Skip to main content

Can air power stop ISIS?

By Douglas Ollivant
August 8, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Defense officials said a U.S. Air Force F-15 crashed Wednesday, October 8, 2014, in England. Here, an F-15E Strike Eagle flies during a demonstration in 2007 near Indian Springs, Nevada. The F-15E was designed for long-range, high-speed interdiction without relying on escort or electronic warfare aircraft. It was derived from the F-15 Eagle, which was developed to enhance U.S. air superiority during the Vietnam War. Defense officials said a U.S. Air Force F-15 crashed Wednesday, October 8, 2014, in England. Here, an F-15E Strike Eagle flies during a demonstration in 2007 near Indian Springs, Nevada. The F-15E was designed for long-range, high-speed interdiction without relying on escort or electronic warfare aircraft. It was derived from the F-15 Eagle, which was developed to enhance U.S. air superiority during the Vietnam War.
HIDE CAPTION
U.S. military's fighter fleet
U.S. military's fighter fleet
U.S. military's fighter fleet
U.S. military's fighter fleet
U.S. military's fighter fleet
U.S. military's fighter fleet
U.S. military's fighter fleet
U.S. military's fighter fleet
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.S. strikes ISIS targets in Iraq to stem the group's spread
  • Douglas Ollivant: Air power can be very potent when used properly
  • He says it works well to stop the enemy from offensive moves
  • Ollivant: Air power often fails to dislodge forces from defensive positions

Editor's note: Douglas A. Ollivant, a senior fellow with the New America Foundation, served as director for Iraq at the National Security Council during the Bush and Obama administrations and is now senior vice president of Mantid International, LLC, a strategic consulting firm that has business interests in the south of Iraq, including security, defense and aerospace clients. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- The new ISIS offensive in the North of Iraq has both shaken the Kurds and threatened the Yazidi minority with not only genocide, but also cultural extinction. In response the United States early Friday morning used airpower against ISIS targets inside Iraq. This is the first use of force against ISIS both since ISIS rebranded from al Qaeda in Iraq and since the departure of U.S. forces at the end of 2011.

So what can U.S. airstrikes accomplish? Airpower is incredibly potent when properly used, but nearly useless in the wrong situations. ISIS will present both these alternatives in Iraq.

Douglas Ollivant
Douglas Ollivant

Put very simply, airpower is incredibly effective against an enemy who is on the offense. If an enemy—be it a person or a vehicle or a weapon system—is on the move and/or fighting, they create a "signature" that is easy to spot from the air.

Since there will be no U.S. forces on the ground as target designators or air controllers, being able to see a target from the air will be crucial. So, a column of ISIS trucks or—as seen early Friday morning—a captured artillery piece firing against Kurdish positions, each make easy acquisition. Against these targets, airpower is nearly invincible. One thinks of the devastation released over two decades ago by U.S. airpower on the "Highway of Death" (albeit these forces were not attacking, but retreating—but the signature is the same).

Objectives of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq
Why did U.S. decide to strike ISIS now?

So when President Obama talks about targeted airstrikes to protect American personnel in Baghdad or Irbil, he is, in essence, saying that if ISIS attacks toward these cities, we will use airstrikes on their then-vulnerable forces.

Note that the President did not say that airstrikes would be used to eject ISIS forces from Mosul or Kirkuk or Fallujah. For in densely populated cities like these, airpower has real limitations. An enemy in defensive positions, particularly in urban terrain, is very difficult to engage with airpower. Even if the target can be hit, the possibility for collateral damage that causes civilian casualties is very real. And if the target is missed, the collateral damage can be exponentially higher, even catastrophic.

So while mission creep is always a danger in any war, in this case the chances of it seem rather minimal. The President has chosen one means—airpower—and given it a mission at which it excels; prevent enemy forces from attacking prepared positions, whether in Irbil or Baghdad. This mission is well within the capacity of U.S. airpower. When and if unleashed, U.S. warplanes can absolutely prevent ISIS from moving against these two Iraqi cities.

But reclaiming territory from ISIS will be another matter altogether. This will require a unified Iraqi effort—Arab and Kurd alike—under a new government with the will, legitimacy and resolve to accept the casualties that a ground offensive will require. We need only look at the U.S. experience in Second Fallujah—almost 10 years ago now—to picture what this might look like. Nor will U.S. ground forces be joining in this endeavor. This must be clear. There is no—zero—appetite in the U.S. public for such a commitment.

To that end, we must hope that Iraq remains on its constitutional timeline so that a new government can be formed and begin the long, hard task of regaining control over its territory. Therefore, new Iraqi President Fuad Masum must charge the largest bloc in the Iraqi parliament with forming a government. Soon.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT