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The Air Campaign Against ISIS: Understanding What Air Strikes Can Do—and What They Can’t

by Clint Hinote
September 30, 2014

A U.S Air Force KC-10 Extender refuels an F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft prior to strike operations in Syria in this September 26, 2014 photo released on September 29, 2014. These aircraft were part of a strike package that was engaging ISIL targets in Syria. (Russ Scalf/Courtesy Reuters)


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:


The “five-ring model,” developed by Colonel John A. Warden III, USAF, provides a strategic framework for understanding adversary systems. (Wikimedia Commons)

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

Target Sets

Leadership  Leadership/headquarters
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.

Post a Comment 8 Comments

  • Posted by Old Marine

    Yet another article about something that has been debated since the inception of military aviation. I think we can all agree that air power alone will never win a war. At least the author expands this to include “..ground, air, or anything else…” in addressing this new threat.
    So when do we address this new reality? Or is it really new? I submit that it is not new. It is not all that different from the extreme mindset we were faced with in Japan during WW2. What is different is our current lack of political will and concern for political correctness.(or whatever term is in vogue)
    I don’t lay this at the feet of the current administration, not totally, anyway. But rather at the US constituency. While none of have colonial yearnings, we must recognize that to truly impact a region or country that is in turmoil, especially in large part to our own military exploits, we must commit to a long term presence there.
    According to John Dower, in his book Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor/Hiroshima/9-11/Iraq, the factors behind the success of the occupation were:

    Discipline, moral legitimacy, well-defined and well-articulated objectives, a clear chain of command, tolerance and flexibility in policy formulation and implementation, confidence in the ability of the state to act constructively, the ability to operate abroad free of partisan politics back home, and the existence of a stable, resilient, sophisticated civil society on the receiving end of occupation policies – these political and civic virtues helped make it possible to move decisively during the brief window of a few years when defeated Japan itself was in flux and most receptive to radical change.

    Many of us think of the Middle East as barbaric, “uncivilized” and therefore not a good comparison to Japan. I disagree, I think that, like most people, a majority of them do want a stable society with security and some form of representative government.
    Our challenge is to accept this reality and devise a plan, based in part on our own experiences from the post WW2 era. I fear that this plan must include a very long-term presence. The first big challenge is selling it to the American public.

  • Posted by Paul Darling

    We would all applaud a re-writing of airpower doctrine to reflect reality and your blog post is a good first start. However, you cannot speak of airpower in terms such as, “attacking enemy targets in parallel applies broad pressure” without abandoning US Air Force doctrine in toto. Both the US Joint and US Air Doctrinal foundations are built upon the concept of massing effects at the decisive point. (Center of Gravity if you are feeling Prussian). If we wish to acknowledge that some enemies have an untargetable Center of Gravity, then using a targeting doctrine that is based upon the fundamental assumption that your enemy has a Center of Gravity is inherently flawed. If the US Air Force’s now unwritten doctrine is bombing annoyances into perpetuity (witness Iraq from 1991-2003) then they should clearly state that to both the President and the American People. And then clearly state the commensurate cost of using 200 million dollar airframes to bomb non-state actors lacking even rudimentary air defense capabiilities.

    Or the Air Force could get out of the small war business and focus, once again, on the nuclear mission which was their reason of being and a mission they have all but abandoned.

  • Posted by True Logic

    I’m sure you and the White House didn’t quite factor in that these “ground troops” would be tucking tail and running like they are. Wait…these are the same Iraqis that tucked tail and ran in the first Gulf War. The second war wasn’t fought against them. It was fought against the insurgents. So we are stupid enough to assess that those same types of fighters from the first war are going to keep fighting with some air support. Lol. That is plain stupid thinking. That’s why you don’t have a community organizer as PoTUS. Especially when he thinks he knows everything about every situation. Not listening to his military advisors just shows how much he has his head straight up his ***. Good luck “controlling, cutting of their supply routes, disrupting their command and control structure, and whatever other terms” you want to throw around. If anyone thinks bombing these guys is going to change their minds one bit, they are insane. They haven’t backed down yet. Moved away from the bombing areas like someone with a brain would do. They will just pick their targets more smart, and become more patient. Absolutely no way will an air campaign alone win against an enemy that hides amongst the people. Those boots on the ground there are Iraqi boots that the soldiers took off and ran in case you are wondering.

  • Posted by Tom

    His bottom line is fine, and accurate…but in total opposition to what our President is telling us

  • Posted by Frank Hayes

    Colonel Hinote, Sir, Thanks for your great article, insight and analysis of the terrorist state of ISIS, precise targeting and emphasizing the ever importance of intelligence, a major step for public understanding of a complex military operation in uncharted territory. Very Respectfully, Frank Hayes

  • Posted by Blair Stewart

    Agree with True Logic. ISIS reminds me of tje VC/NVA, the difference being in SEA the enemy hid not only amongst the population, but also in the vast jungle. While today we enjoy vastly improved precision guided munitions and improved tech intel (not humint), the “fly in the ointment” remains: as long as ISIS can hide amongst the population, and we in the West are virtually paralyzed by the thought of killing a single “innocent” civilian, no amount of airpower in the world will solve this problem. Colonel Hinote notes that “[airpower can] buy time and space for regional leaders to organize to solve the problem.” Perhaps, but given the history of determined enemies the United States and other western nations have faced over the past forty or so years, we are most likely doomed to a long, expensive air campaign, and the longer it drags out the more risk of an incident/accident that ISIS will be able to use to their advantage on the world stage.

  • Posted by LTG (R) Guy Swan

    Colonel Hinote’s comments are on the mark. No single element of U.S. military power will be decisive in the fight against ISIS or any other enemy for that matter. When ISIS forces go to ground, hide, and disperse, airpower effectiveness is reduced (as is the enemy’s). To “regenerate” targets it is imperative to drive ISIS from it’s santuaries among the population. This is where ground forces and air forces can be mutually supporting. So, the issue is not “either or,” but rather how to maximize complimentery capabilitities.

  • Posted by Justin Lawlor

    I think that both logic and recent history demonstrate that Western democracies are more susceptible to Wardenesque targeting than faith-inspired, personality-driven, low tech/no tech network states vs. traditional nation-states.

    As IS transitions to a more organized (if still counter-Westphalian) governance model, the target set available for airpower will be more and more “civilian.” Then, we have the nesting philosophical question to answer; namely, is the civil/military distinction relevant to defeat what is morphing into a nearly complete population-centric military more total than Revolutionary France or Bolshevik Russia?

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