WHY AIR POWER ALONE WON’T BEAT ISIS

Wall Street Journal on December 8, 2015, published an article by Max Boot. He explained that bombing and the delusion multinational support will not win a war. Ever since the dawn of the air age more than a century ago, military strategists have been prone to the delusion that bombing by itself can win wars. Excerpts below:

Today the air-power fantasy is that dropping enough bombs on Islamic State jihadists will get the job done in Iraq and Syria. The approach is a bipartisan, indeed multinational, daydream, shared by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton…

“Victory, speedy and complete, awaits the side which first employs air power as it should be employed,” said Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris, head of Britain’s Bomber Command. But even when the Royal Air Force and the U.S. Army Air Forces combined to unleash their bombers on Germany, they didn’t produce speedy victory. Germany managed to increase industrial production under bombardment.

The only places where U.S. air power has worked against ISIS so far has been in battles such as Sinjar and Kobani, where effective ground forces, chiefly made up of Kurds, were also involved. This confirms the lessons of the Gulf War, Kosovo, Afghanistan and the Iraq war: In all those conflicts, American air power was decisive only when used in tandem with effective ground forces, whether belonging to the U.S. or local proxies such as the Kosovo Liberation Army or Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance. Bombing by itself—like Bill Clinton’s 1998 airstrikes on Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan—achieved little.

Predictably, where the U.S. has bombed ISIS without effective follow-up on the ground, the results have been negligible. The Pentagon claims to have killed 23,000 ISIS fighters, yet estimates that ISIS forces remain at around 20,000 to 30,000—roughly where they were before the bombing started. This suggests that ISIS is able to replace fighters as quickly as they are killed, just as the Viet Cong were able to do in the 1960s.

There is a case for ramping up air power against ISIS, but that would require sending tactical air controllers into battle to accurately call in airstrikes, which President Obama so far has refused to do. Even then, destroying ISIS would require effective ground forces, and given the inability of the U.S. to mobilize enough effective proxies in either Syria or Iraq, it looks increasingly likely that the U.S. will need to provide at least some of the troops itself. Polls suggest that a majority of Americans now support using ground troops against ISIS. But President Obama again ruled out this option in his national-TV address on Sunday night, saying: “We should not be drawn once more into a long and costly ground war.”

No one wants “a long and costly ground war,” but just as in the past, air power alone won’t win this war. Any administration strategist or presidential hopeful who pretends otherwise isn’t serious about achieving victory.

Mr. Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a foreign-policy adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio.

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