Attrition: Air Power Cannot Do It Alone Again


May 19, 2015: Since August 2014 allied (mostly U.S. but also NATO and Arab) air strikes in Iraq and Syria have destroyed or damaged over 6,000 targets during over 2,500 separate attacks using mostly smart bombs and missiles. This did not turn out to be the wonder weapon against newly resurgent Islamic terrorists except under certain conditions. Meanwhile the attacks did do a lot of damage. This destruction included nearly 1,700 military vehicles (about 15 percent of them armored and half of them armed). The most common targets were buildings (1,800 hit) and combat positions (1,500 bunkers, trenches and so on). There were far fewer command posts, checkpoints, parking lots and assembly areas hit and destroyed or made unusable. Over 300 oil industry targets were destroyed or badly damaged since selling stolen oil on the black market was a major source of income for the Islamic terrorists.  

The biggest problem was not finding targets, but finding the right targets and hitting them when it would do the most damage to the various Islamic terror groups involved. Hitting buildings or fighting positions after the enemy had departed (or before they arrived) looked the same from an aircraft (or spy satellite) but was quite different for the enemy and those they were fighting. Thus having air controllers with the friendly troops on the ground was important. Unfortunately it was not possible to do that with most of the friendlies. That was because over two-thirds of Iraqi Army units were not reliable or competent enough to assign Western air controllers. The Kurds and a few Iraqi Special Operations units could be relied on to protect and effectively use air controllers but the Kurds would not operate outside their traditional homelands in northern Iraq and northeast Syria. There were very few special operations units. Iran supported Shia militias and the Shia brigade from Lebanon refuses to work with Western troops or air power. 

Not all nations, for political reasons, are hitting targets in Syria and Iraq. Thus in Iraq the U.S., Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France and the Netherlands are flying while in Syria it’s the U.S., Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). American warplanes have flown most of the missions and in December alone American warplanes carried out a quarter of all the air strikes so far. That averaged nearly 15 American air strikes a day in December and that has increased since then.

Over 25,000 sorties have been flown so far and 90 percent are support (reconnaissance, surveillance, control/AWACS and aerial refueling). Extreme measures are taken to avoid civilian casualties, which means a lot of military targets have to be left alone because ISIL uses civilians as human shields a lot. For this reason it’s important to have friendly, and competent, troops on the ground to positively identify enemy targets that have a very low probability of causing civilian casualties if hit.



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