This commentary comes courtesy of Colonel Clint Hinote, CFR’s U.S. Air Force fellow. He assesses the use and utility of targeted air strikes against ISIS, particularly against their Syrian base of operations, in the context of evolving air power targeting doctrine. He argues that the debate over whether or not U.S. air power will “destroy” ISIS largely misses the point as to the function and intent of these strikes. Disrupting the organization’s infrastructure and assets will refute its claim to “statehood,” blunting its momentum in the process.
The air strikes in Syria signify a departure from military operations over the past thirteen years and a return to strategic concepts that date back to Desert Storm. While supporting ground forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan, air forces largely used dynamic targeting, where a commander on the ground directs air attacks according to the situation. Because there are no ground forces in Syria, coalition forces are using deliberate targeting there, where numerous forms of intelligence are brought together to analyze the enemy and determine where strikes will have the most effect.
Both types of targeting have advantages and disadvantages, many of which are illustrated in Syria and Iraq today. In Syria, deliberate targeting through airstrikes is having significant effects in the short term, but these are likely to diminish over time as ISIS hides, disperses, and modifies its tactics. In Iraq, alternatively, the relative weakness of the friendly ground forces hinders the overall effort, even with dynamic targeting from the air. It is hoped that over time, momentum will develop as the ground forces organize themselves and take advantage of the asymmetry of airpower.
U.S. and coalition officers have gathered information from numerous sources and formed a picture of the ISIS network. This is not a perfect picture, but it can be very effective in determining where the network is vulnerable to airstrikes. Targets are chosen based on their importance to the overall function of the ISIS organization as well as the coalition’s ability to find and hit them. While this approach was adopted to guide bombing against Japan and Germany in World War II, the integration of key technologies in the 1980s—especially stealth and precision weaponry—created an opening from an obscure colonel in the Pentagon to advance the theory and propose a targeting framework prior to the 1991 Gulf War.
In 1990, as the planning for Desert Storm was underway, Colonel John Warden argued that precision airpower could be used to attack the most important parts of the enemy network from the first day of the war. If this was done correctly, it could shorten the war and prevent mass casualties on all sides. In Desert Storm, planners applied Colonel Warden’s model for the first time to analyze the Iraq regime (Warden later explained this model in an academic article).
This model identifies five main categories of an enemy system, in order of priority: leadership, system essentials, infrastructure, population (he did not advocate attacking them, but he knew others might), and fielded military forces. Warden represents these categories with five concentric rings:
Warden argues that the best strategy for weakening the enemy prioritizes targets from the inside out, not from the outside in, as was common in most wars. By hitting the most important targets—the ones closest to the center—in parallel over a short period of time, one can induce shock and paralysis, which Warden says will shorten the war and lead to a favorable settlement. This was, in essence, the concept that drove the “strategic air campaign” against Saddam Hussein in the initial phase of Desert Storm.
Warden’s concepts were controversial then, and they remain so today. There is great debate over whether one can paralyze the enemy through air targeting. Even if one can do so, there is disagreement over the desirability of inducing paralysis, because instead of peace, it may instead lead to chaos where new threats emerge and grow.
As military professionals have debated Warden’s concepts, many have adopted a more nuanced form of the original argument: while the concept of targeting from the inside out is logical, it will not usually shock the enemy into paralysis, because it is very difficult to obtain the level of intelligence required to destroy the targets and kill the leaders necessary to do so. Instead, attacking enemy targets in parallel applies broad pressure and weakens the organization until its remaining leaders choose to adapt—usually in ways they do not want. This proposition is being tested in Syria today.
It is straightforward to classify target sets in Syria according to the five rings model:
Warden’s Five Rings
|System Essentials||Training camps (flow of foreign fighters); oil refineries (to disrupt finances)|
|Infrastructure||Command and control; storage facilities|
|Population||Use strikes to stop ISIS forces from engaging friendly population; deliver humanitarian aid|
|Fighting Forces||Armored vehicles, tanks, artillery, fighting positions|
The military strategy in Syria is to put broad pressure on ISIS using air attacks across these target sets. While some may think this will paralyze ISIS, most military leaders do not. Instead, they expect that it will greatly increase the problems for ISIS leadership and force them to adapt in ways that hinder their effectiveness, such as forcing them to evacuate their headquarters, disperse their forces, stay on the move, and adopt alternate means of training, communication, and resupply.
Airpower can do a lot to weaken ISIS and force its leaders to make a set of difficult choices. ISIS leaders have chosen to hold territory, a central element of their claim to the Islamic caliphate. As long as they hold this territory, they will be tied to buildings, bases, camps, defensive fortifications, and other forms of infrastructure that are vulnerable to attack from the air. They will pay a heavy price. Alternatively, if they decide to melt into the population, they will give up their claim of being the true caliphate.
Much of the momentum that ISIS enjoyed this past summer was due to their success in taking and holding this territory. Their leaders will not want to give it up. Therefore, they must deal with the horns of a dilemma, and the coalition must now apply sustained pressure so that the sanctuary ISIS found in Syria is a distant memory.
It has become fashionable to say that airstrikes will not destroy ISIS. This misses the point. No form of military power—ground, air, or anything else—can “destroy”the ideology, disillusionment, and anger that fuels ISIS, al-Qa’ida, Khorasan, and the Taliban. The best ground forces in the world were not able to do this over more than a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the end, it is the population that must reject the ideology, and until they do, the best that military power can to is to weaken ISIS through sustained asymmetric attacks. This can buy time and space for regional leaders to organize to solve the problem.
Colonel Clint Hinote, U.S. Air Force, is a Military Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He holds a PhD in military strategy, and he recently returned from Korea, where he commanded the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan Air Base. The conclusions and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government.