Resisting Temptation: Airpower as the Bedrock of a Solid Counter ISIL Strategy

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F-16 Takes Off from Incirlik AB on a Mission to Support Operation INHERENT RESOLVE
(USAF Photo, SrA Krystal Ardrey)

The battle against ISIL has been brutal. The government in Iraq is barely holding together, ISIL appears to be in control of northern Iraq and Syria, and Libya is grappling with its own ISIL problem. On the surface, there appears to be little that the United States and its allies can do to assure basic stability in the region. If America and her allies want a better state of peace in the region, policymakers must continue with the strategy of patiently utilizing airpower and refrain from the temptation of employing a large number of ground troops. 

Among the multiple lines of effort, there are two main strategic tools available to the United States and its allies. The first is diplomacy and the second is military force. Will the use of diplomacy against ISIL lead to President Obama’s stated goal of the destruction of ISIL? Probably not, because direct diplomacy with the organization is not an option. Thus, military force will be the primary means to destroy ISIL. To this end, an increased chorus of voices is calling for a large-scale ground offensive of American and allied troops under the belief that ground troops would be able to bring peace quickly to the region. However, this could not be further from the truth.

A ground campaign which places American and allied troops up against ISIL may produce fast results but not necessarily positive ones. In fact, the allied ground campaign might fail to achieve what should be the ultimate objective in the region: a better state of peace. The patient pursuit of this better state of peace proves so vexing because of the insatiable “results-oriented” twenty-four hour political and news cycle that demands positive stories on an immediate and recurring basis. If not the use of ground troops, then what should the United States and her allies do? President Obama’s strategy guides us. If we can resist the temptation of a large-scale deployment of ground troops, the persistent use of airpower provides us with the best path to a better state of peace. Airpower provides the time necessary for the creation of a legitimate indigenous force.

Counter-insurgency experience tells us only a popularly legitimate authority can regain peace and create a lasting solution. If you suppose the war against ISIL is a war against an insurgency, and many do, then you must heed the accepted counter-insurgency strategy and create a legitimate military force. If you consider ISIL a state, you still must concede that a strong and legitimate military force is an essential part of a counter-ISIL strategy. Currently, does a competent and legitimate indigenous force exist? It is hard to argue that it does. What is necessary in Iraq is to provide the legitimate political actors with enough time to build their strength and create the lasting diplomatic solution we all desire.

Unlike ground forces, airpower does not need to chase linear objectives to be successful, it can stitch together disparate objectives to achieve one goal. Effectively used, airpower can provide the foundation of the American strategy against ISIL. In Iraq and Syria airpower is already preventing ISIL forces from peacefully concentrating in one area, and if ISIL cannot concentrate its forces, it cannot generate the mass needed to expand and to achieve further territorial objectives in the region.

Airmen understand airpower, alone, will hardly be able to secure a better state of peace in the region. Airpower will only gain political objectives when combined with other sources of coalition influence (soft power, diplomacy, etc.) and ground troops. However, airpower provides policy makers the crucial time needed for the multiple lines of effort to have an impact and for a legitimate ground force to take shape to enable a successful strategy.

We should loudly proclaim airpower as the most effective way to provide American and coalition decision-makers with the sustainable foundation of a successful long-term strategy. As this will not be a short fight, airpower helps to provide the persistence necessary to move to a lasting peace in the region. Airpower also provides scalable political options to complement many lines of effort. Rather than attempting to impose our will with ground troops, the coordinated use of airpower provides the best hope to build an environment where a better state of peace can prosper from within.

Ryan Link is a bomber pilot who graduated from the US College of Naval Warfare and the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.

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4 thoughts on “Resisting Temptation: Airpower as the Bedrock of a Solid Counter ISIL Strategy

    • I wish we bombing a thousand targets a day. But you and I both know that a modern multi-role fighter aircraft equipped with modern avionics and the capability to drop GPS-guided bombs is a lot more effective than the Sopwith Camel I think you might be suggesting we’re employing.

      I would love to drop a tactical nuke on ISIS, but political realities predispose such an outcome. I think this is going to be, sadly, a very pathetic war that takes a long time–its going to be Special Operations Force-centric and airpower-centric. And we all know that is not the most effective way to destroy an insurgency.

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  1. While you address the specific number of targets serviced, I think you are not focusing on what is ultimately important when using airpower in against ISIL. You’re confusing ends and means. The “end” is a better state of peace. The “means” are disparate lines of effort (primarily military in direct engagement with ISIL) to gain the better state of peace. Airpower use must be “right-sized” to suit the politicians desires and for a legitimate force to develop. What I think you are hinting at in your comment is the big elephant in the room: As almost every “lasting peace” requires the victor and the vanquished to have a stake (i.e. negotiated settlement), and the US won’t negotiate with ISIL, then how will we get to the political end state? That is a topic for another time, but foreign ground troops probably won’t solve the dilemma in a way to create a lasting peace in the area.

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  2. Freedom1995, irony…that’s why. We have become enamored in metrics as a service (and media reporting), yet on the other side of our proverbial mouth we speak of effects-based operations. How many PA stories do you see about X number of bombs dropped by squadron Y on deployment? Now how many do you see about what effect they had over that same period? There are some really great success stories of EBO in OIR, but we probably wont release the details…but for some reason are feeding the media mouth with more WSV that we ever did in 14 years of OEF. There is a method to the perceived madness, but we have grown increasingly worse at conveying this message. Billy Mitchell would be most displeased right now…

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