Ever since the Islamic State swept in to fill the void left by President Obama’s withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq, the debate over how to respond to this new threat has centered on two false and overly simplistic choices: Are airstrikes alone enough to do the job, or will it take a major commitment of U.S. “boots on the ground”?
At one extreme, the president complained last month that his critics would have him put “tens of thousands” of U.S. troops back into Iraq. Yet no serious proponent of using U.S. ground forces to counter the Islamic State has suggested that any such response should demand that many combatants. On the other side of the debate, no serious advocate of an air-centric alternative has suggested that U.S. airpower can suffice unaided by a ground presence. What remains unexplored in earnest in this regard is the appropriate mix of air and land involvement to leverage our strongest comparative advantages from the air without risking a return of our troops to high-intensity close combat on the ground.
Ideally, airpower and landpower are synergistic. In practice, tis not always so.
The greatest problem tactical airpower has traditionally faced is targeting. Simply flying over the enemy’s land, and struggling to identify worthwhile targets is wasteful. The enemy, in this case ISIS, uses dispersal, camouflage and deception to hide from the eye in the sky. The rather fleeting nature of tactical airpower also means that the enemy can mass and disperse almost at will. If the sky is clear of our planes, he’s free to maneuver. If our jets are overhead, a momentary dispersal renders him mostly safe.
Landpower, however, had the ability to uncover worthy targets, and force the enemy to mass, less he be destroyed in detail. Unfortunately, landpower often lacks the ability to mass effective fires quickly on fleeting targets of opportunity.
Of course, an additional burden on the current air campaign is the Rules of Engagement. While they’re not public information, one has the sneaking suspicion they are as constrictive, or more so, as other campaigns the US has recently fought. But while minimizing the possibility of any neutral casualties, to the point of risking friendly lives, makes sense in a counterinsurgency campaign, conducted by the US, where the goodwill of the local population is critical, it certainly makes less sense in the campaign against ISIS. That doesn’t mean we should kill willy nilly, and damn the body count. But it does mean that we should err on the side of killing the enemy, and not so tie ourselves in knots of red tape that we’re simply doing no good at great expense.
If you’re going to fight the war, fight the damn war.