Airpower in the War against ISIS

  • Published

Airpower in the War against ISIS by Benjamin S. Lambeth. Naval Institute Press, forthcoming 15 January 2021, 352 pp.

Dr. Benjamin S. Lambeth is one of the most authoritative aerospace analysts of our times, a prolific writer who has dedicated his professional life to assessing and explaining the role of airpower in national security, international relations, and contemporary warfare. His scholarly work has given more than a generation of Airmen an intellectual history to underpin their professional development and acumen. Along the way, he has contributed significantly to making airpower an academically respectable field of study. At 77, Lambeth continues to write and lecture and is a much sought-after speaker at seminars all over the world. Few, if any, others have such insight into the contemporary application of airpower and the changing character of war.

Lambeth’s research methodology is one to emulate. He collects data and evaluates the given campaign in depth, breadth, and context, with emphasis on the latter. He focuses on strategic effects rather than merely numbers, explores how airpower worked independently as well as in conjunction with other forces, and seeks different interpretations before he offers his final assessment. He examines the ends-ways-means nexus, devoting just as much attention to the political-strategic objectives as to the military-operational strategy and the tactical-technological realm. He also corresponds with those who were involved in planning, leading, and executing the campaign in question, ranging from Service chiefs and senior commanders to the officers who flew the missions. In the end, he provides a concise, comprehensive account of the campaign and accords praise and criticism as appropriate.

His latest work focuses on how airpower contributed to halting, degrading, and finally destroying the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as a territorial and functional entity between August 2014 and May 2018. After reviewing America’s air posture before Operation Inherent Resolve and the rise of ISIS, Lambeth divides the campaign into four parts as reflected in his chapter titles: “The Air War’s Slow Start”; “Toward a More Effective Air Effort”; “On a Winning Streak at Long Last”; and “Consolidating a Successful Endgame.” He then offers perspectives on the air war’s achievements, describes the operational challenges posed by the Russian intervention, and reflects on US leadership and strategy making.

In essence, Lambeth shows that the air campaign had two phases. The first was gradualist and land-centric, aimed at “winning the hearts and minds” (p. 202) of the population and involving no combat-ready indigenous forces. The second developed into a decisive joint and combined employment of force through which US and coalition air assets overwhelmed ISIS. Although the campaign ultimately succeeded, for the first two years it was a suboptimal application of force—in no small part because the White House, Department of Defense, and US Central Command (USCENTCOM) did not understand the best use of airpower in the given circumstances.

Lambeth argues that the slow start was a result of the Obama administration’s reluctance to recommit to a war in Iraq less than three years after it had withdrawn the last remaining US troops, even when it was apparent that ISIS had gained and consolidated substantial territorial control. Thus, the air campaign was subject to overly strict rules of engagement that insisted on “zero noncombatant casualties” (p. 177). Worse—and this lies at the heart of the book’s thesis—USCENTCOM misread ISIS as a resurrected insurgency rather than as an emerging proto-state with an extensive command and control network, energy supplies, infrastructure, and the beginnings of an organized and capable conventional army. Consequently, applying the American counterinsurgency strategy of 2006, even though it had been refined and improved over the years, had little effect on a state-like organization. The first rule of war is to understand your enemy.

The air campaign became successful only when the planners recognized the need to combat “the enemy as a system” in accordance with the principles of effects-based operations, the concept underlying the successful strategy behind Operation Desert Storm in 1991. As soon as the air campaign focused on the strategic assets of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria—paralyzing the leadership and its means of communication, disrupting the banking system, and decreasing oil revenues—the terrorist organization started to crumble.

Lambeth argues that the campaign’s impact was strengthened by the application of the “Afghan Model” that had proven so useful in Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001 and later in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Following that model, a relatively small team of US special operations forces advisers and joint terminal attack controllers collaborated with indigenous friendly ground forces supported by air assets in the form of timely intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) combined with precision strikes. The troops on the ground located, identified, validated, and designated enemy targets for precision-guided missiles with exceptional accuracy and impact. These indigenous forces—the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, the Iraqi security forces, and the Syrian Democratic Forces—eventually engaged in a succession of determined showdowns against ISIS. In due course, and at a substantial cost in friendly lives, they finally defeated the jihadist movement as an effective fighting force, leveraging to the fullest the overwhelming asymmetric advantage they enjoyed thanks to US and coalition airpower. Thus, Lambeth concludes, the air campaign did not represent an intellectual advance by any criteria, but an adaptation of the ways in which airpower was applied successfully in recent wars.

Lambeth pulls no punches in his criticism of political and military authorities for having failed to understand the nature and character of ISIS and for not seriously considering the best “air option” to fully exploit the strategic potential offered by airpower to eradicate the declared Islamist caliphate as quickly and forcefully as possible. It may be understandable that USCENTCOM has a land-centric mindset, seeing airpower primarily as aerial artillery. However, Lambeth argues that senior Air Force generals should have made a more convincing case to ensure that political and military decision makers recognized and chose the airpower option that would have yielded decisive results in a short period of time, rather than an inappropriate gradualist strategy that led to unnecessary loss of lives and treasure.

The author informs us in his conclusion that US and coalition Airmen showed exceptional tactical and technological proficiency as well as some innovation as they conducted more than 200,000 sorties. But at the end of the day “even the most capable air posture imaginable can never be more effective than the strategy it seeks to underwrite” (p. 252). That insight applies to all conflicts—past, present, and future.

In sum, Dr. Ben Lambeth’s Airpower in the War against ISIS is a well-researched, highly readable, and exceptionally relevant study that presents concise and applicable lessons on airpower as a political instrument. It has much to offer students, researchers, and general readers who seek to develop an understanding of modern airpower in general and Operation Inherent Resolve in particular. As the author moves comfortably between the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of war, he demonstrates the all-important interplay between statecraft and military force. This book is therefore just as relevant for political decision makers as for military professionals.

Col John Andreas Olsen (PhD)
Royal Norwegian Air Force

"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."