Geopolitics

Can Air Power Defeat the ISIS?
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Issue Vol. 30.2 Apr-Jun 2015 | Date : 27 Jun , 2015

The USA decided to lead a coalition of countries to stem the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi-led ISIS expansion. The ISIS has around 70,000 fighters including 8,000 in Libya and 10,000 in Nigeria. It is also estimated to have at least one attack helicopter, three MiG-21 and five drones. A large number of regional players who felt threatened by the rise of ISIS entered the conflict in support of the Western alliance. Iraqis were tasked to fight the ground war and the Coalition was to handle the air campaign to make it convenient to regain territory. Two recent events, the internationally supported Iran nuclear deal and the Saudi led attack on Yemen has added a new dimension. The air campaign that began on August 08, 2014 has now accelerated and finally started showing results. The US-led air campaign in Iraq and Syria has now been designated as Operation Inherent Resolve.

Military victory would have to be the first step to defeat an ideology-driven ISIS…

Is the Middle East imploding? Has the vacuum left by the removal of powerful local leaders, Iraq’s Sadaam Hussein and Libya’s Gaddafi, propped up disgruntled extremist groups and landed the world from the frying pan into the fire? The resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism has resulted in rise of extremist groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Boko Haram in Nigeria and Houthi rebels in Yemen. Did the Western powers, more so the USA, try too long to dominate the oil-rich land otherwise divided between Shia and Sunni camps led by Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively? Is it a long simmering Shia-Sunni power struggle?

Taking sides for the Shiites are Assad of Syria, the Iraqi regime and Hezbollah of Lebanon backed by Iran. Iran and Pakistan are the largest Shia states. Sunnis dominate Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Gulf States. 85 per cent of the world’s Muslims are Sunni. The ISIS was formed primarily from the remnants of Sadaam’s elite Republican guards, Syrian rebels earlier armed by the USA and motley of die-hard Islamic volunteers from across the globe. They began a Jihad to regain Islamic pride and set up a Caliphate with the stated aim to ultimately rule the world. The ISIS took advantage of battle-fatigued USA’s phased withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq and quickly captured significant territory in Iraq and Syria. They not only dominated few important towns but also took over military and economic assets such as refineries. They managed funds from sympathisers across the world and through oil sale in black market. Their brutal advertised killing of non-sympathisers or opponents and vengeful destruction of heritage sites shook the civilised world.

The USA decided to lead a coalition of countries to stem the Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi-led ISIS expansion. The ISIS has around 70,000 fighters including 8,000 in Libya and 10,000 in Nigeria. It is also estimated to have at least one attack helicopter, three MiG-21 aircraft and five drones. A large number of regional players who felt threatened by the rise of ISIS, entered the conflict in support of the Western alliance. Iraqis were tasked to fight the ground war and the Coalition was to handle the air campaign to make it convenient to regain territory. Two recent events, the internationally supported Iran nuclear deal and the Saudi-led attack on Yemen have added a new dimension. The air campaign that began on August 08, 2014 has now accelerated and finally started showing results. The US-led air campaign in Iraq and Syria has now been designated as Operation Inherent Resolve.

Striking just three to four targets a day is not real use of air power…

Coalition Partners

On August 08 and September 23, 2014, the air campaign was launched on the ISIS in Iraq and in Syria respectively. From the very beginning, the air war has primarily been American responsibility. Till date, 90 per cent of the air strikes in Syria and 65 per cent in Iraq have been launched by the USA. US Navy cruiser USS Philippine Sea and destroyer USS Arleigh Burke are in the Red Sea. Aircraft carrier USS George Bush is in the Persian Gulf. US Central Command F-22A Raptors, F-15E Strike Eagles and USAF KC-10 Extender are actively involved.

Eight Australian FA-18 attack planes operate from the UAE. France deployed seven Rafale, six Mirage 2000D, one Falcon 50, anti-aircraft frigate Jean-Bart and one Atlantique 2 patrol aircraft. France also deployed in the Persian Gulf the nuclear powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle with 12 Rafale Marine and nine Super Etendard among many others. RAF Tornado jets are based at the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Germany has sent military assistance to the Kurdish region. Canada has contributed aircraft and personnel. Dutch F-16s have bombed targets in northern Iraq.

By April 2015, Australia had sent nearly 900 ground troops to the Gulf region. Italy, Poland, Denmark, Albania and Croatia have provided support with equipment and ammunition. New Zealand, Romania and South Korea have provided humanitarian assistance and South Korea has contributed $1.2 million. Regional players include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Jordan – all have taken part in air strikes and contributed financially as well. For years, they have all been recipients of advanced equipment and training from the West. Their pilots have been exposed to Western tactics in US Red Flag exercises. Miss Major Mansouri of UAE Air Force symbolically flew an F-16 Desert Eagle in the very first strike.

