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Bombing campaigns – what are they good for? US vs ISIS…

March 23, 2015

Summary:   US DoD release statistics for their air strikes against ISIS.  Caution needed.

There are lies, damned lies and air campaign battle damage assessments…

Count the damage, count the cost...

Count the damage, count the cost…

Can a war by won by airpower alone? Many people have suggested “yes”, many of them airmen, I think. This has been a big debate since offensive airpower was introduced to the world in the course of the First World War.  The US Department of Defense has released US Central Command (CENTCOM) statistics purporting to provide an update on the amount of damage done by US air attacks against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria.  The list is impressive:

During a daily briefing, Warren said that through yesterday, the international coalition had struck 5,314 targets since operations began Aug. 8.  The coalition has conducted 2,893 airstrikes – 1,631 in Iraq and 1,262 in Syria. Total U.S. airstrikes numbered 2,320 – 1,151 in Iraq and 1,169 in Syria.

20150301, US air campaign bombing ISISSeveral of the line items here are open to definitional query.  And ironic, I guess, that they have to have a specific line item for the ISIS-owned but US designed and built High Mobility Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle – the “Humvee”, much beloved of the US Army, the armed forces of at least 70 other countries and, er, rap stars.

My main point is to urge caution over such statistics. Final confirmation of the level of destruction is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve, without “boots on the ground” available to climb over the destroyed equipment. Furthermore, it does not necessarily offer any guarantee that an enemy is necessarily being “defeated”. The NATO Kosovo bombing campaign in 1999 offers a salient lesson here, where targets reported by NATO as Serb Army military hardware destroyed turned out to be nothing of the kind:

The bombing, they discovered, was highly accurate against fixed targets, like bunkers and bridges. “But we were spoofed a lot,” said one team member. The Serbs protected one bridge from the high-flying NATO bombers by constructing, 300 yards upstream, a fake bridge made of polyethylene sheeting stretched over the river. NATO “destroyed” the phony bridge many times. Artillery pieces were faked out of long black logs stuck on old truck wheels. A two-thirds scale SA-9 antiaircraft missile launcher was fabricated from the metal-lined paper used to make European milk cartons. “It would have looked perfect from three miles up,” said a MEAT analyst.

The team found dozens of burnt-out cars, buses and trucks but very few tanks. When General Clark heard this unwelcome news, he ordered the team out of their helicopters: “Goddammit, drive to each one of those places. Walk the terrain.” The team grubbed about in bomb craters, where more than once they were showered with garbage the local villagers were throwing into these impromptu rubbish pits. At the beginning of August, MEAT returned to Air Force headquarters at Ramstein air base in Germany with 2,600 photographs. They briefed Gen. Walter Begert, the Air Force deputy commander in Europe. “What do you mean we didn’t hit tanks?” Begert demanded. Clark had the same reaction. “This can’t be,” he said. “I don’t believe it.” Clark insisted that the Serbs had hidden their damaged equipment and that the team hadn’t looked hard enough. Not so, he was told. A 50-ton tank can’t be dragged away without leaving raw gouges in the earth, which the team had not seen.

This process was known by NATO as Camouflage, Concealment and Deception (CCD).  The Russians might recognise it as maskirovka.  Major problems with generic “US/NATO/Western” bombing campaigns in the post-WWII past might include:

  • Avoidance of risk to pilots.  Aircraft will fly at high altitude wherever possible, reducing the risk of being shot down and limiting the chance that a target can be a) accurately identified b) struck.
  • Over-reliance on “statistics” as a measure of effectiveness – the more numbers that can be thrown out, the more an artificial impression of “victory” will be achieved.
  • Enemy forces evolve their tactics – camouflage, concealment and deception. A pram, two logs and a drain pipe can make for a convincing anti-tank gun to a pilot who is one, two or three miles high…
  • Battle Damage Assessment – working out what you actually hit in the aftermath – is difficult without experts physically on the ground to check what has been hit.
  • “Dig for Victory” – for every one potential target (ISIS tank, gun, checkpoint…) ISIS can minimise the risk by digging 10 fake positions in and around the area, making the decision-making process of a very fast moving US pilot even harder.
  • The bombing campaign’s effectiveness is greatly at risk to media and popular opinion – it just needs one bomb to land on a school or one pilot to be captured and brutally executed.  In the first instance, pilots will be required to be much more cautious before releasing weapons.  In the second, pilots may fly higher to avoid being shot down, or missions will be limited by the number of rescue teams available to extract downed pilots.
  • Human nature. Aside from the high level political drivers, other groups are under strong pressures to declare “success”.  Air attacks mean medals and promotion for pilots and commanders.  Combat also proves the value of very expensive bits of military hardware, including rockets, missiles, bombs. Billions of dollars are at stake for defence contractors if they can show how good their weapons are in real combat.

Analysis of ISIS’ goals by Graeme Wood earlier this month points to ISIS being very inflexible in their strategic approach – they know what is supposed to happen, who is good, who is bad and how the final conflict is supposed to come about. This rigidity makes them highly predictable and is potentially a significant weakness to be exploited by opponents of ISIS. At the tactical/battlefield level, this will not be the case – I am sure they are already learning from their mistakes and evolving.

I am not arguing against airpower per se – it paralyses, channels, demoralises, pins down and, yes, destroys enemy forces.  ISIS’s fighting capability is currently a loose but broadly “conventional” army, occupying terrain and deploying troops and tanks.  It is probably easier to strike this sort of force than an enemy operating as small insurgent bands like the Taliban.  Inexperienced fighters and those untrained or without the resources to resist air attack will likely find US bombing runs highly stressful. Other information, such as radio intercepts, and reports from the ground (eg social media) will provide vital clues as the status, problems and morale of ISIS forces.

I would certainly not presume to tell you that the US DoD statistics are wrong – or what the level of “wrongness” might be – but I would urge caution and consideration of some of the factors here that might be at play.

The Economist notes that cracks are appearing in ISIS.  Beyond noting the damage done to oil revenue from air attacks against oil refinery targets, the air campaign does not get a mention.  I wonder how many “Fighting Positions” were simply empty holes on the ground. We will never know.  But bombing campaigns may not be as effective as they first look. The NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999 offers a stark reminder.


Serb decoy gunSerb decoy SAM launcher Serb decoys used to fool Nato warplanes in Kosovo

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