From Forever Wars to Great-Power Wars: Lessons Learned From Operation Inherent Resolve
Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a two-part series on airpower and Operation Inherent Resolve. The first article explores the evolution of airpower since Operation Desert Storm.
What lessons can be gleaned from recent U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria that are relevant for a potential future war against a great-power adversary like China or Russia?
The U.S. Department of Defense is attempting to make the long overdue pivot from focusing on the Middle East to shoring up deterrence in the Indo-Pacific and Europe by improving its ability to prevail in large-scale combat against a great power. But it is important that the Pentagon does not relegate the lessons learned from its recent operational experience in the Middle East to the trash bin. Aaron Stein and Ryan Fishel argue that the U.S. Air Force needs to prepare for proxy war scenarios akin to Syria. The Defense Department undoubtedly should learn from its experience competing with Russia and Iran in Syria below the threshold of conventional war. But it can and should also learn lessons from U.S. operations in the Middle East for great-power conflict as well.
The war to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), known as Operation Inherent Resolve, presented one of the most permissive operating environments U.S. airpower could expect. Issues that emerged in this environment are likely to be far more acute against a more capable adversary. American military operations in the Middle East highlighted clear deficiencies in some missions that would be essential to winning a future great-power conventional war. U.S. forces should address the vulnerabilities identified during this conflict related to deliberate targeting, operating in contested airspace, and integrating air- and ground-based fires to prepare for future great-power conflict.
Preplanned Airstrikes Struggle to Keep Up With the Speed of Modern Warfare
As the U.S. military prepares for war against a great power, military leaders have re-emphasized developing offensive platforms and weapons systems to improve firepower. Currently, U.S. air operations are centered around an air operations center that preplans deliberate airstrikes as a part of a 72-hour air-tasking cycle. In Operation Inherent Resolve, however, the deliberate targeting process routinely took “from days to weeks.” This proved to be too slow to keep up with a highly adaptive adversary and rapidly changing battlefield.
The deliberate targeting process struggled due to the absence of an initial list of ISIL targets, insufficient numbers of intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft to simultaneously support ground operations and deliberate target development, and a stovepiped and undermanned intelligence process. Because ISIL had few fixed targets, such as buildings or airfields, U.S. forces tried to preplan strikes against headquarters; cash and weapons stores; and oil production, processing, and distribution operations. ISIL was able to stay ahead of U.S. forces’ deliberate targeting cycle by relocating mobile targets like oil trucks or regularly transferring weapons, cash, and fighters from one location to another before deliberate targets could be approved. ISIL also hid forces and assets among civilians to further complicate targeting.
In a great-power war, U.S. forces are unlikely to have the luxury of days or weeks to plan air and missile strikes if they want to stop a fait accompli and defeat invading Chinese or Russian forces. Unlike in Operation Inherent Resolve, U.S. forces will likely have an existing prioritized target list they can take off the shelf. But, after those initial strikes, it is not clear that a 72-hour deliberate targeting process will be fast enough to keep up with the adversary or be capable of supporting all-domain operations in the way that U.S. forces are envisioning. In a fast-paced, high-intensity conflict, unexpected adversary actions, battlefield developments, and damage inflicted on U.S. forces will likely render advance planning irrelevant or inexecutable. The air-tasking cycle was created to produce effective and efficient air operations, while minimizing the risk to U.S. forces. It has worked well against less-capable adversaries. But, in a war against a great power, U.S. forces will likely need to accept more risk and inefficiency if they want to survive, let alone have a chance of winning.
Moreover, if the American goal is to halt an attack, the most important target sets — such as ships, tanks, aircraft, air defenses, and missile launchers — are likely to be mobile and thus will need to be targeted dynamically. Yet, before U.S. forces can engage mobile enemy targets, they need to be able to find them, which historically has been a significant problem. There are reasons to believe that finding mobile targets would be more difficult in a high-end conflict than it was in the desert. Planners should assume that, like ISIL, Russia and China will use unmarked forces, camouflage concealment and deception, and mobility to disguise the identity and location of their forces. A combination of forward air controllers and forward command posts may allow the United States to find some mobile targets in Europe. But the U.S. forces will likely struggle to find targets in an adversary’s heavily defended homeland and in dense urban environments. A lack of air and information superiority may further complicate targeting in a future conflict with China, as American forces may struggle to accurately target military ships from range, wasting sophisticated cruise missiles on decoys in a cluttered maritime environment. Deliberate targeting is likely to play a peripheral role in air operations against a great power because of the large number of mobile targets, the pace of operations, and the urgency associated with accomplishing certain missions.
