Critics say air power is just being “drizzled” on ISIS

f15overiraqIn the last few days, three very knowledgable commentators have publicly criticized the air campaign against ISIS, saying it is far too restrained and urging that US air power be unleashed to full effect.

Last week Benjamin Lambeth, a senior researcher at RAND and noted author, wrote an editorial for the Washington Post, titled The U.S. is squandering its air power.

On Sunday, Rick Francona, Middle East expert and former USAF intel officer posted Why American airpower is not stopping ISIS on his blog.

Then yesterday, retired USAF General Dave Deptula, one of the architects of the Desert Storm air campaign and a pioneer in developing advanced ISR capabilities, gave an interview to Radio America Online.

Their common critique is that Operation Inherent Resolve is being conducted in piecemeal fashion with too many restrictions. Or, in Deptula’s words, “We have to apply air power like a thunderstorm, not like a drizzle.  So far, we’ve been applying it like a drizzle.”

Rand Senior ResearcherLambeth’s position is that to have truly decisive effects without committing major American ground forces, the US needs to follow the model used in the early stages of Afghanistan. He says:

Instead of the anemic daily airstrikes that continue to hamper our professionally conducted but otherwise desultory effort against the Islamic State, we need a more robust air-centric and land-enabled campaign.

By “land-enabled”, he means putting SOF boots on the ground (fully qualified JTACs, USAF Combat Control teams) to ID targets with complete precision, and to convey the battlefield situation accurately.

franconaRick Francona talks about an onerous target-approval process pilots are using. According to his sources, an overly-cautious mentality among senior leaders is hampering the operation. He quotes an unnamed USAF pilot:

The level of centralized execution, bureaucracy and politics is appalling. Pilots have no decision making authority in the cockpit. Unless a general can look at a video from an ISR sensor, we cannot get authority to engage. I’ve spent hours watching a screen in my cockpit as ISIS commits atrocities, but I cannot do anything. The fear of making a mistake is now the hallmark of American military leadership.

deptulaGeneral Deptula, one of the key players in the development of modern US air power, has an interesting take. First he applauds the under-appreciated results that airstrikes have had so far, crediting them with stopping ISIS momentum and putting the Islamic State on the defensive. But he’s a vocal advocate for fully unleashing the devastating power that only US combat air forces can bring to bear.

While what’s going on has been very very effective and air power has halted the further movement of ISIL, we could be so much more effective if we actually put together a coherent, comprehensive air campaign. We have to apply air power like a thunderstorm, not like a drizzle.  So far, we’ve been applying it like a drizzle. 

There are a few things I can quibble with in these positions — such as making apples & oranges comparisons between Desert Storm sortie rates and those of today’s campaign in Iraq and Syria — but overall I agree. The successes that airstrikes have enabled so far would be greatly magnified there were multiple dozens of targets being hit each day. This would mean blanket air coverage day and night, to stifle all ISIS road movement, dismantle its command & control and relentlessly stalk its leadership.

–Ajax

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