Air Power Remains America’s Best Weapon for Halting Islamic State
Supporting friendly forces on the ground will keep us out of another quagmire
A year into the coalition campaign, air power has proven an effective instrument to both weaken Daesh and aid friendly forces. But with sectarian divisions and the Bashar Al Assad regime’s brutality creating a steady flow of recruits to replace battlefield losses, there is no indication that Daesh will starve, unravel or be conventionally “defeated” anytime soon.
Yet, if Daesh has not disintegrated, it has also not gained significant territory since the fall of Ramadi — which was more than offset by losses in north-central Iraq and in Kurdish areas along the Syria-Turkey border.
The notable exception to that rollback has been Daesh’s advance into south-central Syria around Palmyra, where Daesh is fighting not against Kurds or the Free Syrian Army, but against Assad regime forces, thus denying coalition air power a “friendly” force with whom to coordinate.
The siege of Kobani marked the first large-scale battlefield defeat of massed Daesh fighters. Coalition aircraft relentlessly pounded from the air while Kurdish fighters blunted Daesh’s offensive and ultimately retook the city.
With Russian air and land forces now bolstering the Assad regime’s rump state in western Syria, and an assortment of Kurdish, militia and Iraqi state forces retaking territory in Iraq, Islamic State seems to have reached its high-water point, and air power played a critical part in turning the tide.
Recent history shows that a near-term traditional defeat of Daesh remains unlikely enough to reasonably be called impossible, and a strategy to contain Daesh may be entirely more desirable.
Taking a page from the successful containment of Iraqi ambitions from 1991 to 2003, we should strongly consider making a virtue of necessity and explicitly develop the full potential of air power to contain the Islamic State.
Attacking Daesh from the air while supporting disparate friendly forces is more than a “Plan B” that the United States must settle for in the absence of resolve for a conventional intervention. It is, in fact, part of the new normal.
The combined capabilities of air power, special operations and intelligence coordination can shape low-intensity conflict more effectively than applying conventional force to an unconventional conflict. Where coalition air power has been able to coordinate with friendly forces to strike Daesh while protecting civilians, Daesh has been consistently contained.
Daesh has been constrained without the re-introduction of large, foreign ground forces – a military expedient that often undermines the creation of a sustainable political end-state.
The slow process of stiffening vetted ground forces and the limited objectives of the air campaign do not appeal to observers who lack strategic patience. This long campaign is only just beginning, but air power practitioners have cause for confidence that it will succeed.
From an order and governance standpoint, much of the Middle East is a disaster area. Iraq and Syria have disintegrated as Westphalian states. These governments do not have anything approaching a monopoly on political violence. In Iraq, where the Baghdad government is becoming a proxy for Iran, the Shia-dominated security apparatus — ministries, army and militia — undermines the political stability of a nation already in sectarian civil war.
Likewise, in Syria, the Assad government’s brutality fuels Daesh’s recruitment and provides them a modicum of legitimacy that is the Trojan horse for their apocalyptic ideology. Yemen is embroiled in a hot civil war that is destroying the country’s limited infrastructure.
Afghanistan’s civil war is ongoing, the Taliban briefly recaptured a provincial capital for the first time since 2001, and the current central government in Kabul may not be able to marshal the resources and legitimacy to end the insurgency. Both southern Lebanon and Gaza are run by militant organizations masquerading as governments.
Old state power structures in the region are disintegrating, and it is reasonable to seek security options that can thrive in a more complex configuration of friendly, neutral and adversary actors. While the region is still of interest to the United States, our lessening dependence on oil resources from the area means that our interest is less vital than it used to be.
Finally, the evolution of military tasks from driving out an occupying Iraqi army out of Kuwait and protecting oil tankers to influencing the war of ideas should give us reason to reconsider the kind of military force we bring to bear. Containing the Daesh threat at a high cost in treasure and U.S. casualties, or allowing ourselves to be drawn in as an “invader,” is ultimately counterproductive.
For many reasons, a limited air campaign is preferable to the indecisive and costly ground campaigns of the last decade.
We do not have a lot of good options in Syria, but the use of air power containment has a good record. In Iraq, the northern no-fly zone was established in 1991 and contributed to the development of Herêmî Kurdistan in Northern Iraq.
Not only did allied air power deny Iraq effective use of its air force against the Kurds, but it provided protection for humanitarian aid efforts and backstopped the Green Line north of the 36th Parallel, effectively blocking any Iraqi military operations on the Kurdish side of the line.
Deliberate shows of force — like the Return to Fai’da in 1994 — punctuated the threat posed by air power, a threat that was occasionally backed up with lethal force. The Southern No-Fly zone, declared in 1992, was further bolstered in 1994 with a no-drive zone, which was expanded in 1996.
The no-fly zones effectively contained Iraq and limited Saddam Hussein’s activity within his own borders up to the 2003 invasion. It did so at a cost that averaged $1.3 billion dollars per year and without a single casualty due to hostile fire.
In the Balkans, similar enforcement measures prevented Bosnian Serbs from violating cease-fire arrangements on a large scale and completely neutralized Serbian air power. In Libya, the NFZ completely changed the balance of power, preventing air and air defense operations by the government.
