Small Wars Journal

Airpower and ISIS: Encouraging Battlefield Innovation from Tactical Leaders

Thu, 08/27/2015 - 8:06pm

Airpower and ISIS: Encouraging Battlefield Innovation from Tactical Leaders

A.C. Hall

Today, the U.S. once again finds itself projecting airpower against another radical enemy in the Middle East. Though the fight is on familiar terrain, this is a new conflict and the battle will be different. For the tactical leader, it will be easy to get complacent and attempt to project airpower by picking up where previous generations left off. It will be easy to revert to the same old tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP). The problem is that the enemy is significantly different, their dynamic is different, and due to political and diplomatic rationale, U.S. resources are different. In order to succeed, battlefield innovation will be required. The tactical leader will need the courage to move past old intellect and embrace innovation.

This innovation begins with an understanding that the enemy, ISIS, is strategically and ideologically different. During the Iraq War, the enemy sought to franchise terrorism out to multiple autonomously running cells with an objective to inflict as much damage on the West and its allies as possible. Their objective was to terrorize and create instability with the hopes of one day establishing a caliphate. ISIS on the other hand, already claims to have established a caliphate. Their primary objective is to acquire and hold territories while establishing a hierarchy of leadership with strict mediaeval governance. Remaining relevant is key and they must hold and control these territories in order to do so. The strategic problem set for the U.S. and its allies rests in their ability to develop clearly defined objectives that deny and degrade this relevancy.

After the strategic objectives are set, empowering tactical leaders to aggressively press out and apply their own tactical intellect in support of these objectives becomes essential. In order to succeed, tactical leaders must develop their own objectives by capitalizing on both intellect and innovation just as those who came before. Many of the Air Force’s current leaders, those that came before, were born out of previous conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. They were the authors and innovators of many of the tactics and lessons learned of today. For over a decade, the previous generation of tactical leaders contributed to the development of counter insurgency (COIN), military operation in urban terrain (MOUT), close air support (CAS) and many other TTP. To compliment innovation, these tactical leaders captured countless lessons learned in order to solidify tactical intellect for future generations. These innovators were the tactical leaders at the time making the real-time decisions that shaped the battlefield.

History has shown that tactical units with the odds stacked against them can achieve significant victories because of great leaders who lacked fear to innovate. Today’s employment of airpower is no different. This innovation begins with the establishment of clear objectives. The objectives set at the tactical level should always be specific, measurable, attainable, and realistic. Each objective should have a tangible impact on the overall strategic objectives and tactical intellect must be the driving force behind both the setting and prosecution of objectives.

A crucial element to this rests with leadership’s ability to ensure that tactical airpower leaders are in a position to enable joint planning and integration. Tactical leaders can employ the most phenomenal tactical intellect and epitomize innovation, yet if their efforts are not joint, expect marginalized successes and possibly failure. Airpower alone will not be sufficient. In order to achieve the strategic objectives, the tactical objectives must be developed utilizing a combined and focused effort between tactical leaders of both air and ground forces. To this end, tactical leaders should be encouraged to refrain from limiting themselves to the same decision matrix of old thought based only on the previous engagements of Iraq and Afghanistan. Due to the nature of this evolving conflict, tactical problems will inevitably exist. Together, tactical leaders of air and ground units must work together to create innovative solutions to these tactical problems.

These innovative solutions will take many forms in the battle against ISIS. They may exist as new TTP that results from an evolving threat, technological workarounds to address shortfalls, a more efficient/effective strike process, a different approach to improving partner nation resolve, or an infinite number of other possibilities. The specific form of this innovation is insignificant so long as it is encouraged and enabled. The goal for leaders at all levels should be to fend off insufficient thought processes that lack innovation. When this occurs, in the absence of guidance from above, the tactical leader will be more likely to set their own objectives that align with the overall strategic guidance and project airpower more effectively.

It is important to note that encouraging tactical leaders to innovate on the battlefield does not vindicate them from thoroughly understanding lessons learned. Capturing and disseminating lessons learned is one of the most important elements for improving the way an enterprise does business and it boosts a unit’s ability to repeat successes and not mistakes. To defeat this enemy, tactical leaders can never forget the value of the lessons learned, but must also remove any reluctance to create new ones. This will only serve to enhance airpower capabilities and effectiveness on the battlefield.

