Attrition: The Air War Against ISIL


August 28, 2016: The American led air campaign in Iraq and Syria is now two years old. In those two years there have been nearly 15,000 air strikes, with 75 percent of them carried out by American aircraft. So far 60 percent of the air strikes have been against targets in Iraq. The main objective of the air campaign was to cripple and then destroy ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). About a third of the airstrikes were against non-ISIL targets and most of the attacks on ISIL hit buildings (especially warehouses full of weapons and supplies), parking lots (for military and civilian vehicles used by ISIL) and fortifications. Since the air campaign began ISIL has lost half the territory it controlled and over 40 percent of its personnel strength.

Things got a lot worse for ISIL in early 2016 because the American led air campaign has become much more effective. While the number of warplanes used over Syria and Iraq has not changed much since the bombing campaign began in 2014 the ROE (Rules of Engagement) has. Thus the number of weapons “released” has gone way up. There were 269 weapons used in August 2014 and this rose to 1,888 in December 2014 then to 2,823 in July 2015. By the end of 2015 it was over 3,000 a month and headed for 4,000. The increased weapons count correlated with the growth in ISIL deserters and civilians who escaped ISIL territory reporting higher casualties from air strikes. The U.S. gradually loosened up its ROE in 2015 and accelerated this after October when Russian warplanes began operating in Syria. The Russians had a much less strict ROE and their air attacks were doing far more damage to ISIL and other rebel groups despite the heavy use of human shields by ISIL. All this led to more dead civilians but the amount of damage done to ISIL increased so much that in the last year ISIL manpower in Iraq and Syria has declined about 20 percent.

Sufficient data was obtained from people (ISIL deserters and civilians fleeing ISIL territory) and electronic and photo surveillance to come up with accurate date on ISIL personnel losses. This U.S. intelligence believes that since September 2015 ISIL appears to have lost 25,000 fighters in combat (mainly in Syria, Iraq and Libya). Thus about 45,000 ISIL fighters have died since 2013. It’s believed that ISIL currently has only about 20,000 fighters available, mostly in Syria and Iraq. There are a few thousand more in northern Libya, eastern Afghanistan and Egypt. In all five countries ISIL is under heavy attack.


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