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Airpower in the War Against ISIS

Airpower in the War Against ISIS by Benjamin S. Lambeth. Naval Institute Press, 2021, 305 pp. 

Airpower in the War Against ISIS represents another tour de force by airpower guru Ben Lambeth.  The book is extraordinarily well researched, leveraging Lambeth’s access to primary actors and decision makers that has characterized his previous scholarship.  The analysis in Airpower in the War Against ISIS is supported by over 700 endnotes, many of them primary sources, including in-depth interviews and email exchanges with key personnel ranging from enlisted warfighters and fighter pilots to senior leaders at the operational and strategic levels.

Lambeth characterizes the administration’s withdrawal of US forces from Iraq in 2011 (when negotiations over a Status of Forces Agreement broke down between US and Iraqi government representatives) as an unforced error.  By Lambeth’s account, this refusal to accept reality led to reluctance in re-committing military power as the ISIS threat emerged in 2014, and initially downplaying the threat that ISIS posed to Iraq and the rest of the region.  He pulls no punches in indicting the Obama administration for slow walking the initial response to the metastasizing ISIS threat in Iraq.  Further adding to the initial response drama was the “political neutering” of the US Air Force in the wake of the 2008 firings of CSAF General Buzz Moseley and SECAF Michael Wynne, to which Lambeth devotes 30 flashback pages. 

At the strategic level, Lambeth lambasts the Obama administration and the Army-dominated CENCTOM leadership for the wasteful, gradualistic application of airpower.  Lambeth’s thesaurus likely got a workout in the search for adjectives describing the initial airpower response to the ISIS threat, being variously described as “misconceived,” “slow-motion,” “highly limited,” “handcuffed by politics,” “lethargic,” “fighting with one hand tied behind our backs,” “still-limited and palpably half-hearted,” “unproductive,” “still-tepid,” “still-constrained,” …and that’s just in the first 60 pages of the 300-page book. 

The Trump administration, although largely portrayed as savior of the counter-ISIS effort through relaxing the near-impossible standard of zero civilian casualties and delegating target approval authority to lower levels, is not let completely off the hook.  Lambeth takes Trump to task for the whipsaw effects of data-free snap decisions to withdraw forces from Syria on a near-impossible timeline and abandon Kurdish allies, after declaring categorically “We have won against ISIS.”   Unfortunately, in fact, the ISIS chapter of this episode of unrest remains unfinished to this day; as recently as April 2021 the CENTCOM commander testified that ISIS remains a “learning, adaptive, and committed violent extremist organization with a dedicated core.”

Lambeth’s book includes a separate chapter on “notable air war accomplishments;” flexibility at the operational and tactical levels has long characterized US airpower professionals.  While the list of airpower accomplishments in OIR is not as rich as those Lambeth identified in previous conflicts, he highlights the role of the low-observable F-22 as a command-and-control platform (vice emphasizing its designed air supremacy capabilities), advances in automating previously manual CAOC processes, and development of precision low-collateral damage weapons. 

Implicit throughout the discussion is the major difficulty in assessing airpower effects.  Many analyses of airpower effects will rely on measures of performance (MOP)—e.g., sorties flown, weapons delivered-- vice measures of effectiveness (MOE).  Lambeth notes that the effectiveness of airpower lies in striking the right targets irrespective of numbers, yet the airpower MOE devil has always lain in the details.  The squandering of relatively expensive precision-guided munitions against thousands of low-value tactical targets, rather than neutralizing ISIS center-of-gravity targets draws particular ire from Lambeth.

Lambeth appropriately highlights the insertion of Russian forces into the mix as a signal event, devoting an entire chapter to this challenging, unforeseen aspect of OIR.  That this volatile mix of the air forces of two adversarial nuclear powers in dynamic, ambiguous circumstances did not escalate to a world crisis is a little-appreciated outcome.  With both sides equipped with beyond-visual-range air-to-air ordnance while operating in close proximity without direct communications, the situation was a recipe for disaster on a daily basis, involving “split-second decisions at the point of attack.”  Lambeth notes the professionalism and discipline of the coalition air forces, along with a bit of luck, prevented the ignition of this volatile mix.  Future planners would be well advised to consider the potential for such “gray air” presence and pre-plan the appropriate agreements and procedures to minimize the chance of miscalculation.

Airpower in the War Against ISIS is a thorough and timely enhancement to airpower scholarship.  The book would perhaps have benefitted from maps of Iraq and Syria displaying the growth and eventual retreat of ISIS territory.  Also, a timeline of key events from the withdrawal of US forces in Iraq through the eventual crushing of key ISIS outposts in 2017 would have been useful, as the volume is a mix of chronological and topical chapters.  Overall, though, Airpower in the War Against ISIS is an exceptionally enlightening inside look at the application of airpower in the post-Cold War world.   

The “major combat operations” phase of Operation Inherent Resolve has since tapered off, at least for the US and its coalition partners involved in the effort.  The region will be likely be dealing with ISIS and other related nefarious actors for the foreseeable future, and Operation Inherent Resolve is unlikely to be the final test of airpower’s application to defeating post-Cold War unconventional, trans-national threats to Western interests.  Lambeth’s work should be a must-read for those endeavoring to glean lessons for future airpower employment against irregular, yet potent, adversaries.  If nothing else, before bumbling into the next crisis US military and civilian leaders would be well advised to closely read and heed Lambeth’s superb chapter on “Issues in US leadership and strategy,” a succinct synopsis of unforced errors in the planning and execution of airpower’s application in OIR.  Cynical observers will likely bet this won’t happen. 

Lt Gen Allen G. Peck, USAF, Retired

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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