war on the rocks

Lessons Learned from the Air War Against the Islamic State

February 23, 2018

As debates continued at the Pentagon about hypersonic weapons, technology-based offset strategies, and next-generation bombers, things were happening in the skies over Syria. Iranian and Russian drones along with vintage Syrian attack aircraft posed several unique challenges to the air superiority of the U.S.-led anti-ISIL coalition and its integration with kinetic and non-kinetic strikes. The coalition was operating state-of-the-art, high-performance aircraft designed for an existential, industrial-power conflict. The Syrians were using old systems with relatively poor sensors and limited capabilities and the Russians were using more modern technology, albeit without the level of integration typical for most western air forces. The balance of technological power was decidedly in the coalition’s favor. And yet, because of a combination of policy and military circumstances there were times in the war against Islamic State where control of the air was not guaranteed, despite the coalition’s technological dominance.

As the campaign against ISIL winds down and the role of airpower shifts from supporting offensive action to stabilization, it is important to reflect on the nuances and challenges to real-world air and space superiority, how policymakers and military leaders think about airpower, and the realities of fighting a multi-sided war, where the United States has an incentive to try and control escalation with unfriendly powers engaged in a parallel conflict in the same area of operations.

The pairing of small numbers of special operations forces and airpower is a policy tool leaders often turn to project power around the world and to deny safe haven to terrorist organizations. The assumptions underpinning this policy choice rests on the idea that these interventions are low-risk and the benefits of denying safe haven to extremist groups outweigh the costs of constant deployments around the world. Operationally, it also assumes that the air and space domains can be locally controlled. These assumptions must always be challenged, lest otherwise risk static, off-the-shelf approaches to future conflicts where the United States chooses to intervene.

The Planning Process: Centralization and the Syrian Challenge

America is not alone in using technology and small, specialized forces to mitigate political risk. Russia and Iran have also used this template by deploying fixed wing aircraft, remotely piloted vehicles, and “advisors” to support their national interests in Syria. For the United States, the Syrian conflict is unique and differs considerably from previous experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States is primarily concerned with stabilizing the region by ousting the cancerous Islamic State and countering Iran’s support for proxy groups that aggravate sectarian violence. Although Russia, Iran, and Syria all oppose the Islamic State at the moment, the objective similarities stop there. Russia and Iran are utilizing a “low risk template” to implement a favorable strategic condition, intent on advancing their policy interests in any way.

The coalition’s dominance in conventional technology forces opponents to find asymmetric weak points. One of these is attributional ambiguity in combat. When escalation is unwanted with a player peripheral to the military’s mission, the strategic context demands that an actor is positively identified before force is applied. In a tightly controlled war, like in Syria, the presence of three different unfriendly players pose a unique challenge for war planners, tasked with controlling unintended escalation and staying narrowly focused on the air campaign against Islamic State. Faced with such challenges, the natural instinct is to further centralize planning and to try and micromanage tactical actions to ensure that combat goals are kept narrow and risk is mitigated. Unfortunately, this is often asynchronous to speed of combat. Opponents seek to exploit this by presenting an attribution dilemma that may cause the coalition to second guess actions or delay and complicate decision making at a higher level — actions that sometimes lead to challenges to air supremacy.

The planning for air operations is already a very centralized and rigid process, and underpins the formulation of the air tasking order (ATO) cycle. The ATO dispenses targets and allocates assets to strike them. The assumptions underpinning this process still assume a two-sided conflict, between the U.S. and a near peer adversary. This cycle, then, places an emphasis on measuring outcomes, using a series of metrics to tabulate sorties flown, munitions used, and the amount of territory taken. Victory, however, is not determined by weapons dropped or sorties flown. Rather, it is won or lost in the mind of the opponent and verified by a resulting change in behavior — whoever that opponent may be.

