The Air Campaign against ISIS

Monday, March 9, 2015
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, UK 3291, Hoover Institution Archives
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, UK 3291, Hoover Institution Archives

One of the enduring myths of the Second World War is that strategic bombing had little impact on popular morale in Germany. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the Combined Bomber Offensive, much of which targeted civilians, had a profound effect on German morale, while it severely impeded the ability of the Nazi war economy to meet the war’s spiraling demands. Precision at best was measured in city blocks and major industrial sites; massive collateral damage was the norm.

With the onset of precision capabilities, the American approach to air war has moved increasingly toward a targeting philosophy that measures success in the ability to strike targets in a matter of feet, while ignoring almost entirely the psychological impact that bombing inflicted on the enemies of the United States in the past. Ironically, during the birth of the precision age in the Gulf War of 1991, Iraqi POWs identified the B-52 as the American aircraft they feared the most in spite of the fact that because of a glitch in its targeting system its accuracy was off by a factor of hundreds of yards. What terrified them was the terrible sound of B-52s dropping tons of bombs across the landscape with a combination of the sound of explosion after explosion and a shaking landscape that disturbed the ground, in some cases miles from where they stood.

The reports on American targeting of ISIS suggest that American air strikes have been limited almost exclusively to precision attacks. The contrast between the Jordanian air raids in response to the horrific killing of their pilot by ISIS and the targeted, carefully nuanced approach the U.S. has been using in its attacks on ISIS could not be sharper. And how relevant the American approach is in a Middle Eastern world where ruthlessness is respected and mercy is viewed with contempt is open to question. Interestingly after the fierce Jordanian attacks, the rumors were that the ISIS leadership decamped from the cities to the desert. No such rumors have appeared after the American strikes.