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The World Aflame
Anti-ISIS Campaign in Iraq Shows Limits of Air Power

As the United States begins bombing runs in Syria, a new Washington Post report raises questions as to how effective U.S. air power can be when delivered without ground support:

After six weeks of American airstrikes, the Iraqi government’s forces have scarcely budged the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State from their hold on more than a quarter of the country, in part because many critical Sunni tribes remain on the sidelines.

Although the airstrikes appear to have stopped the extremists’ march toward Baghdad, the Islamic State is still dealing humiliating blows to the Iraqi Army. On Monday, the government acknowledged that it had lost control of the small town of Sichar and lost contact with several hundred of its soldiers who had been besieged for nearly a week at a camp north of the Islamic State stronghold of Falluja, in Anbar Province.

When the United States has been able to work with troops on the ground, whether Sunni or Shiite militias, the Iraqi Army, or the Kurds, it has pushed ISIS back. But otherwise:

“It doesn’t look like anyone is moving at all,” said Michael Stephens, a researcher based in Doha, Qatar, at the Royal United Services Institute who recently returned from Iraq. “People have basically just dug trenches.”

As potent as air power is (and the USAF, as well as Naval Aviation, are an unparalleled global force), it is not a cure-all. Absent a combined-arms attack between air and ground forces, a determined enemy can survive even a savage aerial bombardment. In the 2006 war in Lebanon, Hezbollah picked a fight with an advanced air power, Israel, that was hesitant to put boots on the ground based on its past experiences there. Hezbollah was able to sustain a month-long bombardment from advanced weapons while sustaining only a few hundred killed and no detriment to their ability to fire missiles at Israel.

The key commonality between Hezbollah’s experience and the current efforts in Iraq and Syria is that in each case, the terrorist group had enough forewarning to dig in. President Obama’s deliberations over the current strikes have been publicized and analyzed from many angles, and one of the downsides may have been giving the enemy enough warning to render our sharpest tool less effective.

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  • Anthony

    “Time for Offshore Balancing in the Middle East?”

  • TheRadicalModerate

    Do we actually care if ISIS holds territory? I’d like to keep them away from the Kurds, who appear to be deserving of some support and have the nice strategic benefit of being a thorn in the side of several different groups and nations that we don’t particularly like. Beyond that, I think we have to admit that the Bush Doctrine is a failure and let the various profoundly anti-democratic factions fight it out amongst themselves.

    Air power isn’t much good for holding territory, but as far as I can tell it’s pretty good for counter-terrorism. It’s awfully hard to coordinate a strike on Western interests when you’re worried about somebody dropping a bomb on you the moment that you attempt to communicate with somebody who might be in a position to do something bad.

    The biggest problem with air power is that it’s expensive. An F-22 costs $65K per flying hour and the PGM it drops costs another $50K or so, to say nothing of the airborne command and control support, so you’re looking at more than a half million bucks to kill a very small number of terrorists–or no terrorists, as the case may be. That’s probably cheaper than killing them with a brigade of combat troops, but it’s still pretty expensive. On the other hand, drone cost per flying hour is somewhat lower than manned aircraft, and hopefully will become lower still as the technology gets better. Get the cost down to $10K per terrorist (i.e. about a factor of ten lower than it is today) and I’d say that you’ve got yourself a pretty sustainable counter-terrorism strategy.

    • Jacksonian_Libertarian

      I agree, when Obama abandoned the seedling of democracy America planted in Iraq at the cost of thousands of lives, trillions of dollars, and a decade of time, he removed the last reason we should legitimately be there. We should let the Jihadists focus their resources on killing the other Jihadists and vice a versa. All the innocents in the west will be safer if this human filth is focused on each other, rather than unifying to fight the Infidel Obama has placed in their midst.

    • FriendlyGoat

      How can we imagine it’s more expensive to fly planes and replace bombs than to provide life-long care to wounded warriors and their families?

      • TheRadicalModerate

        My sentence construction was a little awkward, but that’s what I meant. Bullets are cheap, but you need large numbers of troops, and their support both during and after deployment. But, even though it’s cheaper than ground forces, air power is still too expensive to be a sustainable solution for counter-terrorism over the course of decades, which is how long we’re going to be at this. But I think technology will come to the rescue. Of course, if you can fly a drone all the time over some hellhole in northern Syria, you can fly it all the time over any town in the US, so there’s that to worry about…

        • FriendlyGoat

          You’re right that the drone thing seems to work best when only WE are the main flyers of them.

          Ultimately, the people of Islam are going to have to decide that the Caliph of ISIL is a phony and that the Islam of ISIL is something they do not want to live under. If America makes clear we can and will bomb anything, BUT that we have fought our last ground war to save Islam from itself, then—-MAYBE—-some of the other Muslims will coalesce around sense. We can only hope.

  • FriendlyGoat

    Speaking to the last paragraph above, President Obama cannot do unannounced bombardments on unannounced enemies for supposed tactical advantage. It’s UNCONSTITUTIONAL. It would violate our commitments to the UN and the wider world. It would be unbecoming the stature of the USA, and insulting to the voters of a free country. Please stop implying he is just stupid for speaking in advance. A valid superpower in the 21st century has behavioral responsibility as well as an arsenal.

  • allessior

    Did you ever hear of Dresdin, you know, WW2 Germany? The only way bombing works is when it becomes a non-stop, relentless, carpet bombing exercise that never ends. These silly “pin-prick” bombings will never do the trick. Massive, daisy-cutter, carpet bombing, non-stop, 24×7, over every square inch of Iraq and Syria will bring these cockroaches to their knees. In addition, we need to kidnap as many of these slime m’fers as possible, say a couple thousand, chop off their heads, and the heads of their family members, then drop the heads from B29s right into the villages from whence they came. Enough already, let’s stop being a bunch of sissy-Mary do nothings and start kicking ass like we mean it!

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