From Desert Storm to Inherent Resolve: The Evolution of Airpower
Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a two-part series on airpower and Operation Inherent Resolve. The second article explores lessons learned for great-power competition.
On June 27, U.S. fighter jets struck weapons storage facilities used by Iranian proxy groups Kataib Hizballah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada in retaliation for launching drone attacks on U.S. military facilities in the region. This was the second set of airstrikes ordered by the Biden administration in order to deter Iran and its proxies from attacking U.S. equities in the Middle East.
Just several weeks later, U.S. airpower was used once again, but this time in Afghanistan. “Over-the-horizon” airstrikes sought to bolster Afghan defenses, blunt the Taliban’s momentum, protect key urban areas, and stave off the collapse of the Afghan state.
President Joe Biden’s decision to use fighter jets to strike Iranian infrastructure in Syria and Iraq, and to defend key Afghan cities, follows a familiar pattern. Since the 1991 Gulf War, U.S. presidents have chosen time and time again to use airpower to protect U.S. interests abroad. Since the six-week air campaign that immobilized and demoralized Saddam Hussein’s forces defending Kuwait, airpower has become the centerpiece of U.S. military interventions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Libya, and, once again, Iraq.
The U.S. airstrikes against Iranian-backed militia groups located along the Iraqi-Syrian border, and the uptick in American air support to Afghan forces, demonstrate how the model of airpower perfected against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria has evolved. But the limited strikes on Iranian proxies and Taliban forces stand in stark contrast to the continued strikes on Islamic State leaders and targets in Iraq and Syria also authorized by the Biden administration. Previous military successes are just as likely to distort policymakers’ thinking as prior failures. The Biden administration should not harbor unrealistic expectations about what airpower can achieve, nor should it succumb to the tempation to employ airpower because it is a low-risk form of taking action.
The Evolving Use of Airpower
The five-year fight against the Islamic State may appear like one of the “forever wars” the Biden administration seeks to end. Instead, it should be viewed as an evolution in how U.S. leaders have leveraged airpower to achieve military and political goals. Yet, it should also be a cautionary tale regarding the limits of airpower, as operational success has not translated into a strategic victory with enduring gains against a now-resurgent ISIL and the ideology it espouses.
The Obama administration leveraged the speed, agility, and precision of airpower when it intervened in Iraq in 2014 to stop the Islamic State’s expansion in Iraq and Syria. While the U.S.-led coalition mainly fought from the air, Iraqi state and Syrian non-state forces trained and equipped by the coalition led the fight on the ground.
Technological and tactical innovations since the Gulf War enabled a light American footprint more removed from the ground battle in contrast to the heavy boots-on-the-ground approach associated with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Only 10,000 U.S. troops were engaged in Operation Inherent Resolve — not primarily to fight, but to support partner ground forces away from the frontlines. This stands in stark contrast to the large conventional force required to liberate Kuwait in 1991, which consisted of a massive ground attack involving hundreds of thousands of U.S. forces.
Inherent Resolve demonstrated a growing sophistication in using airpower. Even without American troops on the battlefield directing the airstrikes, U.S. aircraft could find, fix, and track ISIL targets, and accurately deliver weapons. This feat was enabled by drones, which filled the skies over Iraq and Syria, piping real-time full-motion video to U.S. command posts directing the airstrikes.
Leveraging “exquisite intelligence” that detailed ISIL’s operations and expert planning and execution, U.S. aircraft dropped smart bombs that not only usually hit their intended targets, but also limited civilian casualties and unnecessary damage. One coalition airstrike, for example, blew the roof off a building in Mosul, destroying one floor and incinerating an ISIL cash stash inside, while leaving nearby buildings undamaged.
The capabilities of contemporary U.S. airpower have allowed American leaders to intervene in international conflicts while limiting risk to U.S. ground troops, thereby reducing opposition from those wary of putting U.S. boots on the ground. At times, American leaders have employed airstrikes because they wanted to “do something” and appear strong during a crisis, whether the attacks succeeded or not. But airpower is not without risks. Even with increased precision, modern technology, and stringent measures, airpower cannot avoid civilian casualties. It also is not a sure means for a swift and decisive victory, as the recent resurgence of ISIL fighters has shown.
