War Stories

The Air Power Illusion

Why bombing ISIS won’t be enough.

British Jet Syria.
A British Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 takes off from the RAF Marham air base in Norfolk, England, on Dec. 3, 2015.

Photo by Justin Tallis/Getty Images

Hours after Parliament voted to authorize British airstrikes against ISIS, four Royal Air Force Tornado jets took off from a base in Cyprus, flew over nearby Syria, and dropped several 500-pound bombs on six oil fields in the eastern part of the country.

It was, no doubt, the first of many RAF bombing runs over Syria, but what effect will they—and hundreds more airstrikes by the American, French, and other air forces to come—have on the overall war?

Military historians have long contended that wars can’t be won by air power alone. And while vast improvements in weaponry have worn down that argument, it hasn’t been rebuffed entirely. The biggest tactical victories over ISIS have come when airstrikes—usually mounted by the United States—were coordinated with Arab or Kurdish assaults on the ground.

Over the decades, combatants—whether they’re soldiers, guerrillas, or jihadis—have learned the many ways to counter bombs dropped from high in the air. They’ve taken cover (for instance, in foxholes), applied camouflage (so the air crew or, these days, drone monitor can’t see them), or dispersed (so that if a bomb lands in the right spot, it kills or injures as few fighters as possible). But air power and ground troops, together, can magnify the impact of each. This works, broadly, in one of two ways. Airstrikes force enemy fighters to take cover; once pinned down, they can be overwhelmed by a ground assault. Or a ground assault forces the enemy fighters to concentrate, making them easy prey for airstrikes.

A classic case of the latter occurred in the fall of 2014, when ISIS fighters flocked in droves to the battle of Kobani, a small village just south of the Syrian-Turkish border. The town held little strategic value, but the ISIS fighters formed an irresistibly dense target. President Obama approved an intense air campaign over the area. Roughly 2,500 jihadis were killed in the ensuing bombardments. The Kurdish peshmerga fought very skillfully, clearing and retaking the town. It marked the beginning of the most effective air-ground partnership in the fight today.

The same pattern emerged in 2001–02, during the early phase of the war in Afghanistan. In response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, American jets unleashed fierce strikes against al-Qaida and Taliban positions, but the targets soon learned how to hide. The breakthrough came when the CIA and U.S. Special Forces coordinated highly accurate airstrikes with ground assaults mounted by local rebels.

These battles in Afghanistan marked the first use, in large number, of drones armed with smart bombs. The results led many, not least then–Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, to proclaim a “revolution in military affairs,” a new era in which wars could be won almost entirely by high-tech weapons, with very few—perhaps next to no—traditional soldiers on the ground.

His claim had some validity. The accuracy of smart bombs—which could land within 3 feet of a target, as opposed to the 300 or so feet of older “dumb bombs”—enabled planes or drones to destroy certain targets (tanks, artillery launchers, individual soldiers) that, in the past, could only have been hit by soldiers at close range. However, the celebrators ignored the other lesson of Afghanistan: that the new weapons worked their wonders only in conjunction with old-fashioned grunts wearing boots. (Rumsfeld’s mistake led him, a year later, to invade Iraq with just enough troops to overwhelm Saddam Hussein’s army—but not nearly enough to restore order afterward.)

Britain’s first airstrikes over Syria went after ISIS-controlled oil fields, not ISIS fighters, and aerial bombs are well-suited for those sorts of targets. Still, it’s illusory to believe that these strikes—or others like them—will turn the tide. First, it’s not yet known how much actual damage was inflicted. The same is true, by the way, of the French airstrikes on Raqqa, Syria, just hours after the terrorist attacks in Paris. French officials said those strikes destroyed ISIS “command-control” targets, but that phrase could refer to a command post or a fiber-optic line or a telephone on some officer’s desk. There’s no evidence that the strikes made it any harder for ISIS commanders to give orders to their fighters in the field.

Second, ISIS earns some of its revenue from oil sales, but not all of it. From World War II through the 1990–91 Gulf War (and, to some extent, beyond), air-power advocates have argued that if only a certain number of key strategic targets were destroyed, an army—or, in some versions of this theory, a state or a whole society—would “collapse.” Yet this theory has been discredited with each attempt to prove it valid.

This doesn’t mean that oil wells (or any number of other fixed ISIS assets) should be left off air commanders’ target lists. Every little bit counts, and against a foe like ISIS, which is unaccustomed to fighting or feeling pressure on many fronts at once, some bits might count a lot. But symbolic attacks—which these latest strikes seem, largely, to be—not only do little good for the war; they can wind up doing harm. If a country (or coalition) does bombing runs just for the sake of “doing something,” it can boost the enemy’s morale and reputation. “Look at all the bombs these great powers are dropping on us,” an ISIS commander and his recruiters could boast, “and yet we fight on!”

A more important story in Thursday’s papers, specifically the Wall Street Journal, is that at least 600 Sunni tribesmen—trained by American soldiers whom they would have gladly killed a few months ago—are joining Iraqi soldiers in an impending assault to dislodge ISIS fighters from Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province. The assault will no doubt be supported by U.S. airstrikes. It is significant (though the Journal doesn’t report this part) that the commander running U.S. operations in Iraq and Syria is Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, who, as a colonel back in 2006, conceived the “Anbar Awakening,” which altered the course of the Iraq war. The key to the Awakening was persuading Sunni tribesmen to shift their allegiances away from their fellow, more radical Sunnis in al-Qaida (whose presence in Anbar they’d once supported as a bulwark against Shiite oppression) and, beyond that, to ally with American soldiers in the fight against the jihadi group. MacFarland is now trying to repeat the same task, though this time with Iraqi soldiers as the unlikely ally and against ISIS (which grew out of al-Qaida’s Iraq chapter).

This is a potentially pivotal campaign, not only because Ramadi is a strategic city, but also because a joint victory for Sunni militias and Iraq’s (largely Shiite) army could set the stage for a more inclusive Iraqi politics—a prerequisite to delegitimizing ISIS as a protector of Sunnis throughout Iraq, with perhaps some spillover into Syria.

Airstrikes will be valuable, even crucial, to the extent that they pave the way for victories over ISIS on the ground. And victories on the ground—achieved by other Arabs and Muslims—are necessary both to rout ISIS from the region and to spoil their allure in the eyes of radical Muslims elsewhere. The victories can’t be had without the coalition’s air power; but air power amounts to little without the well-trained locals on the ground.