The use of air power to stop the advance of the Islamic State (IS) rebels in Syria and Iraq does not seem to be succeeding. For one, the IS cadre is battle-hardened, having seen action in Iraq and, some say, in Afghanistan, too, while the other is the limitations of air power. Buoyed with recruits from the West, who bring with them education and sophistication of the modern kind, the IS has slowly advanced up to the Turkish border. That the Turks are playing a double game, ensuring that their own Kurdish problem does not get a fillip, is for all to see—but it has indeed been a sad sight on television to see Turkish Army tanks perched on the hillock overlooking the Syrian border town of Kobane while the killings go on in full view of everyone. Better sense seems to be dawning, as latest reports indicate a change in Turkish thinking to permit Kurdish fighters to go across its borders.
Getting back to air power, it is indeed surprising that it is still being seen as a panacea for all conflicts. While the advantages of the third medium were acknowledged after the advent of the aeroplane in the First World War, air power made a splash in the eyes of the common man on the street after its spectacular showing in Op Desert Storm in 1991 with its precision weaponry videos being broadcast ad nauseam. Its import can be gauged from the fact that even the normally bureaucratic and rule-bound United Nations (UN) went into an overdrive and 15 new peacekeeping missions were started in the following two years whereas only 17 had been commenced in the previous 45 years!
An instrument to bring victory without many casualties to one’s own personnel seemed to have been found, or so the politicians thought. So, one saw Op Deliberate Force being conducted under the UN flag in Bosnia followed by Op Allied Force in Kosovo and the flurry of subsequent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Libyan “segment” of Arab Spring had air power written all over and so was its imprint in the French campaign in Mali against the Al-Qaeda-led Islamic rebels in 2013.
The moot point is: has air power lived up to the trust placed in it or has it become a victim of its seductiveness due to television footage?
Barring the weapons of Gods, no vehicle of force is all-powerful. The Clausewitzian dictum that “war is a continuation of policy by other means” is the all-encompassing phrase that lays bare the truth that the armed forces of a nation are always subservient to its political arm. So while instant destruction can be caused by air power, and a battle won, the final aim of war can only be accomplished politically. While air power can destroy a bridge, a bunker or a building, how does it attack an ideology from the air? Ideology and beliefs are all resident in the human mind and in addressing them air power has serious limitations.
And what is the Islamic State, if not a belief driving an aim? The answer lies in utilising the special attributes of air power of reach, mobility, flexibility and fire power and its stupendous Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capability to drive the political agenda. This is easier said than done, as casualty sensitivity is very high in the West and becomes the politically driving factor for engaging the adversary through means that do not result in body bags coming back home; thus, air power, willy-nilly, becomes the weapon of first choice in the attempts to deliver instant results.
How does one use air power to good effect? Op Deliberate Force in Bosnia in 1995 showed that a coordinated campaign with ground forces and some deft behind-the-scenes political manoeuvring proved, both to the Bosniac and the Serb leadership, that their salvation and hold on the power they wielded lay only in a political accord; thus, three weeks of coordinated and sustained air power usage brought in the Dayton Accords.
On the other hand is the Israeli example of the use of disproportionately high force, mainly through air power, to enforce their style of “cumulative deterrence”. While it is true that the state of Israel has managed longer durations of relative peace between deterrence breakdowns, the fact remains that permanent peace would remain a chimera, despite all the fire power available to their leadership, till a political solution is found to the Palestinian problem.
The crux of the matter is to get air power to aid in changing the adversarial mindset and political decision making for the long term. No amount of badgering from the air can drive an ideologically motivated opponent to succumb in the long term.
In the case of the Islamic State, the only way out is to get a political cohesion going among the disparate state and non-state actors and the pulls they exercise in the conflict; though difficult, this is a sine qua non for any strategy to succeed. But, if one continues to see the spectacle of Turkey playing its own game with its Kurdish problem and its hatred for the Assad regime and Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the disparate Kurdish groups pulling at cross purposes, then no amount of air power would be able to stop the IS onslaught.
Desperate times demand desperate measures. At present, the barbarism of the Islamic State is indicative of the extreme danger that the movement represents, not just for the area but for the world at large.
The way air power is being employed by the US-led coalition represents a palliative usage which makes for good theatrics and television viewing; even the grant of permission by Turkey for use of its air bases (if press reports are to be believed) will not make much difference. Using the full destructive potential of air power, along with politically coercive measures to instil cohesion amongst the disparate groups fighting the IS, is the only sure way to success.
The writer, a retired Air Vice Marshal, is a distinguished fellow at Centre for Air Power Studies.