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#BookReview: Airpower in the war against ISIS – Benjamin S. Lambeth

This week, SQNLDR Jenna Higgins reviews Benjamin S. Lambeth's book released this year by the US Naval Institute chronicling Operational Inherent Resolve.

Air power in the war against ISIS critically analyses the United States (and coalition) air contribution to Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) during the period August 2014 to early 2019. In what was deemed an ultimately successful campaign to destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) by author Dr. Benjamin S. Lambeth, the book provides a full critique of what Lambeth assessed as a costly and poorly executed operation. Dr. Benjamin S. Lambeth is currently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and is renowned in the field of ‘history and military aviation’ with an extensive repertoire of books. Lambeth’s key contribution to the extensive selection of books on air operations is his self-proclaimed in-depth assessments of air campaigns. Some of his most recent and notable publications include; The Unseen War: Allied Air Power and the Takedown of Saddam Hussein (2013), Air Operations in Israel's War Against Hezbollah: Learning from Lebanon and Getting It Right in Gaza (2011), Counterinsurgency in Airpower Thought (2008) – just to name a few.

The book offers a number of important lessons for air power practitioners and military personnel alike, in which Lambeth finds that OIR was yet another ‘case of the early misuse of airpower’. His assessment of the campaign is rooted in four key findings;

  1. the forced incrementalism of targeting during the first two years,

  2. restrictive Rules Of Engagement (ROE) insisting on zero non-combatant casualties,

  3. a misreading of the adversary intent resulting in the incorrect application of overall campaign strategy, and consequently

  4. a flawed execution of ground vs air warfare and leadership selection.

In what is largely a chronological account, the book is broken down into eleven chapters with the first three setting the scene and providing important background. These chapters delve with relative depth into America’s air posture before OIR - from the 1991 Persian Gulf War through to the Counter Insurgency (COIN) operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. While focusing a good deal on air power strengths and weaknesses individual to each operation over this period, Lambeth also devotes significant time to the governmental and political background during this period, along with US Defense and Air Force leadership machinations whose personalities proved pivotal. Chapter three specifically covers how the ISIS contest first arose, with a focus on US political decision making between the Bush and Obama administrations. This is a particularly important background as Lambeth goes on to provide a scathing assessment of the Obama administration’s choices with regard to ROE and overall strategy later in the book.

Chapters four through eight offer extensive detail on the execution of airpower during the campaign – with a significant focus on air combat and strike serials (or lack thereof). Ultimately, Lambeth lays the blame for the air war’s slow start on the Obama administration’s refusal to ‘get serious’ in August 2014, by which he meant there was a lack of overall strategy to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy’ ISIS, along with a lack of political will and resources. This assessment can be related to his later critique of the government and military leadership’s inability to recognise that ISIS was an emerging proto-state as opposed to a resurrected Iraqi insurgency. He goes on to discuss how the air effort eventually became more effective with the instalment of then Lt. Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. as the Combined Force Air Component Commander (CFACC) due to his ability to shape a more strategic and deliberate targeting list. Until Brown Jr’s installation, the focus and strength of the US Air Force (USAF) had been in dynamic targeting, close air support (CAS) for troops in contact and armed overwatch – all in support of the ground forces (p81).

This prompts a detailed discussion on the perceived failures of joint air-land integration. Lambeth argues that the root cause of these particular failures was the initial selection of an Army Commander Joint Task Force (CJTF – OIR) as opposed to an Air Force Commander who would have been able to see the strategic value of air power - specifically in relation to strategic and deliberate targeting (which Lt. Gen Brown eventually directed) (p219). He offers that successful air-land integration was further hindered by repeated restrictive Fire Support Coordination Line (FSCL) in an urban context, which impeded the air prosecution of strategic targets, and a ‘parochial army insistence on a doctrinal prerogative that was arguably due it in principle needlessly impeded and ongoing offensive’ (p103).

Lambeth’s summary of lessons learnt is holistically captured in chapter ten: US leadership and strategy. This chapter neatly summarises the crux of the book. He states that the campaign’s major failings were down to four key factors. Firstly, the operation could have been much shorter if not for the ‘protracted gradualism to no useful purpose’ over the first two years of conflict (p178). Underpinning this gradualism was the Washington enforced ‘draconian target attack ROE that insisted for far too long on zero non-combatants at virtually any cost’ all while ISIS was devastating the civilian population (p177). The insistence on such restrictive ROE was in part caused by a ‘fundamental misreading of the enemy as a resurrected insurgency that was largely responsible for imposing and sustaining the ensuing strategy and those inappropriate ROE’ (p177). Finally, he assessed that having a US Army led, ground centric pursuit of objectives was retrospectively the wrong call. In insisting on using ‘American and Coalition air power almost exclusively to support the slowly rebuilding Iraqi Security Forces at the expense of also conducting concurrent and much needed independent strategic interdiction attacks against ISIS’s most important [centre of gravity] COGs targets in Iraq and Syria’(p178) produced an inefficient, costly and substandard outcome.

The strength of this book comes from the author’s significant and extensive personal connections which he has drawn upon to evaluate various phases of OIR. Lambeth taps into a wide array of personal accounts to form and support his assertions – from the tactical F-16 pilot outlining their day to day bombing sorties, to the four-star general’s reflections on what did and did not work across the four-year campaign. He uses these detailed and experienced accounts to provide the reader with firsthand insights into the day-to-day decision making, and their impact on the operation.

A search for other detailed accounts on the contribution of airpower in OIR finds only a RAND report - The Air War Against the Islamic State: The Role of Airpower in Operation Inherent Resolve. Interestingly, the conclusions reached in this report juxtapose Lambeth’s work – specifically regarding how best to implement air power and improve air-land integration for future conflict. Where Lambeth contends that air operations incorporating deliberate targeting should have been front and center from the beginning, the RAND report concludes that the ISIS main center of gravity was territory, and therefore strategic attack ‘did not play a decisive role in this operation’. The RAND report also recommends that this particular campaign offers important lessons for future near-peer competition; however, in doing so, it fails to acknowledge China or Russia as the next likely and worst-case adversary, and the subsequent area of operations requiring both strategic targeting and heavy integration with both maritime and air platforms.

Airpower in the war against ISIS provides a comprehensive review of the events leading up to, and the subsequent operation in Iraq and Syria which was intended to degrade and destroy the Islamic State. It provides an informative case study for military history or political science students, serving military or defence professionals alike in which to gain an understanding of how the US government interleaves with the military at a tactical and operational level. It further offers a recent but telling account of systemic issues between air-land integration, targeting, and the difficulties associated with developing a campaign strategy.

Squadron Leader Jenna Higgins is a Royal Australian Air Force aviator who specialises in ISREW. She has a Masters in Strategy and Security and a Masters in Aerospace Systems. She is an editor of the Central Blue Blog. Follow her on Twitter @Jenna_Ellen_


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