The US Air Force’s Air Combat Command in the ISIS War
Multinational operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) responded to their 2014 offensive that threatened to seize Irbil and even Baghdad. Operation Inherent Resolve’s air operations involved the US Air Force (Air Combat Command, Air Mobility Command and Special Operations Command), other US services (Navy, Marine Corps, Army) and coalition air arms (British, Australian, Danish and many others). Israel’s air operations over Syria required deconfliction with the US-led coalition. Russians, Syrians and Turks all flew combat missions over Syria, each with their own distinct objectives.
The conflict included both high-technology and brutal close-range combat. Electronic attack technology targets included a U.S. Lockheed Martin AC-130 gunship. Artificial intelligence analyzed video feeds from UAVs. The Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter – some 20 years after the program was given the go-ahead – went into combat. Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) UAVs also flew strike and close air support missions and were used by all the participants.
The author, Ben Lambeth, an experienced defense analyst, was for decades one of the leading lights of the RAND Corporation. He wrote about the Soviet Air Force during the Cold War and, since then, has produced studies on conflicts involving US airpower. However, this book is not primarily an analysis (such as that done by RAND for the Air Force, which is available for download online in pdf format).* While airpower is in the title, the focus is the US Air Force’s Air Combat Command, its role in the conflict and how it was affected by US national security decision-making. Other aspects of the anti-ISIS coalition’s airpower appear only in passing.
Primarily a work of advocacy, done for the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute, this book argues that ISIS could have been decisively defeated sooner and with less cost (including civilian casualties) through a large-scale, decisive, high-tempo campaign by the US Air Force and that airpower’s potential was neither used nor understood by either of the previous two administrations in Washington (especially Obama’s) or by the US military, not limited to Central Command (CENTCOM). Such criticism is not news – at the time multiple commentators and at least one Representative called on the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) to resign in protest – the author blames Army generals at CENTCOM that did not put airmen in charge of the air war and Air Force leaders and organizations, that decades of counter-insurgency and jointness, had turned away from the true light of decisive airpower and undercut its ability to create the effects required to realize strategic goals.
The author provides a summary of some of the resentments and grievances accumulated by the US Air Force over the course of many decades, including many not directly related to the campaign against ISIS. This is followed-up by the author’s assertion that ISIS was vulnerable to airpower because it operated as a “proto-state” rather than an insurgency. Who thought this at the time? The author cites, second-hand, a three-star on the Air Staff in Washington. What about the intelligence community? CENTCOM? What they thought is not discussed -- nor how US decisions were actually made -- but the Obama administration certainly did not base its decisions on this view.
Would the option advocated here have achieved the sort of victory airpower strategists have often promised but seldom delivered? The author’s proposed air offensive is counterfactual, something military historians often consider: what would have happened had the Second World War started over the Sudetenland in 1938 rather than Poland in 1939? Or if the Allies had invaded France rather than Italy in 1943? No single methodology or approach can provide an objective “answer”, but counterfactuals can provide insights.
There are two small sketch maps, one of air bases (though aircraft carrier areas of operation are omitted), the other of cities. Because of the author’s concern over command relationships in-theatre, organizational diagrams would have been useful, as would have been a list of the personnel appearing in the narrative (and the dates they held their positions), a chronology, and a glossary explaining weapons and aircraft types. The lack of tabular presentation of data (apart from a few repurposed briefing graphics) is a drawback. The extensive bibliography and endnotes demonstrate that the author gets his e-mails returned by people that matter. He was uniquely positioned to ask sympathetic (but probing) questions.
The answer he received from sources in the Pentagon, CENTCOM or flying combat missions, was that things did not work well. Micromanagement, indecision and focus on the short-term increased costs and losses in the end. Whatever the validity of his counterfactual argument, the author raises uncomfortable questions about how the United States can respond to future challenges.
The answers are of more than historical interest. Unlike counterfactuals about 1938 or 1943, key decision-makers involved in the anti-ISIS campaign are today shaping US national security. Lloyd Austin III, the US Army general commanding CENTCOM, is the Secretary of Defense. General Charles Q. Brown, who received the author’s (and the Air Staff’s) approval as deputy commander of CENTCOM’s air component starting in 2015, is Air Force chief of staff, widely thought likely to become the next CJCS. Ambassador Brett McGurk, whose diplomatic skills were critical in assembling and maintaining the anti-ISIS coalition, covers the Middle East for the National Security Council.
The increased significance of civilian casualties, collateral damage and rules of engagement is apparent: problems from hell, exacting a cost whatever decision is made. Although US targeting in recent decades has been orders of magnitude more precise than in the past, continued adherence to the laws of armed conflict and the 1949 Geneva Convention are necessary but no longer sufficient in all but the highest-intensity wars of national survival.
If, as the author argues, the national command authority failed to use airpower effectively against ISIS, how will it be used in the next war, whatever it may be? Against hybrid threats, including the salami tactics of Putin’s “little green men” or China’s concrete islands? The combination of insurgency and proxy war threatening Afghanistan? US airpower has not had to fight a great-power competitor in anything other than a limited war since 1945. In the event of such a conflict, the lessons of limited wars – including that against ISIS – may prove misleading. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force certainly has a lot to learn, but they also have less to unlearn.
It is disappointing that a first-class analyst did not fully cover a complex and important air campaign. The summary of the wrongs done to the Air Force will be more convincing to retired fighter pilots than current decision-makers. But Airpower in the War against ISIS still raises important issues about the disconnect between real-world conflicts and US national security decision-making.
* Becca Wasser et al, The Air War Against the Islamic State, The Role of Airpower in Operation Inherent Resolve. Santa Monic: The RAND Corporation, 2021.