Air war against ISIS holds lessons for future battles

The five-year coalition air campaign to defeat the Islamic State group and roll back its territorial gains in Iraq and Syria saw a “complex and contested” airspace, overstretched enablers, depleted precision guidance munitions stockpiles and more intense bombing than seen for similar periods in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

That’s according to, “The Air War Against the Islamic State,” a recently released 511-page report by the Rand Corporation.

The report authors detail the 2014 to 2019 timeline of the Operation Inherent Resolve campaign in phases and case studies. Their analysis paints a picture of an air war that was critical in the defeat of ISIS, but that differed in many ways from recent counterinsurgency operations and brought home key areas that need improvement for future conflicts.

Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles, assigned to the 492nd Fighter Squadron, prepare to touch down at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, Oct. 16. (Airman 1st Class Jessi Monte/Air Force)

The authors make specific joint force and Air Force recommendations that zero in on targeting, assets, battlespace management, needed personnel, weapons use and self-defense rules of engagement.

• The joint force should revise its targeting doctrine based on the experience in OIR, to include potentially incorporating the strike cell or reverting back to using the Joint Air Ground Integration Center.

• The joint force should reinvigorate, reexamine, and revise the target-development process to make it more efficient.

• The joint force should modify the allocation process for high-demand assets in joint campaigns to reduce inefficiencies and increase agility.

• The joint force should reexamine battlespace management and revise doctrine or tactics, techniques, and procedures so that it can more dynamically manage both the close and the deep fights

• The USAF will need to limit civilian casualties and collateral damage, requiring it to allocate precision-guided munitions efficiently across theaters and identify how to safely use second- and third-choice munitions.

• The USAF should continue to develop more targeteers and intelligence professionals to support a reinvigoration of the target-development process.

• Self-defense rules of engagement in air-to-air operations should be stressed to airmen in training and real-world flying events to better prepare airmen for flying missions in contested airspace against near-peer or more-capable adversaries.

When taken as a whole, the campaign against ISIS was massive in its breadth but different from the recent counterinsurgency wars in both conduct and intensity of bombing.

The campaign saw as many as eight to 10 times as many weapons dropped as compared with similar periods in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to the report.

As of early 2019, the campaign had “launched 32,678 strikes, affecting approximately 81,000 targets, and dropped more than 117,000 weapons.”

By comparison, aircraft in Afghanistan engaged as few as 2,365 targets in 2010 and as many as 5,198 in 2007. An average of 4,200 weapons a year were dropped in Afghanistan. In Iraq operations in 2007, forces dropped fewer than 2,000 weapons.

During OIR, aircraft dropped between 8,335 weapons in 2018 and 39,584 in 2017. On average for the whole campaign 26,645 weapons were dropped annually.

Experience in the previous wars didn’t necessarily translate to the kind of work needed in the counter-ISIS effort.

“After decades of flying primarily overwatch mission with little but CAS (Close Air Support) and dynamic targets since September 11, the joint community’s ability and capacity to plan and develop a deliberate strike operation in the deep areas atrophied,” according to the report.

That atrophy meant “many practitioners lacked experience in applying these processes to real-world operations and the ‘muscle memory’ to rapidly execute them,” according to the report.

That was in the early stages of the conflict, 2014 to early 2015. And a change required a “shift in mindset” on deliberate targeting from time-sensitive on-call support to longer-term perspectives that looked at future collection opportunities, according to the report.

By summer 2015, then-Lt. Gen. Charles Q. Brown, commander U.S. Air Forces Central Command, Air Combat Command, ordered AFCENT to “fix the target development process” because it was “broken.”

Brown has since been promoted to general and now serves as the Air Force chief of staff.

Two shortfalls that continued throughout the conflict, authors noted, were the shortage of intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets and depleted inventories of precision-guided munitions.

The ISR shortage led to competition between close and deep fights over the platforms.

Airmen interviewed for the report said that drones prioritized for the close fight “hindered deep-strike operations against ISIS.”

That grew from both a focus on the close fight to support ground units but also an inability to forecast requirements and reallocated assets when there was a pause in ground operations.

“It’s hard to forecast. I don’t think we have the tools, particularly, because of the way the fight was designed. I wouldn’t call it a wag, but it was an educated guess,” Brown told report authors. “As you go back and look at it, how do you understand what is the right amount if you’re doing armed overwatch versus deliberate strike?”

That’s an important item to improve, authors wrote, because it weighs on future planned air operations.

A high demand for precision-guided munitions to reduce or avoid civilian casualties resulted in a shortage of the sought-after weapons.

That led authors to report that existing stockpiles are insufficient.

Which means the Air Force, in particular, “will need to buy sufficient quantities of different types of precision-guided munitions for different missions and allocate these efficiently across theaters…”

But Air Force weapons managers can’t stop there.

“…the USAF may want to retain or purchase cheaper dumb bombs to use for missions that do not require precision, particularly those that take place in largely uninhabited areas.”

Researchers also noted a shortage of targeteers and intelligence personnel to help complete those missions and recommended more of those positions to enable and improve the more complex targeting process.

The authors shared these seven conclusions from their analysis:

• Airpower played a critical role in OIR based on the “by, with, and through” strategy, which placed local partners as leaders of the fight to destroy the caliphate. In turn, partners’ capabilities and interests shaped how airpower was used.

• Although more-aggressive air operations might have slightly accelerated the defeat of ISIS, they are unlikely to have significantly altered the timeline.

• The deep fight in OIR affected ISIS’s finances, but it could not affect ISIS’s main center of gravity — territory — meaning that strategic attacks hurt ISIS’s finances but less than initially thought.

• Critical enablers, such as remotely piloted aircraft and aerial refueling aircraft, were in high demand and provided vital capabilities but were at times overstretched.

• Essential wartime skills, such as deliberate-targeting and defensive counter-air operations, were used for the first time in years in a real operation, requiring reinvigoration of these proficiencies.

• Battlespace management within the OIR coalition was a point of disagreement, particularly between the Combined Joint Task Force commander and the Combined Air Forces Component commander, and affected the development of the deep fight.

• Necessary efforts to prevent civilian casualties and reduce collateral damage depleted precision-guided munition stockpiles.

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