war on the rocks

Destroy ISIL’s Heavy Weapons and Vehicles: Level the Playing Field

October 20, 2014

President Obama has committed U.S. power and prestige to assist local Iraqi and Kurdish forces in their battle against the brutal terrorists. To succor the hard-pressed defenders, the U.S. military, along with its partners, must degrade ISIL’s front-line forces and its support infrastructure using the coalition’s selected means of air power. To date, and to all appearances, the coalition has done less than is needed to achieve these goals, despite having in hand all the necessary resources to do so.

The ability of air power alone to “destroy” ISIL—the verb the administration continues to employ in describing its objectives—on the other hand, cannot be debated. It can’t. Indeed, the ability of any military action—especially on the part of external actors—to “destroy” an insurgent group is questionable, based on the historical record.

Iraqi and Kurdish forces—it is reported—have found themselves outgunned by ISIL’s handful of combat vehicles and heavy weapons. There is, however, no reason why ISIL should be able to employ these weapons if the United States and its partners are willing to commit the necessary aerial wherewithal to prevent it.  Indeed, the United States and its partners should set as a specific objective eliminating ISIL’s ability to employ combat vehicles and heavy weapons in offensive operations, and commit the necessary resources to accomplish that task in a prompt and decisive manner.

The northern Syrian city of Kobane, like most of the areas under ISIL attack, sits well within reach of coalition air power. Given ISIL’s lack of sophisticated air defense weapons, there is little to prevent the coalition from maintaining a combat air patrol—a “strike CAP”— over the city (or any place besieged by ISIL) and its environs. Instead, however, the Coalition appears to be employing its air power in “penny packets” of insufficient volume and without the persistence necessary to reliably engage and destroy ISIL’s heavy weapons whenever they reveal themselves.

Turning the tide on ISIL’s murderous offensive cannot be accomplished with pinpricks, as others have observed. The morale of those resisting ISIL attacks cannot be restored when, in spite of the promises made by the President and the demonstrated capabilities of U.S. air power, they continue to confront ISIL tanks in the field and suffer bombardment from ISIL artillery.

The coalition has been targeting ISIL’s vehicles, but with insufficient urgency given the situation on the ground in Kobane and elsewhere. No Syrian or Iraqi city need find itself under attack by ISIL tanks and artillery for more than the time needed to vector a strike aircraft from the nearest orbit or launch one from the closest airbase.

There is nothing particularly new about this concept. U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine airmen routinely provide similar responsive support to U.S. troops on the ground. The United States does not lack the tools.

Tanks and artillery pieces can remain hidden in cities or caves, but by and large they must emerge and expose themselves if they are to support an attack. At the very least, they reveal themselves when fired to the array of sensors that the coalition has available. The persistent presence of coalition surveillance and combat aircraft overhead would make using these weapons—the weapons that have provided ISIL with much of its advantage over its adversaries—very risky. Experience in Iraq indicates that insurgents tend to lie low in the presence of lethal air power, which would be a victory in itself. An idle ISIL is one not expanding its territory, nor consolidating that which it already dominates.

Because these targets are fleeting, coalition air power will have to be more responsive than it appears to have been to date. This is in part a matter of maintaining an adequate number of “strike CAPs” over critical areas. But rules of engagement may have to change as well, with authority to engage targets devolving to lower levels of command—even to the pilot in the cockpit. This will increase the chance of a “friendly fire” incident, or collateral damage. Enhanced effectiveness will come only with some increased acceptance of risk. On the other hand, a conscious and public willingness to bear that risk in the name of more effective coalition operations on the fight on the ground would demonstrate a degree of commitment and resolve that might be welcomed by the Kurdish and Iraqi forces so hard-pressed by ISIL.

More than any other option, employing air power decisively to deny ISIL the ability to use its armor and artillery has the potential to immediately and dramatically shift the battlefield balance against it.


David Shlapak is a senior international policy analyst and David R. Frelinger is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.