The U.S. Air Campaign Against ISIS Is Much Bigger Than You Think
To date, there have been approximately 240 coalition air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria since air operations began nearly a month ago. On the first night of operations against ISIS in Syria, the U.S. put most of its best assets into the fight, employing more than 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles along with F-22 Raptors, F-15 Strike Eagles, F-16s, B-1 bombers, EA-18G Growler electronic warfare planes and drones. U.S. Navy F/A-18E/Fs and coalition partners including the U.K., France, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE and Qatar have participated in air operations too.
According to reports from a variety of sources, the air strikes already have had a noticeable impact on ISIS operations. The threat of U.S. air attacks alone caused ISIS to evacuate a number of fixed facilities and disperse their assets. ISIS is no longer moving in large convoys and are having difficulty concentrating forces to continue its operations in Iraq.
Still, this doesn’t seem like much for the U.S. military, which along with many of the same partners routinely conducted more than a thousand air strikes a day during the other two wars in Iraq in 1991 and 2003. Granted, the number of aircraft committed to this operation is just a fraction of what was available to air war planners in the past. For example, there is just a single U.S. aircraft carrier, the George H.W. Bush, operating in the Arabian Gulf whereas in 2003 the U.S. Navy employed a total of six.
What goes underreported and, hence, underappreciated, is the magnitude of the overall air operation being conducted in support of or in addition to the actual air strikes against targets on the ground. Simply put, behind every successful air strike is a massive supporting infrastructure of aircraft, ground operations and planning activities. Air strikes are not conducted in isolation. Every strike package consists not only of bomb-carrying aircraft but others providing the protection, electronic warfare support, aerial refueling, battle space management and intelligence. The 240 strikes in Iraq and Syria were supported by some 3,800 aircraft sorties, 1,700 tanker flights and over 700 ISR sorties. There have also been thousands of flights by transport aircraft, C-17s and C-130s making up the largest fraction, providing humanitarian relief but also moving personnel and essential supplies into the region.
Behind all these aircraft stands the supporting personnel and infrastructure necessary to any air operation. These range from ground crews and air traffic controllers to maintainers, armorers and intel personnel. Then there are the people in the air operations center who put together the air tasking order that details all the air activities for a 24-hour period. There are more people and more complexity when it is a joint and coalition operation.
Doing the math, this means there have been around 20 supporting sorties for each strike conducted. This is in a fairly benign environment. Even the use of the F-22 stealth fighter in Syria was based largely on taking advantage of its extraordinarily capable sensor suite and not its defense-avoidance capabilities. If this had been what air strategists call a contested environment, the number of supporting sorties would have been much higher. Against a serious adversary with advanced air defenses, there would likely be a protracted effort to roll back the defenses that would require specialized platforms and weapons intended for the mission of suppressing enemy air defenses.
So even a relatively simple air campaign involves lots of aircraft and people. The Air Force and Navy today are routinely conducting complex air operations in multiple theaters simultaneously while cutting force structure and reducing end strength. Pretty soon they won’t be able to meet all the demands being levied on them. This administration is about to deny its successors viable military options with which to address future crises.