American Forces Are Not Prepared to Operate in Highly Contested Battlespaces
Preparation for future conflict with China and Russia is predicated on U.S. forces operating in a contested environment. But the recent U.S. experience in Syria in merely a congested air environment — rather than a contested one — illustrates just how difficult this will be for U.S. forces as they contend with different forms of physical and informational denial.
Unlike China or Russia, ISIL did not have the advanced capabilities to challenge American forces in the air, at sea, or in space. But U.S. forces did find themselves operating in close proximity to more-capable Russian, Syrian, and Iranian air forces in Syria during Inherent Resolve. Some U.S. troops found that they were unprepared and uncomfortable maneuvering around potentially hostile forces in a busy and congested air environment, where U.S. forces only had tacit approval to operate in Syrian airspace. This was further complicated by Russia’s deployment of sophisticated surface-to-air missiles, which posed a potential threat to U.S. and partner aircraft.
Years of operations without any air-to-air engagements, and in which almost every weapon released was approved at a high level and scrutinized after the fact, had left U.S. pilots initially reluctant to act in self-defense against emerging threats. While there were several air-to-air incidents, including U.S. shootdowns of a Syrian Su-22 Fitter attack aircraft and two Iranian-made Shahed 129 unmanned aerial systems, these only occurred after senior U.S. commanders stressed the importance of self-defense and initiative to troops. U.S. forces have become accustomed to needing approval before acting, which was appropriate and needed to protect innocent civilians in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations. But the flipside is that this may have instilled a hesitancy that a great-power adversary could exploit.
Because Russia and China both have extensive integrated air and missile defense systems and mobile air defenses organic to their maneuver units, the United States will not have air supremacy at the outset of a conflict. This means that U.S. strike aircraft will not be able to loiter over an area hunting for targets without assuming great risk, and accompanied by aircraft to defend them. These U.S. forces should be authorized and prepared to undertake defensive and offensive operations because they will likely be challenged by adversary air defenses and air forces. In future great-power conflict, U.S. military personnel will need to become more risk-acceptant and empowered to act without receiving explicit approval from their commanders. This is especially true in a degraded communications environment, as commanders may not be reachable to provide authorization.
Both Chinese and Russian military thought emphasizes the need to fight and win an informationalized war or an information confrontation. Their war plans emphasize attacking critical U.S. information systems and command nodes in the space, cyber, and physical domains to limit U.S. forces’ ability to collect, process, and share information, thereby degrading U.S. commanders’ situational awareness and undermining their ability to effectively command and control their forces and win a conflict. It is likely, therefore, that communications, especially long-haul communications, will be disrupted during parts of a great-power conflict. American commanders have become dependent on a level of connectivity, and on having real-time visibility into the battlefield, while they sit thousands of miles away thanks to the proliferation of remotely piloted aircraft sending back live video feeds.
China and Russia’s ability to directly challenge U.S. forces and to degrade and disrupt U.S. communications suggests that it will be nearly impossible to exercise highly centralized command and control, as seen in Inherent Resolve. This will necessitate workarounds like mission command. An inability of forward-deployed forces to communicate with the air operations center will also encourage a shift away from deliberate targeting to forward units independently finding and engaging targets dynamically in a potential future war with a great power. Today, this would be challenging. U.S. forces need to train in information and communication-degraded environments, have the capabilities to plan and coordinate operations, and practice making decisions independently at lower levels of command so that they are willing and able to seize the initiative when disconnected from higher headquarters.
