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Opinion: U.S. Air Power Won’t Defeat ISIS

An F/A-18E Super Hornet prepares to launch from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) on June 15, 2014. US Navy Photo

An F/A-18E Super Hornet prepares to launch from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) on June 15, 2014. US Navy Photo

As Iraq and Syria Islamic State (ISIS) insurgent forces advance on Baghdad, some American political leaders, led by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), have urged that the United States begin airstrikes immediately to stop the growing unrest in Iraq. Although air power may be the only expedient and politically acceptable option, there are several reasons why that all-too-familiar impulse to use our asymmetric advantage in airpower will not defeat ISIS.

In fact, history is almost devoid of examples of air power—when used alone—achieving anything resembling a decisive result. The 1999 NATO punitive bombing operation against Serbia stands as one of the only successful uses of air power alone in achieving a stated political objective.

History’s one example of such success embodies two lessons that can be drawn for comparison with the situation in Iraq/Syria. First, in the self-declared ISIS there is no recognized government that can be coerced into negotiation. That suggests that complete annihilation of the group will be necessary to return control to the Iraqi government. Which leads to the second point: Even if air power can achieve a measure of success, securing the peace after ISIS forces are defeated will require boots on the ground. Iraq’s Ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, stated on National Public Radio’s 16 June evening news program that “Iraq does not want, or need U.S. boots on the ground. . . . Iraq will provide the soldiers.” He went on to say that what Iraq needs to prevent what would be “one thousand [Osama] Bin Ladens” setting up camp in Iraq is U.S. “air supremacy, training, and assistance.”

The ISIS insurgents probably do not care that the United States moved another carrier strike group (CSG) into the Persian Gulf. If the United States can sort out the complex situation and actually determine what targets to hit in the dense ISIS-ontrolled urban territory, the mufti-clad insurgents will only hug the civilian population closer. Sorting out the bad guys will be a daunting task from 10,000 feet.

Our regional allies and the American public may appreciate the gesture of an extra CSG, but lawless insurgents are concerned only with local optics. Back to Kosovo, it was only when NATO realized that stopping a few Serbian military forces in Kosavar villages armed with cans of gasoline and a pack of matches was a tough mission for an F-15 that they began picking off important economic and infrastructure targets. It was then that the Serbian government agreed to negotiations. One must wonder of the wanna-be nation of ISIS: What are the economic and infrastructure targets that matter to a terrorist-led group that longs for the good old days of A.D. 900?

Finally, the most popular counter-factual argument being voiced by pundits is that if the United States had left a counterterrorism task force in Iraq, then crisis either wouldn’t have happened (because the insurgents would have feared the U.S. military), or the insurgents could have been easily defeated. If that is valid, then why is the flow of foreign fighters and motivated insurgents still a problem in Afghanistan? And why did it remain a persistent problem throughout our seven-plus years in Iraq? We have total air supremacy in Afghanistan and had it in Iraq, but that did not yield a decisive victory in either conflict. Air power alone did not win those wars—why then would it win this one?

The urge for the United States to apply some measure of expressive power is understandable, and assuming it can find someone or something worth blowing up, that is arguably the correct response. However, if the United States and its allies wish to preserve the shape of the world as depicted in the map that Sykes-Picot drew in 1916, a much larger and far more costly commitment to defeating ISIS will be required. Perhaps our ability to provide responsive air power is the best way to buy time for the reeling Iraqi government and security forces to catch their breath and prepare for the counteroffensive.


  • 2IDSGT

    I don’t think it’s so much a case of expecting airstrikes to solve everything as it is airstrikes being our only option right now.

  • Ctrot

    It is true that airstrikes alone will not stop ISIS, but airstrikes may be just the thing to help the Iraqi Army stop ISIS.

  • silencedogoodreturns

    there are no relevant targets for US air power to strike against ISIS.

  • az

    Air power doesn’t control the ground and can’t win until you control the ground and the water ways. It may make the politicians happy so that they can beat their chest and
    blame that they did something. But it won’t win the ground. To truly win you must control the ground and both sides of the water ways. That means troops on the
    ground. Is the Iraqi Army up to that?


  • Secundius

    Why are Sen. Jogh McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, hell-bent and determined too put boots on the ground. What there ultimate goal? Their certainly not listening too the people, so what’s their agenda.

  • vincedc

    Missiles make lots of noise….this is an election year.

    • Secundius

      Hey we created the paradox, we let the genie out of the bottle. So what are you saying, we should let the genie run free.

