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Fighting Islamic State in the age of airpower

By: | November 3, 2014

On Sunday Canada launched its first air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq. However, it is worth considering the recent history of air power to better understand what we can expect from the present mission, and where it can go wrong.

John R Matchim
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Canada's Air Task Force-Iraq commenced air operations in Iraq on Oct. 30 and dropped its first bombs on Nov. 2. The mission is part of Operation IMPACT, the Canadian Armed Forces’ support to a multinational coalition against the Islamic State in the Republic of Iraq. Photo by Sophie Borgo.

“We Canadians do not stand on the sidelines,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the House of Commons on Oct. 3 before committing Canada to an expanded military operation in Iraq. “We do our part.”

Our part involves the deployment of six CF-18 fighter-bombers supported by cargo, surveillance, and refuelling aircraft. It is a duplicate of our recent mission to Libya, and it will join many similar contingents from small and middle powers eager to lend military support to the battle against the Islamic State (ISIS), including Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and Australia.

Small air contingents have become the 21st century’s version of ‘gunboat diplomacy’: they are easy to deploy, relatively impervious to enemy fire and, we are told, they are “precision” weapons that will minimize civilian casualties. Air power appears to be the perfect weapons-system for the middle-sized nation with a small military, but why is it being deployed to Iraq in particular? And how effective have similar missions been in the past?

The commander of Canada’s air expeditionary force is Lt. Gen. Jon Vance, two-time commander of ground operations in Kandahar and, since September, head of Canadian Joint Operations Command. Compared to the Taliban, Vance reassured readers in a recent interview with the National Post, Islamic State forces operate “in a fairly conventional way.”

In Vance’s opinion, Islamic State can be defeated from the air in cooperation with Iraqi and Kurdish forces on the ground. “At this particular juncture,” he said, “when we act as decisively as we can, [ISIS] is quite vulnerable to defeat, whereas the Taliban were not vulnerable to military defeat, certainly by the time I got there. They needed to be defeated in other ways with counter-insurgency techniques.” In other words, with ground forces.

There is no interest in Canada, Europe, or even the United States in deploying ground forces, yet recent history suggests that the use of air power alone cannot win an asymmetric war.

The age of airpower

The military potential of aircraft was identified almost from the beginning of manned flight. By the end of the First World War, only 15 years after the first powered flight of the Wright Brothers, German airships had bombed London and British military planners envisaged their own aircraft wrecking Germany’s industrial heartlands. Between the wars advocates of air power like Italy’s Guilio Douhet and Britain’s Hugh Trenchard believed that air power could play a decisive role in conflict, and could even win wars without the assistance of armies and navies.

Despite the best efforts of Britain’s Bomber Command and the United States Eighth Air Force, area bombing of German cities during the Second World War failed to destroy German industry or break the will of its people. In late July and early August of 1943 the British and Americans attempted to cripple German morale with a devastating series of attacks against Hamburg. Dropping 1,200 tons of incendiary bombs over nine days, the Anglo-American effort destroyed 16,000 apartment buildings and killed 50,000 people, more than all German air attacks against English cities put together. Though shaken, the people of Hamburg persisted, and so too did the war.

Since the Second World War air power has become more diversified and sophisticated. Modern air forces are now equipped with “precision” missiles, unmanned “drones”, surveillance aircraft and countless types of attack jets and helicopters. With the collapse of the Soviet Union these hugely expensive assets were threatened with redundancy, but they did not idle for long. A series of military interventions and invasions have allowed Western governments and militaries to justify the continued existence of their enormous air arsenals.

While the Canadian government preaches the defence of human rights, the deployment of CF-18s reflects much more traditional imperial values such as establishing a national presence and demonstrating will to fight.

Beginning with the Gulf War in 1991 and the subsequent enforcement of a no-fly zone over northern Iraq, air power has been used against Sudan, Serbia, Afghanistan, Libya, Gaza (repeatedly) and Iraq again. As a result, Western governments have become comfortable with the use of air power; it is a high-profile statement of intent that promises decisive action with minimal casualties, and if the mission goes wrong it can be withdrawn quickly and quietly.

Deploying air power today is a more sophisticated way of ‘showing the flag,’ fulfilling the same role as naval gunboats in the early 20th century. While the Canadian government preaches the defence of human rights, the deployment of CF-18s reflects much more traditional imperial values such as establishing a national presence and demonstrating will to fight.

The Gulf War may have dazzled CNN audiences with its images of camera-mounted missiles slamming into Iraqi bunkers and tanks (somehow inviting viewers to watch the final moments of an Iraqi tank crew is less obscene than watching a beheading), but despite a massive search-and-destroy effort “coalition” air power failed to stop Iraq’s Scud launchers from firing their missiles into Israel.

