In a dramatic and destructive demonstration earlier this week, a formation of U.S. Air Force warplanes dropped 40 tons of bombs on an island in the Tigris River north of Baghdad.
Islamic State militants have been using Qanus Island in Salah ad Din province as a staging area, according to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria.
Army Col. Myles B. Caggins III, a spokesman for the Pentagon’s Operation Inherent Resolve, described the island in a tweet as “Daesh-infested,” using an Arabic term for ISIS.
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But it’s not clear that the bombardment will hurt ISIS badly or even permanently deprive the group of its alleged island base. Air strikes alone rarely succeed in dislodging entrenched fighters. Without follow-on ground assaults, the aerial destruction of the mile-and-a-half-long island could turn out to have been mostly for show.
The spectacle of the massive air strike on Monday morning required careful planning. F-15E fighter-bombers and F-35A stealth fighters, apparently operating from Air Force Central’s Al Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates, together dropped 40 one-ton precision-guided bombs, each costing around $20,000.
Using pricey smart bombs helped ensure that the munitions would strike at regular intervals across the island. Adding in the cost of fuel and maintenance for aircraft, the air raid’s total price could exceed $1 million.
It’s unclear exactly how many planes took part in the raid. An Operation Inherent Resolve spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. But it’s worth noting that a single F-35 can carry just two one-ton bombs in its internal bay. The island air raid could have involved most of the several dozen fighters the Air Force has deployed for operations over Iraq and Syria.
An aircraft flying high overhead recorded a video as the 40 munitions exploded nearly simultaneously, sending tall pillars of smoke curling into the sky. “Here’s what it looks like when @USAFCENT #F15 and #F35 jets drop 36,000 Kg of bombs on a Daesh infested island,” Caggins tweeted along with the video.
Footage shot from the ground was reminiscent of scenes in Apocalypse Now (or for that matter the recent Ben Stiller comedy Tropic Thunder).
“We’re denying Daesh the ability to hide on Qanus Island,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Eric Hill, commander of special operations forces under Operation Inherent Resolve, stated in a release. “We’re setting the conditions for our partner forces to continue bringing stability to the region.”
But blowing up an island might not contribute all that much to Iraq’s stability. “Bombing in the absence of other efforts is going to net you little, especially in a situation where your enemy is not an industrialized nation or a peer competitor,” historian Brian Laslie, author of The Air Force Way of War, told The Daily Beast.
That is to say, as the cynical truism goes, bombing the enemy “back to the stone age” isn’t very effective if he’s already there.
“Unless there was a concentration of forces on the island, this bombing did little,” Laslie added. “Bomb damage can be repaired. There are numerous examples from history that show us bombing is a useful tool, but is not itself an end itself.”
Years of intensive U.S. bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail, the road network that supplied Communist troops during the Vietnam War, ultimately failed to stop the convoys. “Troops routinely repaired the Ho Chi Minh trail or simply went around where we bombed,” Laslie explained.
Likewise, Israeli bombardment of Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon in 2006 and Hamas forces in Gaza in 2014 left most of the militants’ defenses intact. It took costly infantry assaults to dislodge fighters from their bunkers. Israeli experience “highlights the limits of precision firepower,” the American think tank RAND explained in a 2017 report.
Where air strikes have been most effective, they have targeted large formations of conventional enemy forces—trucks, tanks and big infantry units—deployed out in the open. In the final days of Operation Desert Storm in February 1991, American and allied warplanes killed thousands of Iraqi troops retreating from Kuwait along an exposed, six-lane road that came to be known as the “Highway of Death.”
But time and again, history has proved that only ground forces, fighting from trench to trench, tunnel to tunnel, can root out a determined enemy in defensive positions.
To be fair, Iraqi forces did plan to deploy commandos to Qanus Island for patrols in the aftermath of the attack, the coalition stated.
A video released Monday by the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service depicts two small boats transporting a couple dozen commandos along what appears to be the Tigris River. “The men of Iraq, the protectors of the homeland, with all determination, crushed ISIS camps in Qanus,” the Iraqi service tweeted on Tuesday.
But there have been no reports of casualties in the ground assaults on Qanus, perhaps hinting that ISIS fighters either had fled the island prior to the air strike, or were never there in large numbers to begin with. The Iraqi Counterterrorism Service did not immediately reply to a message seeking comment.
Other Iraqi forces are targeting the wider ISIS transportation routes connecting eastern Syria to northern Iraq, the coalition stated. “Follow-on ground clearance operations are currently taking place by the 2nd Iraqi Special Operations Forces Battalion to destroy a major transit hub for Daesh members moving from Syria and the Jazeera desert into Mosul, Makhmour, and the Kirkuk region.”
Dave Deptula, a retired Air Force general who is now the dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Virginia, praised the Pentagon for taking decisive action against ISIS’s alleged island. “What would have been the cost of not striking?” Deptula asked.
“For too many years [U.S. Central Command] took a slow, ponderous, ground-centric approach that used anemic, pinprick air strikes instead of a robust, comprehensive use of air power—not simply in support of indigenous allied ground forces, but as the key force in taking down the Islamic State,” Deptula told The Daily Beast.
“That strategy gave the Islamic State the gift of time—four years to perpetuate its ideology of evil and to spread it to over 30 different countries. Millions suffered and thousands died because we failed to use an air-centric strategy to project decisive power and target ISIS centers of gravity that could easily have been struck rapidly.”
Deptula is correct that the U.S. military’s reliance on air power had declined in recent years. Worried that mounting civilian casualties might undermine the United States’ reputation in countries hosting U.S. counterinsurgency and counterterror operations, the administration of President Barack Obama had dialed back airstrikes in Afghanistan and Somalia.
President Donald Trump’s administration quickly reversed the Obama-era restrictions. In early April 2017 the Pentagon relaxed rules limiting airstrikes in Somalia. A few weeks later U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan dropped one of the most powerful non-nuclear bombs in the American arsenal—the 11-ton Massive Ordnance Air Blast munition.
The resulting blast collapsed caves and reportedly killed as many as 100 militants. But it didn’t badly damage ISIS-aligned groups in Afghanistan. "Daesh hasn't gone anywhere,” an Afghan officer told the BBC. “There are hundreds of caves like the one the Americans bombed. They can't get rid of them like this."
Likewise, blasting Qanus Island from the air likely won’t get rid of ISIS in Iraq—or even on the island itself. “Unless a force is going to hold that island, or this is part of larger ground-clearing campaign—I assume it is—there really is nothing to say ISIS could not move back onto the island in the future,” Laslie said.
Still, it’s possible the Monday air raid killed some or all of the ISIS fighters who actually were on the island at the time the bombs struck. That at least counts as a win, Deptula said. “It’s hard for a dead terrorist to occupy anything but a six-by-three plot of dirt—if that.”
And even if not a single ISIS fighter died in the bombing, for the coalition there’s still propaganda value in such a prominent display of firepower. “I think there is something very visual about air strikes,” Laslie pointed out. “They represent a way to convey to the public that something is being done.”