Airpower and ISIS: Encouraging Battlefield Innovation from Tactical Leaders
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.