Why can't airstrikes give anti-Isis fighters an overwhelming advantage?

I guess I don’t understand war very well because I would have thought that control of the skies would give anti-Isis fighters an unbeatable advantage.

  • Jet fighters to knockout major convoys, supply lines, enemy buildings and fortifications.

  • Attack helicopters for surgical strikes against infantry, trucks, maybe tanks in dense urban locations.

But this isn’t the case. Even with ground support from local armies, ISIS seems to be taking large territories including the city that’s grabbing headlines in the news right now, Kobani.
Can someone give me a better picture as to why our airpower and current ground support doesn’t seem to be sufficient?

The answer I’ve heard in the news is that the ground power of Isis is better than the Kurds, but this feels like an unsatisfying answer to me given the significant airpower advantage.

Don’t think they are using helicopters now. Also seems to me that B-52s might work well but I don’t think they are using those either.

Also I think ISIS is sort of like the Japanese in WW 2. They are fanatics and won’t give up, you have to kill every last one of them and that’s not easy.

Also, the Iraqi troops fighting them ain’t worth frak.

No discipline, & poorly led.

Air power gives an advantage, but you must take & hold the ground with Infantry.

And the Iraqi Infantry has a real bad habit–they hear one shot, throw down their rifles, & run like the clappers.

These are almost entirely long-range airstrikes, right? There’s no close air support that I’ve heard of, aside from the little that the nascent Iraqi air force can provide itself. The vast majority of US and coalition airstrikes are launched from a significant distance away, either from the US carrier in the Gulf, or Arab states to the south. At that range, strike fighters can’t really loiter and provide close air support. Rather they have to attack relatively static targets, which is OK to weaken static positions or the odd column of tanks but pretty useless against men with light arms rapidly moving around large areas.

Is it correct to say that perhaps we’re not using the right tools for the job then? Hard for me to give advice to army generals, but that’s what it sounds like so far.

Seems like it. There’s just no political will to send any forces to Iraq, or for Turkey to allow any direct support that would help the Kurds.

Generals are supposed to give advice to the President. Whether or not he follows their advice is up to him.

Missed edit:

Iraq is due to get a decent complement of fighters, attack planes, and helicopters, but for now it’s got damn near nothing and almost no qualified pilots. Apparently the “preponderance of the Iraqi military’s air capability” is a half dozen attack helicopters. They just recently received a dozen Su-25 attack planes, but who knows if they even have pilots or munitions. The US hasn’t delivered the promised 36 F-16s, out of fears of arming one side of a sectarian conflict.

More tidbits:

The US has deployed attack helicopters near Baghdad, which should be able to provide much better close support in the vicinity. But they’ll also be vulnerable to the sorts of light antiaircraft weapons that IS has captured from Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, Iraq just lost one of it’s six attack helicopters.

to be effective in Iraq and Syria against ISIS, the air strikes would have to be rather massive and continuous - something we have not done, even close to that level.

Unfortunately, the administration has chosen not to wage “war” on ISIS, rather wage “let’s perform a dog & pony show” Five or six sorties a day are almost meaningless.

Now, the reason for this use of faulty tactics is because Obama doesn’t want any real civilian or “collateral” damage done there and that is somewhat understandable - it is our style to limit that as much as possible. But one cannot evade the brutal realities of warfare (that’s why it is not the preferred method of international relations). If they are stupid enough to refuse to utilize ANY ground troops to take and hold territory, AND they refuse to really unleash overwhelming air power - then they have effectively surrendered to ISIS whatever ISIS wishes to occupy.

Let’s call a spade a spade for a change. This IS what the US and it’s “coalition” have done.

Like that German guy said, War is a continuation of politics by other means.

Air power has the biggest effect if applied in a way that changes the flow of the battle (especially in the small amounts that are generally being applied). Along with not having a lot of loiter time to pick targets due to range there’s likely not good communication either.

Bombing/strafing the wrong target in the confusion of the battle has the opposite effect though. It’s providing close air support to the enemy. if there’s nobody on the ground directing the air strikes (both to maximize effect on the fight and avoid friendly causalities) you simply aren’t taking full advantage of the strikes. Generally that was one of the roles of US advisers embedded with Iraqi units before the US withdrawal.

You’re talking as if Isis had much of any of those things.

Air strikes are great for disrupting big, well-organized armies, the sort that need things like major convoys, lots of trucks and effective supply lines so that they can effectively fight the big, well-organized armies that are on your side.

Here you are dealing with what is really only a couple of steps up from a bunch of particularly ruthless bandits attacking civilians and local, ad hoc militia. Using air strikes against them is a bit like trying to kill a wasp, in a room full of people you don’t want to hurt or antagonize, using a blunderbuss.


Iraqi Army Kalashnikov assault rifle. Only dropped once.
Question: How are ISIL forces deployed? In WWII you basically had the ‘front line’ with masses of combatants on each side. A few C-130 ‘Spookies’ might do a good job of turning people into meat if ISIL is deployed that way. Even if they are more diffuse, sustained aerial assaults would trim their numbers. OTOH if they are mixed in with non-combatants/human shields, that would require TPTB to accept more collateral damage.

I used to be in the airstrike business.

We can quickly and comprehensively destroy anything we can identify. In the midst of cities, roads, and villages full of ordinary citizens, our-side irregular troops, and enemy irregular troops, who can identify which are the ones to kill and which are the ones we really, really need to spare to have any hope of winning the real battle; the local political one?

Without falling into the cynicism of some posters above, the US does not have the stomach for reentering a full-scale indefinite war in Iraq, Syria or both. And we sure can’t trust the various factions of locals to correctly identify hostile targets. We’ve done it before and found ourselves acting as the air force for one “friendly” warlord against another “friendly” warlord.

Presidents of all parties for the last 75 years have discovered the painful truth that the American people and the American press have a lot of appetite for the rest of the world to behave as we want, but a much smaller appetite for spending the treasure and/or blood necessary to make it happen. Squaring that circle has never been easy. And it gets harder as the internet and 24 hour news cycle put all this crap directly under the noses of Ma and Pa Citizen every day.

Turkey has just authorized a military airfield near the border.

Close air support will be happening.


I think this is it in a nutshell. If we had FAOs embedded with the Kurdish Peshmerga or any of the other forces fighting ISIS, then we’d be able to effectively coordinate close air support for them.

As it stands, without forward air observers, we’re likely doing strikes on targets we can identify from recon overflights and satellite images, which basically means stuff that doesn’t move too fast, and that’s clearly not just local stuff.

I also get the impression that ISIS’s logistical tail is extremely thin- their supply system isn’t as robust as that of say… a comparable number of Western troops would be. As a result, identifying it and destroying it is more difficult, and the effect on their operations would be somewhat less also.

*** emphasis mine**

The devil’s in the details, and you certainly can’t win a battle let alone a war without having air superiority these days. However, and I don’t know who first said it, but you can’t win a war with air power alone because* an Air Force cannot occupy territory!* It really is as simple as that.

The only time in history that air power won a war was when The US Army Air Corp dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. And even then it was almost 50/50 whether they would surrender or fight on. And obviously that brief period was the only point in history when the use of nuclear weapons to win a war was possible and/or practical.

Hail Ants said it. In order to occupy an area you really need to be standing there, and conversely, to remove an occupier, you need to be standing there. Air power can be a critical and integral part of either mission, in support of a ground offensive. Air power is great for destroying assets; buildings, bridges, airport runways, even convoys. But not people (not that they can’t, mind you, but that is not their design).