“Air power is politically cheap but financially costly, and we have become addicted to it,” a senior European air force commander told The Fighter Conference in London last November. The numbers are indeed mind-boggling. According to Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, air forces commander for U.S. Central Command (Centcom), in one recent month, coalition forces in the Middle East flew more than 580 kinetic sorties; employed 4,800 weapons; flew 1,800 airlift sorties; and conducted 1,300 refueling sorties. The average daily cost of operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is $13.1 million.
The coalition remains limited. Unlike the intervention in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014, these are not NATO operations. Only 12 countries have participated in airstrikes. The U.S. is flying two-thirds of the airstrikes in Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) over Iraq and Syria, and all of the renewed missions over Afghanistan.
France and the UK are the greatest coalition contributors. France has deployed Mirages and Rafales to land bases, and the aircraft carrier Charles De Gaulle three times. The UK has six Typhoons and eight Tornados operating out of its Akrotiri base in Cyprus. The other airpower providers have been Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Jordan, The Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. Germany, Italy and Poland are flying warplanes (Tornados, AMXs and F-16s) but for reconnaissance only. Within the past year, U.S. forces have also flown missions over Libya, Somalia and Yemen.
What has been achieved? ISIS has been pushed back from most territory in Iraq, at the cost of tremendous destruction to cities and infrastructure. The months-long battle to regain Mosul continues. Syria remains host to a complicated array of factions and competing international sponsors, notably Iran, Russia and Turkey. Unspeakable atrocities by ISIS and Syrian forces take place there, including the deliberate targeting of medical facilities.
Libya and Somalia remain unstable, and a humanitarian crisis is raging in Yemen, where the U.S. has supported controversial airstrikes by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
“On a daily basis, we go to extraordinary lengths to mitigate collateral damage and civilian casualties,” said Harrigian in his media briefing last month. Almost every airstrike by the coalition uses precision weapons, and their makers are enjoying an unprecedented bonanza of restocking orders. In the Pentagon’s recently-released budget request for Fiscal Year 2018, no fewer than 12,822 Boeing JDAMs, 5,039 Boeing/Raytheon SDBs and 1,397 Boeing/Lockheed Martin Hellfires will be funded.
Harrigian admitted that precision was imperative in the dense urban terrain of Mosul and Raqqa. “ISIS has become so desperate that they have baited us to strike targets that will purposefully cause civilian casualties,” he said. “Our eyes and ears in the sky and on the ground keep the coalition abreast of ISIS’s increasingly desperate tactics, allowing us to refine our targeting process so we avoid hurting those we’re trying to liberate,” Harrigian maintained.
Centcom air mission planners make a distinction between “dynamic” strikes that arise at short notice, and “deliberate” strikes that are pre-planned. The latter are more important “because of the tremendous impact they have had on the enemy’s fighting capacity,” he said. For example, he noted that coalition airstrikes and ground operations have struck approximately 2,600 ISIS-held gas and oil targets, including more than 1,500 tanker trucks. Left unsaid was the fact that such strikes must significantly degrade Iraq’s ability to reconstitute a viable economy, when it eventually regains control of the whole of its territory.
Despite the enormous number of missions, only one combat loss has been reported—a Jordanian F-16. ISIS fighters do fire anti-aircraft guns that they have captured, posing a threat to low-flying aircraft. Still, OIR takes place over largely uncontested airspace. This has allowed U.S. and British MQ-9 Reaper UAVs to loiter overhead many potential targets at or above 10,000 feet, or do “overwatch” on Iraqi convoys. The U.S. MQ-1/9 fleet flew 351,000 hours last year. It has been responsible for most of the targeted killings of ISIS leaders and weapons specialists. MQ-9s can now fire JDAMs as well as Hellfire missiles and Paveway LGBs.
East Greets West
But the air defense situation over western Syria was significantly complicated by the arrival of the Russians, with their S-300/S-400 air defense systems. Since then, the USAF’s F-22 stealth fighters are the only warplanes that have been tasked to attack targets west of Palmyra. And mission planners have tasked them with caution: they have been dropping SDBs from outside the inner threat rings of these air defense systems, “slinging” them towards their targets from 30-40 miles distance with imparted supersonic energy. This “denies the enemy a targeting solution,” said one senior American airman.
In addition to the Reaper UAVs, a full panoply of ISR assets are engaged. Much higher up, U.S. Global Hawk UAVs and U-2s also provide round-the-clock imagery coverage. A rare insight into the U-2’s additional SIGINT capability was provided by USAF ISR chief Gen. Bob Otto last year. “This airplane has incredible sensors that both look and listen. We’re trying to target ISIS's long-term capabilities…their cash, their command and control. No other platform is quite as good at doing this,” he said.