President Clinton’s cruise missile strikes against Sudan in 1998 were meant to destroy a suspected chemical weapons facility, but it was the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant that was destroyed instead.

The number of aircraft involved in NATO’s campaign against Serbia in 1999 eventually reached 2,000 (including 18 CF-18s), though Serb forces managed to survive by scattering equipment, building dummy targets, and simply switching off their radars. As military historian Martin van Creveld wrote, “the damage [NATO] did to the Serb war effort as a whole was minimal; they succeeded neither in seriously impairing the capabilities of the Serb Army nor preventing Slobodan Milosevic from starting a campaign to cleanse Kosovo of its Muslim population.”

NATO’s intervention in Libya was even more calamitous; where Milosevic eventually surrendered after 78 days, the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime has left Libya in the grip of militias and civil war.

In addition to this dubious record, there are Israel’s repeated attempts to pacify the Gaza Strip from the air. Command of the air was reassuring, but Israel did not realize the complexity of Hamas’ tunnel system until it launched a ground invasion. The near-impossibility of identifying targets and destroying them in a dense urban environment also resulted in enormous civilian casualties. These difficulties will likely be encountered by Western and Arab air forces in Iraq and Syria, where the enemy is primarily an urban occupation force and where there is no presence in situ on the ground.

Iraq today

Air power is an attractive option because it is easy to deploy, relatively inexpensive to operate, and unlikely to result in high military casualties. But it is a poor tool for imposing stability and restoring trust in national institutions and amongst citizens, processes that may take generations of commitment. As a Maclean’s editorial succinctly expressed the conundrum, “Western nations can now leverage overwhelming technological superiority in the air to make political points at will… but success in the air is not the same thing as a successful outcome.”

Islamic State was able to advance so rapidly not because of its notorious brand of terrorism, but because it filled a power vacuum left by a collapsing regime in Syria and sectarian government in Baghdad. As the war continues Iraq has become increasingly dependent on Shiite militias to bolster the ranks of its regular army, and these militias have a reputation for ferociousness matched only by Islamic State. After Iraqi regular army units and Shiite militias recaptured the southern city of Jurf al-Sakhr, Islamic State prisoners were tortured, executed, and their bodies left unburied. As Juan Cole wrote for truthdig, “to the 80,000 Sunni Muslims of Jurf al-Sakhr, this motley crew would have seemed absolutely terrifying, less liberators than occupiers.” Even if the use of air power succeeds in halting or pushing back Islamic State forces, it will do nothing to restore confidence in a central government that is becoming increasingly sectarian. More troubling, the growth of militia power resembles the collapse of Libya after NATO intervention destroyed central government in that country.

It is almost impossible to determine how effective air strikes have been during the first two months of the American-led effort, but in the city of Kobani on the border of Syria and Turkey the fighting has been closely observed from the Turkish side of the border. As Patrick Cockburn explained for LRB, Kobani is significant because Islamic State leadership “wanted to prove that it could still defeat its enemies despite US airstrikes against it.” Initially the air strikes were largely ineffective; fighters could not distinguish Islamic State fighters in the dense streets of the city and on open ground fighters simply “scatter and hide” when aircraft approach, as one Kurdish spokesman told The Guardian. Afraid of offending Turkey, the US also refused to coordinate strikes with Kurdish fighters on the ground.

However, with Turkey softening its opposition to Kurdish reinforcements, cooperation and targeting has improved. Air drops have supplied the defenders with medical equipment, ammunition and weapons, and as Islamic State concentrated its forces for a major push outside of the city, some 40 air strikes decimated their ranks. The imminent threat to Kobani has passed, and air strikes and resupply made a critical contribution to the city’s defence. But Kobani is a battle on the edge of Islamic State territory and the coalition will rarely enjoy the kind of ground support that was provided by Kurdish fighters. Disrupting Islamic State in its hinterland may prove much more difficult.

Lt. Gen. Vance says he has learned from his experience fighting the Taliban, and is ready to apply those lessons to the fight against Islamic State.

“As I came out of Afghanistan, we said we should be really cautious in the future professionally, about making certain we understand the nature of the conflict and the nature of the enemy before we start to engage,” he told the National Post, “and we’ve done that.”

With his extensive experience fighting the Taliban he is apparently the right soldier for the job, but this time he is fighting the enemy from high above the ground — and far away in Ottawa.

Recent history suggests that the campaign will be a troubled one.


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