“We have dramatically accelerated this campaign,” explains Brett McGurk, State Department envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition. In January and February of this year, “ISIS was planning major attacks in Raqqa. They were planning major attacks against the United States, against our partners, and they were doing it in Raqqa, using infrastructure of a major city. Today ... they are fighting for their own survival. It is a fundamentally transformed situation.”
The reason ISIS is fighting for its survival, according to McGurk, can be traced to President Trump’s decision to delegate “tactical authority from the White House, from Washington, down through the chain of command to our commanders on the ground.” This has made “a tremendous difference ... in our ability to actually seize opportunities from ISIS.”
From Iraq and Syria to Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan, unfettered U.S. airpower is key to this “transformed situation.”
Consider the numbers.
In airstrikes targeting ISIS in Iraq and Syria (Operation Inherent Resolve), as of Oct. 1, 2017, the total number of weapons released for the year was 36,351– some 5,600 more than for all of 2016. At 5,075, the August 2017 weapons-release total in Iraq/Syria was almost five times the number of weapons releases a year earlier. And the number of sorties with at least one weapons release this year (9,088 as of Oct. 1) is on track to eclipse the 2016 total (11,825).
Already this year, coalition air forces have set new records five times for weapons releases in a month for Operation Inherent Resolve: 3,600 weapons releases in January topped the previous high of 3,242 in November 2015. The January record was broken in March (3,878 weapons releases). The March record was topped in May (4,374 weapons releases). The May mark was topped in June (4,848 weapons releases). And the June record was broken in August (5,075 weapons releases). At the current pace, the number of weapons releases targeting ISIS will exceed 48,400 by the end of this year, which would translate into a 57-percent increase over the previous high.
The payoff: The Islamic State no longer is a state, and it is rapidly running out of soldiers.
At the height of its power in early 2015, ISIS held 35,000 square miles of territory – an area about the size of Hungary. As of late October 2017, ISIS had lost more than 90 percent of the territory it had seized in Iraq and Syria.
“They declared an army, they put it on the battlefield, and we went to war with it,” Gen. Raymond Thomas, head of Special Operations Command, observes. “We have killed in conservative estimates 60,000 to 70,000” ISIS soldiers.
No one in the West likes body counts, but in the grim calculus of what Defense Secretary James Mattis describes as an “annihilation” campaign, the number of enemy KIAs matters.
Moreover, it pays to recall that from mid-2014 through the end of 2015, the number of foreigner fighters flowing into Iraq and Syria to fight under the ISIS banner more than doubled. Today, foreign fighters “can’t get in,” according to McGurk, and those that are there “will die in Iraq and Syria.”
Mattis bluntly and calmly adds that the objective is to make sure “foreign fighters do not survive the fight to return home to North Africa, to Europe, to America, to Asia, to Africa. We’re not going to allow them to do so.”
Four important caveats are in order.
First, U.S. operations are not limited to airstrikes, of course. Upwards of 7,000 U.S. ground troops are operating in Iraq and Syria, some 3,600 in Jordan. Many of these troops are engaged in combat. U.S. units in Jordan have fired rocket-artillery into Syria, and they recently redeployed to southern Syria. U.S. units in Syria are enabling indigenous fighters, engaging ISIS at close range, fighting near Raqqa, firing artillery and calling in airstrikes. U.S. forces in Iraq have fought in Mosul, conducted artillery strikes, and provided tactical, battlefield-level intelligence. As many as 11,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Afghanistan; some are dying in the fight against jihadists. And Special Operations units are operating in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Africa and beyond.
Second, the United States is not alone. Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Jordan and The Netherlands have, at one point or another, conducted airstrikes in Iraq and Syria; Belgium has conducted airstrikes in Iraq; and Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE have hit targets in Syria. Britain accounts for 29.5 percent of non-U.S. airstrikes, France 27 percent, Australia 13.2 percent, The Netherlands 10.9 percent, Belgium 8.2 percent, Denmark 5.7 percent. Still, it is very much a U.S.-led effort. U.S. assets account for nearly 80 percent of all airstrikes.
Third, older – and sometimes much-maligned – airframes are carrying the heaviest load in the war on ISIS. The F-15E and A-10 represent 42 percent of U.S. weapons releases targeting ISIS. The B-1B and F-16 account for 25 percent; the F/A-18 13 percent; the ageless B-52 7.5 percent.
Fourth, the increased tempo and increased effectiveness of U.S. airpower has not been limited to Iraq and Syria.
As of October 1, 2017, the total number of weapons released in Afghanistan for the year was 3,238 – 1,901 more than for the whole of 2016. At 751, the September 2017 weapons-release total in Afghanistan was almost five times more than that of September 2016.
U.S. manned and unmanned assets have already conducted more than 100 airstrikes against al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP) this year – up from 38 for all of 2016 – hitting “infrastructure, fighting positions and equipment,” according to CENTCOM. In June, a U.S. airstrike killed AQAP’s senior emir and two other AQAP leaders.
AFRICOM confirmed in late September that U.S. warplanes conducted “six precision airstrikes” against ISIS in Libya on a single day – the first U.S. strikes in Libya since January. Between August and December 2016, U.S. warplanes carried out 495 airstrikes supporting Libyan government forces in their successful campaign to dislodge ISIS from the coastal city Sirte.
Also in September, AFRICOM reported that U.S. airstrikes had targeted al-Qaida’s franchise in East Africa (al Shabaab) in five separate “precision strikes” in southern Somalia. Since June, the United States has carried out 13 airstrikes against al Shabaab command centers, massed personnel and senior leadership. Plus, November marked the first time U.S. airstrikes targeted ISIS fighters in Somalia.
“Al-Qaida is not in a good space right now,” Thomas concludes. “But this is not the time to let the pedal up on them there ... It's worth reminding everybody that ISIS in 2011 was AQI (al-Qaida in Iraq) ... we can't take our eye off them.”
The frustrating news amidst all of this progress in the war against ISIS and al-Qaida is that this is long overdue. This is the kind of air war, enabled by swarms of Special Operations forces on the ground, the United States could have and should have been waging from the beginning. As Gen. David Deptula, who led the initial air campaign in Afghanistan, argued in mid-2015, “Airpower needs to be applied like a thunderstorm, and so far we’ve only witnessed a drizzle.”
Indeed, 10 months into the anti-ISIS air campaign, 75 percent of warplanes were still returning to base without releasing their weapons. From August 2014 through the end of 2016, the average number of sorties per day with a weapons release was 27. This year, that number has jumped to 34 – a 25.9-percent spike.
An unfettered air campaign, Deptula explained, would “terminate” the spread of ISIS, “paralyze and isolate its command-and-control capability ... undermine its ability to control the territory it occupies…and eliminate its ability to export terror.”
In other words, it looks like Washington is finally taking his advice -- and ISIS is finally on the path to defeat.