Air Power Consensus Agreed – Now Let’s Get On With It

With the international condemnation of the so-called Isil and the dominance that the militant group has so quickly achieved in large parts of the Iraq and Syria domain, and with a still dangerous conflict simmering in Ukraine, the world is far from being described as being at peace with itself. 2014 has been a bad year so far in terms of the rise in geo-political tensions, but given the unprecedented level of international consensus and support as to how the US, along with its allied partners that includes the UK, proposes to defeat Isil through the primary use of air power and air strikes, it is now time to get on with the job.

Who I wonder could have imagined two years ago that an organisation that we now call Isil or Isis and that very few had even heard of back then would now be in-control of as much as one third of the combined Iraq and Syrian territory? Few I venture to suggest and that so many nations have come together and agreed that the way forward to defeat Isil is the use of air power makes very good sense.

With conflict resolution using a diplomatic process ruled out, and little if any useful role for the United Nations to play, the western response in support of the new Iraqi government and also in support of so-called Syrian rebels, whose own war against the Assad regime has been superseded by a new struggle against Isil, has rightly been a combination of various forms of humanitarian support, the dropping of supplies and weapons, air strikes and intelligence gathering. The common theme in this war, as so many in the past, is that once again it is air power that is the chosen solution to use, and that will in the weeks and months ahead play the primary and dominant role in the intended defeat of Isil and eventual conflict resolution.

We live in a world of continual change and if we have proved anything over the past seventy years it is that we are no better at forecasting the potential for conflict, challenge and attempts by factions to dominate than we were back then. We are well informed but sometimes we fail to see or to fully understand the history let alone the building of tensions that are often a direct result of past actions. We may know who they are and what they stand for but too often we are unable to see the enemy of today. Closing our eyes to events in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine is not an option and while we are within the NATO alliance clearly limited in our ability to resolve the situation in Ukraine, that does not mean that just because membership of NATO it is an option that will never be put on the table, and  that we could allow ourselves to ignore calls from a sovereign independent state threatened by an aggressive neighbour.

If we have learned anything as we look at an increasing number of conflicts and issues facing us today it is the value of first achieving consensus with our allies. The NATO Summit in Wales earlier this month provided a very broad consensus on a wide range of geo-political problems and issues. We should welcome this just as we should the US Obama administrations consensus driven plan to broaden air strikes against Isil positions in Syria, and to extend these across large parts of Iraq that are similarly threatened and under the control of Isil. Cynics were of course quick to attack the remark made by the US President a few weeks ago when he said that in terms of Iraq there was no strategy. Better to say that there was no strategy than announce a strategy that is wrong and that would not hold up to any form of scrutiny with your allies. Strategy determined by one nation alone is most usually a wrong strategy. I would I hope that there is sufficient knowledge of recent history for me to have no need to spell out what I mean by saying this.

No two situations are the same of course but in what US has proposed as a way forward to defeat Isil, and in what it has achieved in broad consensus driven political expediency, I commend the attitude and approach taken by the Obama administration. Last evening, at the MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, the President vowed not only that America would not fight another ground war in Iraq but he said that “we cannot do for the Iraqis what they must do for themselves”.  He is right to say this, and there does need to be a greater sense of proportion and understanding by Arab nations that they must do more to resolve their own conflicts. But as the Obama administration has recognised, the ‘West’ must and will always have a role to play defeating dangerous enemies, particularly those that threaten harmony and peaceful coexistence or that America and her allies.

In Iraq and Syria, unlike in Afghanistan currently and Iraq in the immediate past, there will be no US combat troops on the ground and no foreign troops either. Once again it is air power that will dominate the fight against an unseen, relatively little known and yet very dangerous enemy. The ‘no troops on the ground’ strategy is not only consistent with the manner in which the Obama administration has long attempted to distance itself from old style ‘boots on the ground’ strategic thinking but one that this time is shared by America’s allies and by the new Iraqi government.