In Syria, the operational challenges of the close air support mission underscore the divergence between the metric heavy concepts and the realities of operating in a reasonably contested air environment. To prevent unintended escalation and to avoid civilian casualties in Syria’s multi-sided conflict, the U.S. military uses very focused rules of engagement. At times, these rules may diminish the sensor and performance advantages U.S. aircraft have — technology that was created during the linear policy environment of the Cold War, and the neat policy assumptions of a two-power conflict. The dynamics of the operating environment in Syria are also considerably different than the U.S. experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, two air campaigns that have shaped American military thinking and formulated specific processes for operating concepts like close air support, and where the United States faces an array of competing sub-state groups with competing interests.

In uncontested close air support, such as the U.S. experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, the preponderance of airborne assets is typically so high that they need to be physically deconflicted from each other and controlled much like commercial aircraft at a busy airport. The affected ground party, or joint terminal attack controller (JTAC), “stacks” the aircraft into a specific altitude and position. The JTAC then orchestrates the air power into a concert of effects often through intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and kinetic strike. The process can produce eye-watering results, ranging from quick strikes on enemy defensive fighting positions to fast moving dynamic strikes against unplanned threats. In Syria, U.S. aircraft operate in much the same way. However, challenges start to arise when air superiority around the “stack” is challenged or the “enemy” is ambiguous. Therefore, localized air superiority is an extremely important, and often understated, piece of the efficacy of close air support.

The threats to American air superiority don’t always stem from advanced surface to air missiles or advanced fighters, nor do they need to evolve linearly, as is the case in most scenario-based training at U.S.-based exercises. Local control of the air may be challenged by something as simple as an unarmed Russian drone flying through a stack of U.S. aircraft and overflying a friendly position. While the Russian drone could endanger the integrity of the stack through an inadvertent mid-air collision, the act itself may not be worth a shoot-down. However, when that same platform is actually used to photograph and detail friendly positions and then later posted to Twitter, it raises questions about when to act in self-defense, and, to a greater degree, challenges traditional planning and thinking about air superiority.

False Dichotomy: Challenging Assumptions and Incorporating Lessons Learned from Syria

The lessons from the war in Syria should prompt thinking about how best to plan, equip, and train for future kinetic operations where the United States may not be the only actor present. To date, the Air Force and the broader Department of Defense tend to treat operations in the post-9/11 wars as exceptional for planning and training purposes, therefore it’s easy to dismiss the air campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria as one-offs — and instead focus on the “big war” with a near peer adversary. After all, the apocalyptic “big shooting war” – with indubitable objectives, simple rules of engagement, and a clear end-state – underpins assumptions about war planning. Everything else is simply an array of inconvenient sub-categories such as “low-intensity conflict” or “stability operations.”

We need to be realistic with ourselves about the recent lack of strategic satisfaction over the past 16 years. Consider that after a significant air campaign in Afghanistan, the Taliban still survives without an air force or air defense system — and the security situation in Afghanistan is growing worse. This may not rest solely on the shoulders of air power, but it does allude to the fact that policy determines not the nature of war itself, but when, where and, to some degree, how wars are fought. Instead of categorizing war as low-intensity or high-intensity, we should see war more holistically — conflict shaped by reciprocating policy exchanges on all levels, to include the micro-level. Operationally, it doesn’t need to be a binary option of a “high-end” versus “low-end” fight. The character of each war is simply different, therefore the valuation of airpower, and assumptions about its use — and efficacy — need to continue to be flexible. Hew Strachan put it best when he said, “the desire to copper-bottom adaptability for long-term insurance against the anticipation of the unexpected handicaps the flexibility to meet the reality of the unexpected in the short term.”

The experiences in Operation Inherent Resolve offer a rich dialectic and debate that challenge and refine presuppositions about doctrine and how physical actions interact with the nature of war. In Syria, the coalition did an exemplary job of adapting to the changing conditions and overcoming various challenges. However, if the coalition simply pats itself on the back with a “job well done,” it may turn out that some of the challenges — and lessons learned — from operating in Syria are not incorporated into future planning and training. At the very least, the enduring need for localized air superiority while controlling escalation created several new challenges and highlighted some considerations for the character of war in the future and how it may or may not fit into traditional operating concepts and vehicles.


Ryan Fishel is an F-15E Weapon Systems Officer with 479 combat hours in Operation Inherent Resolve. Aaron Stein is resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Michael Battles