Air Power vs. ISIS: What to expect

An excellent analysis in Strategy Page this morning on our war with ISIS in Iraq and Syria. A sampling:

ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) controls (or contests control) of a third of Iraq (mostly in the west) and a third of neighboring Syria (mostly in the east). So far the air strikes have concentrated on ISIL headquarters (buildings taken over and now staffed by ISIL men), at least a dozen improvised oil refineries and concentrations of vehicles (especially armor and artillery). There are more aircraft and UAVs over Syria and Iraq seeking out new ISIL targets than there are bombers hitting targets. ISIL forces are dispersing now that they have to deal with a sustained air offensive.  This is not a major problem because ISIL forces are not as concerned with controlling large areas, if only because most of eastern Syria and western Iraq is desert and uninhabited.

What ISIL is concentrating on is attacking Kurdish and government forces wherever it can. The Kurdish and Iraqi forces are largely tied down keeping ISIL raiders out of more densely populated areas the government and Kurds control. Thus there are clashes with these ISIL raiders every day, especially around Kirkuk, Ramadi (the capital of Anbar province, which is most of western Iraq) and Baghdad. The raiders often just set up mortars several kilometers from a target, fire a few shells and then quickly move before they can be found and attacked.

The U.S. carries out daily strikes against any ISIL forces that are spotted out in the open. This has forced ISIL to be a little more careful about how it moves around and reduced ISIL mobility considerably. While ISIL knows a lot about avoiding smart bombs and missiles they also know that if they are to control their new “Islamic State” (eastern Syria and western Iraq) they have to use bases and concentrate gunmen to deal with armed opposition. There is no tactic that will make ISIL immune to smart bombs under those conditions, not if they still want to control territory in their new “Islamic State.”

What the international coalition must do is establish a system where air support can quickly be provided for all anti-ISIL forces on the ground. This is difficult because having trained troops (air controllers) on the ground is the preferred method. But there are hundreds of specific locations anti-ISIL forces are guarding or based in and all are potential targets. This is not a new problem, but how it is handled in Iraq and Syria will determine how quickly ISIL can be reduced from major threat to dangerous nuisance status. The United States has declared that it will seek to destroy ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) without putting any troops on the ground in Iraq or Syria. That means no American regular troops will be sent in for offensive combat. That does not apply to Special Forces advisors and ground controller teams. Some Americans will be there to help with security around the massive U.S. embassy compound, and perhaps other American facilities as well. There will also be a lot of security contractors. While these are civilians, many are veterans of the U.S. Army, Marines, Special Forces and so on.

ISIS is adapting to the new battlefield by not concentrating their forces as much and melting into the background of the towns and villages they control. But as the analysis points out, at least part of their forces will still be vulnerable to air attack - especially when they engage the peshmerga or Iraqi forces.

It appears that in order to be effective, the coalition will have to set up a series of air bases in Iraq where planes can be dispatched quickly and effficiently to deal with ISIS threats. That will take many months - as will retraining the Iraqi army. Do we have that long?

ISIS is betting no.

If you experience technical problems, please write to