Since August 8th, 2014 the United States Air Force has been conducting an air campaign against ISIS which has slowly escalated as the Obama administration acclimatizes the public to the inevitable “boots on the ground” that will have to be deployed. That air campaign has expanded to hit ISIS targets in Syria this week but little information has come to light as to the effectiveness of these bombings until now.
Contrary to the statements of numerous television pundits, American air power does not require soldiers on the ground to call in fire or use laser designators to guide in munitions. Thus far there have been few boots put on the ground, aside from a Special Forces ODA deployed to Sinjar Mountain with Peshmerga at one point in time. However, this bombing campaign would be far more precise and effective with Air Force JTACs and CCTs on the ground.
These strikes have been planned and executed by photographic reconnaissance gathered by satellites and UAV’s, as well as what the pilots can visually identify on the ground. With this in mind, the US Air Force has been bombing ISIS equipment and armored vehicles for the most part. Command and control centers, logistical nodes, and leadership cells have not been bombed because the reality is that no one really knows where these locations are. This is why we’ve been hitting armored vehicles, tanks, and artillery pieces which can be identified from the air.
While many are skeptical of the effectiveness of the air campaign against ISIS, several reports have emerged from North Iraq and Syria in which US airstrikes did play a decisive role in defeating or beating back ISIS. Near the city of Kobane in Rojava (Syria), US air strikes destroyed a number of ISIS tanks, most likely T-72s. It should also be noted that ISIS does not really know how to employ tanks and simply uses them as short range artillery pieces.
Another, more dramatic example occurred in Rabbia, a city in North West Iraq right on the Syrian border which had been largely controlled by ISIS for over a year despite being fiercely opposed by PKK/YPG fighters on the ground. The city was recently liberated with the help of American air power. The Peshmerga requested US air support and got it when American fighter jets screamed overhead and took out ISIS tanks and Armored Personnel Carriers. Meanwhile, the Peshmerga moved to cut off the road leading back into Syria which ISIS could use to retreat. American aircraft then bombed any ISIS vehicles attempting to escape.
These airstrikes shook up the status quo which had prevailed in Rabbia for months, and allowed the YPG/PKK fighters to finally liberate the city.
While US airstrikes have had some limited tactical successes in beating back ISIS, the war drums continue to beat towards what may become the third Gulf War. The Obama administration is slowly building public support for such an action as we incrementally move from arming and training the Kurds, to sending advisors, to conducting airstrikes. US Special Operations and conventional Infantry forces will more than likely be deployed to fight ISIS after the November elections.
Until then, US forces are just conducting some maintenance on ISIS to contain them in place.