The world is witnessing the evolution of a new regional balance of power…

Saudi Arabia has agreed to host the training and equipping of Syrian opposition forces to combat the ISIS. Qatar has flown a number of humanitarian missions. Prince Khaled bin Salman, flew the Tornado IDS jet strike against the ISIS in Syria. Of all the countries, Turkey is the closest to the conflict due to its 600-kilometre border with Syria, nearly 200 kilometres of which is controlled by the ISIS. It has a large force of US-supplied F-16s and military links to NATO, but has to walk a delicate balance of secular and Islamic allegiances. Jordan is in an even more precarious position; it is a country that ISIS would certainly like to engulf. The brutal slaying of a Jordanian pilot forced Jordan’s entry in to the air war.

Nearly 2,500 US advisers have been aiding the Iraqi army plan a ground offensive. The USAF is training Iraqi aircrew as well. Thus, the US led-coalition has the support of over 60 nations. If the Arab states muster the will, they could demolish ISIS.

Air Campaign

Military victory would have to be the first step to defeat an ideology-driven ISIS. As on March 31, 2015, the air campaign had struck 5,548 targets, most of which have been fighting positions, fortified buildings, logistics nodes, vehicles and staging areas. Leadership quarters, oil installations, Artillery positions, and communication nodes have also been targeted. In the initial two months, 4,800 sorties had been flown, but only 400 involved weapons drops, indicating the need for very high support missions to avoid own losses. Air effort increased after December 2014.

Regional players include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Jordan – all have taken part in air strikes and contributed financially as well…

As in any counter insurgency, Islamic State fighters tend to blend with civil population. Intelligence operations thus became a prerequisite. Destruction of power stations and oil installations affect the local civil population adversely. US domestic opinion needed moulding and larger air assets could be deployed only after early 2015. With Kurd and Iraqi troops involved on the ground, air strikes require proper coordination to avoid collateral damage. Airborne Early Warning and Control System aircraft is being extensively used. Initial strikes in Syria had to be led by stealthy F-22 Raptor air superiority fighters and preceded by EA-6B Prowlers in the Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) role. F-16CJs were used with AGM-88 High Speed Anti-Radiation missiles. Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched by the US Navy from ships in the Red Sea. Brimstone missiles were launched by Royal Air Force Tornado strike aircraft.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are being increasingly deployed. The USAF conducted airstrikes over Mosul Dam and in Irbil, destroyed observation posts, several vehicles and mortar positions. ISIS storage facilities near Abu Kamal, Jeribe and Mayadin refineries were hit by USAF F-15Es. Fighter and drone aircraft destroyed or damaged armed vehicles near the Haditha dam. French Rafale aircraft have been undertaking GBU-12 LGB strikes hitting targets in Mosul, and also been flying intelligence gathering missions carrying the Reco NG recce pod. French Navy Atlantique 2 maritime patrol and Anti-Submarine Warfare aircraft carried out missions over northern Iraq.

By March 23, 2015, the total number of airstrikes conducted by the United Kingdom in Iraq stood at 194. By December 2014, ISIS advance towards Baghdad had been halted. Partial control over Mosul was possible. After the US-Iran Nuclear-agreement, Iran moved approximately 500 soldiers of the elite Qods Force in Iraq. US-led air campaign also delivered relief to civilians fleeing ISIS. C-17 and C-130 cargo planes air dropped humanitarian supplies, solar lights and mobile chargers, water and packaged meals.

The cost of flying F-22s, F-16s and B1 Bombers is between $20,000 and $65,000 per flying hour…

Successes and Challenges

Experiences in Vietnam and Afghanistan show that long drawn out wars can often be open-ended. The ISIS has been blatantly ruthless; public executions are publicised to instil fear around the world. More recently, they have started destroying heritage and historic artefacts. In Syria, there are no ground forces, and in Northern Iraq, there is a poorly organised Iraqi army. Assad is more concerned about the survival of his own regime. A big plus remains the asymmetry of airpower. The initial aim is to break the ISIS’ hold on the ground and target leadership.

Stealth and precision weaponry are big assets. Training camps, captured oil refineries, storage facilities, armour, artillery and fighting positions are ideal targets from the air. Forcing ISIS leadership on the move and dispersal of forces has a force-multiplier advantage. If they cannot hold territory then the dream of establishing Caliphate will be difficult. Some, of course, question the deployment of 200-million dollar aircraft to bomb non-state actors lacking even rudimentary air defence capabilities.

The current average of about 20 air strikes against the ISIS controlling 50,000 sq. km. is a pittance vis-à-vis 140 during the Serbian campaign. Striking just three to four targets a day is not real use of air power. 100 plus strikes could bring significant results. There is, thus, the need for massive stepping up. Yet the tide is turning. ISIS has lost an estimated 15,000 cadres in Iraq and Syria, and a 100 in Libya. 75 tanks, 280 Humvees, 300 pick-up trucks and 425 vehicles have been reportedly destroyed.

