The American people and the president would like to “turn the page” on nearly 15 years of war. The president has wanted to “focus on nation-building here at home” since 2011, and 74 percent of Americans agree. But the enemy isn’t cooperating. As Gen. Jim Mattis explains, “No war is over until the enemy says it’s over.” And our enemy is far from vanquished.ISIS holds 26,000 square-miles of territory and operates a quasi-government centered around Racca, in north-central Syria. It commands, controls and inspires forces in the field from Syria to the Sinai to San Bernardino. It threatens U.S. allies in Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Europe. And the number of foreigner fighters aligned with ISIS in Iraq and Syria has doubled in the past 18 months, with as many as 31,000 people from 86 countries now fighting under the ISIS banner.
Nor is ISIS “contained,” as the president has repeatedly claimed. Since October 2015, ISIS has been responsible for at least 583 murders in nine countries outside its self-styled caliphate: The Brussels bombings (32 killed), Paris siege (130 killed), bombing in Ankara (102 killed), takedown of a Russian airliner over the Sinai (224 killed), bombing of a Beirut market (43 killed), bombing of a bus in Tunis (12 killed), San Bernardino massacre (14 killed), Jakarta bombing (seven killed), suicide bombing of an Istanbul tourism center (10 killed) and car-bombing in Aden (nine killed).
In short, we cannot “turn the page” or focus on “nation-building at home,” as the president has soothingly promised, but we can—we must—prosecute this war more effectively.
“Airpower needs to be applied like a thunderstorm, and so far we’ve only witnessed a drizzle,” explains Gen. David Deptula, who led the initial air campaign in Afghanistan. He argues that “excessive procedures…are handing our adversary an advantage.”
The numbers amplify his point.
As of 29 March 2016, the U.S. has conducted 8,584 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, which translates into an average of just 14 airstrikes per day. Equally telling, 15 months into the anti-ISIS air campaign, 75 percent of warplanes were still returning to base without releasing their weapons. And with the recent withdrawal of the B-1B bombers (which, according to the Washington Post, were delivering a third of all coalition weapons), the amount of ordnance striking ISIS targets has ebbed to its lowest level since last summer.
By way of comparison, Russian officials report that their air force—not known for power projection since the collapse of the Soviet Union—launched 2,300 missions over Syria in a 48-day span. That translates into about 47 per day. Moreover, the decrepit Syrian air force conducted 210 airstrikes in the span of 36 hours.
To be sure, quality and precision are often more important than quantity when applying kinetic force, but there are benefits to quantity, as America’s enemies know from previous air campaigns:
- The average number of strike sorties per day in the early phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom was 596, with 1,039 weapons releases per day. Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed in 20 days.
- The average number of strike sorties per day in the early phases of the post-9/11 Afghanistan campaign was 86, with 230 weapons releases per day. The Taliban regime was swept from Kabul in five weeks.
- The average number of strike sorties per day during the Kosovo War was 183, with 364 weapons releases per day. Slobodan Milosevic withdrew his troops from Kosovo and sued for peace after 78 days.
- The average number of strike sorties per day in the Gulf War was 976, with an average of 6,163 weapons releases per day. The Iraqi military—at the time one of the largest in the world—was routed in 42 days.
In short, contrary to the president’s contention that the choice is between the current approach and being “drawn once more into a long and costly ground war in Iraq or Syria,” there is an alternative. It would rely on U.S. joint tactical air controllers on the ground to identify targets and guide ordnance onto the enemy, and feature high-tempo, high-yield airstrikes from multiple directions and multiple platforms striking across the enemy’s entire strategic depth. It would also coordinate closely with indigenous friendly forces on the ground.
The president doesn’t deserve all the blame for this hamstrung war. Where is Congress? It has been talking about passing an authorization for military force for more than a year. Yet the troops and the nation wait. This is an abdication of Congress’ co-equal wartime responsibilities. Perhaps this should be expected. After all, in a time of war, Congress, which controls the purse strings, has cut defense spending from 4.7 percent of GDP in 2009 to 3.1 percent today. Pressed by sequestration, the Air Force is eliminating 500 planes. The Navy fleet numbers 284 ships, but combatant commanders say they need 450 ships. The Army’s active-duty end strength has been cut from 570,000 soldiers to 490,000. And shockingly, “Marine aviation squadrons are salvaging aircraft parts from museums in order to keep planes flying,” as Military Times reports.
This is no way to wage a war.
Of course, some people of faith oppose waging war under any conditions. This is understandable in the abstract, but we must keep in mind two truths.
First, governments are held to a different standard than individuals, and hence are expected to do certain things individuals aren’t expected to do—and arguably shouldn’t do certain things individuals should do. For example, a government that turned the other cheek when attacked would be conquered by its foes, leaving countless innocents defenseless. A government that put away the sword—that neglected its defenses—would invite aggression, thus jeopardizing its people.
Second, all uses of force are not the same. The sheriff who uses force to apprehend a murderer is decidedly different than the criminal who uses force to commit a murder. The policemen posted outside a sporting event to deter violence are decidedly different than those who plot violence. Surely, the same principle applies to nations. Moral relativism is anything but a virtue.
If we can agree that in a broken world—a world where groups like ISIS seek to terrorize, dominate and kill those who do not submit to their worldview—war is sometimes necessary, then it seems the most moral, most humane course of action is to wage war in such a way as to defeat the enemy rapidly. It’s a paradoxical truth that overwhelming force, properly directed, can actually limit the horrors of war, while incrementalism can allow those horrors to metastasize. With Syria hemorrhaging, Iraq fracturing and ISIS spreading its poison, we are relearning this truth.
In the grimmest days of World War II, Churchill argued that it was imperative “to convince the enemy not by words, but by deeds, that we have both the will and the means, not only to go on indefinitely, but to strike heavy and unexpected blows.” Washington has not allowed America’s military to do that for several years now, and we are reaping the consequences.
Alan Dowd is a contributor to the digital and print editions of Providence.
Image: A U.S. seaman directs an E/A-18G Growler to the catapult on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the U.S. 5th fleet area of operations, May 28, 2015. The Theodore Roosevelt is supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, which includes strike operations in Iraq and Syria as directed.U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Josh Petrosino