Keep the Middle East at Arm’s Length with Airpower


Following the Gulf War, the United States entered a long containment phase for Iraq, relying heavily on two no-fly zones (NFZs) to limit the regime’s ability to threaten Kuwait or Iraqi Kurdistan. In retrospect, these air operations were not only significantly less costly than the massive ground operations that followed, but they obtained better results. The contrast between the air-only containment efforts and the ground-heavy invasions is stark. Air campaigns were successful in containing Iraq, protecting Kurdish and Shia civilians, and unseating the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Civilian casualties were minimal and sporadic. As I have discussed here at War on the Rocks and a recent article in Air Force Magazine, these air operations were far more economical than the ground-heavy approach taken in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11, had a much lower footprint, and were well-supported by existing bases. Air operations could be successful again at containment, as Operation Inherent Resolve is proving to be.

Current operations in the Middle East have come in for a substantial ration of criticism, particularly with respect to is the Islamic State. Iraqi government forces have folded under relatively limited pressure, first in Mosul and most recently in Ramadi. The slow process of stiffening ground forces and the limited objectives of the air campaign do not appeal to observers who lack strategic patience. As such, the American preference for a decisive battlefield defeat of the enemy may be reasserting itself.   This is unfortunate because the air campaign is working well enough to allow the Kurdish Peshmerga to retake lost territory, and airpower decisively defeated the ISIL assault on Kobane. Airpower is successfully containing the Islamic State at an affordable cost in treasure with no U.S. military casualties to date. This puts it well ahead of the costly and strategically ineffective ground campaigns of the last decade and a half. In an environment where the United States does not want and cannot afford to become embroiled in another ground-centric quagmire, airpower offers a proven method of containing the threat while simultaneously keeping it at arm’s length. Absent a new American desire to establish itself as an imperial conqueror, airpower offers our most flexible, affordable and cost-efficient option for military operations in the Middle East. The Islamic State is a long way from being defeated, but properly employed airpower has helped contain its advances, constrained its operations, and handicapped its logistics.

Figure 1: An F-15E from the 494th Fighter Squadron taxis by a hardened aircraft shelter at Incirlik AB on its way to a NORTHERN WATCH mission in 1998 (USAF)

Our experience with airpower makes a solid case for moving back towards an airpower-centric approach in the Middle East. The U.S. Air Force presence in the Middle East dates to the invasion of Kuwait. As soon as Saudi Arabia requested assistance, the First Fighter Wing, already alerted, was given the deployment order. Twenty hours later a fully armed squadron of F-15Cs was airborne from Virginia; the first fight transited to Dhahran in 15 hours and a whole squadron was on the ground 19 hours after the first jet launched from Langley AFB. Eagles were on alert in the desert within four hours after the last flight touched down. By the time the 82nd Airborne’s ready brigade completed its move five days later, there were 14 B-52s, five fighter squadrons, and an airborne warning and control system (AWACS) detachment in place. Operation Desert Shield was rolling, and air combat assets got there first. After Operation Desert Storm, the first U.S. Army units arrived home within 60 days, but the Air Force never left. The U.S. Air Force has sustained a continuous deployment of combat aircraft in the region for over 9,000 days. From 1991 to 2003, U.S. and allied aviators successfully contained Iraqi ambitions with no coalition fatalities at a cost of less than $1.5 billion per year, compared to the over $800 billion spent on Operation Iraqi Freedom. Airpower-only containment operations had far better outcomes for far less blood and treasure than the ground-centric Iraqi Freedom or Enduring Freedom.

For a status-quo power like the United States, airpower is a much more flexible and sustainable military option in the Middle East or Southwest Asia. Air forces can shift operational areas rapidly without relocating. Most importantly, over 350,000 sorties were flown in the NFZs without a single U.S. casualty due to hostile fire. By contrast, any ground commitment will automatically require longer deployment and redeployment timelines, heavy logistical support, and a massive commitment of funding and lives.

Admittedly, there are practical limits to military power. In 2001, the expectation for Operation Enduring Freedom was that we could partner with local forces to remove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan and neutralize Afghanistan as a base for global terrorist operations. We achieved those goals by the close of 2001 and followed up with ground operations in Afghanistan and later Iraq to secure territory, establish governance, and assure the emergence of U.S.-aligned states with democratic trappings by winning “hearts and minds.” This was fantastically optimistic, given that the United States had failed this same task in Vietnam. In hindsight, the United States would have been far better served by not establishing large ground footprints in either country. Instead, it should have enabled proxy forces – a technique Iran is using successfully today.

The United States must accept that there are limits to the effects that can be achieved with any kind of military power, and that differing forms of military power come with substantially different risks and costs. In all cases, the use of mass ground forces is the option that is likely to be the most expensive, least flexible, and entails the most casualties over the longest duration. There are clear applications for massed landpower in Europe and Korea – not so in the Middle East.

The United States still has clear national interests in the greater Middle East, including the security of Israel, combatting Islamic extremism, the containment of Iran, and securing NATO’s southeastern flank. None of those objectives requires the presence of ground forces engaged in either direct combat or large-scale occupation, when other alternatives are so clearly available. With the exception of advisors and prepositioned equipment maintenance, long-term U.S. military operations in the Middle East should not involve U.S. ground forces at all. Realistically, we don’t need them there. American allies in the region are militarily and economically formidable, and not under the constant Soviet threat typical of the Cold War. Iraq poses no credible military threat and Iran’s conventional forces are weaker, comparatively, than at any time since the fall of the Shah.

With the United States no longer required as the sole guarantor of the region’s security, we can afford to reconsider what kind of commitment the United States makes to the Middle East. Absent the emergence of a credible existential threat in the region, the future commitment should not involve any significant number of ground combat forces that do not come from the local powers themselves.

The demonstrated success of airpower application since Desert Shield, contrasted with the comparative lack of strategic success demonstrated by the ground campaigns of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, should impel the U.S. towards more limited, achievable goals that are realistic within the context of a disintegrating regional order. The United States should first turn to the patient application of airpower to stabilize the region and to achieve policy goals while keeping the increasing regional disorder, and its effects, at arm’s length.


Col. Mike Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions and taking part in 2.5 SAM kills over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of U.S. Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force or U.S. government.

U.S. Air Force photo Senior Airman Michael Battles