A no-fly zone is a containment enabler, but we should not confuse the method with the policy. Establishment of a no-fly zone is a method, not a policy, and is not necessary to conduct air power containment.
While there is no declared no-fly zone over Syria, there is a strong incentive for Syrian aircraft to stay well clear of allied air operations. The overhead presence of aircraft provides the ability for a rapid response in a fluid situation.
In September of 2012, in the midst of a rapidly disintegrating Syria, Kurdish People’s Protection Units assumed control of Kobani, filing the vacuum left by the withdrawal of government forces. Within weeks, an alliance of Syrian Kurdish parties agreed to govern the city until elections could take place in an arrangement brokered in Irbil.
Two years later, Daesh fighters launched a major offensive to capture the town and surrounding section of Syrian border. Kurdish forces conducted a fighting retreat for the next two weeks — between Daesh and a wave of Kurdish refugees streaming into Turkey. By the beginning of October 2014, Daesh troops were inside the suburbs and on high ground to the southeast, and the siege was firmly established.
But unlike other places, the defenders of Kobani held and the coalition saw an opportunity.
Kurdish fighters, who by that time had proven their ability to provide intelligence and coordinate with air power in Iraq, were drawing Daesh out in an area with low potential for collateral harm. In an unconventional adaptation of Air-Land Battle doctrine, the Kurdish ground forces forced Daesh to maneuver in the open, where air power could then pound them from above.
Kobani did not start as a coalition strategic objective, but it became an opportunity to inflict levels of damage to Daesh forces and morale that were magnified to strategic importance.
The presence of the Kurdish local government was both a reason for using air power to break the siege and a critical enabler for its success. Following early operations around the Mosul Dam and Tal Afar, Kurdish fighting forces established credibility about the quality of their intelligence and their ability to coordinate to avoid both fratricide and civilian casualties.
The Syrian state government had long since ceded any legitimate governance, so the coalition was free to use devolved – and streamlined — coordination with political leadership of Kobani.
That provided the coalition with key knowledge of current conditions on the ground, which is often hard to divine from aerial surveillance.
Kobani’s defenders clearly delineated the “front line” and provided an understanding of what could realistically be struck. That included close coordination about where endangered citizens were, what parts of the city were completely devoid of civilians and what traditionally “protected” buildings — schools, hospitals and a cultural center — had been re-purposed into Daesh strongholds.
Such clear intelligence enabled coalition commanders to satisfy the rules of engagement which establish legal authority for the application of lethal force.
Only 50 miles from the Daesh “capital” of Al Raqqa, Kobani is a significant border town surrounded by hundreds of small settlements, mostly Kurdish. The Daesh assault was to be a prestige battle. Daesh wanted to double-down on its reputation as an unstoppable force, and initially they sent their best fighters.
It appears they did not expect to have to fight long, and Kurdish sources reported that enemy fighters seemed to only have food, water and ammo for just a few days. Considering all of their prior victories came in two to three days, that made sense.
But in Kobani, the defenders held ground. Daesh – which had all the initiative – was forced into allowing repeated lulls to recoup after stalled offensives and had significant difficulties moving wounded out and supplies of ammo and amphetamines (a Deash favorite) in.
Fighting continued in a unique urban battlefield not seen since Fallujah and required a heavy commitment of coalition precision weapons. Battle damage assessments and reconnaissance made it plain that the air attacks were devastating Kobani’s civil infrastructure, but Daesh had finally chosen to commit itself to a stand-up fight and had severely underestimated the coalition’s ability to capitalize on their mistake.
Representatives from Kobani explicitly accepted damage that Daesh made unavoidable by their use of residences and civil structures as fighting positions. Air support went beyond just pounding fighters on the front lines.
Local intelligence was especially valuable with regard to declaring the roads leading to Kobani to be devoid of civil traffic, and that there was low likelihood of civilian traffic moving to and from Kobani from the south — toward Al Raqqa. As Daesh reinforcements moved forward, they were attacked short of the battlefield in a classic interdiction effort. Many Daesh fighters and supplies never made it to the battlefield.
Daesh kept sending their fighters, the Kurds and air power kept killing them, until late December. By then Kobani was a known Daesh death trap. The fighters at the front in January were amateurs who exhibited nothing like the skill of the originally observed by Daesh attackers.
By the end of January, Kobani was simply where Daesh lost, dealing a real blow to both their credibility — and making them vulnerable to a broad counter-offensive that has cost them much of their previously seized territory in Northern Syria.
In an environment where the United States cannot afford to become embroiled in another ground-centric quagmire, air power offers a proven method of containing the threat while simultaneously keeping it at arm’s length.
Absent a new American desire to establish itself as the long-term guarantor of local security across the Middle East, air power offers our most flexible, affordable and cost-effective option for military operations in the most volatile part of the world.
The fact that local forces – especially the Kurds – have proven effective as the anvil to air power’s hammer shows that the time is right to invest in more and better air capabilities to enable joint and coalition forces.
A containment strategy, where the United States husbands is asymmetric advantages in air power, Special Operations Forces and intelligence to empower friendly forces is a viable strategy to contain them until they collapse under the weight of frustrated objectives. The end-of-days they foment is their own.