U.S. and Russian Airpower in the Desert

November 5, 2015

Editor’s Note: This piece on the War on the Rocks Hasty Ambush blog is published in partnership with the Hoover Institution’s Military History in the News.

On November 1, 1911, Italian Second Lieutenant Guilio Gavotti, flying an Etrich Taube water-cooled monoplane took a 1.5 kilo bomb from his lap and dropped it onto the Ottoman-held Ain Zara oasis south of Tripoli. History’s first employment of weapons from an airplane caused no casualties. However, earlier that week two of his colleagues had flown the very first air reconnaissance missions, ascertaining Turkish supply routes into several oases. Surveillance of supply routes proved to be decisive because desert supply lines are entirely defenseless to aircraft. In the subsequent year, Italian aircraft mounting machine guns isolated Ottoman forces in those oases, and were key to breaking their hold on the interior.

Airpower, albeit minimal, had a decisive effect because it leveraged the unique conditions of desert warfare. Without leveraging those conditions, airpower’s effect is not so decisive even when applied in greater quantities.

As of October 27, American aircraft had flown 7,726 strike missions against Islamic State forces in the deserts of former Syria and Iraq without noticeable effect on its capacity to function. Islamic State territory, from Raqqa in the west to Mosul in the east is mostly desert country. The jihadist military force that occupies it is largely dependent on supplies, much of them coming in from Turkish territory. The U.S. government seems to have chosen to allow these supply lines to continue flowing. Hence the Islamic State, its desert location notwithstanding, can be sure that it will get its next meal, its next box of bullets, its next recruit, and the wherewithal to repair damage from air strikes. The U.S. government does not explain why it chooses not to leverage the natural constraints that desert location places on the Islamic State.

As summer turned to fall, Russian aircraft began to operate over Syria, performing reconnaissance and combat support. Although the operational objects of Russian forces are in the Western non-desert or less-desert parts of former Syria, Russian air strikes seem to be focusing precisely on struggles over supply lines—specifically, ensuring the physical coherence of Assad-held territory and cutting the rebellion’s most direct supply lines to Turkey. Such defensive victories necessarily push the armed opposition eastward into the desert. This makes its other supply lines that much more valuable and vulnerable.

It is not difficult to imagine that Russia, having secured its Alawite coastal base, would then focus its airpower along the local environment’s grain to shut and starve rebel desert bastions, setting them up for destruction by sectarian enemies.


Angelo M. Codevilla is a professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University. He was a U.S. naval officer and foreign service officer and served on the Senate Intelligence Committee as well as on presidential transition teams. For a decade he was a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is the author of fourteen books, including War Ends and Means, The Character of Nations, Advice to War Presidents, and most recently, To Make and Keep Peace Among Ourselves and with All Nations.

Image: Alex Beltyukov, CC