The 2016 American political campaign has scarcely touched on the strategy underlying the fight against the self-styled ISIS, or Daesh. Some candidates, hoping perhaps to capitalize on a perceived national impatience with the progress of Operation Inherent Resolve, have loudly called for “carpet bombing” and other indiscriminate tactics.
The multinational effort to defeat Daesh isn’t simply about body counts, physical destruction, or even about reclaiming territory, however. The publicly stated goal, according to the White House, is “to degrade and ultimately destroy [ISIS] through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy so that it’s no longer a threat to Iraq, the region, the United States, and our partners.”
The means to this end are a variety of asymmetric capabilities. It’s an all-of-government strategy, combining elements of American military power—chiefly in the form of kinetic attacks from the air, coupled with a relentless intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance enterprise—along with the nation’s diplomatic, economic, and political clout.
It is the Air Force, however, that has been the principal military instrument in this fight. The Air Force’s victories over the last 25 years and longer have paved the way for ultimate success against ISIS.
“There is no doubt coalition airpower has and continues to dramatically degrade Daesh’s ability to fight and conduct operations,” said Lt. Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., head of US Central Command’s air component. Speaking at a Pentagon press briefing Feb. 18, he went on to explain that the US-led coalition is “making progress in the defeat of Daesh.”
The role of the Air Force—and of coalition partner air forces in Operation Inherent Resolve—has been to deny ISIS safe haven. Air strikes against ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq have killed their leaders, reduced their ability to support their troops, and restricted their ability to operate openly. Strikes on their headquarters and rear areas deny them sanctuary and the means to plan, prepare, and carry out attacks.
Airborne ISR assets are being used to strengthen the coalition’s ability to understand the Daesh threat, and share vital information with Iraqi and other regional partners, giving them the tools they need to effectively counter Daesh efforts to control territory. Finally, airpower plays an important strategic role in the international campaign to debunk the Daesh “strong caliphate” narrative. As their headquarters, bomb factories, and banks blow up, ISIS finds it harder to sell a narrative of victory to recruits.
This is a new fight in many ways. The lack of collateral damage and civilian casualties inflicted by the coalition is remarkable, especially in light of the numbers of air strikes and the fact that the targets are often in extremely difficult urban terrain. The aircrews make what they do look easy, but it is extremely demanding. That Russian air attacks have been far less discriminate and precise underscores the professionalism of USAF’s effort.
The complexity of this fight is missed by most. The mix of factions in the battlespace includes Russians, Syrian regime fighters, Iranians, Iraqis, Kurds, Turks, and other non-Daesh groups, making the identification process a chronic challenge, particularly since ISIS fighters no longer make themselves an easy target. They’ve merged with the populace, making it tough to distinguish whether a potential target is a civilian or an enemy combatant.
Consequently, for a time, more than half of USAF air missions returned with ordnance still on the racks, if a positive target ID was impossible. Nevertheless, as Brown has said, “We’re conducting the most precise air campaign in history. We’re able to attrit Daesh [and] its capabilities anytime, anywhere.”
The Air Force has a long history of creating and carrying out innovative strategies to meet a wide variety of military challenges. These creative solutions date to before its establishment as an independent service. Its success stems largely from the fact that USAF assesses problems differently from other entities, due to the inherent characteristics of its forces—speed, range, flexibility—and the benefit of operating in almost boundless domains.
This unique world view is often called the “Airman’s Perspective.” At the beginning, USAF only operated in the air domain, but now operates in the air, space, and cyberspace.
The Air Force has historically operated interdependently with its service partners to help indigenous forces, deny adversaries the ability to achieve their military objectives, and restore regional stability. All this is true in Operation Inherent Resolve. Brown recently noted increased effectiveness in striking logistics, command and control, and weapons manufacturing areas.
“In fact, we’ve had notable success in targeting Daesh’s financial resources,” he said during the February Pentagon teleconference with reporters.
“Successful strikes on oil facilities and on monetary centers have resulted in Daesh cutting pay to their fighters,” while sharply reducing the amount of money available to fund its operations, he asserted. The coalition is beating ISIS by degrading its leadership, logistics, and operational capability and denying the resources needed to plan and carry out attacks. This is a critical point: OIR is a full-spectrum campaign to achieve a lasting victory over Daesh, not just to defeat its fighters.
The Air Force is providing ISR, mobility, detection and warning, precision navigation and timing, protected communications, and direct attack capabilities to protect US and its partner ground forces. This effort improves the coalition’s effectiveness and cuts down the enemy’s ability to conduct successful operations. The air component is also empowering the ground force by defending it and supporting it with precision firepower.
“As the air component, we are actively working to keep Daesh on the defense [and] enable ground forces to maneuver against as little resistance as possible,” Brown said May 27. “We will do our part to persistently strike targets in the deep fight and will continue to integrate coalition airpower with ground force maneuver.”
