforms and theirs.

Russian aircraft have come to within 500 feet of U.S. planes and Russia's Defense Ministry released this video of one of its pilots checking out an American drone. These F-15E strike fighters are armed with missiles that could shoot down a Russian plane but this pilot doesn't think it will ever come to that.

Pilot: If Russians might happen to be by us, we'll say, "Hi," as we're flying by, and we'll continue to prosecute our targets.

David Martin: Does it feel a little weird? I mean, you've got these, you got all these aircraft up bombing separate targets, and you're not even remotely on the same side, but you're letting each other go about their business.

Pilot: It's coordinated chaos, if you will. We have the capability to see where we are as a team and we also can see where they are a lot of times based on our technology that we have.

With or without the Russians, the number of strikes is limited by the need to avoid civilian casualties. So far there have been two confirmed cases in which a total of 5-7 civilians were killed by the bombing. But there are 15 other incidents still under investigation.

Charles Brown: Our goal is to have-- minimize any civilian casualties. And if there's any doubt then we're probably not gonna drop on that particular target. We'll come back another day.

David Martin: To what extent is that inhibiting your operations?

Charles Brown: Well, in every, every air campaign there is some type of guidance that we have to live by.

David Martin: And the guidance is zero civilian casualties?

Charles Brown: The goal is zero.

"Our goal is to have-- minimize any civilian casualties. And if there's any doubt then we're probably not gonna drop on that particular target. We'll come back another day."

The goal is also to hit lucrative targets like that car-bomb factory which is as close as a low-tech enemy like ISIS comes to an industrial base. But sometimes the target can be as small as one man with a gun. On the day we watched the B-1 strike, that same bomber was sent to check out a report of a single ISIS sniper firing from the top of a building.

Weapons officer: The weapon will time out directly in between the two buildings.

This captain was one of the weapons officers in the cockpit.

David Martin: B-1 bomber.

Weapons officer: Yes sir.

David Martin: All that technology.

Weapons officer: Yes sir.

David Martin: All that fire power. One sniper down on the ground.

Weapons officer: Sir, I think if it was you or me on the ground getting shot at by that sniper we would take any asset available to make sure we were no longer getting, you know, engaged by that sniper. So, if I get a call and they say they're getting shot at, and there's potential loss of friendly life, I am absolutely gonna drop a weapon on that sniper.

By the time the B-1 arrived overhead the sniper was gone.

Weapons officer: What we did, however, find though was a tunnel system. So, in this case we dropped weapons on all the entry points that were associated with that tunnel.

Six 500-pound bombs.

Weapons officer: It was actually a perfect shack on the target.

David Martin: Perfect shack? Is that a dead hit?

Weapons officer: Dead hit, yes sir, yeah.

Some 25,000 American bombs have been dropped so far. All the firepower and technology of a superpower -- even supersonic stealth aircraft -- directed against an enemy in pickup trucks intent on dragging the Middle East back to the Middle Ages.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.