Strategist: Defeating ISIL Requires ‘Effects Based’ Bombing Campaign

A key architect of the air bombardment strategy in the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom said the U.S. military must have significant success with its efforts to destroy the Islamic State from the air.

On Wednesday night, President Obama’s announced that the U.S. will lead a coalition to step up targeted airstrikes against ISIL. As the mission shifts from humanitarian support and protecting U.S. personnel to more aggressive strikes aimed at a much wider set of targets, some analysts have  questioned if the U.S. will need ground combat troops or if air power will suffice.

The U.S. has utilized air bombing strategies to support friendly forces, such as the Iraqi Security Forces, hoping to advance on the ground.

Attacking ISIL is not similar to dismantling a country’s military such as the initial bombing campaigns in the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom. It’s more similar to the airstrikes the U.S. and allied forces have executed against insurgent and Taliban leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade.

A dispersed group of fighters deliberately blending in with the civilian population and travelling in small groups in vehicles like pick-up trucks and armored vehicles has proven difficult or high-risk to pinpoint from the air with even the best precision-guided weaponry.

Even so, one of the authors of the air-power strategy called “effects-based” warfare, said using some of those same concepts may still apply when attacking a mobile insurgent terrorist group such as ISIL.

Retired Air Force Col. John Warden, known for his strategic involvement in creating and implementing effects based warfare, helped the George H.W. Bush administration prepare for the use of precision air-power in the Gulf War.

Effects based warfare is based on the premise that precision air power can achieve a particular strategic effect without necessarily attacking large numbers of fielded forces or the infrastructure of the attacked area.  Success is achieved by attacking and disabling the enemy’s centers of gravity, referred to by Warden as the five rings – leadership, system essentials, infrastructure, population, fielded military forces.

“The concept of the five rings says that anytime you have more than one person operating against you, such as a group, you have the formation of a system,” Warden told in an interview.

Warden explained that this means any group, such as ISIL, would have the elements of the five rings such as leadership, supply lines or system essentials and places to store things such as infrastructure, fielded forces and potentially support from the elements of the local population.

“ISIL looks pretty straightforward,” he said, suggesting that some elements of effects-based warfare could potentially prove useful against ISIL should attacks continue, despite the fact that they are largely a guerilla force on the move and not a country or area with a fixed infrastructure.

The idea of effects-based warfare is to achieve what’s called strategic paralysis and render an enemy force unable to fight by targeting leadership headquarters, command and control and supply lines, Warden explained.

Avoiding civilian casualties through the use of strategy and precision technology from the air – all while preserving much of the infrastructure of the attacked area – is fundamental to effects-based warfare.  The advent of precision weaponry such as GPS and laser-guided bombs has, to a large degree, made this possible.

This approach proved quite successful during the Gulf War and opening attack or “shock and awe” conducted at the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, ISIL poses a much different challenge.

“Where we have had success it is not because we have killed every guy that has a bomb. It is because we have succeeded in destroying the ability of the opposition group to function in an organized and coherent way by attacking the leadership, attacking their communications, and attacking their supply lines —for the most part — without doing any significant damage to general infrastructure and little or no damage to the population that they are operating in,” Warden said.

The USS Bush carries as many as 44 F/A-18s, including both Hornets and the more technically advanced Super Hornets. Navy Hornet and Super Hornet pilots have been flying surveillance missions over Iraq for weeks, in part to use their on-board electro-optical cameras and infrared sensors to identify potential ISIL targets. These missions were done in anticipation of a potential order to conduct strikes, defense officials said.

F/A-18s are configured with a host of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons such as GBU-54 500-pound laser-guided bombs, some of which were dropped near Irbil, Iraq, against ISIL mobile artillery targets. Laser-guided bombs can be guided by a laser-designation from the air or nearby ground forces.

Many of the bombs, such as the GBU 54s dropped in Iraq are known as Laser Joint Direct Attack Munitions or LJDAMS. Many JDAMS also rely on GPS guidance to pinpoint their targets.

The GBU 54 is a 581-pound glide bomb with a range of up to 15 nautical miles, service officials said. The weapon uses semi-active laser guidance as well as GPS and inertial navigation systems.

Navy officials said standard laser guidance packages on bombs prove exceptionally accurate in clear conditions against stationary targets. However, with significant amounts of environmental factors such as airborne dust, smoke, fog, or cloud cover, the guidance packages can have difficulty maintaining “lock” on the laser designation while pursuing moving or maneuvering targets, Navy officials said.

This is the reason the GBU-54 was engineered; it is a dual-mode precision-guided bomb designed to destroy fixed and re-locatable or moving targets, service officials said.

