Fixing Obama’s failed air campaign against ISIS

The U.S. must intensify anti-ISIS airstrikes, while emphasizing strategic targets and magnifying the airstrikes’ destructive impact, to have any chance of defeating ISIS.  This escalation will require stepping up operational tempo (“op tempo”) to recent wars’ levels.  This will entail deploying more Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, as well as forward air controllers.  Shifting from a risk-averse, slow-paced to a high-intensity air campaign would constitute a first step in shifting the tide of the war.

The US must jettison the current economy-of-force approach in favor of a high-intensity strategy.  Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), other hawks, and retired US Air Force Lt Gens. David Deptula and Tom McInerney have belittled the airstrikes.  Deptula asserted that what is needed is a “thunderstorm,” not a “drizzle,” and McInerney decried the airstrikes as “half-hearted” and “pinpricks.”  Operation Inherent Resolve, as of 10 February, averaged a mere 7 daily airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.  In Syria, 70 perecent of air strikes targeted Kobane, with scant airstrikes elsewhere.

{mosads}This compares with 50 average daily airstrikes in the air campaign leading to the overthrow of Libya’s Gaddafi, 800 at the height of the “Shock and Awe campaign” at the beginning of the second Iraq war, 85 in Afghanistan after 9/11, and 1000 in Desert Storm.  Whereas the U.S. is deploying a single aircraft carrier on a rotational basis in support of Inherent Resolve, Desert Storm required the deployment of 6 aircraft carriers to the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.

As retired flag-rank officers and hawkish conservatives have maintained, Inherent Resolve’s airstrikes barely merit classification as an air campaign by standards of recent warfare.  Retired General John Keene stated that it “is unmistakable” that these policies, with the overriding emphasis on airstrikes, “have failed in rolling back ISIS.”  Indeed, since the airstrikes began, ISIS has nearly doubled the area under its control in Syria and the coalition has barely managed to stabilize the situation in Iraq.

President Obama often ignores US military doctrine.  The New York Times characterized Obama critics as asserting, I believe accurately, that “there are two few warplanes carrying out too few missions under too many restrictions.”  The U.S. has deployed too few bomber, combat, airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) and ISR platforms, reducing targeting and strike capabilities.   As of mid-January, according to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, CENTCOM was using over six times as much ISR in Afghanistan as in Syria and Iraq.   The U.S. aspires to secure increased coalition “buy-in;” however, Ragida Dergham, a pundit at Al-Arabiya and US new networks, asserts that Obama is perceived in the Middle East as “irresolute, devoid of clarity, and lacking in strategy.”  Thus, the US has accounted for 90% of all airstrikes in Syria and most airstrikes in Iraq.

The US could compensate for inadequate ISR by deploying ground-based Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTAC), usually simply called forward controllers, embedded in special forces’ A-Teams or in friendly forces in perimeter areas.  JTACs are key to targeting.

C4I and target selection, sorting, and queueing are not as fast or agile as they should be with the process being over bureaucratized and politicized.  U.S. targeting is partly dependent on plodding Iraqi military and intelligence elements.  In addition, CENTCOM’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) in Qatar must vet target sets, with targeting ultimately being micromanaged by the White House-based National Security Council staff.  Rules of engagement are overly restrictive.

Moreover, targets are almost entirely operational and tactical, not strategic in nature, despite official statements to the contrary.  According to Breaking Defense, by a two-to-one ratio airstrikes focus on forward positioned ISIS forces and support for friendly forces, not rear-echelon ISIS strategic targets such as C4I,  headquarters, and nascent governing facilities in cities such as Raqqa in Syria or Mosul in Iraq.  In close air and combat support, the US has been reluctant to use the slow, low-flying, efficient A-10 Wart Hog and AC-130 Specter gunship, with strategic bombers and fighter bombers being more suitable to strategic targets.

Given the demonstrable defects of the US air campaign, some pundits have speculated that the Obama administration is merely “buying time” for the Iraqi government to bolster its security forces’ capabilities.  Many cynics among conservative hawks such as Sens. McCain and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) assert that Obama, rather than using bombing as a decisive “force multiplier,” is doing the minimum possible to demonstrate that he is combating ISIS, while “kicking the can down the road,” making ISIS his successor’s problem. There is another way, as the post-9/11 overthrow of the Taliban demonstrated, when small numbers of special forces and CIA operatives supported an aggressive bombing campaign that wreaked havoc on the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Davis is a retired U.S. intelligence analyst.

Tags John McCain Lindsey Graham

More Homeland Security News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video