Editor’s Note: Please see previous works by Robert Farley including the Five Worst Fighter Aircraft of All Time , the Five Best Submarines of All Time, Five Revolutionary American Weapons of War that Never Happened and Five Revolutionary Soviet Weapons of War that Never Happened.
The United States has gone to war again in Iraq. This time, the president has promised that the U.S. contribution will come mainly through airpower. According to the president, “Our objective is clear: we will degrade and ultimately destroy Isil through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.” As many critics have noted, the objectives are less clear in practice than in rhetoric, as completely destroying a nonstate organization is nearly impossible.
What weapons will fight this war? This list looks at broad categories of capabilities, rather than at specific systems. Each of these capabilities represents a group of different aircraft, along with the logistics infrastructure associated with their use. Developing a full air campaign is a complex project, and each different kind of capability introduces new and different complications.
As with all of the other conflicts that have made up the Wars on Terror, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have played a significant role in the Obama administration’s plan to fight ISIS. Armed drones can conduct strikes on their own, but their much more important role involves the facilitation of other forms of airpower.
Drones provide U.S. commanders with key intelligence regarding the disposition and strength of ISIS forces, as well as their patterns of movement. Combined, these capabilities can constrain ISIS from operating freely, even in the territory it controls. Even the appearance of a remotely piloted aircraft can change the behavior of ISIS fighters, if they lack the ability to shoot down the drone.
Indeed, UAVs may prove effective in probing the anti-aircraft capabilities of ISIS. Reports indicate that ISIS AA artillery has already damaged a USAF F-15. If ISIS demonstrates the capability to effectively use the equipment it has captured, drones may be instrumental in determining how much fire discipline ISIS fighters can maintain.
Carrier Borne Fighter Bombers
The initial strikes against ISIS were delivered by F/A-18 Hornets, launched from USS George H.W. Bush. Since then, F/A-18s appear to have carried out the bulk of the strikes. Carrier-based fighters have proven particularly useful because they have a limited political footprint; allies have to grant overflight rights, but they tend to find this less dangerous than allowing direct access to bases. Carriers also allow the projection of airpower on relatively short notice.
F/A-18s aren’t the only carrier-based fighters involved. Marine Corps aviators, using AV-8B Harriers flown off the light carrier USS Bataan, have conducted strikes against ISIS positions near Haditha Dam. Depending on the length of the campaign, the U.S. Navy (USN) will relieve Bataan and George H.W. Bush with fresh carriers and carrier air groups. Given the amorphous nature of U.S. goals in the conflict, we can almost certainly expect to see additional carrier deployments. France could conceivably step up its contribution with the deployment of Charles De Gaulle, which flies Rafale fighter-bombers.
Land-Based Fighter Bombers
However, both the limitation of carrier aircraft and the omnipresent desire of every U.S. service to make a contribution mean that the United States is using some ground based strike aircraft in the campaign. As David Cenciotti reported, F-15E Eagles operating out of Qatar have conducted some of the strikes against ISIS. The United States may also shortly begin using airbases in Kurdistan to conduct strikes, which could improve the tempo of operations and potentially make the fighters more responsive. Because of the aforementioned political problems, the United States has struggled to keep the use of the fighter-bombers as quiet as possible.
Other countries have also dispatched fighter-bombers. French Rafales operating out of the UAE have conducted recon missions, while the bulk of the contribution of the Gulf States will likely come through ground-based fighter aircraft. The effectiveness of these aircraft will depend almost entirely on the intelligence and logistical framework established by the United States, however.
Everyone appreciates the reluctance of the Obama administration to deploy ground troops in the fight against ISIS. However, it has also become clear, over the past several years, that Obama does not consider special forces to constitute “boots on the ground.”
Drones, other recon aircraft, and satellites can provide a great deal of intelligence regarding how ISIS forces have deployed. However, a force as experienced and proficient as ISIS can take advantage of gaps in coverage to move and to hide. Special operators have the expertise to identify whether and how U.S. forces should strike ISIS hardpoints, and can help facilitate the activities of friendly ground troops (whether Iraqi, Kurdish or Syrian) in their areas.
Relying on local allies for forward air control runs into several problems. No matter how experienced, local allies lack the same degree of familiarity with the capabilities of U.S. equipment and with U.S. procedures, making operations less efficient. More importantly, local allies often have interests at odds with the United States, such as settling scores against enemies the United States has no interest fighting.
We don’t have full information with respect to how the campaign will employ special operators. The official role of U.S. ground troops in Iraq remains strictly advisory. However, the United States has already used special operators to attempt to rescue American hostages from ISIS installations in Syria. As U.S. operations move from a defensive to an offensive posture, the need for reliable eyes with a ground perspective will increase.
The projection of American airpower abroad depends on the tankers of the United States Air Force. KC-135s were among the first aircraft to deploy after Obama’s decision to conduct strikes against ISIS targets. These tankers keep American strike and recon aircraft in the sky, facilitating even the most basic missions. Even U.S. carrier aircraft require frequent refueling in order to play an effective role in the kind of conflict that the war on ISIS represents.
The role played by the KC-135 can seem dull and uninteresting, but for conflicts which deliberately eschew ground forces, the tankers do the critical job of enabling other U.S. (and allied) aircraft to make it to their targets and remain on station. This is especially the case when targeting depends on real-time intelligence collection; the tankers allow fighters to remain on station longer, and to respond to targets of opportunity or calls for assistance. As U.S.-backed ground forces move from the defensive to the offensive, the logistical backbone of U.S. airpower will become even more important.
In the end, the war against ISIS will depend less on specific weapons than on strategy and tactics. The United States has yet to fully describe its vision for how to defeat the Islamic State, beyond vague notions of disruption and destruction. The battle against ISIS runs the risk of strategic drift and mission creep; wars with nongovernmental organizations never end with surrender on the main deck of a battleship.
However, if the nature of victory remains unclear, the operational and tactical tasks are refreshingly direct. The Obama administration doesn’t expect its attacks to deter ISIS, to change its decision calculus, or to compel it to shift its objectives. Rather, the strikes concentrate on destroying as much of ISIS military capacity as possible, in the hopes of strengthening the group’s enemies. Hopefully, U.S. airpower will enable the Kurds, Iraqis and some group of Syrians to eliminate the immediate threat posed by ISIS and reduce the organization’s long-term capabilities.
Robert Farley is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat. Follow him on Twitter:@drfarls.