The Super Hornet is also configured to fire AIM-9X sidewinder air-to-air missile, the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile, or AMRAAM, the Joint Standoff Weapon, the Small Diameter Bomb and the Mk-84 general purpose bomb, Navy officials said.

On the deck of the USS Bush, the F/A-18s are joined by five EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft, four E-2 Hawkeye surveillance planes, two C-2 cargo aircraft and as many as 12 MH-60 Sea Hawk helicopters, Navy officials said.

In the Arabian Gulf, the USS Bush is joined by the USS Philippine Sea, a cruiser and two destroyers, the USS Roosevelt and USS O’Kane.

About the Author

Kris Osborn
Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Scout Warrior.
  • stephen russell

    IS needs storage sites, CPs, miscl alone for forces, Target those & any major convoys anyplace & strike finances in the US & EU alone.
    Make major dents./

    • blight_qwerty

      Targeting financing and supply chain would make the most sense. Eventually they’ll run out of Iraqi Army equipment to scavenge, and they must have plans for that Bank of Mosul haul.

      • wise up

        How dare you thinking about exposing the shadow financial network of the CIA and Saudi Arabia.

        If TPTB really wanted to go after the group, it would have done so a long time ago. How long did it take them to go after Russia economically financially after the plot in Ukraine failed?

        ISIS was and still is part of the master scheme for sustaining chaos the Middle East.

        • blight_qwerty


          Game of Thrones in progress

  • Tad

    This effort will fail as abysmally as the strategic bombing of Germany and Japan in WWII.

    • rtsy

      Those were quite possibly the most successful bombing campaigns in history.

      Pretty sure the analogy you were looking for was Vietnam.

      • blight_qwerty

        Bombing imposed disruptions on the German war machine, forcing them to disperse production instead of being able to scale up-a decisive advantage in industrial warfare. I imagine the same is true in Japan.

        That said, by the time the bombs began to fall on both the noose was beginning to tighten. Bombing saved many lives in terms of impeding the ability of both armies to fight effectively, and perhaps that is the better metric to assess the effectiveness of bombing campaigns than to say “hah, they did not surrender to the flying aircraft”, or looking at production figures and noting that production /increased/ during bombing campaigns. Undoubtedly without the bombs they would have increased /even more/.

      • Tad

        You’re kidding. It has been well documented that the non-nuclear strategic bombing in WWII failed to significantly disrupt industrial production in both Germany and Japan, and the non-nuclear bombing of the civilian populations merely increased their will to resist.

        • blight_qwerty

          The lack of small arms for the Volksgrenadiers and the use of Mauser 1898 (instead of 1898k) where applicable is probably due to a mix of factors. Bombing advocates will attempt to argue in favor of destruction of factories to make parts, rail yards to move raw materials, assembled parts and finished goods.

          While productivity in German factories increased the quality dropped accordingly, presumably due to the less specialized nature of the factories and the lower quality raw materials. The loss of tungsten for sabots and metals to alloy with steel such as vanadium made parts of correspondingly lower quality. However, it’s hard to pin down if this was due to bombing campaigns or due to loss of mines.

          Terror bombing of cities did not really bring the war to an end in a way Douhet imagined. And anyone who imagines terror bombing will be effective needs to find a more effective weapon. Even the atom bomb, while powerful was not completely effective.

        • UAVGeek

          That is ridiculous, the materiel and the people that Germany devoted to home defense was massive. If those resources had been diverted to the front lines the effect would have been hard to calculate. Yes production adapted but only towards the end of the war.

      • Ejcox

        Worked targeting in Vietnam out of Hawaii and Seoul. I can’t tell you how many targets where overruled and ignored. Had we sunk all the vessels in Haiphong alone they would have run out of ammo and gear. But no. Either fight war or get the hell out!

        • blight_qwerty

          Agreed. Mining Haiphong and daring the Soviets to try and resupply under those constraints would have forced them to use overland routes through China. Granted, extending the bombing into China would not have ended well, but cutting off more supply routes is never a bad thing.

          What’s strange is that we never dared to expose the expansion of the war beyond “Vietnam” into Laos and Cambodia, and how the Soviets and the Chinese were knee-deep in it.

    • blight_qwerty

      Bombing as a terror weapon is a failure. Unless you are terror bombing with nuclear weapons.

    • Jon

      How do qualify the failure of the strategic bombing campaign in WWII? Because of Operation BIG WEEK, the Nazi forces had virtually no rail and very limited roads to get into/out of Normandy. As for the so call Strategic Bombing Study conducted after the war, it relied on Nazi factory records that the managers later said they forged to show they were meeting production quotas or else they knew they would be killed. Meanwhile, last time I checked the strategic bombing campaign of Japan was highly effective culminating in the two atomic weapons strikes. But, what do I know, I only spent 28 years in the Air Force.