U.S. Commanders Need a Dynamic and Agile Way of Managing Airspace
Future U.S. military operating concepts center around the idea of being able to launch coordinated air, ground, and maritime strikes with offensive cyber, space, and electronic warfare effects. Implementing all-domain operations requires linking different military systems so they can pass information to each other, but it also necessitates coordinating and integrating these different fires. Longstanding doctrinal inconsistencies, particularly as they relate to battlespace management and air-to-ground integration, proved to be a persistent source of tension between the Air Force and the Army during Inherent Resolve. This is likely to become more problematic in the future as the Army fields increasingly long-range missiles, and future U.S. warfighting concepts require seamlessly and quickly combining air, sea, and ground missile strikes.
Battlefield geometry — the division of the battlespace into separate areas of operations with different fire control measures — was an area of disagreement that tapped into longstanding interservice rivalries over the appropriate roles for air and ground power in combat. In Inherent Resolve, an evolved and less contentious version of this debate continued. Many Air Force officers felt airpower was constrained by battlespace geometry that prioritized the ground component. They argued that fewer limits would have allowed airpower to be applied more flexibly, aggressively, and efficiently, thereby accelerating ISIL’s defeat. In contrast, ground commanders wanted to focus airpower on supporting the near fight and sought to have large portions of the battlespace under their control. The ground component prevailed, as resource and battlespace allocation favored the near fight over the deep one. This required a level of air-to-ground integration that slowed the pace of airstrikes.
Additionally, salvos of long-range rockets and missiles launched from Army or Marine Corps High Mobility Artillery Rocket System batteries had to be deconflicted with airstrikes. During large battles, U.S. commanders managed congested airspace with as many as 40 aircraft on station and several ground-based artillery units in place. Airspace management issues made it difficult to provide joint fires at the speed and volume that ground commanders desired. In an effort to solve this problem, the airspace was either divided with part assigned to aircraft and another part to artillery, or it was closed to aircraft to allow artillery to freely fire.
Neither of these offers a viable means of coordinating fires against a great power that has better defenses and a greater ability to threaten American forces. Time is not on the U.S. side in such a fight, and U.S. ground-based missiles are unlikely to be able to find and hit an enemy target before it moves or enhances its defenses if the airspace first needs to be cleared. Moreover, neither approach tightly integrates air and ground strikes, let alone rapidly delivers them to simultaneously present an adversary with multiple dilemmas or threats — a critical component of the forthcoming joint warfighting concept.
As the United States develops its warfighting concept for a high-end conflict, Inherent Resolve highlights the yawning gap between today’s reality and tomorrow’s aspirations. The Department of Defense is counting on artificial intelligence and machine learning to fuse sensor data from across domains into a common operating picture and to dynamically manage the battlespace, enabling U.S. forces to make decisions faster than the enemy and achieve “decision dominance.” In the interim, the joint force — and particular the Army and the Air Force — needs to continue the dialogue on airspace management and work to find more agile ways of managing it.
As the Department of Defense continues to reshape the U.S. military so that it is better able to defeat aggression by a great-power adversary that can contest U.S. forces in all domains, it should take stock of how it performed and what it has learned in recent wars. These conflicts yield lessons for great-power competition and warfighting. An examination of U.S. operations in Syria and Iraq reveals that some American high-end warfighting skills have atrophied. Reinvigorating these proficiencies and developing improved ways of carrying out these missions will be essential if the United States finds itself in a large-scale war against China or Russia.
The Defense Department cannot simply wish away these problems or expect that advanced technologies will solve these issues. Technologies that automate currently manual processes and accelerate the speed of decision-making are necessary parts of the solution, but they alone are not sufficient. Questions about authorities need to be resolved, new processes and procedures should be developed, and American personnel should be trained so that they are prepared to effectively execute critical missions while challenged by a capable adversary. The Department of Defense should examine how it can improve its ability to rapidly and flexibly target enemy forces, integrate fires from multiple domains, and manage the battlespace today in order to win in tomorrow’s fight.
Stacie Pettyjohn is a senior fellow and director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security. Becca Wasser is a fellow in the defense program and co-lead of the Gaming Lab at the Center for a New American Security. Together, they are the co-authors of “The Air War Against the Islamic State: The Role of Airpower in Operation Inherent Resolve.”