If You Set Out to Bomb ISIS, Bomb ISIS

Watching the desultory air campaign in Syria and Iraq, and in particular the minimal strikes in defense of Kobani, brought to mind an example of what air power can do to rescue a beleaguered, poorly-led, and demoralized ground force: the crushing US air strikes against the North Vietnamese Eastertide Offensive in 1972.

This paper provides a very thorough history and analysis.

Particularly devastating were massive B-52 strikes, delivered in 3 ship “Arc Light” packages. Flying too high to be heard or seen, the first indication that the NVA soldiers on the ground had that they were Arc Light targets was the world exploding around them. Many of the dead were found without a mark, killed by the concussive force of the explosions. Gunships, initially AC-47s and eventually AC-130s, were also very effective in night-time raids. (The USAF also used B-52s with devastating effectiveness against Iraqi Republican Guard and regular infantry units during Desert Storm.)

For a Kobani comparison, look at the Battle of An Loc, where outnumbered and shaky PAVN units were saved by wave after wave of US air strikes.

Two things stand out. The first, to be decisive, the attacks were massed and unrelenting. Second, and this is particularly relevant in the Iraq-Syria context, was the vital role played by Tactical Air Controllers. You know, boots on the ground (gag) calling in the strikes.* Without them the NVA would have prevailed. They were the difference between success and failure.

The effort in 1972 was massive. But that’s because the NVA attack was massive, well over 200,000 strong, heavily supported by armor and artillery. The losses inflicted by the air campaign were also massive: the NVA lost over 100,000 casualties, perhaps half of those KIA.

The ISIS forces are much smaller, so such a massive effort would not be needed. Moreover, the advent of precision guided weapons allows the delivery of decisive fires with fewer sorties and fewer bombs dropped. The terrain is also more favorable, desert in which concealment is difficult vs. dense jungle.

Unlike the NVA, ISIS is unlikely to stand still and be pounded into dust. But that’s fine. They can’t advance, and they can’t win, if they are hunkered down.

Air power works best if it works hand-in-glove with ground forces. But the events of 1972 show that  air power can be decisive if employed in overwhelming force and is guided by expert soldiers and airmen on the ground.

At present the US is doing neither. Hence we will fail, and we will have chosen failure.

*I hate, hate, hate the expression “boots on the ground” by the way. It was annoying when first used years ago, by Colin Powell I think. It has only become more annoying through overuse by people who know less about the military than you could learn by watching Gomer Pyle reruns. I use it sarcastically here  because it has been used ad nauseum in this context.

As a follow up on my post about the devastating use of airpower to turn back the Eastertide Offensive in Viet Nam in 1972, consider this judgment delivered by LTG David Deptula (USAF ret):

The issue is not the limits of airpower, the issue is the ineffective use of airpower. According to [The Department of Defense’s] own website, two B-1 sorties can deliver more ordnance than did all the strikes from the aircraft carrier Bush over the last six weeks. Two F-15E sorties alone are enough to handle the current average daily task load of airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria.

Wise analysts understand that those blaming airpower for not ‘saving Kobani’ are confusing the limits of ‘airpower’ with the sub-optimization of its application. One can see [ISIS] tanks and artillery . . . in the open on TV, yet the coalition forces for ‘Operation Un-named Effort’ are not hitting them. Airpower can hit those targets and many others, but those in charge of its application are not—that’s the issue—not the limits of airpower.

The airstrikes to date have been very closely controlled, tactical in nature, and reflect the way they have been ‘metered’ in Afghanistan. The process that is being used to apply airpower is excessively long and overly controlled at too high a command level.

Exactly. Air power has limits, but we haven’t even come close to those limits in Iraq and Syria. The limits on the current campaign don’t inhere in the nature of air power, but are being imposed by those in command.

Note the last line: “overly controlled at too high a command level.” The highest command level, in fact. We know that Obama is exercising tight control over this operation, and it shows.

I know all about zoomies exaggerating the capabilities of air power. They claim that it can win wars unaided. That’s never happened. But most of the over-promising relates to strategic bombing. Tactical air can be devastating (think the Luftwaffe during the blitzkrieg, or the ferocious Jabos of the IX Tactical Air Command in Europe in 1944-45), but the USAF has always bridled at being beholden to the ground pounders. (This is why the A-10s have always had more to fear from the Air Force brass than enemy fire.)

Well, here and now there are no ground pounders involved. For better or worse, this is an Air Force and Naval Air show. They can be decisive, if allowed to do what they are capable of doing.

The current desultory campaign is worse than no campaign at all. Apropos what Napoleon said about taking taking Vienna, if you set out to bomb ISIS, bomb ISIS. Here is definitely a case where moderation in war is imbecility. It achieves nothing except embolden the enemy and raise their stature, and make the US look like a timorous, cringing giant, thereby encouraging further challenges. The current effort is bolstering Assad, and infuriating the anti-Assad forces we are looking to support the fight against ISIS. It is reinforcing America’s image as a betrayer of the Kurds. This is exactly why I despaired at the thought of Obama waging a war.

I am sure that most in the military are beside themselves. But what to do about it? Perhaps those in the Pentagon, and especially the Joint Chiefs, should read H. R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty, or maybe give LTG McMaster a call.

About Craig Pirrong 227 Articles

Affiliation: University of Houston

Dr Pirrong is Professor of Finance, and Energy Markets Director for the Global Energy Management Institute at the Bauer College of Business of the University of Houston. He was previously Watson Family Professor of Commodity and Financial Risk Management at Oklahoma State University, and a faculty member at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Washington University.

Professor Pirrong's research focuses on the organization of financial exchanges, derivatives clearing, competition between exchanges, commodity markets, derivatives market manipulation, the relation between market fundamentals and commodity price dynamics, and the implications of this relation for the pricing of commodity derivatives. He has published 30 articles in professional publications, is the author of three books, and has consulted widely, primarily on commodity and market manipulation-related issues.

He holds a Ph.D. in business economics from the University of Chicago.

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