The current approach to dealing with the global jihadist threat has been not unfairly characterized as using the military to “whack-a-mole.” This means that military force is applied in small packages across the world to kill individual terrorists, force the others to keep their heads down or support coalition operations. France’s campaign against Islamic terrorists in Mali depended on U.S. transport and aerial refueling aircraft. Nigeria’s hunt against Bolo Haram is being supported by U.S. surveillance drones. U.S. Special Forces were deployed to the Central African Republic to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army. A large U.S. base has grown up in Djibouti to support operations against Al Shabab in Somalia and Al Qaeda in Yemen. The Administration’s strategy for dealing with the Islamic State is more of the same: limited air strikes at great expense for questionable results.
At the same time as the demand to deal with the jihadist “moles” increases, the size of the military is shrinking. As a result, the Armed Forces are being stretched to the breaking point. The Navy and Marine Corps found it impossible to maintain its ongoing deployment of an amphibious ready group in the Mediterranean. As a result, there was no emergency response capability when Jihadists attacked the embassy in Benghazi. Since then, the Marine Corps has deployed a rapid response force in Southern Europe precisely for such contingencies.
The air operations against the Islamic State (IS) illustrates just how much U.S. military power is required even for limited actions. 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, F/A-18E/Fs,EA-18G Growler electronic warfare planes and drones.
According to U.S. Air Force figures, by the end of September there have been approximately 240 coalition air strikes against IS targets in Iraq and Syria. 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. 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. Doing the math, this means there have been around 20 supporting sorties for each strike conducted. Hundreds of aircraft maintainers, weaponeers, intelligence analysts, UAV operators and communications specialists are required to maintain even the small number of actual air strikes.
Recent figures put the number of airstrikes by U.S. and Coalition forces in both Iraq and Syria from September to mid-November at 866. This would suggest over 17,000 total sorties for this period. Many of the airstrikes have been against individual vehicles, artillery and mortar positions, so-called obstructions and checkpoints and assembly areas (read fields and parking lots).The cost exchange ratio of IS targets struck for aircraft sorties required doesn’t look very favorable to our side.
Limited counter-terrorist operations require a disproportionate expenditure of military resources. The cost for the air operation against the Islamic State is estimated to be no less than $7 million a day, most of which is consumed in activities to support strike missions. As Jihadist fighters respond to the air campaign by going to ground and taking other protective measures, the cost of the air campaign is likely to go up even as the number of actual strikes declines. The reason for this is it takes more effort, particularly surveillance flights, for each combat sortie flown.
They also impose continuing wear and tear on scarce military resources, particularly surveillance platforms, aerial refueling aircraft, Special Operations Forces, carrier battle groups and strike aircraft. The U.S. Navy has been forced to extend the average length of aircraft carrier deployments from seven to nine months to provide minimum coverage of critical theaters. Such operations also divert resources from the absolutely vital requirement to invest in modernization of aging platform and training for high-end missions that would be required in the event of a confrontation with Russia or China.
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