With sickening snuff videos and viral postings of mass executions, ISIS has developed the projection of terror way beyond any predecessor. It has also managed to make itself seem more militarily formidable than it actually is. Even though its capacity as a training camp and assignment center for jihadists who can be sent to blow people up in Europe, the U.S. and Asia poses an extreme new danger, this should not be confused with its threat as a land-based army.
For sure, as ISIS created its sprawling caliphate with lightning thrusts into Iraq from its base in northeast Syria, it appeared to sweep all before it. It was well funded, well armed and well led. It rapidly incorporated military equipment and skills from disaffected units of the Iraqi army.
But as a conventional land army it has serious weaknesses. It doesn’t have an air force and it doesn’t have (yet) sophisticated air defenses of the kind used to knock down Malaysia Flight MH17 in the Ukraine.
All ISIS logistics and dispositions in the field are observable by drone and satellite. This is not an elusive, dispersed terrorist network hiding in caves or with a nocturnal leadership moving from safe house to safe house where strikes are very time sensitive, requiring on-the-ground intelligence. To be sure, ISIS can bury their command and control centers in urban areas and use civilians as shields, but they are also a large, massed force designed to take and hold territory and once they commit to an attack they are out in the open with their lines of communication and supply exposed.
Even though they have use of U.S. supplied equipment captured from fleeing Iraqis, their attack formations are an improvised mixture of tanks and armored vehicles and many more pickup trucks jerry-rigged as mobile artillery.They should be extremely vulnerable to a full-scale air attack.
But what does an effective, full-scale air attack look like? The NATO air campaign that ended the Kosovo war in 1999 deployed 1,000 aircraft and took only six weeks to achieve its objectives. But in terms of technology that was another age. There were no drones for accurate target selection and execution and air-to-ground weapons were far less effective than they are now.
The U.S. military knows what it will take. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said, “This is an organization that has an apocalyptic end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated.” A whole cadre of retired generals has been vocal in calling for a realistic assessment of what will need to be called a war rather than a piecemeal offensive. But a full-scale air attack — inherently a declaration of war — requires the kind of commitment that goes beyond anything that the president and congress seem willing to carry out.
However, there are hundreds of combat-ready aircraft in countries bordering Iraq and Syria. In Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, the Arab regimes have been on an arms-buying spree, with most of the equipment coming from the U.S. and Europe. But they are nowhere to be seen.
Many experts echo what Shashank Joshi, of the Royal United Services Institute in London argued in the Financial Times: “The Arab world has preferred to ride on the coat-tails of outsiders while castigating western “inaction”. It is time for the Arab world, and neighbors such as Turkey, to act. … An Arab coalition, with Turkey, should now offer direct military support to target ISIS.”
But it’s not that simple. The modern air forces built by autocratic Arab monarchies are designed primarily for self-defense, not attack. For Saudi Arabia, for example, the bogeyman is Iran. Saudi Arabia has bought scores of Eurofighter Typhoons from Britain, the front line equipment of many European powers. However, the Typhoon was designed in the 1980s for Cold War combat that envisaged Top Gun style dogfights between fighters, not close air support and ground attacks.
The Saudi Arabian Typhoons are of a later model that has been adapted to carry air-to-ground missiles for use on a battlefield, but it is not an ideal platform for that role. (After finding the limitations of Typhoons in the Libyan conflict the Europeans are only now making them more effective for precision attacks on ground forces.) The Saudi military is still essentially locked in a defensive mindset. Nonetheless it does have the region’s most sophisticated systems for managing air power, including the ability to refuel fighters in the air. They have carried out small strikes against terrorists in the Yemen, but a sustained campaign against ISIS would call for a far more public commitment and strength of will than any Saudi regime has so far exhibited.
Other Gulf powers have the same mindset. The UAE is buying the latest Predator drones, but is far from ready to use them. Tiny Qatar is shopping for 72 advanced fighters like the Typhoon but will not have an effective air force for years
Turkey is the closest of all countries to the conflict but is inhibited not by a lack of resources – it has a large force of U.S.-supplied F-16s and even an intelligence satellite – but by its tricky position in the region, with military links to NATO, Europe and the U.S., a delicate internal balance of secular and Islamic allegiances, and an evolving relationship with the Kurds after years of mutual hostility.
Jordan is in an even more delicate position, and a country that ISIS would dearly like to swallow. It also has a large force of U.S.-supplied F-16s. But Jordan’s highest priority seems to be a fear of insurgency and this year it is equipping its special forces with two highly lethal gunships, based on an Airbus supplied military airplane but armed by ATK, a U.S. supplier. Gunships are fearsome but they operate at low altitudes where they are vulnerable to the kind of shoulder-fired weaponry that ISIS most certainly has. Jordan doesn’t want to get into this air war any more than Turkey.
But if the Arab states mustered the will, they could demolish ISIS, as history has shown. Seventy years ago, on Aug. 23 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the commander of the D-Day landings, went to inspect a battlefield in northern France. His forces had finally broken out of Normandy and were pursuing the remnants of a once-mighty Nazi battle group who were in full retreat.
The Germans were annihilated. They had no air cover and their exposed columns were like a fish in a barrel. The Allies had mastered a military equation that the Germans invented: the blitzkrieg, which combined air and land forces into one rapidly-moving killing machine. From that moment on it was obvious that any army without air cover would be fatally vulnerable – as long as there was air power to deal with it.