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 Military.com 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.