Through consensus and by allies and those others that are also committed to see the destruction of Isil, it is to air power and the principle of command of the skies that will be the tools used by those working in partnership to defeat Isil.

Such is the consensus view on the intended Iraq strategy that Secretary of State John Kerry said last night that no less than fifty international nations had given backing to the Obama administration plan. How many have offered to support the plan by providing capability is unknown but I would be surprised if it was less than a dozen. Unity prevails not only internationally but also at home and last night, despite some opposition, Republicans and Democrats came together in the House of Representatives to support the Obama plan. I have little doubt that when the Senate meets later today to vote on the spending bill for this and the proposed measures to train Syrian rebels a similar level of support will be given.

Of the fifty countries that have pledged to support the Obama plan we already know that the UK, Canada, France, Australia and some Arab States such as Saudi Arabia and UAE have already offered military or use of base support. The battle to defeat and eradicate Isil will be and hard and long. Even so, when the planning is complete and agreed we may be certain that Isil will, until and if it is left with no option but to go out of sight, be quickly weakened from here on.

The air power component lined up to defeat Isil is already formidable. Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter aircraft based on the US Navy nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush have been carrying out air attacks in Northern Iraq since August. I count myself fortunate to say that I spent one day on-board USS George HW Bush at sea back in 2011. Thus I can say with authority that the amount of capability on board really is formidable. The compliment of Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet jets on board the ship is almost beyond imagination. and for the record these aircraft carry a very extensive range of precision guided munitions including laser guided bombs, air to air and air to surface missiles including AIM, SLAM, Sparrow, AMRAAM and Harpoon.

The Royal Air Force already has significant capability based in RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus and now working in the Gulf region. Along with Panavia Tornado GR4 multi-role combat jets fitted with Litening 111 reconnaissance pods flying specific missions over Iraq, and that are currently being used to provide intelligence support, the Royal Air Force has also despatched the 51 Squadron Rivet Joint RC-135W signals intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft (RJ) to fly missions over Iraq. The aircraft has been undertaking the role for several weeks and in passing it is worth recording that RJ is a perfect example of new capability, delivered early, on budget and that has been placed out on operations in almost record time. A fantastic aircraft capability, RJ certainly is a great achievement from a great RAF Squadron.

The ability for the UK to provide potent high end air ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target, Acquisition and Reconnaissance) support demonstrates not only the high end value of the hugely important Airseeker programme capability but just some of what the UK brings to the table. Alongside is another hugely valuable resource in the form of the Voyager air to air tanking support, and which I understand is being used extensively in support of Royal Air Force Tornado aircraft currently in theatre, and more recently Typhoon aircraft that have done an excellent job of work patrolling skies over the Baltic region. Add to these the work done by the Lockheed Martin C130J aircraft in terms of various forms of humanitarian assistance provided, the potential that it has to use rotary and remotely piloted vehicles, the availability and use of airborne battlefield and ground surveillance aircraft in the form of the Sentinel R1, which is supported by Raytheon within the Astor programme, or the Boeing E-3D Sentry AWACS aircraft which is supported by Northrop Grumman APY-2 radar, communications and datalink equipment,  it can be seen that the Royal Air Force has a formidable array of air power capability in support.

Whether or not the UK Government agrees to deploy Tornado GR4 capability to undertake air strikes or maybe perhaps to even use Reaper remotely piloted aircraft, as it has so successfully done in Afghanistan, is of less importance than understanding the range of  capability that the Royal Air Force is already or can provide. Information superiority is at the heart of the ISTAR mission of course and it will most often decide the conduct and outcome of any war. While we must also not hide from genuine limits to available front line capability following the severity of defence cuts, it remains true that the Royal Air Force remains a very flexible force that is quickly able to respond to new threats and challenges, and to project air power forward to meet new challenges that emerge. The latest plan to defeat Isil in Iraq and Syria is but a perfect example of the flexibility that air only power can offer.

CHW (19th September 2014)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

hwheeldon@wheeldonstrategic.com

Tel: 07710 779785

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