Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter’s recent remarks on the efficacy of Iraq’s army reflect the fact that, despite years of training by thousands of U.S. and coalition forces, the army has not been able to halt Islamic State aggression. What makes anyone think that a few more months of similar training will yield success?
We must not, however, confuse Iraq’s objectives with critical U.S. national security interests. While the two may overlap, they are not the same. Each demands its own strategic, military and policy approach. From the U.S. perspective, the most important goal is not the maintenance of the Iraqi government but the destruction of the Islamic State.
The current U.S.-led coalition is following the counterinsurgency model used in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade, but the Islamic State is not an insurgency. The Islamic State is a self-declared sovereign government. We must stop trying to fight the last war and develop a new strategy.
The Islamic State can be decomposed through a comprehensive and robust air campaign designed to: (1) terminate its expansion; (2) paralyze and isolate its command-and-control capability; (3) undermine its ability to control the territory it occupies; and (4) eliminate its ability to export terror.
But to do these things, air power has to be applied like a thunderstorm, not a drizzle. In the campaign against the Islamic State, we are averaging 12 strike sorties per day. During Operation Desert Storm in Iraq and Kuwait in 1991, the average was 1,241; in Operation Allied Force in Kosovo in 1999, it was 298; in the first 30 days of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, 691; during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001, 86.
In the past two decades, several strategic victories were brought about by air power operating in conjunction with indigenous ground forces — none of which were better than the Iraqi army. Robust air power, along with a few air controllers, carried the Northern Alliance to victory over the Taliban, at minimal cost in blood and treasure to the United States. Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya similarly involved airstrikes well in excess of those being used against the Islamic State.
Complicating the effort to defeat the Islamic State is an excessive focus on the avoidance of collateral damage and casualties. In an armed conflict, the military establishes rules of engagement designed to balance the moral imperative to minimize damage and unintentional casualties against what’s required to accomplish the mission. Recently reported by pilots actually fighting the Islamic State is that the current rules — which far exceed accepted “Law of War” standards — impose excessive restrictions that work to the advantage of the enemy. The ponderous and unnecessary set of procedures in place is allowing the Islamic State to exploit our desire to avoid civilian causalities to commit atrocities on the ground.
We have the finest, most professional men and women flying the finest combat aircraft in the world. The best way to improve our force effectiveness while still minimizing collateral damage and casualties is to allow them to use their judgment. This is called “mission command,” and the Pentagon should empower our aviators to employ it.
The fastest way to end the inhumanity of war is to eliminate its source — in this case, the Islamic State — as quickly as possible. Gradualism doomed the effectiveness of air power in the “Rolling Thunder” air campaign from 1965 to 1968 during the Vietnam War. The current gradualist approach is worsening the suffering and increasing the loss of innocent life. While unintended casualties of war are regrettable, those associated with airstrikes pale in comparison with the savage acts being carried out by the Islamic State. What is the logic of a policy that restricts the use of air power to avoid the possibility of collateral damage while allowing the certainty of the Islamic State’s crimes against humanity?
This does not have to be a “long war,” as has been claimed by those whose politics benefit from that assertion, as well as those whose experience is rooted in counterinsurgency. The counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan went on for eight and 14 years, respectively. Desert Storm took 43 days; Bosnia’s Operation Deliberate Force, 22 days; Allied Force, 78 days; the decisive phase of Enduring Freedom took 60 days. A robust air campaign can devastate the Islamic State to the point where Iraqi and Kurdish forces can end the occupation.
Let’s stop unnecessarily restricting our asymmetric advantage and get on with the task of destroying the Islamic State as quickly as possible through the optimal use of air power. America’s enemies are exploiting our humanity to impose their terror. It is time to change strategy.
David A. Deptula, a retired Air Force general, is dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.