The United Stated Air Force is comprised of exceptionally capable leaders at all levels. In order to succeed in its projection of airpower against ISIS, leadership at all levels must empower and encourage the tactical level leader to make decisions that will shape the battlefield and encourage them to innovate. The tactical leader must embrace this reality and aggressively fulfill this duty. Once fulfilled, the ability to remain flexible and move past a fear of change will ensure the U.S. achieves a decisive victory against this enemy.


Move Forward

Sun, 08/30/2015 - 11:45am

In reply to by ACH

While your optimistic enthusiasm is admirable, and service in current and past conflict is indisputably appreciated, a questionable area in your piece is the implied emphasis on USAF and SOF/SF innovative solutions as if those are all that are required. Joint and DImE innovation is just as critical. Reluctance of one civil leader to employ troops on the ground is no reason to abandon that necessity, particularly since bombing without a stabilizing ground presence is an invitation to perpetual warfare. Bombing Sunni terrain on behalf of Shiites or seizing it with Shiite forces also won’t achieve stability, nor will essentially ignoring Assad who also kills Sunnis.

You do nail it in implying successes of past Joint innovation (liked your linked Singapore Armed Forces Colonel’s article) but you downplay innovation successes of recent wars. The winner of the JLTV competition was announced this week which is a clear evolution of the MRAP and M-ATV into a smaller, more deployable and off-road mobile package due to experiences of these wars. Likewise, the evolution of ISR is another innovation, as is the continued improvement in rotary wing aviation. However, perhaps you forgot to mention how reluctance to change often stands in the way of innovation.

Case in point is the often puzzling resistance to the F-35 and defense of "tried and true" A-10s and F-16s that never had to face substantial radar threats and that have large radar signatures. The same argument could apply to AC-130s. It would be great if we always could fly our plentiful 4th generation fighters, A-10s, or AC-130s anywhere we needed them, but modern air defenses and fighter jet threats prohibit that innovation causing other solutions to be explored.

Other cross-domain innovative solutions would be to look at the 300 knot A-10 cruise speed and postulate that a nearly as fast tilt rotor future vertical lift aircraft could get to a TIC rapidly, and also could hover and launch Hellfires and use a less armor-oriented (and collateral damage causing) gun to exploit terrain masking when near air defense threats. They could originate from FOBs closer to troops than major airfields to compensate for the minor 50 knot speed difference. Another innovative solution would involve focusing on missiles and bombs launched from aircraft like the F-35 to exploit stealth, medium altitude, and stand-off to survive air defenses, while fully prepared to defeat any intervening threat fighter jets—something the A-10 is ill-prepared to do. JTACs and CPs will have future innovative tools to exchange information with F-35 pilots who also can literally see through their cockpits to spot and identify ground threats and friendly forces from high above.

The primary problem of the innovative solution of relying on bombers for CAS is the historical air-to-air threat. A B-1 may be able to fly over Kobani for hours on end, but could it do it over Damascus or Iran with adversary jets and air defenses brought to bear. Could an LRS-B penetrate China or Russia without a fighter escort and without leading to a nuclear exchange? Nevertheless, I thought these recent articles about a B-1 unit in Syria were illustrative of both innovation using non-stealthy bombers and they exemplify the exaggerated A2/AD threat posed by Chinese Second Artillery Corps missiles.……

Note that in five months, this unit dropped around 2000 bombs in Syria and Iraq (about the missile total of the entire Second Artillery Corps) with about a third (660 bombs cited) dropped on the small city of Kobani. Spreading this many bombs over an extended period over uncontested airspace found and finished only about 1,000 ISIL fighters, and 57 of the strikes may have caused 459 civilian deaths and up to 48 “friendly fire” deaths of Kurd fighters. From the links listed above:

<blockquote>In all, the squadron dropped more than 2,000 joint direct attack munitions during its six-month rotation, a number that was “way, way more” than the squadron had dropped on any six-month rotation since at least 2010.</blockquote>

Contrast these rather mixed results given the target-rich environment described with the potential damage inflicted by 660 short-range Chinese missiles of comparable explosive power that might hit dug-in and dispersed targets in Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan. They could not launch all 2,000 of their missiles simultaneously because they wouldn’t have anything remaining to address the coming coalition reinforcements. Should we be all that concerned given that only tens of missiles might hit each target and most of our “dry powder” would be stateside? Should we worry when the larger challenge of a Taiwan Strait crossing would be far more difficult and would encounter motivated ROC troops defending their island? Similarly, would Kobani have even fallen were it not for the Kurd fighters? From the links listed above:

<blockquote>The air power wasn’t the main key to the victory in Kobani, according to the Dyess airmen. It was the Kurds themselves, and their ability to fight will continue to be a deciding factor in the future of the operation.

