Best of Times, Worst of Times for Air Power

By Sandra I. Erwin
Air warriors have much to celebrate these days. The Pentagon is about to start ramping up production of the nation’s most expensive and technologically wondrous tactical aircraft, the F-35 joint strike fighter. The Air Force soon expects to begin designing a new stealth bomber. And the military continues to rack up engineering achievements in unmanned combat drones.

Alas, all this good news is tempered by the realities of today’s wars where massive air power has been negated by the absence of reliable target spotters on the ground.

Arguably one of the Air Force’s most ardent champions of air power, Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle, acknowledged that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will never be defeated from the air. That is no reflection of the capability of air power but simply the recognition that the U.S. military has no easy answer to this war.

Since the start of the air war last fall, the United States and its allies have launched more than 4,200 airstrikes against ISIS and dropped 14,000 weapons. “Air power is doing amazing things,” said Carlisle, who heads Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. He is responsible for organizing, training, equipping and maintaining combat ready forces.

Like other Air Force leaders who have addressed the question of why the bombing campaign hasn’t degraded ISIS as the president predicted it would, Carlisle has to walk something of a rhetorical tightrope.

“Within what we have under our control, we are doing everything we can do and we are being amazingly successful,” he said at a recent Air Force Association meeting. “But the question that comes up is ‘could we do more?’”

Carlisle suggested that the only way to gain ground on ISIS via airstrikes is to get better intelligence, because the battlefield is so frustratingly confusing. U.S. pilots — in cockpits and in drone command centers — most of the time do not know if the potential targets they are seeing are extremists or friendly tribes and militias. Even more alarming is that ground spotters often don’t know either. “What we’ve discovered is that determining from the ground and the air who is the actual adversary is an incredible challenge,” he said.

Air commanders wish they had highly trained U.S. tactical air controllers on the ground to pinpoint their targets, but that is not likely to happen, as the administration is reluctant to risk more American lives. So air warriors are just going to have to manage with what they have. “Is there more we can do? There are a lot of opinions about that,” Carlisle said. “I’m optimistic of what air power can do within what’s in our control. But there’s a lot that is outside of our control.”

Adding to the difficulties of identifying targets are shifting war objectives. The initial goal of U.S. and allied airstrikes was to stop the advance of ISIS and protect American personnel and religious minorities in northern Iraq. Air forces now have been directed to support the Iraqi and Kurdish forces’ ground campaign and to and take down ISIS infrastructure in Iraq and Syria.

A number of U.S. lawmakers have called for deployments of special forces to be more closely embedded with Iraqis and Kurds on the ground. The administration continues to reject such calls. Retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, who is a special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS, said the plan is for Western ground forces to only advise, train and equip Iraqi Security Forces.

Eventually the United States hopes to train moderate Syrian rebels, too. “I don’t agree that there will necessarily be a requirement for [U.S.] maneuver forces on the ground,” he said in an interview with Sky News. The U.S. air war increasingly is being complicated by the growing presence of Iranian-backed Shiite militias that are fighting ISIS. Allen said the United States does not coordinate close-air support with the Iranian militias, which creates even bigger problems for U.S. and allied commanders who do not want to accidentally bomb these purported allies.

“We wanted to ensure that when the ordnance came off the airplanes and landed on the target, we weren’t, in fact, bombing friendlies,” Allen said. Eventually, the United States wants to see these volunteer militias all become part of the formal security structure, but that could take time.

The Air Force has spent years tweaking its precision-guided weapons to make them more accurate. Carlisle characterized today’s air forces as “the most precise in history,” meaning that they have killed the fewest civilians and friendly forces in proportion to the number of airstrikes. But that is still not enough to prevail in a war where enemy combatants blend in with everyone else.

A recent Army intelligence report suggests that the situation is likely to get worse for the U.S. air campaign. ISIS is just going to keep making the battlefield more confusing, said a recent study by the Army Training and Doctrine Command’s intelligence support activity. “ISIS’s growth has come from its ability to coopt, dominate or absorb competitor organizations. Some of these organizations may only be fair-weather friends and leave the coalition when the time is deemed right.” ISIS’s advantage to date, the report noted, has been its growing ranks and deep cash reserves. This allows them to organize, train and equip like a military organization.

The best-case scenario sought by the U.S.-led coalition is a political outcome, and the strengthening of the moderate Syrians who ultimately would drive Bashar al-Assad out of office. With respect to ISIS, the strategy remains to defeat them. And whether air power can make a meaningful dent is an open question.

“What air power is, and is not, is a big discussion,” Carlisle said. In this “incredibly complex battlefield, no single tactical strike is going to change the war.”

Topics: Aviation, Robotics

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