The Role of U.S. Airpower in Defeating ISIS
Feb 12, 2021
Airpower played a pivotal role in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State from 2014 to 2019. This report sheds light on debates about the impact of air operations and how airpower was applied. The authors find that airpower was essential, but it alone would not have been likely to defeat the militant group. Instead, the combination of airpower and partner-led ground forces was needed to destroy the Islamic State as a territorial entity.
The Role of Airpower in Operation Inherent Resolve
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Airpower played a pivotal role in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from 2014 to 2019 and contributed to the success of Operation Inherent Resolve. This report sheds light on the impact of the air operations in Operation Inherent Resolve and whether airpower could have been applied differently to achieve faster, more-sustainable outcomes. The authors incorporate interviews with U.S. and coalition personnel, primary-source documents, and U.S. and coalition strike and sortie data to document the operational history of the air war, assess the relationship between airpower effects, and analyze the strategic and operational impact of airpower in Operation Inherent Resolve.
The authors find that, although airpower played an essential role in combating ISIS, airpower alone would not have been likely to defeat the militant organization. Instead, the combination of airpower and ground forces—led by Iraqi and Syrian partners—was needed to destroy the Islamic State as a territorial entity. The overarching strategy of Operation Inherent Resolve, which put ground-force partners in the lead, created several challenges and innovations in the application of airpower, which have implications for future air wars. To be prepared to meet future demands against nonstate and near-peer adversaries, the U.S. Air Force and the joint force should apply lessons learned from Operation Inherent Resolve.
Airpower and the War Against the Islamic State
The History of Airpower in Operation Inherent Resolve
The Air War Against the Islamic State, Phase I, August 2014– March 2016
The Air War Against the Islamic State, Phases II and III, April 2016–March 2019
The Application of Airpower in Operation Inherent Resolve
The Close Fight: Air-to-Ground Coordination
The Deep Fight: Deliberate-Targeting Operations
Enabling the Fight: Defensive Counterair and Air Mobility Operations
Airpower Against the Islamic State: Lessons and Recommendations for Future Air Wars
Timeline of the Air Campaign in Operation Inherent Resolve
Commanding and Controlling Airpower Against the Islamic State
Operation Inherent Resolve Air Order of Battle
Data Collection, Assumptions, and Application
This research was sponsored by the Assistant Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.
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