“There were times we were bombing across the street, and as soon as the weapons were going off, they are charging into the rubble to take out what’s left and move forward that line of troops to the next block,” Maj. Johnson said. “It’s an amazing job the [Kurdish forces] did and how they are, more so than air power, critical to victory in Kobani.”</blockquote>

Should we look to the Kurds as an example offering decades of NATO and South Korean levels of deterrence with similarly low levels of casualties and ability to raid into areas to support moderate Sunnis forces and Kurd allies? Would a medium future vertical lift utility counter-rotating blade helicopter expand the range and endurance of such raids allowing forces to be inserted and withdrawn frequently without the need for extensive ground sustainment? Even today’s AH-64E and UH-60M offer that solution if we help Kurds seize terrain and establish a nation-state of their own where we can safely base. That solution would avoid the constant IED attacks that killed/maimed half our troops and would not require much effort to win hearts and minds of Kurds who already like us. Such Army and Marine aircraft likewise could put our troops onto Taiwan from adjacent allied territory and ships if China was to grossly miscalculate thinking that missile attacks and a larger-than-Normandy distance amphibious crossing would defeat the ROC Army.

So while innovation is an appealing and valuable if able to overcome resistance to change, is the airpower/SOF innovation you imply here really strategic, or just a means of accumulating body count while minimizing annual defense expenditures? Degrade and destroy? How about stabilize? Despite killing a claimed 10,000 ISIL fighters, our bombing has not reduced Daesh recruitment, retaken much terrain, and has not diminished radical Sunni motivation. How do USAF/SF/SOF operations bridge that Sunni-Shiite divide when we openly support a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq and ignore the one in and supporting Syria? How will giving Iran $150 billion in unfrozen assets help deter Hezbollah terror and support for Iraq, Assad, and Yemen Houthis?

Beyond Iraq-Syria, how do we cause the Taliban and ISIL to quit expanding their influence and guerrilla attacks when we essentially advertise we will do nothing to stop them other than bomb? ISIL even masses in the face of that bombing, yet does so while ensuring they rapidly swarm in multiple untargeted areas and then embed amongst civilians to limit our airpower’s ability to target them. How does USAF/SF/SOF fix the Assad mess when they won’t engage it, or if they did exclusively from the air, a too rapid fall could lead to Alawite genocide and an ISIL expansion?

I’m all for innovation as my blog name implies. But that name was a response to another named “Backward Observer.” We do nothing but move <strong>backward</strong> when we allow DImE failures to be blamed on our military. We ignore long periods of occupation that followed WWII and led to long-term peace and new allies. We abandon Vietnam and fail to bomb a conventional 1975 invasion that could have resulted in a separate South Vietnam just as a successful South Korea exists. Desert Storm showed that failure to exploit and consolidate gains is only a half-solution. Twelve years later, when the Army CoS tells Congress that hundreds of thousands of troops are needed to stabilize Iraq but we try to do it on the cheap in 2003, is it a military failure? By 2008, we achieved stability following the Iraq Surge and Anbar Awakening but then abandoned the Sunnis and wonder why extremism returns?

Is it a military or DImE failure to look back to WWI borders and insist they are sacrosanct? Is it a military failure to employ insufficient troops to secure new or existing Iraq infrastructure that insurgents promptly blow-up? Can insufficient troops clear and hold while simultaneously transitioning by training new host nation security forces rapidly? Which costs more, a five-year properly-resourced war at $150 billion annually ($750 billion) or a 15-year war at $50 billion annually ($750 billion) that then has far more veterans requiring long-term care and more dead American Soldiers/Marines? Do historical Army budget cuts following six major wars lead to greater all-at-once costs to rapidly fix that Army when the next war occurs? How is proper-resourcing of any war possible with a 420,000 active Army that leads to the seven-tour (six for 12 months, one for 9 months) CW5 Apache pilot I recently ran into again following his latest tour away from his family?

