Bombs Away: Time to Escalate the Air Campaign against ISIL

"Adjustments in the air campaign now could tip the balance in favor of our partners and obviate the need for the deployment of ground forces later on." 

The air campaign part of President Obama’s strategy to degrade and destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been going on more than two months in Iraq and almost a month in Syria. The mixed impact of the airstrikes has called into question the broader effectiveness of the president’s strategy, and intensified the debate on whether the United States and allies need to send combat troops.

Before jumping to the question of sending ground forces, we first need to examine whether the campaign is being conducted effectively and is achieving the maximum effects possible. A close look at the strikes, their effects and ISIL reactions suggests there is room for significantly improving their effectiveness against ISIL and supporting friendly local ground forces. Also, more can be done to improve the effectiveness of friendly forces.

A number of trends are clear. ISIL suffered some setbacks, but continued to advance and make territorial gains across two theaters of operations despite the strikes. As currently employed, the U.S. and allied air raids did prove tactically effective in a few important cases: preventing the possible fall of Erbil, retaking the Mosul dam, repelling the attack on Haditha dam, saving thousands of Yezidis stranded on Mt Sinjar and breaking the siege around the Turcoman town of Amerli.

But our current air attacks have not been equally effective on the operational level and did not degrade the terrorist army’s ability to wage war and expand its zone of control in Kobane, Anbar and a number of areas very close to Baghdad. There have been three problems with the current employment of U.S. air power:

First, air power has been employed later than ideal to target ISIL as it begins to move against its targets. For example, in Kobane, the United States and allies intensified their air strikes only after ISIL had broken into the city itself. The critical decisions to supply the Kurdish defenders from the air, allow Iraqi Kurds to reinforce by land and increase coordination with Syrian Kurds to generate targeting information are helping push ISIL back as we speak, but came only after the city was nearly overrun.

A great deal could have been done in the prior days while ISIL was pushing its way toward Kobane, which involved moving heavy weaponry through largely open terrain. If the air campaign had a more proactive stance, the coalition could have targeted ISIL forces while they were concentrating for the assault, rather than waited for the battle to reach the city streets, where, without targeteers on the ground, the effectiveness of air power is limited.

The same disturbing pattern of delayed and reactive use of air power is in effect in Iraq’s Anbar province. As a result, ISIL has made significant gains in multiple locales around Fallujah and Hit. Haditha and Ramadi are next on the ISIL target list. The fall of these two Sunni towns would undermine anti-ISIL Sunni tribes, provoke sectarian violence and dramatically increase the threat to Baghdad.

Second, the United States has not adapted to ISIL’s adaptation to current U.S. rules of engagement on targeting. War is an interactive process with parties continuously acting and reacting to each other’s actions with the advantage going to the party that adapts faster than the other side. Our decision making on employment of air power against targets with potential civilian connections is protracted, centralized and has the White House reserving the final say for itself. The president’s fear of negative blowback from civilian loss is legitimate. But the centralized decision-making process is unnecessary, given that military commanders already put great value on protecting civilian lives. ISIL has learned that and therefore tries to get into cities quickly and then operate from civilian buildings or from areas adjacent to them.

The absence of special forces on the ground who can distinguish between a building that is indeed civilian and one commandeered by ISIL necessarily makes the decision makers reluctant to authorize attacks and in turn allows ISIL greater freedom of movement. Our friends on the ground and U.S. personnel involved in the air campaign report many such instances.

Third, the air campaign does not sufficiently cover the battlefield. Except for a handful of strikes against refineries and ISIL buildings or staging areas in Syria, so far the campaign has focused on plinking ISIL vehicles and weapon sites where ISIL has chosen to attack. The airstrikes thus far appear to be unsuccessful in disrupting ISIL’s lines of communication or preventing ISIL from moving reinforcements within Iraq or between Iraq and Syria.

Because of these three impediments, we have been seeing diminishing returns on the airstrikes. ISIL has adapted, but we have been slow to adjust. Fortunately, a number of adjustments could significantly increase the effectiveness of the U.S. air campaign: