How Not to Attack Islamic State
One ex-general wants America to bomb more—but that’s a bad idea
One Air Force ex-general thinks the air war against Islamic State militants—133 air strikes and counting—is far too few to defeat it. But what he advocates instead would embroil the United States into a protracted war in Syria and Iraq.
That’s a bad idea, especially since he argues that aerial bombing alone is all we need to do the job.
“IS cannot be reasoned with—they must be terminated,” writes David Deptula at the Website Breaking Defense. Deptula was the principal planner for the Air Force’s 1991 bombing campaign against Iraq, and he proposes a three-step plan to blunt Islamic State advances in both “Iraq and Syria,” attack its command and control systems and make the terror group “ineffective.”
The method is lots of aerial bombing—without the need to deploy ground forces. “To accomplish these objectives we need to begin with an aggressive air campaign,” Deptula writes.
“Where air power is applied like a thunderstorm, not a drizzle; 24/7 constant over-watch, with force used against every move of IS forces and personnel,” he adds.
It’s not necessary for the U.S. to send special operators to help pilots guide bombs to their targets from the ground, Deptula writes. This is true. The Air Force and Navy can combine targeting pods attached to fixed-wing fighters and specialized reconnaissance planes to pinpoint air strikes.
But the thrust of his argument is for a massive air campaign. It wouldn’t be as large as the 1991 air campaign against Iraq, but he uses that war as an example, along with the 1999 Kosovo War and the 2001 bombing campaign that helped topple the Taliban.
To be sure, U.S. air strikes blunted Islamic State attacks into Iraqi Kurdistan and helped Iraqi army and Peshmerga troops retake the strategic Mosul Dam. Air strikes can be effective within a larger operational and strategic plan. The U.S. has also heavily relied on Navy F/A-18F fighters—twin-seaters to facilitate targeting without help from ground troops—to attack Islamic State forces.
But Deptula’s own examples work against him.
In 1991, an air blitzkrieg helped weaken Iraqi army forces fortified along the Kuwaiti border, and helped shape the battlefield for a follow-up ground invasion. All of this was in pursuit of the larger aim of liberating Kuwait. It did not try to topple Saddam Hussein—at the time. The victory also required ground troops eventually surrounding, capturing and destroying Iraq’s army.
He’s closer to the mark with NATO’s air campaign against Serbia. NATO lacked forward air controllers in the conflict, which made targeting difficult. But even here, NATO didn’t intend to kick Slobodan Milosevic out of power. Rather, the alliance kept the more modest goal of ejecting Yugoslav troops from Kosovo. A popular uprising would eject Milosevic a year later.
He may prefer a repeat of the 2003 war against the Taliban. Deptula argues we should have left Afghanistan immediately after the Taliban’s ouster from power. But it’s incredulous to see how an extended air campaign would have destroyed the Taliban.
In general, air power works when it accords with your larger political objectives. The U.S. would be wise to use limited military force to contain Islamic State advances, protect Kurdistan, with the longer-term aim of driving the militants out of Iraq.
Air Force and Navy planes will help, but the ultimate goal will likely need a political settlement between the Iraqi government and alienated Sunnis to undercut Islamic State forces from within. The U.S. is relying on militias and other local proxies to fight the war on the ground, but militias are bad at holding on to territory populated by ethnic and religious groups that’s not their own.
Now try to replicate that strategy in Syria, and watch the plan go pear-shaped very quickly. And it risks the chance that U.S. forces might clash with Bashar Assad’s forces—who we’ve already come close to bombing already.
Deptula’s argument doesn’t read like a strategy. He’s an advocate for air power, and advocating more of it—as the U.S. war develops—means a chance to influence the means by which the war is fought. The problem is that his plan would send us into a quagmire.