It is time to stop referring to ISIS as Islamic extremists, terrorists or certainly the JV team. We can no longer afford to underestimate this adversary. This was the mistake the Byzantine and the Persian Sassanid Empires initially made when confronted by the successors to Mohammed, the Rashidun Caliphs. They thought they were dealing with a handful of caravan raiders. In less than thirty years, the first Caliphate seized control of the Near East, Egypt, Libya, Persia and half the Anatolian plateau. It only took four thousand horsemen to conquer all of Egypt; ISIS has, at a minimum ten times as many fighters.
The recent conquest of Ramadi, the capitol of Anbar province, demonstrated clearly that ISIS is not a terrorist organization or even an insurgency but an Army. In many ways, ISIS’s Ramadi offensive resembled the so-called Second Battle of Fallujah in 2004 when some 13,000 U.S., British and Iraqi forces retook that city from Iraqi insurgents. In both cases, the attacker used kinetic and information operations to shape the battlefield, push civilians to flee the city and demoralize their opposition. This was followed by encircling and isolating the city. In the third phase of the operation, both the U.S.-led forces and ISIS further fragmented Fallujah and Ramadi respectively, into manageable pieces, each of which could be assaulted in turn. In the final assault, overwhelming force was applied to each of the remaining enclaves. Once these cities were taken, defensive positions were established on all access routes to prevent counterattacks.
In Fallujah, the U.S.-led forces employed a combined arms strategy with heavy reliance on armored fighting vehicles, airborne ISR and strike, long-range fires and lots of engineering support. The ISIS strategy was similar, employing combined arms capabilities, much of which consisted of captured equipment provided by the United States. ISIS is reported to have used tactical drones to provide some real-time ISR.
What ISIS lacked in indirect fire support and airpower it made up for with the use of so-called improvised explosive devices (IEDs). ISIS used massed vehicle-borne IEDs (VB-IEDs), including armored vehicles, bulldozers and large transports to bombard Iraqi strongpoints prior to assaulting them with well-trained infantry units. It also used anti-vehicle IEDs to create roadblocks and support blocking positions created to isolate and fragment the city. Massed VB-IEDs then led the way in the final assault.
We should abandon the term improvised when referring to the weapons ISIS has been employing in Ramadi and elsewhere. There is very little that is improvised about their development and use of IEDs. In fact, there are reports that ISIS has been mass producing and stockpiling some types of explosive devices in order to ensure they have the weight of explosive power necessary to achieve their desired mission, just the way U.S. forces stockpile artillery shells and air-delivered weapons. The use of heavy VB-IEDs reflects ISIS’s knowledge that Iraqi forces lack anti-armor weapons necessary to stop them.
ISIS has demonstrated that it is able to adapt, even reinvent, the IED, rapidly in response to changes in their adversaries’ tactics and capabilities. Unlike the insurgents U.S. forces fought in Iraq and are facing in Afghanistan, ISIS has the advantage of territory, facilities, financing and technical know-how. It is able to customize its IEDs to counter threats and targets as they emerge on the battlefield.
At one time, due in large measure to the efforts of the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO), the U.S. military was the gold standard in how to deal with IEDs. There was amazing progress in device detection, jamming, physical neutralization and disposal. The science of network analysis became a high art in the years since JIEDDO was stood up. We are in danger of losing the wealth of experience and knowledge gained at such a terrible price in Iraq and Afghanistan as time passes. Moreover, our adversaries are learning and changing.
Should U.S. forces have to return to the Middle East, they will find themselves confronting a more capable and deadly enemy. One of the wisest decisions made by the senior leadership of the Pentagon was to retain JIEDDO and make it an agency within AT&L. As the next increment of U.S. ground forces are dribbling into Iraq, the need for a Pentagon organization devoted to understanding this new class of weapons and the networks that design, construct and employ them should be obvious to all.
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