Many Western analysts puzzle over the fact that some of the world’s most powerful air forces are pummeling Islamic State targets, month after month – with hardly any effect.
DEBKA Weekly’s military experts have taken a close look at this strange phenomenon and found some answers. One relates to the inadequate, misconceived tactics of this aerial campaign.
- American warplanes setting out to bomb ISIS regularly return to base with two-thirds of their ordnance unused and intact.
- Russia directs no more than one-third of its bombs and missiles against ISIS targets, reserving the lion’s share for rebel groups threatening the Assad regime. On Tuesday, Dec. 8, Moscow did finally bring in a big gun, the Rostov-on-Don submarine, which straight off began shooting Kalibr cruise missiles at Islamic State headquarters in Raqqa.
- The French are too sparing with ordnance. Since their first air strikes over Syria, after the Nov. 13 multiple terror assault on Paris, their jets have not dropped more than 20 bombs per sortie and, in one attack this week, only ten. None destroyed their targets.
In modern air force practice, bombers are supposed to check on how many targets they managed to destroy and then conduct repeat sorties or missile strikes against the ones they missed. The French pilots, however, conducted single sorties and then returned to base on the decks of the Charles de Gaulle nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean.
- British RAF pilots alone make a real effort to take out targets, but their sorties are too few and far between for an impact on ISIS.
All in all, in the past year, the US Air Force dropped about 28,000 bombs and missiles on Islamic State facilities and forces. Even so, the jihadis’ territorial gains were not much reduced; neither were their military capabilities seriously degraded.
Strange as it may seem, there has been no effort to determine why the US, French and British air forces so consistently miss the mark, or account for the ISIS’s exceptional resilience in the face of a concerted air blitz.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources offer three further explanations:
1. ISIS has adapted to living and fighting under constant air assault.
In the early stage of the bombing campaign in late 2014, the terrorists sustained substantial losses.
They bounced back by devising a range of evasive tactics. One is the use of decoy targets, such as dummy tanks, artillery, open SUVs, long supply convoys and bases, all made of cardboard or barrels painted in military colors. Real convoys of ISIS fighters no longer travel in daylight. They move by night, taking advantage of the moon, cloud cover and weather conditions in which the aerial bombers find it hard to operate.
2. Iraqi officers are hired for their camouflaging expertise.
The Iraqi army became adept in camouflaging its military assets during the Iraqi-Iranian war in the 1990s, making them invisible to the Iranian air force. Those Iraqi experts have taught the Islamic State how to use ground conditions to mask its troop movements.
After dark, hundreds of small boats move ISIS forces on the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers between Iraq and Syria. At the first light of dawn, they vanish into the riverside vegetation and are collected by comrades who hide the boats and provide the arrivals with food and drink.
3. New roads replace routes bombed out in Iraq and Syria.
ISIS is building an alternative road network to replace the highways bombed out by US, Russian, British and French fighter jets. Unmapped winding, unpaved side roads run through mountains and hills and cross through dense vegetation and agricultural fields. In recent weeks, intelligence surveillance has discovered ISIS building tunnels along these roads for the convoys to take cover under air attack.
For smuggling looted oil out to market, the Islamist terrorists don’t bother with camouflage. Western reports of the bombing of hundreds of ISIS oil tankers are correct as far as they go. The trucks don’t belong to the Islamic State and their drivers are usually Kurds, Iraqis, Syrians or Jordanians employed for the job by the Turkish and Kurdish contractors involved in oil smuggling.
When those tankers are destroyed, ISIS is not out of pocket because it is paid up front even before the convoys set out on their journey.