This isn’t a new concept. Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold made the case for an independent Air Force following World War II. President Harry S. Truman and then-Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower strongly advocated for an independent USAF as well, desiring to make permanent what had become a co-equal status for the air arm among the other services. Having a seat at the table was the only way Air Force commanders could present commanders with options only it could deliver.
According to Air Force historian Herman S. Wolk, Arnold explained in 1941 why Air Force capabilities, considered independently, led to development of alternative military strategies.
“The development of the Air Force as a new and coordinated member of the combat team has introduced new methods of waging war,” Arnold wrote.“Although the basic principles of war remain unchanged, the introduction of these new methods has altered the application of those principles of war to modern combat.” He explained that the ground force had previously been the only “decisive” arm of the military, but “today the military commander has two striking arms. These two arms are capable of operating together at a single time and place, on the battlefield. But they are also capable of operating singly at places remote from each other.” The “great range of the air arm,” he said, “makes it possible to strike far from the battlefield and attack the sources of enemy military power.” The Air Force’s mobility “makes it possible to swing the mass of that striking power from those distant objectives to any selected portion of the battlefront in a matter of hours.”
Vietnam was an example of the Air Force conducting operations using two different “striking arms.” The conflict involved large numbers of ground forces, supported from the air, and was generally not considered an air-minded campaign. The main measures of effectiveness were casualty ratios, not the attainment of operational or strategic objectives. As a result, instead of becoming a means to avoid attrition warfare, airpower became an enabler of force-on-force conflict.
That changed with Operation Linebacker II, where US airpower was used to attack strategic targets independently of the ongoing force-on-force conflict, with the objective to drive the North Vietnamese to the negotiation table, put an end to the Vietnam conflict, and bring home the nation’s prisoners of war. In this context, airpower was immensely successful.
Learning the lessons of Vietnam, the Air Force worked aggressively to develop integrated conventional-bomber operations, and F-15 fighters allowed the US and its allies to dominate the skies over Iraq during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The Air Force conducted a 38-day air campaign that set the stage for ground forces to clear out Kuwait and occupy southern Iraq in only 100 hours.
Daunting casualty estimates—based on a traditional combined arms methods—drove Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. to look for an alternative approach. Then-Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner and his staff provided that alternative in the form of a preinvasion air campaign. This air-minded alternative clearly reduced the risk to US ground forces and offers another parallel for airmen to consider when explaining today’s counter-Daesh operations.
In the aftermath of Desert Storm there were two important, but now largely forgotten, alternative-uses-of-airpower success stories. Airmen led the enforcement of no-fly zones over Iraq during operations Northern Watch and Southern Watch. The result: US Air Force and Navy airpower prevented Saddam Hussein from developing weapons of mass destruction and protected much of the Kurdish and Shiite populations from attack for 12 years, with no US casualties. The extraordinary success of both these operations offers a wealth of insights that can be applied today.
Later in July 1995, the international community threatened air strikes against Bosnian Serbs if they attacked the remaining UN “safe areas” in Bosnia. This included Gorazde, Tuzla, Bihac, and Sarajevo. Croatian forces entered the fighting in early August. Operation Deliberate Force began Aug. 29, 1995, with attacks against Bosnian Serb military targets in response to a Bosnian Serb mortar attack on civilians in Sarajevo. NATO conducted air strikes over 11 days, ending Sept. 14, 1995. The threat of attacks from the air—as well as from Bosnian and Croatian ground forces—compelled a return to the bargaining table, leading to the Dayton Peace Agreement.
In the Balkans, both Air Force “striking arms” were used effectively. Airpower caused indigenous forces (Bosnians and Croats) to pose a threat to a much more powerful ground force and also backed up the diplomatic instrument of power. Bombing by itself didn’t produce the outcome, but without these air strikes it’s unlikely Serbia would have negotiated with NATO. Thus, Bosnia offers two important lessons to apply to the counter-Daesh operations: Airpower can empower indigenous ground forces to fight successfully and can underpin the effectiveness of other instruments of national power.
In March 1999, NATO initiated Operation Allied Force to compel Slobodan Miloševic to stop the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo and force the withdrawal of Serbian forces from the province.
The alliance initially designed the air campaign to destroy Serbian air defenses and high-value military targets, but it increasingly used air attacks against Serbian units on the ground. Strategic targets were Danube bridges, factories, power stations, telecommunications facilities, and a political party headquarters.
Allied Force marked the first operational use of B-2 bombers—they flew from Whiteman AFB, Mo., to their targets and back—and the return of B-52s to high-altitude bombing. A RAND report stated, however, that “damage to Yugoslav military forces and the ‘resurgence’ of the Kosovo Liberation Army generated little pressure” and that strategic targeting had much more effect. The Kosovo operations clearly demonstrated the ability of airpower to increase the effectiveness of US and partner diplomatic, informational, and economic instruments of power, just as it does in today’s operations.
