Benjamin S. Lambeth, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, is author of “The Unseen War: Allied Air Power and the Takedown of Saddam Hussein.”
Ever since the Islamic State swept in to fill the void left by President Obama’s withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq, the debate over how to respond to this new threat has centered on two false and overly simplistic choices: Are airstrikes alone enough to do the job, or will it take a major commitment of U.S. “boots on the ground”?
At one extreme, the president complained last month that his critics would have him put “tens of thousands” of U.S. troops back into Iraq. Yet no serious proponent of using U.S. ground forces to counter the Islamic State has suggested that any such response should demand that many combatants. On the other side of the debate, no serious advocate of an air-centric alternative has suggested that U.S. airpower can suffice unaided by a ground presence. What remains unexplored in earnest in this regard is the appropriate mix of air and land involvement to leverage our strongest comparative advantages from the air without risking a return of our troops to high-intensity close combat on the ground.
By continuing to resort to just piecemeal attacks, the Obama administration has been systematically squandering our nation’s asymmetric airpower advantage. Its half-measures have also allowed our greatest combat edge, which has a proven record of effectiveness dating to Operation Desert Storm in 1991, to get a bad rap — as attested to by all those who use the lack of much visible progress so far in rolling back the Islamic State to charge that airpower isn’t the answer to the challenge.
In fact, airpower hasn’t yet been put to a full and proper test in the fight. This point has been lost in the back and forth over how a congressional authorization for the use of force should be worded and whether an attempted ground push by proxy Kurdish and Iraqi troops to retake Mosul is the right next step.
Sad to say, we’ve been here before. Nearly two decades ago, the United States and NATO likewise dithered by using only limited air attacks to counter Serbian human rights abuses against ethnic Albanians at the start of their air war for Kosovo in 1999. Only after the most important targets in Belgrade were struck with full force toward the end of that 78-day campaign was Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic finally driven to end his atrocities.
That early experience over Serbia is being replayed today with our meager daily airstrikes against the Islamic State, proving yet again that hard-learned wartime lessons are often soon forgotten.
To better counter the Islamic State, we don’t need to return large numbers of U.S. ground troops to Iraq to engage in casualty-intensive close combat. Rather, we should use as a template the ground-enabled precision airstrikes carried out in late 2001 during the initial phase of the war in Afghanistan. For that, we first need an adequate reintroduction of U.S. Special Operations forces and ground-based forward air controllers. Just as they allowed U.S. airpower and the indigenous Afghan Northern Alliance to drive out the Taliban in less than three months, destroying al-Qaeda’s sanctuary in Afghanistan, such forces can empower the able Kurdish pesh merga by identifying and designating worthwhile Islamic State targets for aerial attacks in large enough numbers to make a difference.
Second, we need more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, such as the U-2 and the remotely piloted Predator, to locate enemy targets for the pesh merga fighters and forward air controllers to assess and recommend for air attack. Right now, we’re operating only a small fraction of the number of such platforms against the Islamic State as are currently in use in Afghanistan.
Third, and most important, instead of the anemic daily airstrikes that continue to hamper our professionally conducted but otherwise desultory effort against the Islamic State, we need a more robust air-centric and land-enabled campaign along the lines of the one that worked so successfully in the major combat phase of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001. U.S. airpower made possible the attainment of that campaign’s immediate goals without the need for any U.S. ground troops to engage in frontal combat with enemy forces.
We have the wherewithal to repeat an effective variation on that superb air-land performance against the Islamic State today. The only thing preventing such an effort is the needed leadership and resolve to make more intelligent use of our unique air advantage in pursuit of more decisive results.