The UK is providing one-third of the airborne ISR missions. This includes an RC-135 Airseeker for SIGINT and a Sentinel (ASTOR) for radar imagery. It also includes the RAPTOR imaging sensor on the RAF Tornado, which flew its 10,000th sortie for the service over Syria/Iraq last year, providing coverage of no fewer than 20 points of interest (POIs) on that single flight.
The U.S. has been trying to rebuild the Iraq and Afghan air forces, as well as their ground forces. Harrigian claimed that the Iraqi air force “has made tremendous progress.” Eighteen of the 36 new F-16s that are being supplied to Iraq are now in-country, plus six new C-130J airlifters, and King Air sand RC-208 Caravans for ISR. Harrigian was also upbeat about the Afghanistan air force’s ability to support that country’s ground troops with the A-29 Super Tucanos and MD-530 helicopters that the U.S. has recently supplied
Where will this all end? In Afghanistan, Harrigian said that the airstrikes of U.S. Operation Resolute Support had helped that country’s troops reduce the number of ISIS fighters and the territory they control by two-thirds. But he said nothing about the Taliban, which controls one-third of the country, according to most independent reports.
The U.S. administration is reportedly considering a relaxation of the rules of engagement, so that the Taliban may be engaged more frequently by U.S. forces. And, contrary to all his pre-election statements, President Trump is considering adding many more U.S. ground troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The total is already acknowledged to be over 15,000—and that’s before counting the increasingly frequent deployment of unacknowledged special forces and marines. Some of the latter have also been on the ground in Yemen, supported by AC-130s and MQ-9s.
Early in 2015, then-Centcom commander Lt. Gen. James Terry suggested “the strategic advantage and tremendous strength of the coalition” would defeat ISIS in about three years. But what does “defeat” mean? A more realistic assessment was provided last December by UK Chief of the Defense Staff AVM Stuart Peach. “ISIL is losing territory, but they have global reach. They are hiding in migrant flows. They will continue to pose a sub-state threat,” he predicted.
[BOX?] VIGNETTES FROM A RELENTLESS AIR WAR
Describing an attack by an F-15E on an ISIL fighting position near Mosul last October, Gen. Hawk Carlisle, then-head of USAF Air Combat Command, said the level of precision now deployed is to get the weapon through one particular window of a building, not just onto a GPS co-ordinate.
The worst loss of civilian life in a coalition airstrike occurred on March 17 in west Mosul. A large building was destroyed, killing more than 100. After an investigation, the USAF concluded that the cause was the detonation of secondary explosives that ISIS had placed in the building, in which the civilians had sought shelter on the lower floors. Only a single JDAM was dropped, aimed at ISIS snipers firing from the upper floors of the building. The JDAM alone would have only resulted in “localized damage to the roof and second floor,” the investigating officer reported.
On September 14, 2016, a single U.S. airstrike hit 50 Joint Designated Points of Impact (JDPIs) within a compound that ISIS was using to build chemical weapons.
A laser-guided Brimstone fired from an RAF Tornado into the window of a terrorist vehicle killed the driver, but his passenger survived.
Russia disseminated misinformation about the Red Crescent convoy that was bombed near Urem Al-kubrah in Syria last September. Three months later, a United Nations report concluded that the convoy could only have been hit by a Russian or Syrian airstrike.
USAF B-52s deployed to OIR in April last year, taking over from B-1s. When they were first built, no one predicted that either of these strategic bombers would have been employed on close air support missions. The USAF insists that they are effective—but at what cost?
An attack last month by U.S. aircraft on a Syrian Army convoy that was heading towards a coalition special forces base was only the second on President Assad’s forces in the entire conflict to date. The first was the high-profile strike on Shayrat airbase near Homs by 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles in April, launched from two U.S. warships in the Mediterranean. That strike was in direct retaliation for the chemical weapons attack on rebel forces by the Syrian Air Force from Shayrat.
Rebel forces in Syria have repeatedly claimed that they have been attacked by cluster bombs and incendiary weapons. Moscow has denied using them, but it has been difficult for independent observers to distinguish between airstrikes mounted by Syrian and Russian aircraft. Syria is believed to have some 100 operational aircraft left. After the Tomahawk attack, it moved some of them for protection to the airbase on the coast at Latakia, where Russia has based its aircraft.
The scale of Russian air support of the Assad regime is not widely appreciated. By January of this year, Russia had flown more combat air sorties over Syria than Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) had flown over Syria and Iraq combined. Russian airstrikes were largely responsible for the retaking of Aleppo by the Assad regime’s forces.