Notes on the air war against ISIL

Brian M Downing

The air war over Germany in WWII lasted five years and its effectiveness is debated to this day. Nonetheless, after five weeks of airstrikes, many analysts and politicians are already judging the air campaign against the Islamist State to be a failure.

This may be in large part to events around the Kurdish town of Kobane, where airpower has thus far failed to stop an ISIL drive. However, the defenders of Kobane are a small band of dedicated though untrained and lightly armed villagers fighting in a small enclave distant from the main Kurdish regions in Syria and Iraq. All but the staunchest and less informed advocates of airpower think that it can succeed without effective ground troops. Meanwhile, to the east, Kurdish fighters have made some advances against ISIL with the help of air support.


The US has relied on drone aircraft to identify targets for fighter aircraft and occasionally deliver ordnance themselves. In Afghanistan, drones have been used not only to kill Taliban and al Qaeda leaders but also in support of Afghan army troops now fighting audaciously large Taliban attacks.

Despite increased reliance on drones in US military thinking, there is a shortage of drones in Syria and Iraq. Too many are allocated to Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Accordingly, the curtailment of IS’s movement of troops and equipment has been disappointing.

One remedy would be the insertion of (more?) special forces teams along and behind ISIL lines to help identify targets. Though Washington isn’t eager to increase a ground presence, it may feel the need to.  A second option is to bring in more drones. Fighting in Afghanistan, the chief theater of drone operations, is highly seasonal, with Taliban offensives beginning in the late spring and ending in the middle of autumn. This will soon allow a shift of resources to the war against ISIL, perhaps based from facilities in Saudi Arabia.

After so many errors in recent years, the US would like to rehabilitate the image of drone warfare. Defending Kurds and others from IS onslaughts would be quite helpful for the program in which the Pentagon has invested so heavily in recent years.

Anti-aircraft measures

Syria will object, if only halfheartedly, to the violation of its airspace or to any future shift of power to rebel forces. However, Damascus will have little objection to the degrading of IS troops and equipment, and protests of airspace violation are unlikely to lead to military action.

The US would welcome Syrian fighter attacks and missile launches as it will provide justification to destroy Assad’s air force, which has been critical to rolling back rebel forces over the last two years. Without his fighter aircraft, Assad’s forces would themselves be pushed back.

Portable missile systems (MANPADS), such as the US Stinger missile, pose another danger. ISIL may obtain them from one or more sources. A Syrian arsenal near Aleppo was overrun and a number of Russian SA-18s fell into rebel hands. Other SA-18s from Colonel Qaddafi’s expansive arsenals are thought to be circulating in the Middle East and parts of Africa. Furthermore, the Saudis promised to deliver Chinese FN-6s to rebel forces as a countermeasure to Syrian helicopters which drop barrel bombs.

Such weapons are ineffective against aircraft which operate at higher elevations, as do many western aircraft dropping precision weapons, though they may be of some use against American Apache helicopters now being used.

Bold headlines and Hollywood films have conferred legends on MANPADS, however a Pentagon study of the Russian-Afghan War found no evidence of increased Russian aircraft losses once the Stinger missiles were given to Mujahideen bands. It wasn’t Charlie Wilson’s war.

Effects on ground operations

Air power against troop concentrations can be devastating, but it more typically leads to soldiers’ digging in deeper to limit the effects of shrapnel and concussion, and to the dispersal of troops. In the case of ISIL, air strikes will also lead to using civilians as shields.

Sustained artillery fire and airstrikes can be unnerving, especially for less experienced troops. Veterans from many wars have described them as their most terrifying experiences. Troops cannot meaningfully return fire as in engagements with ground forces; they must endure powerful concussive forces, immediately followed by a momentary vacuum that violently pulls air from the lungs.  However, the ordeal contributes to unit cohesion among survivors as they know they have taken the most enemy power can bring to bear, and lived through it.

Troops arrayed against ISIL – Kurds and Iraqi troops – have been buoyed by the presence of fighters overhead. They know that ISIL troop concentrations can be identified and struck, largely with impunity and from a comfortable distance. Unfortunately, airpower diminishes the willingness of less-than-aggressive troops to close with the enemy: better to remain in fortified positions and let the fighter pilots do the work.

An obvious tactic is to use ground forces to force ISIL troop concentrations and resupply convoys, then attacking them from the air. Unfortunately, there is presently no ISIL foe willing or able to do mount such operations.

Commanders of the western air campaign will never run out of targets; they will constantly identify new ones, thereby justifying their program – and protracting the inertia of Iraqi ground forces. A long air campaign will also allow Iraqi politicians, Sunni tribal authorities, and Kurdish leaders to put off political arrangements needed to launch a ground offensive against ISIL.

A long campaign

With no prospect of immediate success in the war against ISIL offered by the headiest general or politician, the US will be able to gauge the capacities of allied air forces, Arab and western. The ISIL offensive of last June revealed, in frightening detail, just how inept and unprofessional Iraqi forces are, leaving many analysts to wonder, though perhaps not for terribly long, about the competence of Saudi and other regional militaries.

Similar concerns exist over allied air forces in NATO, especially after their showing in the 2011 campaign against Qaddafi’s troops. That relatively brief effort placed severe strains on participating militaries, even though it took place just to Europe’s south. US Secretary of Defense Gates, unable to withhold his ire, publicly rebuked key NATO powers. NATO’s competence will be watched attentively in the newly assertive Russia as well.

In the absence of deployments of western ground troops, the ISIL war will not meet with significant opposition in western capitals. Human losses are unlikely to be high and financial costs will be manageable, possibly even offset by the Sunni princes, as they were in the First Gulf War.

Middle Eastern publics will be more important. The western air campaign resonates with longstanding narratives of European and American designs to humiliate, manipulate, and control the Middle East. Civilian deaths from airstrikes are already coming out. There will be more.

A protracted war will not necessarily benefit ISIL. Forces reliant on zeal and audacity, knowing nothing but conquest and victory, may not respond well to months of stagnation and constant attrition. ISIL commanders, then, may be goaded on to a bold though rash effort to maintain momentum and morale.

©2014 Brian M Downing