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The Limits of an Airpower Strategy against ISIL

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By Dr. William E. Hanson
Faculty Member, American Military University School of Security and Global Studies

As the U.S. military moves toward its third month of airstrikes against ISIL in Syria and Iraq, we should ask ourselves some hard questions about just what we intend to achieve with our application of military force. While the administration duly notes that we are part of a “coalition of the willing,” it is important to understand just what we and our partners actually are willing to do.

Right now, the answer seems to be “airstrikes.” The only ground component of our current effort is composed of those who are already stuck there on the ground – the Kurds, the various pieces of the Syrian opposition, and elements of the Iraqi army. At the same time, the remaining members of the Coalition are loath to get their boots dirty, choosing instead to adhere to former head of the Gulf Airpower Survey Eliot Cohen’s trenchant observation that, “Air power is an unusually seductive form of military strength, in part because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment.” (Cohen 1994, p. 109).

Indeed. We choose gratification and the sense that we are “doing something,” despite the fact that the real commitment is being made by those on the ground already – who have no choice in the matter.

This is, of course, not to question the skill and bravery of the men and women flying combat missions in an undoubtedly difficult and chaotic environment. Nevertheless, it is incumbent on our military and political leadership to be clear, if only in their own minds, about the limits of our chosen tool.

Limitation 1: No surprises
Our capabilities are no surprise, and ISIL is already adapting. The first few days of the air campaign, like most air campaigns, brought quick and gratifying results. However, the playbook of how to adapt to U.S. airpower is well-known and, due to the networked nature of our adversaries, lessons learned by groups worldwide are already being incorporated by ISIL. We are seeing increased dispersion, use of camouflage, and fighters now taking shelter among civilians, all of which decrease the effectiveness of our efforts and increase the chance that further strikes will result in unwanted civilian casualties which will be used as propaganda fodder by our very media-savvy adversaries.

Limitation 2: Battles vs. Wars
Airpower cannot hold territory, and holding territory is critical. ISIL has chosen to concentrate on Kobane and the U.S. and its allies have, in reaction, chosen to expend major effort in prosecuting airstrikes against those attackers with some success, even though the outcome is still in doubt as of this writing. However, this isn’t the only, or even the most important, part of the ongoing fight. ISIL continues to push into Iraqi territory from the west, now threatening Baghdad, and the Iraqi army still does not control the situation in that area.

I’m reminded of Vietnam, where U.S. General Westmoreland was preoccupied with the siege of Khe Sanh, while North Vietnamese forces and the Viet Cong prepositioned in the rest of the country in preparation for the 1968 Tet Offensive. We can arguably hold Kobane, just as we did Khe Sanh, but we are also painfully reminded that winning battles does not translate into winning wars.

Limitation 3: Our Message of Destruction
Our sole message appears to be “degrade and destroy.” The fact that the U.S. and its allies can destroy any target at will is no surprise, and doing so only reinforces that we are supremely gifted in the art of destruction, a trope that continues to play well in anti-US propaganda. ISIL clearly realizes what we do not, that this fight relies on the message even more than it does on the events on the ground. ISIL’s effectiveness is due in large part to its skillful and innovative use of modern communication tools.

Even though we in the West find much of the ISIL message to be abhorrent, we all know what they stand for. What do the U.S. and our allies stand for? We have clearly arrayed ourselves against ISIL, but what are we for, besides maintaining the power of the government in Iraq? Are we on the side of the Kurds, the Turks, the Syrian government, the Syrian opposition? All of these players know what they stand for, and part of our difficulty is that it’s easy to call in airstrikes, but it’s much more difficult to convincingly articulate our vision of what this area should look like when the immediate fight is over.

The limitations of airpower in this case are not limits of airpower, but of our own imagination and demonstrate our inability to convincingly articulate just what we want to happen. The players on the ground are well on their way to redrawing the map, and given this situation, we arguably should be considering how we want the new map to look. We are, once again, doing what we can do quickly and easily, rather than first considering what we should be doing, and what we actually desire to have happen.

We should not be surprised when this ends up like our previous efforts.

About the Author

Dr. William Hanson is an Associate Professor of Security and Global Studies at American Public University. Prior to coming to APUS, Dr. Hanson had a distinguished career in the U.S. Air Force, retiring as a Colonel. His key assignments included duty as Chief, Long Range Strategic Planning for the Air Force and Chief, Strategy and Policy Division, US Strategic Command. The views expressed are his own.

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