2014-09-22 By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake
As the crises in Europe and the Middle East heat up, the debate quickly turns on which path is crucial to deal with evolving threats: boots on the ground or airpower with no boots on the ground.
The specter of responses to the 9/11 attack and the various engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq naturally shade perspectives.
Yet changing capabilities and concepts of operations are overcoming the classic distinction as the USMC has become the only tiltrotar enabled force in the world, as the USAF and USN have shaped highly integrated air grids, and advances in both the lethality and effectiveness of manned and unmanned aviation have grown.
And the past decade’s experience of the need to shape a very large and expensive ground grid from which to feed Special Forces and ground operations is not one the US is going to repeat anytime soon.
At the same time, conflict is evolving as well.
The evolving pattern of 21st century conflict is emerging.
It is a pattern in which state and non-state actors are working to reshape the global order in their favor by generating conflicts against the interests of the democracies but which the democracies are slow to react.
The assumption of ISIS terrorists and Putin’s Russian Ukrainian adventure and the Chinese leadership relying in part on the PLA to expand the domain of Chinese sovereignty is that the slow decision making cycles of democracies can be exploited to make gains.
And gains can be achieved on a piecemeal basis, rather than going for the big grab which can provide a dramatic event usable by democratic leaders to mobilize public opinion and generate resources to respond.
A mix of non-kinetic, kinetic and information warfare elements are blended into an assertive adversary political-military policy against democratic interests.
Russia and the Ukraine
A good case in point is that of Putin and his ongoing efforts to control Ukraine. The actions in Ukraine have included seizure of territory, the use of Special Forces, information war, the use of indigenous Russian armed and trained “separatists,” and other techniques.
Vladimir Putin was a young KGB Officer who was active when President Reagan won the IW against the Soviet Union trying to stop the US and NATO successfully placing tactical nuclear cruise missiles in Europe as a major deterrence move.
In the Euromissile Crisis he learned how not to lose an Information War. Consequently he is shaping a 21st century blend of combining military moves with successful propaganda.
By seizing Crimea, Russia set in motion internal pressures aided by direct support to continue map writing in Ukraine and to reduce the size of the territory under the country of the government in Kiev. The Crimean intervention was destabilizing, and the enhanced role of Russian “separatists” aided and abetted by Moscow within the remainder of Ukraine is part of the Russian 21st century approach to warfare.
The shoot down of the Malaysian airliner by Russian “separatists” and the absence of any Western response to secure the site and work with the Ukrainians to bring the separatist operation to a halt was a key element of his successful strategy.
The US and NATO lost a significant opportunity to do a very good thing in protecting the victims bodies and rolling back literally drunken separatists that could have been achieved by the President of Ukraine calling in an insertion force of MV-22 enabled Marines.
Sadly an opportunity was missed, the US could have responded to the Malaysian shoot down in Ukraine by working with the Ukrainian government to bring in forces to secure the crash site.
If this was the pre-Osprey era, an insertion might be more difficult, but with the tiltrotar assault force the USMC can be put in place rapidly to cordon off the area. Had this occurred it would have signaled a credible global response to the disinformation campaign of Russia and its state-sponsored separatists.
Airpower dominance over Ukraine coupled with the Marines on the ground, and forces loyal to Kiev could have secured the crash site without becoming a permanent US military base. It is about using flexible military insertion forces in ways appropriate to the political mission.
The Emergence of ISIS
The 2014 USMC MV-22 insertion forces can also respond to ISIS threat. The emergence of ISIS is a political force challenging the US President on how to respond with an extremist group aggregating power, trying to build an army and shaping a leadership role in a volatile region. The ISIS rejection of all groups other than their own, a join us or die mantra had been proven to be a very powerful IW weapon.
ISIS is dedicated to the violent destruction of those who object to their leadership of a mythical Middle Ages dream which is directly opposed to any Western values of religious freedom, secularism and tolerance. When you have a group grabbing for power that Al Qaeda finds extreme the United States, Europe and many countries in Middle East, from Israel to Saudi Arabia have a major problem.
ISIS is shaping a brand via its military successes and its ability to eliminate religious opponents; it is a kinetic force using information war to spread the murderous fanatical brand to shape their evolving influence in the region.
The leader does not dress in black or fly a black flag by accident; it is part of the branding effort and the religious information war against their enemies.
ISIS is a rapidly moving target and needs a response that is not measured in the months and years of a return of the US Army to Iraq to re-start training an Iraqi Army which the Obama Administration has already clearly recognized as part of the problem not the solution. The total collapse of the Iraq Army after a decade of US investment is a testimony to failure, regardless of who is at fault in US planning and execution of Iraq Nation Building.
For defenders of COIN, it would have to be explained why time and continued effort would overcome what are clearly deeply rooted fissures within the political texture of Iraq: namely the Sunni-Shite cleavage, the role of Iran and the use of the military by Prime Minister Malki for his own political purposes?
In effect, Maliki has used his Shia-dominated military in ways similar to how Saddam Hussein used his Sunni-dominated military, namely to prop himself up in power and to shape domestic political outcomes to his benefit. Simply changing the name of the leader is not likely to change power realities.
