When air strikes resumed in Iraq in early August and then in Syria six weeks later, it seemed like ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) was in big trouble. In theory this is true, in practice, maybe not. The obvious targets like buildings taken over by ISIL as well as large storage areas for captured vehicles, weapons and housing for ISIL fighters, were quickly destroyed. Those that were not hit were abandoned and vehicles, equipment and personnel were dispersed. Also hit were large ISIL checkpoints that controlled traffic on the few major roads in eastern Syria and western Iraq. As expected ISIL, under the direction of Iraqi ISIL men who had experienced American air power in Iraq from 2003-2008, quickly began to order countermeasures that had worked in the past. Headquarters were moved to residential areas, large permanent checkpoints were abandoned (replaced by temporary ones set up by ISIL fighters travelling in vehicles equipped with baggage on the roof, to look like civilians) and all vehicles and equipment was also dispersed to residential areas. Schools, hospitals and mosques now have to provide some space for ISIL men and equipment.
Since 2001 Islamic terrorists have had lots of experience with persistent American air reconnaissance and prompt attacks on detected targets. This experience has led to a number of documents posted on Islamic terrorist web sites giving tips on how to minimize the impact of this sort of persistent surveillance and prompt attack. The basic advice is to blend in so the Americans won’t quickly spot who the Islamic terrorist is down below. That means trying to look like civilians and blending in with civilians as much as possible. That means no visible weapons and if you do need to carry weapons, provide means of travel that keep that hidden. Thus in urban areas the Islamic terrorists learned to put some cover over alleys or narrow roads or dig covered (often just with earth colored cloth) trenches to make armed men less visible from the sky. When travelling try to look like a merchant or family man moving goods, not a bunch of Islamic terrorists without weapons trying to look inconspicuous. Being convincing is a matter of life and death. ISIL personnel have been warned to use cell phones and radio communications carefully because the Americans are probably listening. The Americans are listening and they have proven tactics to defeat the dispersal tactics ISIL is using to avoid air attack.
Dispersal and deception will not make ISIL safe from attack bur it will slow down the rate of loss to air attack. Another problem is that the Americans have had over a decade to come up with ways to see through the deceptions. The Americans use heat sensors and pattern detection software to sort out who are innocent civilians and who may not be so innocent. This sort of thing is not much talked about because the Islamic terrorists have had a hard time countering it.
The attacks so far have concentrated on large, fairly obvious targets. That includes things like command and control (headquarters and communications) and logistics (fuel, vehicles and stockpiles of food and equipment). This causes ISIL long term problems right away and the loss of killed or wounded senior people and technical experts doesn’t help either. But this damage was limited to the first few dozen attacks. Once ISIL was aware that hostile air power was in play, the dispersal procedures went to work. Meanwhile, with the obvious targets hit or abandoned the air power is concentrating on ISIL combat forces. This has been most effective with Kurdish troops from northern Iraq. The Kurdish forces in Iraq are experienced working with American troops and air power. As a result ISIL has come to fear the Kurds and avoid them. Because of the threat of air strikes ISIL has to be careful concentrating forces to push back the Kurdish advance.
ISIL has one big advantage in that, historically, enemy dominance of the air does not totally cripple the force on the ground. But this domination of the air does have a crippling effect. This was seen in France and Germany during World War II. In late 1944 and early 1945 the allies has so many fighters available that they could constantly patrol roads and quickly radio for reinforcements if they detected the Germans making a large scale movement. Otherwise fighters could use their 12.7mm machine-guns, unguided rockets or bombs against any ground targets that appeared. Back then, there were no heat sensors so the Germans found they could move safely at night, as long as there were no lights involved. This was slower than daylight travel and involved more accidents. There was also the risk of getting sloppy concealing yourselves when you got the vehicles off the road before the sun, and the allied fighters, came up.
It was the same situation in Korea (1950-53) for the Chinese and in Vietnam (1965-72) for the North Vietnamese. In both cases the people on the ground had to accept the fact that they would have to move more slowly and with more losses to get anywhere and in combat would suffer more losses from air attack. Domination of the air did not neutralize the troops on the ground it just slowed them down and made them a bit less effective. By the end of the 20th century there were lots of heat sensors and cheap UAVs were appearing and air dominance became more effective. But the enemy on the ground still could make some effort, adapt and continue to operate.
What may save ISIL is the reluctance of the Western and Arab nations to carry out a major air campaign. So far the air attacks have been few in number and there are many instances of ISIL forces moving and operating openly without suffering an air attack because there simply are not that many warplanes overhead. Dominating the air doesn’t do you much good unless you use that advantage enough to make a difference on the ground. Western and Arab nations are also terrified of civilian casualties on the ground. These are unavoidable, although NATO has reduced them to historically very low levels. But given ISIL’s willingness to use human shield and their ability to publicize any real or imagined civilian casualties from air attacks, there will be some bad publicity if the Western and Arab nations use enough air power to hurt ISIL badly. So far that threat appears to be protecting ISIL better than anything else.