    • Secundius

      The V-1, BUZZ BOMB/DODDLE BUG, was a very noisy cruise missile. But once the engine stopped, you never knew where it was going to land!!!

  • strategicservice

    Short, sweet, and to the point. Let the Iranians lie in the bed they’ve made.

  • ed2291

    Neither will troops on the ground. From Vietnam on we have not been successful in changing cultures. Each time starts with a humanitarian crisis followed by many very important people explaining how this time it will be different.

  • omegatalon

    Going to need special forces and close air support from A-10 Warthogs that can withstand a hit from a Stinger SAM.

    • Secundius

      I don’t think there any WARTHOGS in theater. Most likely B-2 SPIRITS and REAPERS.

  • Technidigm

    Having stated the obvious (limitations of air power), there is still the psychological effect of knowing your butt can be vaporized in an instant. Islam works primarily due to fear (about reprisals for anything that goes against the religion) among some relatively young, impressionable zealots, so airpower is at least worth a try in many situations. It gives pause. The larger question is whether we really care if one faction of Islam makes war against the other. Probably not, at least relative to their making war against us, what they call a holy war, mostly. If Iraq, Iran, of Saudi Arabia actually arrested and prosecuted religious leaders who advocate violence against people of other religions, then they would deserve our help. Don’t hold your breath on that! That being said, we need to vigorously pursue any violent extremist, in this case regardless of whether they hide behind women and children. Islam rejoiced when the Twin Towers came down, so they set the moral standard, repugnant as it is. We seem to be ready to talk them to death, given Kerry and Obama being in charge at this point, so we are not without recourse, I suppose.


  • Chesapeakeguy

    I noticed something the other night when I was watching a news program (“The Five” on Fox New Channel, and it was either Monday or Tuesday of this week). They were talking about Iraq and ISIS and the options being discussed about what to do about them. I have not seen anything on the news at all that we have been flying strikes against the ISIS marauders. But, the video they were showing was interesting. It showed footage of several targets being ‘painted’ and then taken out by missiles or bombs. One particular video, however, showed a target (it looked like some kind of structure) with the crosshairs on it. Figures could,be seen running from the bottom left towards the top right past the structure, and as several of them got next to it, the structure blew up, and you could plainly see some of those figures lying on the ground. But then a white pickup truck comes into view, traveling along the same axis as the figures were. That pickup was flying a black flag that looked to be that of the ISIS forces. The information displayed on the targeting screen was in English, AND, the most interesting point of it to me, was the time and date displayed in the top left corner of the screen. It said 5 June 2014 (I forget the actual time of day shown). But that’s just a couple of weeks ago, and again, I haven’t seen or heard a peep about us being involved in any way against those forces.

    • Secundius

      Seems like White colored Toyota Pick-up Trucks are very popular in Iraq.
      How are going to tell the difference between ISIS operated White Toyota Pick-Up Trucks, from civilian ones.

      • Chesapeakeguy

        Well, in this particular case, they were, or appeared to be, flying the actual ISIS flag. But if they don’t fly the flag, you’re right, how do you tell them apart, unless they’re hanging out the back firing an attached machine gun, or they’re piled in wearing their face masks!

        • Secundius

          @ Chesapeakeguy.

          Even help from Iran, and their still loosing. It make you wonder about Iran’s state of readiness.

  • Secundius

    Dis-information? Why give the enemy the heads-up. Keep him in dark about your intentions. Saddam Hussein was the Brightest Crayon in the Box in that regard. It took two Gulf Wars, before he’d learned. And by the second time, it was too late.

  • zabada

    America is not going to defeat any side in Iraq or Syria.It plan to destabilize the area on behalf of their master ,the Jews in Israel.That why no boots at area..with limited air strikes..America is really a slave to Jews.America also deserve to control all Middle east after weaken all strong force at the area.Also to destroy Iran by using Sunnis force,an enemy to Israel.You are still teen ages to know world political affairs.Be a mature.America people at the area killing each others on behalf of Jews safety..it is zionist plan to weaken all enemies of Israel..the Arabs Sunnis and Shiites Iranian.America give limited weapons to all side that no body can,t win.If America deserve to destroy any side,America and coalition can do it in a day.Using brain at it best.

  • TutoringServicesNi

    If Donald Trump is elected U.S. President in Nov 2016, his leadership will terminate IS within 10 months after taking office. June 27, 2015 .