      • blight_qwerty

        Big Week missions were flown deep into Germany against industrial targets, coupled with long range fighter escorts to attrite interceptors.

        Unsure how much effect bombers had in destroying the rail infrastructure, as much of the credit is presently taken by the French Resistance instead of the AAF. Also worth nothing is that the pre-dawn bombing as part of Normandy was aimed towards projected German strongpoints, but does not appear to have been accurate. Since German forces did not attempt to move from Calais until too late, it hard to say what contribution to the delay in movement bombing imposed.

        Cobra confirmed more mixed results. Inaccurate bombing resulted in many friendly fire casualties, but allowed allied troops to break out of the bocage. The use of dedicated ground attack aircraft to take on point targets such as bridges and tanks remained the best way to achieve precision effects until the laser guided bomb.

      • Tad

        Strategic bombing did not impair German war production which increased throughout the war. Strategic bombing increased the will of the people to resist. If the Allies had focused all their efforts on the rails, canals and oil refineries, the German economy would have utterly collapsed much earlier. The focus on factories and civilians backfired.

        Were the damaged rails and roads into and out of Normandy the result of strategic bombing? High altitude bombers back then usually missed their targets by large margins, often miles. I would guess that saboteurs and Allied attack planes took out most of the rails and roads that were damaged for the D-Day invasion.

        Oh, that’s a point I should have emphasized. Tactical bombing was very effective in WWII. It’s the high-altitude strategic bombing that failed.

    • PaulP

      correct. You cannot bring people down that way. In Germany the solidarization effects after mass bombardments were stronger. Had nothing to do with nazism. You are staying together to survive. And to get strength.

      • blight_qwerty

        And fear of the Soviets.

    • ken

      Germany’s production of war machines was higher at the end of the war despite our heavy losses at strategic bombing. They just ran out of qualified soldiers and pilots. WWII was Total War. The allied forces were going to decimate countries to win.
      I agree with you Tad.

  • Cynical

    Two things we won’t see in this “long war”, “GWOT”, “existential struggle” (in other words, Forever War): 1. Tax increases to pay for it 2. Conscription to spread the burden fairly

    • Sev

      Declaring the enemy as Islam

      • blight_qwerty

        Strangely, many of our friends are wacko Sharia ruling classes. Or at least, stuck in bed with the crazy wacko Sharia (e.g Saudi Arabia).

  • Lance

    Sorry Mr Osborn quit cheer leading for Obama. Almost every military commander says you cannot beat ISIS w/o boots on the ground Obama’s ignoring it. Face it we never won a true war from the air it always takes men on the ground to finish it.

    • @ScienceAdvisor_

      I assume that you’ll be first in line to fight?

      • Riceball

        For once Lance is correct, air power alone has never won a war. in order to defeat ISIS we’re going to need boots on the ground to hold the ground once we pound ISIS fighters out and Iraqi security forces and moderate Syrian rebels might not be up to the task. If they do prove to be not up to the task of holding the ground we clear from the air and we, or some capable and reliable ally, don’t send in troops then we’ll never defeat ISIS.

        • AllForFreedom

          Yes that is true, but the Kurds are there on the ground and if the Iraqis would have had and will have air power then they will be a more formidable force too with guidance from US EU advisors. The weaponry of today cannot be compared to WW2 (that is a joke doing so) also. As retired Air Force Col. John Warden said that air power will soften and destroy communications, supply and disrupt any strategically planned tactics that they had or will have if these elements are destroyed by air so that ISIL which is a terrorist force on the move is an essential part of their warfare. I would bomb the daylights out of ISIL and won’t let the airstrikes seize until all of ISIL’s infrastructure and terrain is made into craters that will make their terrain impossible to defend and/or fight on. This is what the US did in Vietnam against the North Vietnamese but as usual just as the US was winning that war they gave into world pressure and retrieved and lost that war. ISIL has to be stopped at any cost and we as the democratic nations of the world have to for once destroy the evil forces that are continually attacking us and trying to terrorise us as ISIL and many of the other terrorist movements around the world do.

  • rtsy

    This seems more like a justification for our current “stand off” approach than a useful strategy for taking out a loosely organized, largely fluid, asymmetric group like ISIL.

  • oblatt22

    Another stupid war and inevitable defeat. Our military doesn’t even pretend it can win anymore - the strategy is to just hang on until we are broken and bankrupt.