The Siren Song of Airpower
There are important differences between full-blown air campaigns and bounded strikes, such as those on Iranian targets in Iraq and Syria or recently against the Taliban, in terms of the theory for how airpower will achieve the desired effect. Moreover, they differ in the longevity and intensity of air operations. In the Gulf War and during Inherent Resolve, U.S. leaders correctly applied airpower to achieve the operational aims of liberating illegally seized territory. In both cases, the United States sought to produce a durable outcome — the liberation of Kuwait, and the liberation of Iraqi and Syrian territory from ISIL rule.
In contrast, the goal of the recent strikes in Iraq and Syria is less clear. They were a proportional response to Iranian proxy attacks on U.S. facilities and forces in the Middle East, but the linkages of very discrete attacks on these particular targets to broader outcomes is tenuous. Instead, these strikes appear to be another half-hearted attempt at punitive or coercive diplomacy through airstrikes, which have historically failed to have the intended effect due to the limited nature of the attacks and the unclear links to goals.
Already, the Biden administration may be finding this out the hard way. Despite the strikes being intended as a deterrent measure, they have failed to halt attacks on U.S. equities in the region. The recent airstrikes were promptly met by the very type of drone attacks on a U.S. facility in Baghdad the administration sought to halt.
During the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, the Biden administration employed airstrikes to “do something” as Taliban forces have captured city after city. Initially, these strikes may have been to encourage the Afghans to “fight for themselves” as Biden has exhorted. This halfhearted support has failed to turn the tide in Afghanistan. Although a much more aggressive air campaign launched earlier could have blunted the Taliban’s offensive, alone it would not have defeated the Taliban. As the war against ISIL demonstrated, American airpower can halt an offensive, but it alone cannot liberate captured territory. A capable ground force is also needed. Yet, after 20 years of trying and billions of dollars invested, the Afghan military did not emerge as this partner and airpower alone will not liberate Afghanistan from the Taliban.
Airpower is an “unusually seductive” form of military power because of its immediate effects, distance from the battlefield, and relatively low-risk application. But there are right and wrong ways to apply airpower. Using advanced airpower capabilities in an operation with clear tactical goals — as evidenced by the Gulf War and Inherent Resolve — may achieve battlefield victories and support foreign policy aims with limited risk to U.S. forces. Employing airpower as a form of coercion in one-off strikes without a precise operational objective, or merely as a way of demonstrating action, is less impressive.
Presidents and their advisers should be mindful that, although innovations in warfighting may achieve tactical and operational aims, they do not guarantee strategic success. Today, although the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate has been destroyed, groups of well-financed fighters remain active, and the airstrikes against these targets continue. The combined effects of air and landpower can curb threats to regional stability, but they cannot defeat ideology.
At present, it appears as though the Biden administration has seized on airpower as the preferred tool to do something — even if it fails to achieve its purported goal — as opposed to doing nothing. But this approach has failed to deter further Iranian proxy attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq or to keep the Taliban from taking Kabul. Such actions appear mainly intended to appease domestic critics who accuse Biden of being weak on Iran or abandoning Afghanistan. Moreover, airpower not tied to broader objectives that align with national interests risks unintended consequences, which may undermine the administration’s longstanding plans to reduce the U.S. military presence in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and distract from the Pentagon’s efforts to focus on China.
The Biden administration should be careful to not fall under the siren song of airpower as its preferred method of response. There are times in which military power is the best tool— as was the case of Inherent Resolve, where only the combination of ground and airpower could roll back ISIL’s territorial advance. But there are times in which other instruments of power, particularly diplomacy, may do a better job of protecting U.S. interests, or it is simply best to do nothing. As such, the Biden administration should think twice before calling for airstrikes and should preserve military power for when it is truly needed.
Becca Wasser is a fellow in the defense program at the Center for a New American Security. Stacie L. Pettyjohn is a senior fellow and director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security. Together, they are the co-authors of “The Air War Against the Islamic State.”