Obama's Phony War on ISIS

It was recently mentioned that U.S. Forces have dropped over 27,000 bombs on Syria and Iraq during Operation Inherent Resolve, the Obama administration's campaign against ISIS.  Given the current controversies over the reliability of and possible political motivations behind American intelligence assessments, let's look behind this figure to see what these munitions have bought the U.S. during the campaign, and whether we can count on the Obama administration's related claims about the war on ISIS or the claims of his intelligence community in general.

Historically, air campaigns are mostly measured by aircraft sorties rather than munitions dropped.  In the age of precision munitions (and almost all the weapons deployed in Inherent Resolve are in that category), perhaps things are somewhat different.  Still, it is useful to examine this figure against the number of sorties flown and most particularly against the administration's claims of ISIS losses.  In doing this, it is not my intention in any way to impugn the motivations, determination, or skill of the American aircrew, ground crew, support, command and control, or special forces elements that have carried out this campaign so far.  Although ISIS anti-aircraft defenses are extremely weak, the very fact that American forces have managed to fly tens of thousands of missions safely and with negligible losses, often at night, and requiring frequent in-air refueling, is extremely impressive.

Those 27,000 bombs were dropped during the course of 40,635 combat sorties and 9,224 reconnaissance, intelligence, and support sorties.  The first remarkable thing about these figures is the relatively small number of munitions dropped against the number of missions flown.  It appears that fewer than 1.5 bombs were dropped for every combat sortie flown, this by modern aircraft, including heavy B-1 bombers, capable of carrying much greater bomb loads.  These figures correspond to well oft reported allegations that up to 75% of combat sorties do not drop munitions under extremely restrictive rules of engagement.  These aborted missions nonetheless put American aircrew at risk, wear out planes and parts, and cost billions of taxpayer dollars. 

The Obama administration's caution regarding civilian casualties may be admirable in certain respects, but only assuming that the campaign is otherwise accomplishing its missions.  In two years of bombardment and assault by various local forces (Iraqi, Syrian, Kurdish, Turkish, among others) ISIS has been pushed back and weakened but still apparently remains a formidable fighting force, stymieing Iraqi forces at Mosul, launching effective counter-attacks in Syria, and continuing to recruit and inspire various murderous terrorists around the world.  In large part, the Obama administration's answer to this is the 2016 claim that more than 26,000 ISIS fighters have been killed by coalition (mostly American) aerial bombardment alone, a historically impressive number of casualties given the relative paucity of munitions dropped.  But how credible is this intelligence assessment? 

The biggest problem with the casualty number is that it alone accounts for more than the entirety of ISIS's strength according to the very same intelligence estimates that tout the losses.  According to American intelligence, ISIS's overall strength in 2014 was between 25,000 and 31,000 men. 

And the number of ISIS killed does not take into account any wounded.  Precision munitions may be extremely accurate, but they do not magically kill every person in the target zone.  In modern combat, a good rule of thumb is a 3-1 ratio of substantially wounded (evacuated to a rear area for serious treatment) to killed, though in contemporary Western militaries, the ratio is much higher.  Let's assume that with ISIS it, is much lower – say, 1-1.  That still produces over 52,000 total casualties out of a force originally estimated at about one half that strength.

Let's be very generous to the Obama estimates and also assume that between 2014 and 2016, ISIS was able to replace each one of its 30,000 original fighters with new recruits (which somehow it managed to train, equip, and transport to the front despite coalition and Russian interdiction efforts).  If ISIS suffered 52,000 casualties from aerial bombardment (not even counting ground combat), that would put ISIS's remaining effective strength at barely 8,000 men, including command and support troops. 

Since ISIS is still fighting effectively, and even taking the offensive here and there, that would make the Islamic organization as a whole perhaps the most disciplined and well trained, led, equipped, and motivated fighting force in modern history.  Generally speaking, a large-field fighting force of average quality will begin to dramatically lose cohesion and fighting effectiveness when losses exceed 30%.  Extremely high-quality formations like, say, the German World War II 1st Parachute Division or the 1st U.S. Marine Division, might sustain greater losses while remaining highly effective, but not many other units.  And ISIS is not a field military formation with well educated, especially fit and selected troops, able to indulge long-term training, with expert and educated leadership.  It is an umbrella for a hybrid guerrilla force based in an underdeveloped mostly Arab area whose main advantage appears to be intense indoctrination and fanaticism.  While the latter can produce brave and self-sacrificing fighters, that is not a substitute for effective personnel selection, training, and leadership.  It is extremely unlikely that ISIS combat formations are elite in the sense of the aforementioned German or American formations, and woe onto us were they to have that character.

Let's be generous again and assume that ISIS combat formations, while not elite, are of average quality by world standards and able to sustain 30% casualties without substantially losing combat effectiveness.  Let's also assume (as before) that ISIS has essentially managed to replace 100% of its original fighting strength by CIA estimates so that its total fighting strength between 2014 and 2016 is 60,000 men.  Since ISIS is still an effective fighting force, that means the most it might reasonably have lost is 18,000 (30%) to all causes, coalition bombing, Russian bombing, and ground combat against various foes.  Of those, using again our very conservative estimate of killed to wounded, only 9,000 of those 18,000 are KIA.  This means that even if coalition bombing were responsible for every single ISIS casualty (which is certainly not true), actual ISIS killed by coalition bombing could not be greater than 9,000, or one third of the Obama administration estimate – and this absurdly assumes that American bombing caused all those losses.  This makes the notorious overestimated body counts of Vietnam, a practice that the U.S. supposedly forswore, seem precise.

We can draw only two reasonable conclusions from this analysis.  One would be that American raw intelligence and analysis is so bad that ISIS strength is actually orders of magnitude greater than the original estimate made only a couple of years ago, in order for ISIS to have sustained the losses claimed and still be an effective fighting organization.  The second much more likely answer is that the highly politicized Obama intelligence community has repeatedly lied as to the extent of ISIS losses in order to justify the half-hearted and confused campaign authorized by the president, as well as the highly restricted rules of engagement that limit the actual effectiveness of the bombing campaign. 

This, of course, is the same intelligence community now claiming that the Russians effectively elected Donald Trump and feared Hillary Clinton.  A house cleaning cannot come soon enough.