Although monetarily expensive, air power today is the best means of prosecuting initial war…

The Iraqi Army has lost 1,000 soldiers. 15 Syrian planes were destroyed during the ISIS strikes in late September and October at Taqba Air Field in northern Syria. Egypt began conducting airstrikes on ISIL targets in Libya on February 16, 2015, killing a total of 64 ISIL militants. The Saudi military is still essentially locked in a defensive mind-set. They have carried out small strikes against terrorists in Yemen, but a sustained campaign against ISIS would call for a far more public commitment than exhibited so far. Coalition countries have lost very few personnel including the ones executed. One MQ-1 Predator Drone was shot down and an F-16 and an F-15 were damaged.

The Complex Future

The air campaign has obviously begun to produce results. The ISIS is now under pressure. Mutual dislike and self-survival have brought together some sworn enemies. Contradictions include Iran joining the USA, Assad’s and Kurdish self-interests and horizontal split among Arab interests. There is still reluctance to bring in US ground forces and restrict to supporting Iraqi army through equipment and training. Approximately 800 US troops secure American installations such as the Embassy in Baghdad, the Consulate in Erbil as well as monitor the control of strategic locations such as Baghdad airport.

Though Iranian troops have just moved in, there has been a risk of Iraq and Syria breaking up as political entities with Kurdistan being carved out of their northern parts. From lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, many feel a long term presence needs to be planned. Airpower is also for buying time and space for friendly regional leaders to emerge and take charge. The expanded air campaign is not only to support Iraqi forces trying to regain lost territory but also to “degrade” the capabilities of the ISIS. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE are also sending an important message to Iran. They now have very credible air defences – in many ways superior to Iran’s. Thus, the world is witnessing the evolution of a new regional balance of power.

At the current rate, the cost of fighting ISIS is estimated to be around $280 million per month or $3.4 billion per year.

Air effort is working but has to increase for real results. The NATO air campaign in the 1999 Kosovo War deployed 1,000 aircraft and took only six weeks to achieve its objectives. During the 43-day Desert Storm air campaign in 1991, coalition fighters-bombers flew nearly 1,100 sorties a day. The cost of flying F-22s, F-16s and B1 Bombers is between $20,000 and $65,000 per flying hour. Each Tomahawk cruise missiles cost about $1.5 million. Each of the 4,400 soldiers costs $1 million a year to deploy. The US military had spent $1.83 billion on operations in Iraq and Syria till March 2015 with an average daily cost of $8.5 million, according to the Pentagon.

At the current rate, the cost of fighting ISIS is estimated to be around $280 million per month or $3.4 billion per year. More aggressive air operations and deploying 25,000 troops could cost $20 billion per year. The USA lost 4,000 lives and spent $800 billion in Iraq. Americans hopefully learned from that experience. With the level of rabid motivation within the ISIS, it could be a long haul. Results are now becoming visible. Although monetarily expensive, air power today is the best means of prosecuting initial war. Falklands, Kosovo, and Iraq have been won from the air. An air campaign would achieve substantial results if applied with greater force. Therefore, the number of strikes is being increased.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Air Marshal Anil Chopra

Air Marshal Anil Chopra, commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

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2 thoughts on “Can Air Power Defeat the ISIS?

  1. I cannot imagine how the US plans to use air power to subdue an enemy who is hidden amongst the populance of a country. The only way would be is to use ground troops which it would hate to do given the recent Iraq and Afghanistan experience.

    If the ISIS decides to disengage and regroup later, will that not give everyone a false sense of triumph? Desert Storm, Bosnia and the Gulf War were against opposing armies which makes the targets easy to differentiate and isolate.

    I would argue that pounding the ISIS from the air will not yield the results the US is hoping to achieve through this exercise at all.

  2. “There’s a simple reason why the militants are using Humvees and other armored vehicles as rolling bombs,” Naylor reports. “Their protective armored plating prevents defenders from killing the trucks’ drivers before the militants can detonate their loads, while the vehicles’ capacity to carry enormous amounts of weight means the Islamic State can sometimes pack in a ton of explosives.”

    ISIS has used these bomb-laden Humvees in waves of suicide bombings.
    Read more:-
    http://www.businessinsider.in/ISIS-is-turning-US-Humvees-into-Iraqs-worst-nightmare/articleshow/47557936.cms
    It is very difficult to win any war without local support. More over the fight is between Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims. USA cannot increase the bombing against. Sunni Muslims because it may antagonize Saudi Arabia. Some of the weapons supplied by USA to Syrian rebels. is going to ISIS. So it is a very complex situation there.

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