Sunday, October 05, 2014

Canada in Iraq: Suppressing fire

So Harper announces that he's sending six very old fighter airframes to Iraq (the desert is very hard on advanced fighter aircraft and takes years off airframe life), along with Aurora surveillance and other assets. These are essentially providing air support for local forces: (Kurdish, anti-Assad Syrian militia, Syrian army, Iraqi army, Iranian military, and whatever western and Gulf state special forces operators are milling about there. I know I know, we're not incursing Syrian airspace, yet. (Does the line between Syria and Iraq it matter given the large tracts of territory with an ISIS presence or control?)

He now has his own shiny hobby war of indeterminate duration and aim to milk for votes and flags. How much good the small numbers of strike aircraft are actually doing in a tactical scenario is an interesting question. If you read this Guardian piece, the RAF is dropping precision bombs on single machine gun positions and pick-up trucks. Iranians, Iraqis and the Americans have been bombing ISIS for quite a while now, but still that organisation is holding its own. Elsewhere, Juan Cole draws attention to an item where an Iraqi close support  aircraft was forced to withdraw due to ground fire.

These kinds of report may illustrate an interesting problem. ISIS controls vast tracts of territory but they are not a conventional army. They appear more like a mix of light infantry, Mad-Max gang, and guerilla force. While they have captured armour and artillery, they don't have the organisational structure or background to use these conventionally, making it difficult for high flying fast jets to find high value targets to bomb. These jets are instead seem to be hunting jeeps and machine guns, destroying them with bombs designed to wreck much more fortified and valuable targets. They can't get close because that would expose them to dangerous volumes of small arms and light anti-aircraft fire, like the Iraqi support aircraft mentioned above. It isn't meant to defeat ISIS because ISIS cannot be defeated by bombs and bullets alone. Here's why:

The Kurds in the North, and states like Turkey are only interested in keeping ISIS off their turf, holding their own borders. There isn't the will or numbers to sweep into Sunni/ISIS Iraq and Syria to destroy ISIS. The Shia groups in southern Iraq, including the army, would have to fight tooth and nail to push ISIS fanatics out, which would mean they'd be left holding large tracts of Sunni Iraq under a Shia militia control. Something tells me that would not lead to good things.

So it's a low intensity war of suppression, probably aimed at keeping ISIS from seriously expanding or consolidating its gains. Nobody wants to put large numbers of "boots on the ground" necessary to destroy ISIS because everyone understands that sort of action would mean (1) de facto support for Assad, (2) a lot of casualties and money; (3) the continuation of insurgency for a long time to come.

There's no solution but containment. Except you can't tell a voting public you're joining a war with no path to resolution. People don't get that, let alone political leaders. Now Canada is going to drop bombs on the infinite and indefinite in the desert until something else happens. What, exactly? Well, I suppose we'll know when it happens. Or we won't.


Edstock said...

"They can't get close because that would expose them to dangerous volumes of small arms and light anti-aircraft fire, like the Iraqi support aircraft mentioned above."

And that's why the USAF are sending in the A-10 Warthogs, with the titanium armor and the 30mm gatling gun, for up-close-and-personal. ISIS don't have anything to stand up to Warthog Wallop.

Steve said...

ISIS becomes Palestine and the surrounding nations Israel.

Alison said...

Harper interview with WSJ editor at Goldman Sachs, Sept 24. Excerpted :

Harper : "I do not believe that we can watch a terrorist caliphate - essentially what has become a quasi-state - establish a regime of mayhem over an entire region. It is obviously essential, and this is I think the ultimate purpose of everything that's being done in Iraq and Syria, it's obviously essential that while terrorists and terrorist organizations may continue to exist, that they not have visible and open bases of operations from which to conduct either regional or eventually global attacks."

Gerard Baker, WSJ : "What more broadly needs to be done here? Because I think everybody agrees that a military campaign led mainly from the air with some ground force contributions from local militia and maybe the Iraqi army may not, it's uncertain that, you may be able to stop the growth of Islamic State but is that really likely to be successful in actually extirpating this threat?"

Harper : "Look, I think all the elements that need to be done are there; they obviously need to be built on. As I say we do need to make sure, first and foremost, that terrorist entities cannot operate in the open and openly on bases. We need to push them to the fringes and make their basic organization and logistical existence very difficult on an ongoing basis. A lot of that can be done from the air."


Harper : "Look I'm strongly supportive of the President's view that it would be very hard for us to secure an area if the local population won't secure it itself so you have to create the conditions where they're willing to do that."

Steve said...


Its ironic that the perfect weapon to safely degrade ISIS is the one the US air force can not wait to get rid off. Their suggested replacement, the F35 which makes a CF18 look like an A10 in comparison. As you know the F35 does not even have fire suppression systems because they weight to much for this boated air frame.

Also last week Harper fed another 50 plus million to the F35 shell game.

Boris said...

Ed, the A-10 or not, the point is availability targets that will actually have an impact on ISIS. Is there a difference between destroying a dug-in crew-served weapon or a shifty looking Toyota with a 500lbs guided bomb from 15 000 ft compared to a burst of 30mm DU from an A-10 from a 1000 feet? I mean there are already SU-25s there now (which I bet was the machine that fled the the ground fire).

Alison, I feel like Harper's "from the air" is a bit cute. ISIS will adapt to the frequent patrols of bombers and are probably doing so already. To deny them 'bases' means denying them territory, which they already have, so it means eviction. Can't do eviction because that means A LOT of troops and casualties from the resulting insurgency. As you put it at yours, it's a strategy of endless war. I don't know where I saw it, but someone recently said the usual suspects in the West are actually on the fringes of this one, which maybe why they're having such a hard time with it. While the history of US/UK policy toward the region create the conditions for ISIS, isn't about the West anymore. The real fight is happening along Sunni/Shia lines with neighbouring states/groups involved only where it bumps against them.

Boris said...

The only reasonable response might be to say, "dude, that's messed up" and either shuffle away slowly or run like mad.

Steve said...

The drug war never made sense but it paid a lot of patriots and built impressive castles. So maybe ISIS is the new drug to be defeated. Rooted in Sand and easily Islamic.

Alison said...

The Guardian, today : Air strikes against Isis are not working, say Syrian Kurds

"Isis fighters have pushed to the edge of Kobani and evade western strikes, says spokesman for Kurdish fighters"