And when the ISIS were able to aggregate forces, the absence of an air enabled ground force, demonstrated a fundamental fact often forgotten: it is not about airpower versus boots on the ground.
As Lt General (Retired) Dave Deptula has pointed out it is about an air dominance enabled ground force versus ones that are not, especially with a 21st Century ISR grid in the air not on the ground.
Consequently in addition to new tiltroter MV-22 technology, a notable political difference between Iraq in 2014 and 2003 is the politics of the Turkish-Kurdish relationship and the ability of the US to build upon that relationship. Kurdistan with their Peshmurga fighting force is one area of Iraq that has immediate promise of thwarting, rolling back and to begin the process of destroying ISIS.
With respect to success in IW, the leaders of Kurdistan deserve great praise because of the tolerance and lifesaving physical sanctuary they provided to the Christians and others. The Kurds can now play a key role in shaping a relatively stable island in a violent region, and provide an important focal point for the United States and its allies. Working with the Kurds and augmenting their autonomy within Iraq, including control of critical oil infrastructure, is a clear objective for the operation of US forces.
Successfully employing airpower to destroy visible items of war such as ISIS captured, tanks, major artillery, rockets, and other road mobile transportation Humvees, MRAPS and their pick-up trucks with automatic weapons can be done.
Destroying this captured US military hardware, which enables ISIS to operate and maneuver, is a key priority.
If the ISIS forces loses their maneuver ability and their crew-served weapons and armored vehicles, especially tanks, to seize terrain and key choke points, they will be forced back into the cities or be forced hide in small units in the countryside.
If US forces can see them outside of cities they can kill them. City fights should be left to what is remaining of the Iraq Army.
ISIS was well on the way to fielding an Army when the US finally engaged.
Focusing upon what is needed to pulverize military capabilities of ISIS to move rapidly and lethally, can buy some strategic maneuver space to sort out what kind of aid the Kurds might really need to protect their augmented territory within a fragmenting Iraq.
Because the US has the option of leveraging our seabase in conjunction with whatever force capabilities might be shaped to support the Kurds, the US is NOT forced to have agreements with a collapsing regime to influence events. The sea-based force can function as the foundation for a force able to operate without the need for specific territorial agreements on basing with fractious factions of Baghdad.
And when they depart, they do not have to leave their equipment behind which can become later seized by hostile forces and used against the United States and its allies.
Leveraging both our sea base aviation strike assets throughout Iraq, and combined with the global strike reach, outside of Iraq of the USAF fighter, bomber and tanker fleet in support of US tactical jets, ISIS will encounter death from above delivered by Air Force and Navy combat pilots. This is war-tipping capability. We don’t need to write a blank check for the insertion of forces of COIN-determined size packages and prop up an ally who is not; we have already done that one.
Buying strategic maneuver space for the immediate period ahead, and pulverizing ISISs military capabilities – trucks, cars, artillery pieces, etc. — are the crucial objectives and is an airpower strike mission. It is about the ISR strike grid in the air rather than relying on the previous US Army way of war building an extensive and expensive operational grid on the ground.
Overcoming the Boots on the Ground Versus Airpower Dichotomy
In both the Ukrainian and Iraq cases, the ability to insert force empowered by airpower is crucial. What is often forgotten about Drones and Special Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan is the need for very large ground-based grid of support necessary to move the ground forces (helicopters) , feed ground forces, provide medical assistance to ground forces to support Special Forces and also the vast targeting appetite for the Drone fleet.
By contrast, the ability to station and supply a Navy Marine Team anywhere around the globe, ready for immediate combat, demonstrates, yet again, why the US Navy Fleets of Carrier Battle Groups and ARG/MEUs are invaluable assets for American military power projection.
The USMC can easily setup a TEMPORARY FOB for 22nd MEU with their MV-22s somewhere in Kurdistan to conduct missions into Iraq proper to rescue Christians and eliminate any ISIS fanatics in the way in the process and then leave. USS Bush CBG could provide a real combat punch when ISIS mass their forces-or SOCOM/CIA identifies isolated groups. Just like they could have secured the crash site in Ukraine.
This is not about long term occupation and training; this is about ready now USMC sea based tiltrotar MV-22 assault forces coming to the aid of the Kurds and Christians, and setting up a forward operating base that can influence events in the Nineveh plain, helping move threatened minorities to Kurdish protection, all the while working with SOF in country, and then returning aboard ship.
The U.S. has insertion forces able to engage and withdraw, rather than setting up long-term facilities and providing advisers as targets. The ability to establish air dominance to empower multi-mission USMC insertion force able to operate effectively, rapidly and withdraw is a core effort that now exists in US way of war for emerging 21st century conflicts
The classic dichotomy of boots on the ground versus airpower really does not capture the evolving capabilities of either airpower or the evolving capabilities of ground forces capitalizing on those evolving capabilities to provide for more effective and more lethal insertion forces.
A version of this piece has appeared on Breaking Defense: