Monday, February 2, 2015

Air Power Against ISIS: The Long Debate

I devoted blog posts last year to the beginning of our air campaign in Iraq and to our air strikes against ISIL (ISIS) at Kobani, Syria.  It turns out I was watching and blogging about Kobani at what was perhaps the critical time in that urban battle. The tide has since turned against ISIS and today Kobani is 100% controlled by the Kurdish opposition.

Few, if any, military experts thought Kobani could be saved with air strikes alone combined with the rag-tag band of fighters resisting the Islamic State. Indeed, even with months of bombing, only 1% of all captured terrain has actually been retaken from ISIS to date.

The debate over the potential effectiveness of an air campaign alone to win a war or to succeed as a military operation has been going on for decades, as this article in Slate from 1999 indicates.  In 2004, Foreign Affairs published an excellent overview of the history of air power in war and reached this conclusion: "Over a decade into the precision revolution, the record points to a simple conclusion: the greater accuracy and surveillance capabilities of today's precision equipment enable air power to support ground campaigns far more effectively than in the past."

Kobani is a taste of what this "precision revolution" can do even when supported by poorly trained and equipped ground forces.  The US and coalition forces struck Kobani over 700 times, disrupting the advance by ISIS which at one point had captured over 70% of the small Syrian city.  ISIS admits that the surgical nature of the air strikes eventually drove them out of the city.  Naturally, after four-months of concentrated bombing and urban street fighting Kobani itself is in ruins.  

One fighter was quoted as saying that the strikes had gotten so targeted and accurate that they were even killing individuals on motorcycles.  It became impossible for ISIS forces, no matter how large or small in numbers, to move around in the city, let alone organize an attack.  So, they have withdrawn with the proclamation that one day they will return.

Perhaps they will.  As The Atlantic points out, this victorious use of air power does not greatly change the circumstances of the war.  ISIS fighters remain on the offensive at Kirkuk and other areas of Iraq. And there is the gnawing fact that the Iraqi army has retaken only the smallest fraction of land lost to the Islamic invaders.  The Kurds say an attempt to retake the large city of Mosul from Islamic State control will not happen for several more months.

So, in reality, the defense of Kobani is symbolic but hardly substantial.  It does show how air power can win in setting where there is no adequate defense against air strikes. But so what?  The Iraqi army remains ineffective.  The Kurds in northern Iraq lack necessary firepower against their better armed and highly-motivated ISIS adversaries.  ISIS remains a potent military threat to the region, with stated objectives for taking more territory and expanding its control.

It seems air power has only been effective at Kobani, where it was highly-concentrated.  The multi-faceted nature of ISIS aggression upon multiple fronts both in Syria and in Iraq serves to disperse the coalition's air capabilities over a wide region. Our bombing of Kobani likely taught ISIS a lesson - if you mass your forces in a contained space (such as inside a city) you will be obliterated. But such impressive firepower becomes less effective as an opponent fans out over a larger geography and limits itself to smaller, pinpoint ground tactics.  It will be interesting to see how this next phase of this war evolves.

Meanwhile ISIS is gaining strength in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, among many other areas.  The Islamic State has become the primary force of terror and aggression in the northern Africa and the Middle East. This is something US air power cannot contain or even disrupt.  So, even though the Battle for Kobani is an outstanding example of winning largely with an air strategy, it will take a more comprehensive strategy to address this new powerful force in militant Islam. As of today no such strategy exists and, unfortunately, that is good news for the imperial aspirations of the Islamic State.  And the long debate about the ability to win a war with air power continues.

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