Airstrikes on ISIS – how will the air campaign evolve?

Footage of RAF Tornados taking off from Cyprus to patrol the skies of Iraq may have evoked memories of 1991 or 2003 (or even 1920's 'air policing') – but this a different campaign entirely, argues TIM ROBINSON. How will the air campaign against ISIS likely evolve?

Once again, airpower is in the spotlight as the preferred tool to counter the rise of what might seem like a medieval death cult known variously as ISIS, IS or ISIL.

The international coalition arrayed against ISIS now includes not only veterans of earlier Gulf Wars, such as the US, UK, France and Australia, but also Arab allies such as Qatar and UAE and the Iraq Government itself, fighting a rearguard action against the growing spread of the self-styled ISIS ‘caliphate’. But this time round the battleground also includes Assad’s Syria, which also has territory held by ISIS.  

Iraq is, of course, familiar battleground for western pilots, from the earlier Gulf War in 1991, Operation Southern/Northern Watches, Operation Desert Fox in 1998 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.  So is it a case of déja vue all over again?

The enemy

There are important differences between this air campaign and earlier ones. The first is the enemy and the nature of it. Unlike Iraq in 1991 and 2003, or Libya in 2011, ISIS is not a state or government. However, it does, unlike insurgencies in Afghanistan, control large amounts of territory – including oil-production facilities. It is also rich, with one of its most notable acts to loot a bank in Mosul. However, despite control of large amounts of territory in both Iraq and Syria, it has no air force nor (as yet) sophisticated air defences – it being currently limited to MANPADS and lower-tier AAA. Its military success has come through a combination of ruthless fear and of skilled light infantry tactics (from a core of Iraqi al-Qaeda insurgency veterans), backed by mobile columns of vehicles which include captured Iraqi Army equipment and the ubiquitous ‘technicals’ (pick-ups or flatbeds with heavy machine guns/cannon).

Much like Genghis Khan, these fighters have terrorised populaces and swept in quickly to seize control of key areas – even breaking the fragile morale of the Iraq army. This ‘hybrid’ enemy represents an innovative new threat. It does not appear to have the patience for complex long-term terror plots like al-Qaeda. But significantly, like a state, it controls territory and economic instruments (oil). It also has a long-term strategy it is working towards – an establishment of an Islamic caliphate. Finally, it also has so far been an extremely effective operator in exploiting social media and traditional news outlets in promoting its aims (see below).  
Political scene

The political scene, too, is much changed from earlier conflicts in Iraq. In 1991, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait allowed the US to build an allied coalition of western and Arab states before the start of a large scale air campaign. Today, sees the US not only supporting Iraqi forces from the air, but also operating in a strange defacto partnership with Iran – which shares similar concerns over the rise of the Sunni ISIS group. There is also the odd situation that sees US airpower striking anti-regime ISIS forces in Syria – when only a year earlier the question over whether to bomb Assad himself was being debated in Washington and London.  This is, of course, not to say Syria and western forces are allies in this fight – more ‘enemies on hold’. The first use of the F-22 Raptor in combat to take out targets in Syria, along with jamming EW aircraft and fighters carrying anti-radar HARMS shows that the US is treating Syria’s air defence system with caution, while engaging ISIS ground targets.

Finally, this air campaign is also notable in the muscular response from Gulf states such as Qatar and United Arab Emirates (UAE), which are increasingly stepping up to direct action in confronting the ISIS and wider Islamic fundamentalist threat. Indeed, Qatar was reported to have carried out a long-range air strike against militants in Libya without Washington’s permission – a sign of the new political boldness of these allies. The news that the UAE’s first strikes were led by a female F-16 pilot also showed how the moderate Gulf states are taking a bigger role in this campaign. Though their contribution, when measured against the might of the US, is still tiny, the hope must be that this potent Gulf (and Saudi Arabian) airpower can take up more of the strain in the future.   

