The Air War Against the Islamic State: The Need for An “Adequacy of Resources”

The United States has stated from the start that it is conducting an air campaign to degrade the Islamic State, not to change the military situation in Syria or to substitute for Iraqi political unity and the eventual use of Iraqi ground forces. This, however, raises several key questions:

  • What level of effort will be required over time to achieve that goal, and how will the air campaign have to change? So far, the air campaign has been minimal by any recent historical standard, and so limited that it is hard to see how it can be effective in either protecting Iraq from further gains, critically degrading the Islamic state in Syria, or providing humanitarian relief to threatened minorities like the Kurds..
  • Can Iraq build the needed level of political cooperation and effective ground forces? There has been some Iraqi political progress, but no clear progress in bringing Sunni tribes and faction back into active political or military support of the central government, creating effective unity and cooperation with the Iraqi Kurds and Pesh Merga, or producing a greater capability on the part of the Iraqi Army.
  • Can the US avoid intervening in the civil war in Syria either against Assad, or avoid conducting a major air effort to protect the Kurds, moderate rebel groups, and the Sunni civil population? The US has certainly tried to limit its targeting and the size of its air strikes, but so far has not demonstrated that the current level of air and cruise missile strikes has halted Islamic State gains against the Kurds in Syria or in Anbar in Iraq. The start of such strikes has led to Turkish and Syria Kurdish pressure to intervene at much higher levels and expand the air campaign to secure zones and other efforts designed to remove Assad.
  • Can the US and its allies find ways of dealing with the steadily growing humanitarian crises in Syria and Iraq? Strategic goals are of critical importance, but so are ethics and morality.

These questions have become steadily more important over the last few days. Until very recently, the air campaign has had some effect but was clearly doing too little and too slowly, failing to have the impact needed in Iraq, and drifting towards major mission creep in Syria. Each of the major risks that it was intended to help address, remained as serious, or more serious, than when it began. The creation of a US, Arab, European alliance has only had marginal impact.

The Burke Chair is developing an analysis of the campaign that address all of these issues as it as it progresses. This analysis is based on comparisons with past campaigns, summaries of the problems in the unclassified data now being released, and summaries of the emerging problems in the campaign. It is now issuing the third major update, revision and expansion of that analysis. It is entitled The Air War Against the Islamic State: Operation Inherent Resolve and The Need for An “Adequacy of Resources", and is available on the CSIS web site at

The analysis compares the level of effort in the air war against the Islamic State with the air wars in liberating Kuwait n 1991, Kosovo in 1999, invading Iraq in 2003-2011, and Afghanistan in 2001-2014 to illustrate these limits. The numbers and trends in past conflicts strongly suggest that the current effort in Iraq will be too small and too slow to achieve its desired result and address any of the questions and risks listed above.

It also, however, raises other issues. The unclassified data on air campaigns also raise major questions about the way in which the US is approaching air power. In a number of cases, the only unclassified totals and figures seem to be those for the USAF. There are no directly comparable summary data for the US Army, US Navy, and US Marine Corps. Moreover, the data on USAF strike sorties is provided in forms that do not break out the sorties for IS&R, UAVs, UCAVs, cruise missile, airlift, and refueling by campaign. Data on allied sorties is also not reported.

Rotary wing data are often missing – and the data for fixed and rotary wing activity that are available are not comparable – although “snapshots” of recent Army air activity show rotary wing and US Army UAV and UCAV have been critical aspects of recent air campaigns. This should be a key aspect of any debate over “boots on the ground” because of the increased risk of providing rotary wing support to Iraqi force forces and the fact AH-64 sorties have already been flown to support them.

At the same time, the ratio of strike sorties flown to sorties that actually fire munitions, raise questions about the need for forward deployments of small elements of ground troops as observers and advisors that can help weak or new Iraqi and Syrian rebel units make effective use of air support, both for targeting, overall tactics, and conduct of operations. This could be part of what may be a much broader need for forward deployed advisory elements if airpower is to be properly effective.

The analysis also shows that the sortie data for the period from September 23rd to October 15th reflect a pattern of escalation focused on responding to the threat the Islamic State posed to the Syrian Kurds rather than reflecting the strategic priorities of the original campaign plan.

The escalation in strike sorties after October 11th seems to have been be a media-driven escalation focused on the plight of the Syrian Kurds in Kobane, rather than a response to the overall need to degrade the Islamic State and protect Iraq. The sorties were driven in large part by the pressures created by a media focus on the risk the Kurds would lose the border town of Kobane as military considerations.

They indicate that US air strikes focused primarily on Syria for these reasons at a time when the Islamic State was putting major pressure on the Iraqi forces in Anbar and making limited gains in spite of relatively limited level of US air support. It is unclear how much of this was a result of limited targeting and strike assets and US efforts to force the Iraqi central government to deal fairly with Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds. But it is clear that the air campaign in Iraq was negligible towards the middle of October and driven by a major form of mission creep in Syria. These developments do not correct the problems in the air campaign, and raise serious question about the character or of mission “escalation” or “creep.”

There is another aspect of the problems in the air campaign that deserves immediate attention. General Dempsey gave a rough estimate at a TV interview in mid-October that roughly 10% of the armed sorties flown launched munitions, in part because of the difficulty of distinguishing Islamic State forces from civilians and friendly forces. The fact Islamic state forces have improved their dispersal and used human shields reveals limits in targeting capability.

Looking at some of the IS&R data, it seems likely that the figure for strikes per sortie flown would be closer to 5% for total armed strike sorties and IS&R sorties and 3% if refueling was included. Put somewhat differently, well over 90% of the cost of strike sorties is for sorties where no munitions are delivered. This indicates the need for a far tighter integration of sortie planning, and one that explicitly examines the cost trade-offs involved between IS&R and strike activity, ways of increasing actual munitions deliveries, and reducing costs on a joint warfare and inter-service basis. It is not clear that current air warfare planning has fully recognized the sheer escalation of sortie activity, the cost of conducting operations with the current constraints on engagement, and focus on service by service activity.

A short overview of the overall strategy in the war against the Islamic State – entitled The Imploding U.S Strategy in the Islamic State War? -- is also available on the CSIS web site at