Here's the biggest reason why American airstrikes against ISIS aren't working

We're missing one of the most overlooked components that make airstrikes effective: a few boots on the ground

ISIS airstrikes
(Image credit: (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda))

Poor Barack Obama. With his many problems sending his approval ratings to record lows, the one thing it seemed he could take solace in was that he'd go down in history as the president who got us out of Iraq.

Then ISIS bursts onto the scene with acts of barbarism and an ideological agenda that threatens to drag, not just Iraq, but the entire world into a blood-soaked and terror-fueled inferno. Everyone agrees that "somebody has to do something," and everyone was looking at him to lead the way, but dare he reverse his legacy and become the president who led us back into the hell of another ground war in Iraq? What to do, what to do?

Enter the seemingly "miracle" option of airstrikes. Air power can solve any problem. Moreover, it promised a solution without having to send in any "boots on the ground." Problem solved — right? Wrong. As some experts warned him, and as things are looking at this point, air power is not living up to its "miraculous" expectations. To some extent Obama has no one to blame but himself; still, in his defense, he was simply lulled by the same mirage that has misled many others before him: the notion that air power, in and of itself, can do anything.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Remember Desert Storm and "The Air Campaign" that introduced us to such terms as "stealth" and "PGMs," and video feeds showing bombs homing in on not just some building, but a specific WINDOW of that building? Surely that kind of ability translates into effective capability, right? Well, therein lays one of the most pernicious conundrums that has dogged air power since the Wright Brothers' first flight. Because this new modern marvel freed humans from one of the most fundamental laws of nature — gravity — what followed was the assumption that we now had the same awesome power as gods or mythological creatures. Couldn't we now strike like Zeus hurling thunderbolts from Mount Olympus? Wouldn't our air forces be like Thor hurling his magic hammer with devastating effect? Doesn't it just seem logical? For decades airmen have been dreaming of that kind of capability, and prophesying and promising its arrival. There is a vast history of their efforts, and while that history presents some impressive successes, it all too often includes far greater destruction on the ground (euphemistically known as "collateral damage") than anticipated, while delivering less decisive results than promised.

And yet, because we're so haunted by the image of getting sucked back into the ground war, we aren't using the most overlooked component needed to make air strikes most effective: the Forward Air Controller (FAC), or as they are called in the U.S., Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTAC). These are the guys on the ground with friendly forces who talk to the pilots overhead and tell them where to drop their bombs. The absence of FACs on the ground is causing all kinds of problems that could exacerbate existing conflicts and imperil long-term regional stability.

Take, for example, the impact of our current strategy: focusing air strike primarily on fixed-point targets — that is, things that don't move. These could be training facilities, power stations, headquarters buildings, or command-and-control centers. The notion that air power is most effective when used against infrastructure, the facilities that either support or aid the enemy's war effort, has been one of the most persistently contested theories in air power thinking. But whether the infrastructure approach has any validity is beside the point; what really matters when it comes to ISIS is: they don't have a lot of infrastructure. Even if we do hit their limited fixed targets, we won't diminish their fighting effectiveness because they have so little that they don't depend on it. What's more, destroying this infrastructure only makes it harder for post-ISIS leaders — our friends — to govern effectively. Our current approach reminds me of the famous quip from a soldier in Vietnam, "We had to destroy the village in order to save it." And then there's another sobering reason: without a FAC/JTAC partner on the ground to verify and mark the targets, we miss them or hit the wrong ones. It does little to save a man from the barbarity of ISIS if we kill his family or destroy his home in the process. Such mistakes produce powerful propaganda for ISIS and help them draw more recruits.

Not convinced yet? Failing to send in FACs on the ground also hurts our ability to our allies in the ground fight because this forces us to rely on a pilot flying high enough to be safe from ground threats. At that altitude it is hard to tell friend from foe. This makes for obvious mistakes; not just embarrassing ones — we almost killed a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter in the Libya air campaign through such means — but also counter-productive ones, ones that leave friendly civilians dead. Remember the wagon filled with refugees that was bombed in Kosovo?

Finally, without FACs, we give up the most effective means of using air power against the real power of ISIS: its army. Historically, airmen have considered focusing air power directly on the enemy's army has been considered the least productive means of using air power. Yet the campaigns that brought down the Taliban regime in 2001 and the Hussein regime in 2003 were so stunningly effective because we focused air power on the enemy's armies. And FACs were the critical link that made those air campaigns so effective.

The current crisis in the Middle East requires immediacy, but it also requires effectiveness and finesse. Our approach at this point has been characterized more by the sense of somebody doing something, and doing it immediately; but the effectiveness and the finesse are lacking. Our friends are crying for effective help — the whole world is crying for us to help — but rather than helping, we look more like a "Bull in a China Shop."

Sign up to get The Weekly Wonk, New America's digital magazine, delivered to your inbox each Thursday here.

More from The Weekly Wonk...

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.