Only two years later, Operation Enduring Freedom gave airmen an opportunity to reinforce long-established lessons of airpower. On Oct. 7, 2001, American and British forces began an aerial bombing campaign targeting Taliban forces and al Qaeda. Early combat operations included air strikes from B-1, B-2, and B-52 bombers flown from the continental United States and Diego Garcia, extended by tankers based in the Middle East. Also in the fight were carrier-based F-14 and F/A-18 fighters operating in the Arabian Sea off Pakistan—helped to their targets by extensive USAF aerial refueling—and American and British Tomahawk cruise missiles. Later, land-based fighter aircraft flew sorties into Pakistan from both the Middle East and Central Asia.
From the first day of the conflict, strategic airdrop provided humanitarian aid, clearly indicating the US was fighting the Taliban government and al Qaeda, not the people of Afghanistan. In early November, planners at CENTCOM advocated the need to introduce US ground forces because they felt the indigenous forces couldn’t prevail against the Taliban without ground reinforcement. This argument is being made today regarding Daesh.
But on Nov. 9, 2001, the Northern Alliance—a loose-knit group of tribal militias—emboldened by airpower, and with the support of Special Forces and joint terminal attack controllers, fought against the weakened Taliban and captured Mazar-i-Sharif, taking control of Kabul just four days later as the Taliban fled the city. Coalition forces later that month established their first ground base in Afghanistan, near Kandahar, with strategic airlift as the only source of logistics for several months.
The first lesson for airmen from these Afghanistan operations is the immense value of long-range strike, including bombers and fighters, and range-extending tankers. The second lesson is the capability of airpower to dramatically increase the effectiveness of indigenous ground forces against more powerful forces. Airmen also learned the value of special operations forces in support of airpower when conducting operations with indigenous forces.
Another valuable lesson is that airpower is inherently flexible—it can deliver both bombs and humanitarian aid. All these lessons are applicable today. These recent historical lessons explain how success can be achieved against ISIS if air-centric strategies are given time to achieve their objectives.
While lessons can also be learned from Operation Iraqi Freedom, one common misperception that should be dispelled is the notion that ground forces entered southern Iraq without the benefit of air superiority. Few are aware of Operation Southern Focus. It began in the summer of 2002 and ensured air superiority over southern Iraq when Iraqi Freedom’s ground operations began in March 2003. Southern Focus was the name used to describe Southern Watch operations to attain air superiority before the ground force invaded.
The centerpiece of this strategy was a change in the rules of engagement. Certain targets were off limits during Southern Watch, but under Southern Focus, the list of acceptable targets was expanded. This enabled a more effective use of airpower.
Over time, the Iraqis realized they were no match for US airpower and grounded their fighter force—even burying some of it in the vain hope it would survive to be dug up and fly again. As a result, when ground forces entered southern Iraq, they did so without fear of bombardment from the air. Clearly, the air component had achieved air superiority. This aspect of Iraqi Freedom is also a useful example to highlight the impact of rules of engagement on airpower’s effectiveness.
In northern Iraq, there was a partnership between airpower and special operations forces. The Air Force worked with the Kurds to protect the oil fields. The original plan called for a ground invasion from Turkey, but when that option was withdrawn, planners developed and successfully implemented a scheme employing airpower, special operations, and the Kurdish Peshmerga (an indigenous militia force).
The fear of Scud launches also was answered by an airpower/special operations solution. The Air Force put a blanket of ISR over the western Iraqi desert where Scud transporter/erector/launchers had operated in the first Gulf War. SOF units stealthily reconnoitered sites identified by the Air Force as possibly harboring Scuds. As a result, the Iraqis launched no Scuds into Israel during the 2003 invasion.
Operations in Iraq Freedom offer numerous lessons for today’s fight. First, useful synergies result when airpower and special operations operate interdependently to attain asymmetric effects. Second, airpower can empower a small or weakened ground force to be significantly more effective, as the Kurdish Peshmerga demonstrated in northern Iraq. Third, airmen are innovative: They find ways to ensure the protection of US and partner ground forces. Finally, studying military history, particularly since the dawn of airpower, is one of the best ways to understand current Air Force operations and set the stage for future innovation.
The Air Force is applying the airman’s perspective to offer alternative approaches to issues facing the nation today. As in the past, USAF capabilities are underpinning a number of strategies that are proving effective. To paraphrase Brown’s recent statement: Regardless of the pace of operations on the ground, the US will use coalition airpower—with its operational reach and flexibility, its precision and lethality, and its constant presence and responsiveness—to pressure, to destroy, and to eventually defeat Daesh. Hap Arnold’s vision remains alive today.