Airpower and SOF are fantastic tools, but let’s not delude ourselves into believing that they alone solve our long-term security problems through innovation. They cannot substitute for massed Joint coalitions that include ground forces for offense, defense, and stability operations. Peace in most of Europe and in South Korea has resulted from decades of ground presence, not a cowardly retreat from A2/AD threats or perceptions that our own borders and isolationist DImE efforts are all that matter. It is difficult to envision any effective diplomatic, sanction, information-ops, or “build” effort succeeding in ISIL-controlled territory, we soon will find it failing in Iran with sanctions lifted, and we see no DImE efforts stopping Russia’s Putin and none effective against China.


Sat, 08/29/2015 - 4:26pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill, you have realized the deliberate void of my discussion and have made an excellent point with your final quote. This article was written to encourage tactical level leadership to continue to think outside the box and to encourage those that lead them to continue to foster an environment where they could capitalize on innovation in the absence of clear strategic guidance (in addition to the discussion which I’m confident it will generate). Those that operate at the tactical level will likely continue to see, as Mr. Diehl states in the article you pointed out, “Without proper guidance on the nature, aims and importance of the conflict, strategists are working blind. They can either design operations to deal with the military fight as they see it – with only their own instinct to help them find an acceptable political end state – or fall back on an “exit” strategy to execute at the point where their government loses interest and decides to abandon the whole affair.”

While I fully understand that if our strategic objective “isn't tied to a desired regional end state then it is a rather worthless objective.” The struggle to find any objective that clearly defines what right looks like for the desired regional end state is unmistakably apparent. In my current sphere of influence, we are forced to concede that our influence rests at the tactical level and we must make every effort to effect those areas for which we can control. Though the matters of political and strategic objectives are essential, it is out of my lane to publically critique.

With respect to your question of “failing to find what tactical problem or problems they need to solve…”, this is a great question and falls in line with my purpose for authoring this article. As stated in the article, “These innovative solutions will take many forms…The specific form of this innovation is insignificant so long as it is encouraged and enabled. The goal for leaders at all levels should be to fend off insufficient thought processes that lack innovation.” I will leave the specifics to those who find themselves dealing with the day-to-day operations and real time intelligence to decide when/where this innovation can/should be applied. I can only hope that this article will spark a flame for continued innovation in every situation, which I am confident, is already being applied but always should be reinforced.

Again, I genuinely appreciate your insight and feel that it is certainly on point however, some of it falls beyond the scope of my article and I’ll leave those areas up for discussion by those who choose to weigh in.

Encouraging tactical leaders to innovate and/or adapt is obviously a good thing. People normally innovate or adapt to overcome a problem, and I failed to find what tactical problem or problems they need to solve in this article? Sometimes I need help in finding what is obvious to everyone else, so if the problem is there please clarify it a little more.

The author did point to the necessity for clear objectives, which is something from my seat in the back of the theater that does appear to be missing. He suggests that, "the strategic problem set for the U.S. and its allies rests in their ability to develop clearly defined objectives that deny and degrade [the caliphate's] relevancy." I think he errors here, at best this may be one objective to support the larger strategic aims, but it is not a strategic goal within itself. In fact, if it isn't tied to a desired regional end state then it is a rather worthless objective. At the strategic level it is much bigger than the caliphate.

Back to the tactical level, I have to assume the guys carrying the burden of this fight are deeply frustrated with the lack of a clear strategy and questionable political will. Without clearer aims, innovating at the tactical level will result in better tactics, but it won't get us closer to our end state.

I tend to have great confidence in the ability of the American service member to innovate and adapt in the field when they know what they need to accomplish. The problem is they don't have a feasible strategic end state or strategy to get there (clearly not their fault). I think the following quote is relevant, "tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." (hat tip to Dave Maxwell for pointing that Sun Tzu apparently did not say this, so the originator is unknown).

Perhaps a better quote from a recent SWJ Journal article is the following:

"Americans in uniform have time and again been left fighting wars that have decayed into 'something pointless and devoid of sense.' If our efforts in the future are to make sense and have a point, we must look to a day when our government gives us the kind of policy guidance we need to do our job."

Mark Pyruz

Fri, 08/28/2015 - 1:14am

Unfortunately, it must be conceded that there exists levels of civilian support for ISIL in currently held population centers such as Al-Raqqah, Mosul and Fallujah. What sort of innovations does Mr. Hall postulate for USAF tactical leadership in subverting this support? Coercion by bombardment?

This is a highly complex problem beyond mere tactical expertise. It requires political choices that remain currently unpalatable. Until such time the hard political decisions are taken and acceptance of a redrawing of influence for the region is taken, mere exercises in USAF tactical leadership will remain insufficient, in my opinion.