The conventional wisdom among hawkish conservatives is that ISIS cannot be defeated by U.S. air power unless we also put “boots on the ground.” This may well be true. But it’s also true that the U.S. air campaign against ISIS has not been serious.
David Deptula, a retired air force general, provides the evidence:
In the campaign against the Islamic State, we are averaging 12 strike sorties per day. During Operation Desert Storm in Iraq and Kuwait in 1991, the average was 1,241; in Operation Allied Force in Kosovo in 1999, it was 298; in the first 30 days of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, 691; during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001, 86.
Would a significantly stepped up air campaign defeat ISIS? Deptula thinks so:
In the past two decades, several strategic victories were brought about by air power operating in conjunction with indigenous ground forces — none of which were better than the Iraqi army. Robust air power, along with a few air controllers, carried the Northern Alliance to victory over the Taliban, at minimal cost in blood and treasure to the United States. Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya similarly involved airstrikes well in excess of those being used against the Islamic State.
The small number of sorties isn’t the only problem with the air war we are waging against ISIS. The Obama administration’s rules of engagement also stand in the way:
It seems to me that this problem is related to the lack of boots on the ground in Iraq and a dependable allied fighting force in Syria. If we had these sources of intelligence, we could better distinguish the enemy from the civilian population.
Recently reported by pilots actually fighting the Islamic State is that the current rules — which far exceed accepted “Law of War” standards — impose excessive restrictions that work to the advantage of the enemy. The ponderous and unnecessary set of procedures in place is allowing the Islamic State to exploit our desire to avoid civilian causalities to commit atrocities on the ground.
But the absence of high quality intelligence isn’t an excuse for imposing restrictions on air power that work to the advantage of the enemy. I agree with Deptula that we should allow our pilots to use their best judgment.
Deptula argues that the basic mistake of the Obama administration is its reliance on the counterinsurgency model:
The current U.S.-led coalition is following the counterinsurgency model used in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade, but the Islamic State is not an insurgency. The Islamic State is a self-declared sovereign government. We must stop trying to fight the last war and develop a new strategy.
Those associated with other branches of the military would probably tell the air force man that President Obama is no more employing the counter-insurgency model than he is conducting a proper air war. I think they would be correct.
Obama’s campaign against ISIS is neither fish nor fowl. It is an embryo conceived for the purpose of checking a box.
As such, it is not viable.