Sustaining the effort

Another consideration this time around is the much smaller air forces that are in play. The RAF, for example, had 30 fast jet squadrons at the time of the first Gulf War in 1991. Today the Cold War so-called 'peace dividend', along with the financial crisis have reduced them to seven – and only three of these being Tornados, which have the widest set of air-to-ground munitions available. Indeed, the UK Government has already said that it will postpone the decision to stand-down a RAF Tornado squadron (II(AC)) from March 2015 until March 2016. The latest campaign has caught the UK as it slowly winds down the Tornado force, but the Typhoon fleet has yet to take on all its roles and missions – and weapon capabilities. Additionally, the RAF Tornado is already committed to air operations in Afghanistan and providing ISTAR in Nigeria. It is not just about sheer numbers of aircraft, but also the cycle of training, operations/deployment and rest that aircrew and ground crew need. After over a decade of war, men and women, as well as machines can wear out – especially when another open-ended expeditionary operation is added to the deployment cycle.   

It is not just the UK as well. France, too, is in a similar position of fewer aircraft to draw on. And though the US still dwarfs its allies in terms of military power, sequestration has placed stresses on its forces. The US too has to balance any effort in Iraq and Syria with bolstering European security (particularly in focus since Ukraine) and the Asia-Pacific. Its forces, though large, cannot be everywhere at once.

Social media

There is another factor too in this air campaign. If the first Gulf War in 1991 was the first ‘war by CNN’, this is the first war by Twitter, Instagram and Vine. Social media now reports everything and citizen journalists can now tweet images of air strike damage, or jets taking off for a mission. Indeed air raids can now being reported real-time as they happen via social media.

As well as these implications for operational security (OPSEC) and battle damage assessment for air planners, there is another factor – propaganda. ISIS, so far, are proving to be highly skilled ‘digital natives’ in exploiting the global reach and impact of social media to further it message. Whether it is the slick, documentary-style production of hostage videos (multiple camera angles/Guantanamo Bay orange jumpsuit) or trolling (taunting) the US First Lady by photoshopping her holding a #BringBackOurGIrls sign to #BringBackOurHumvee, these savvy propagandists have remained one step ahead of the news cycle. Last time round, in 2003, the US and allies only had to deal with the bumbling PR amateur that was ‘Baghdad Bob’. Today despite ISIS’s ruthless actions – their PR message is highly potent. Indeed, ISIS’s skilful use of social media, YouTube and mocking ‘memes’ even makes Russia’s recent clunky press announcements over MH17 look like Cold War throwbacks.

This wily online opponent then introduces an extra factor in that any collateral damage inflicted by coalition airpower will be exploited to the hilt and probably shared widely. Western defence ministries and policy makers need to be ready to respond or rebut this new instant ‘twitter diplomacy’ and information war. That said, there is increasing evidence that the barbarity of the murder of hostages is losing support from all but the most extreme Islamist fanatics.
How will it evolve?

At the time of writing, aqround 2,000 air strikes have taken place. So what happens next? This is the biggest question, which usually references the well-worn phrase ‘boots on the ground’. However it is clear that for western powers, licking their wounds after Afghanistan, large-scale (as opposed to SF/advisors/JTACS) ground forces are out. The most, that can be hoped for is that air strikes create a breathing space for Iraq and the Kurdish forces to recover and retake lost territory.

There is another factor too. Initial air strikes led by the US focused on easily targeted vehicles (including captured ex-Iraqi Army US equipment) and static artillery pieces. This moved on to ISIS’s oil infrastructure and command and control (as is). However the first patrols by RAF Tornados which saw no weapons dropped suggest that ISIS tactics are now evolving and the enemy is going to ground in the urban battlespace. Front line reporting also indicates that ISIS fighters are now dispersing and hiding when coalition fast jets are heard overhead.  

This means that it is extremely likely that if this campaign continues, the use of armed UAVs such as Reaper to give 24/7 persistence will increase over time. Indeed Whitehall has already indicated that the RAF’s Reapers may redeploy to Iraq, post-Afghanistan. Though US UAVs are already in action, a long-term COIN/insurgency campaign to completely eradicate ISIS from Iraq may see UAVs become more and more vital as ‘easier’ targets disappear and the enemy blends into the populace. 

However, fast jets may still have a place – particularly in any anti-ISIS strikes in Syria, where the presence of SAMs and the remnants of the SyAF mean that non-stealthy UAVs such as Reaper are extremely vulnerable.

But as the campaign moves from blunting ISIS’s advances via destroying its armour, vehicles and oil infrastructure to picking off small groups of fighters in urban areas, expect UAVs and ISTAR to once again come to the fore.  

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