War from the skies: The rise of US strategic airpower under Trump

By Hemant Shivakumar

The USA’s use of strategic airpower is helping gain political and military dividends for President Trump despite limitations around communicating intent and causing collateral damage.

A few weeks ago, the US military dropped a ten-ton Massive Ordinance Air Blast (MOAB) to purportedly take out ISIS-K militants operating close to the Pakistan border (in Nangarhar province) in Eastern Afghanistan. Employing a high-wattage munition against an asymmetrically weaker group signaled the Trump administration’s unprecedented, high-stakes approach towards tackling non-conventional forces. Analysts termed this as a key tactical shift in US counterterrorism operations. Moreover, far from former President Obama’s reluctance around missile strikes against the Syrian government, the US military’s use of Tomahawk missiles to destroy the Syrian government’s air bases – in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by Assad in Khan Sheikhoun – underscored a new strategic temperament within the Trump administration. Similar to his predecessor, Trump has, so far at least, indisputably espoused airpower and aerial strikes as the principal method of applying military force by the USA.

As the administration’s unflinching confidence in airpower guides its military policy, the mixed signals it generates around US commitment and credibility is problematic. On the one hand, US air strikes on Syria risked escalation. On the other hand, Washington hardly communicated anything about the administration’s commitment to the region, leading a confused Russia and Iran to issue warnings against repeated attacks in the future. While deploying US marines to Raqqa in Syria implied US resolve, it conceded little latitude into Trump’s strategic goals over such an action. Interestingly, President Trump attested to delegating the tactical decision-making to his military chiefs – unlike his predecessor – generating further confusion about comprehending US goals and actions. Further, whether US’ tactical use of air munitions in Syria or Afghanistan deter countries like North Korea is moot, a point Trump also acknowledged. As countries struggle to assess the credibility and rationale of American actions, such ambiguity ties closely with airpower’s limitations around communicating intent. Despite such inhibitions, US preference for airpower is unlikely to be moderated.

This is because the US administration’s reliance on aerial platforms for counterterrorism and targeted strikes since 2012 has been exceptional, aided by Precision-Guided Weapons (PGWs). Given the increased reliance on PGWs, the number of sorties and strike rates are lower than those conducted during the Gulf War in 1991 and the campaigns against Serbia in 1998 and Afghanistan in 2001. According to US Air Force Lt. General Robert Otto,  the increasing precision of air munitions has rendered such ‘dumb’ large-scale bombing unnecessary. Similarly, US Army Lt. General Mayville noted during initial coalition airstrikes against ISIS in 2014 that 96 percent of munitions used were precision-guided. Soon after the US military scaled down its active fighting presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Obama administration set up Special Forces (SOFs) teams for carrying out local training and operations and expanded the use of airstrikes. Under Operation Inherent Resolve, US SOF and coalition forces trained national armies in Iraq and used precision air strikes and drone attacks to guide their tactics. For instance, US SOF often carries out drone-based targeting of militants in western Mosul and in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan to achieve tactical goals. The Iraqi and the Afghan armies are currently assisted by superior US air intelligence capabilities as well – such as aerial reconnaissance, air surveillance; as well as signal intelligence that is supplemented with local human intelligence. As of early 2016, nearly 11,000 airmen were using Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) such as Reaper and Predator drones for Intelligence, Reconnaissance, and Surveillance (ISR) operations. Such increasing range of US airpower against non-conventional forces represents a significant promotion – moving away engaging several ground forces to a high-octane airpower guiding local ops.

Moreover, strategic airpower is providing both political and military dividends for the new administration. The new administration’s missile strike on Syria ratcheted up US involvement in the conflict while attesting to broad Republican consensus around setting up safe zones in Syria. Republican senators John McCain and Jeff Flake agreed with Trump’s decisions to bomb Syria; while earlier in April 2017, Hillary Clinton had also admitted to the necessity of US military involvement in the conflict. Aerial bombing is also seen as a secure, inexpensive intervention tool by the American public as well. In a recent CBS-conducted poll, while 18 percent of Americans approved the use of US ground forces in Syria, 57 percent approved the use of limited airstrikes. President Obama’s drone warfare targeted specific militants using Hellfire missiles, while the precision-based and the technological advancements of delivery systems have expanded the range of air munitions such as MOAB or Hellfire missiles to achieve a wider variety of strategic goals such as denying terrain, bunker bombing, taking out mines, etc. In Iraq (Mosul) and in Afghanistan, remote drone attacks are helping the coalition forces gain key tactical positions against ISIS and thwart advances by the Taliban. Further, should the USA achieve a military victory against ISIS and the Taliban in the future, airpower would unarguably have been an enduring factor. There is little to broker any domestic or military opposition to such a hands-off, low-cost (in terms of American lives) strategy.

The US’ growing conviction in its airpower triumphs has also meant relying less on traditional military allies such as Pakistan to counter terror. Since the 2011 operation by US forces in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad to capture Osama Bin Laden, US aid commitments have stalled and the Trump administration has illustrated little interest (so far) in the relationship. On the other hand, multiple US administrations over the last sixteen years have scaled up? their level of defense commitments with India, much to Pakistan’s chagrin. Further, with the development of well-sized national armies and police in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the US administration is more directly involved in working with local national governments and picking up homegrown intelligence to help with its operations. During his recent visit to Pakistan, the US National Security Adviser McMaster advised Pakistan to tackle terror in all its forms, reflecting assessments that Pakistan is an impediment to the US’ ongoing counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan.

Lastly, collateral damage and related mixed messaging due to airstrikes remain a concern. In Afghanistan and Syria, coalition airstrikes threaten to collapse the benefits accrued by ground-based counter-insurgency (COIN) forces over the preceding years. The inadvertent bombing of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) hospitals in Kunduz and in Aleppo, and the ensuing collateral damage reflect the limitations of airpower as a primary use of force. However, such setbacks seem to have no bearing on moderating the use of strategic airpower in the early days of the Trump administration.

Hemant Shivakumar is an MA student in the War Studies program and is the Managing Editor at StrifeBlog.


[1] The ISIS-K (also ISIS Khurasan) is a faction of the militant Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (ISIL) operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Image credit: http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/what-%E2%80%98the-mother-all-bombs%E2%80%99-means-trumps-foreign-policy-20180

Feature image credit: http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-mother-of-all-bombs-moab-slated-to-be-used-against-iran/5333811

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