  • dfarrand

    Its all smoke an mirrors. I want to see details of the rules of engagement. My guess is that those rules and force protection rules will be so tight that there will be little hope of any decisive success. There is a “not serious” smell about this whole operation. The likely outcome will be to further degrade an already neutered military. That may even be the main purpose. The existing bombing campaign - 500 million spent to destroy 162 enemy vehicles - is funded out of operations, maintenance and training budgets. We shall see. Will we see attacks on ISIS controlled oil fields, pipelines, refineries or will the only targets be toyota pickups ?

  • http://WhiteCloudsTwoSeaterOutHouse Cloid Dokich

    I am a patient at the VA MVP R&D, and I wish the Warden Air Force Col. WARDEN, COULD ACTIVATE MY ” CATCH 22,” or re - activate my Strategic Air Command with my MEDICAL COMMAND NATIONAL GUARD STATIS ? At least for this recent IRIS STUFF ?

    • dr. horrible


  • Vietnam Vet

    Cute little toys of War that are getting better…or deadlier.

    • tiff

      neither better nor deadlier, just more expensive and useless.

  • Guest

    The image used of an MQ-9 firing a missile is a computer generated image, and misrepresentative of the Reaper.……

    Provide credit where credit is due.

  • Alan Hoffamn

    Israel did some of this by targeting Hamas leadership, communications centers, etc. They were limited in the sense the UN provides infrastructure to cover storage of rockets and munitions, and had to deal with the Hamas strategy to fight, build rockets in the middle of commercial areas, etc., from among civilians. Amazingly, out of 5,222 Israeli attacks only 2,096 were killed, 40% of which were identified as terrorists. The US should be ready to deal with similar ISIS tactics as it hunkers down.

  • ppaschten

    Dropping bombs maybe necessary, but it is not the solution. You will need to go to the ground also and fight there the decisive battle. And if #ISIS is taking the civilians hostage they will keep close to innocent people to get saved themselves. This is were bombing turns into the contrary. And so easily. The #US are too strongly believing that war can be won with a remote control and with a minimum number of fighting ground troops. That is naive. Apart from that how is the midterm or longterm strategy looking like? The exit strategy? In the last conflicts USA was fast to went into war and turned out to be without a strategy how to proceed from there.

    • AllForFreedom

      ppaschten, you go in there and put your boots on the ground and fight, because I won’t, let the people that get the most benefit of being free fight for their freedom not us. I definitely think that air strikes are the most efficient at this point in time until all targets are softened beyond ISIL being an organised and united effective force. The US EU and the coalition should keep bombing rocketing and cause maximum havoc to ISIL until they retreat and/or give up their caliphate as they call it. But the most important thing is to monitor all the returning jihadists that went to the aid of ISIL and fought in this war for them to be arrested and identified and for these bigots to never be released from jail or for them to never be let into their countries of origin. This is the other problems that we are faced with now and after this war has been won.

  • Paralus

    Where in the five rings do PK and Ranger pickups fit?

    A $50,000 missile to take out a $5000 pickup and $500 machinegun operated by extremists.

    It’s a frikkin PR gimmick.

    We should be interviewing every young person departing for the Middle East, inspecting their bank accounts and shutting down their recruitment/funding flow. It would be far more effective than trying to chase them down in some village and bomb them.

    • Val

      Most of them enter through Turkey so good luck with that. As of right now they don’t seem to give a crap as long as their transportation industry sees profit from this while using the Kurds as a barrier.

      • blight_qwerty

        “Most of them enter through Turkey so good luck with that”

        They would have to enter the country through Kurdistan, or cross the border on foot into Syria /against/ the flow of refugees. And if they are Salafi fighters they’d be running into Syrian customs.

        The alternate is Lebanon and crossing into Syria, or Jordan into Syria. Or hey, since Damascus airport is not closed…land in Syria, get your docs stamped and slip past customs and find your Salafi buddies.

        • Val

          Syria for the most part doesn’t have control in their northern territories anymore. While the Kurds don’t have the means to do boarder control that I’ve heard of.

          Indeed it’s way to easy to get into Syria and Iraq. We should be issuing sanctions against countries and Assad’s government for not doing much to stem the tide of foreign fighters. Along with countries who funded Isis/Isil or whatever their calling themselves this month.

  • ken

    This is like an exquisite looking pipe I bought, and my friend asks me how does it smoke?

    This is an almost ridiculous article. We are superb at finding large formations in the open and destroying them. ISIS will go to ground in the cities and will travel in smaller groups. Whoever has boots on the ground owns the terrain unless we go Total War on them.

  • ken

    Did some intern write this rubbish? When was the last time air power won a war by itself? Effects based bombing sounds so damn sexy.

  • Lungs

    To all those boots on the ground folk… if its not going to be your boots or your chidren’s you ought to be quiet and hope this works with the Kurdish and Iraqi and even Iranian boots instead.