THE BLOG
09/18/2014 09:36 am ET Updated Nov 18, 2014

The Air War Gets Harder, and Harder

Matthew Horwood via Getty Images

I once watched U.S. F-16s in Afghanistan try to kill an SUV scurrying down a dirt road, carrying suspected terrorist leaders. It was the first months of the war and in the U.S. operations center, where I was an embedded journalist, it was believed that one of the eight men in the truck -- a tall guy in white robes and a long beard -- might be Osama bin Laden himself.

It was daylight and there were no Special Forces on the ground to laser-target the truck for the pilots. Just that single white Toyota, and when it stopped in a wadi, the men got out to stretch and smoke. As we watched on a live Predator feed, the F-16s struck.

The first pass was a clean miss; the 500-pound, precision-guided bomb detonated harmlessly some distance away. But it did cause the robed ones to sprint for cover. Minutes later, the second 500-pounder produced another fireball and roiling gray smoke and dust. Then, visible through the murk, dozens of tiny bright flashes -- anti-personnel bomblets detonating in secondary explosions. This time, the strike left a partially wrecked truck and four bodies. A third strike was called, this time a B-1 bomber. In several passes, it fired sixteen 2,000-pound laser-guided bombs, a fury of destruction that significantly rearranged the topography. The wadi and the truck were obliterated. The fate of the others was unknown, but OBL, we know now, surfaced later in Pakistan.

It's worth remembering these days -- as President Obama declares that air power will be the primary and perhaps only U.S. effort against ISIS in Iraq and Syria -- that the impressive Pentagon videos of missile warheads exploding in the crosshairs obscure the difficulty that air power has in achieving positive, lasting effects on the ground.

And that the effects of air campaigns diminish over time, as the Germans discovered when their intense bombing of London in 1940 failed to break Britain's will. Shock and awe are short-lived.

For one thing, it's difficult to get the right airplanes in the right place at the right time. In air operations over Iraq, for instance, as of last Friday the Air Force had flown 2,818 sorties, or missions, since August 8. Of those, fully one-third -- 958 -- were flown by tanker aircraft, needed to refuel jets flying from Persian Gulf bases in Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Another 727 missions were flown by intelligence and surveillance aircraft. Actual strike missions: 1,133 -- fewer than half.

I have watched air strikes from the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, and from the cockpit of a B-1 bomber. I can attest to the dedication and prowess of the air crews. Yet the effects that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of high-tech aircraft can achieve are underwhelming.

A list of targets attacked in 154 recent airstrikes in Iraq boasted of 21 ISIS weapons destroyed: 7 anti-aircraft guns, 7 homemade bombs, 5 mortar positions, 1 machine gun location, and 1 weapons cache. Also, 12 fighting positions (foxholes), 10 checkpoints, 2 observation posts, 1 command post, 1 bunker, and 1 "large ground unit" (no explanation offered). Given the size and scope of ISIS, and the size of the U.S. air armada needed to accomplish those strikes, that's not making huge progress.

And it won't get easier, because people being attacked from the air learn, as did the British, to adapt and survive. In Iraq, no sooner had American planes started shooting at ISIS fighters in August than they abandoned the tanks they had seized from the Iraqi army. Tanks make perfect targets for airstrikes. In fact, the U.S. fleet of strike fighters and surveillance aircraft now working over Iraq was designed and built to detect, track and kill massive Cold War formations of tanks. Now the American tanks ISIS hijacked are parked, empty, and ISIS fighters have gone elsewhere.

American commanders are watching nervously as ISIS has begun using the kind of ruthless but effective tactics used this summer by Hamas in Gaza that blunted the effectiveness of Israeli air strikes: avoiding mass formations, using deception and camouflage to avoid detection, and hiding its fighters and weapons among the civilian population.

As Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, observed about ISIS this week, "They used conventional tactics until we applied airpower. Then -- they adapted."

American pilots flying strike and surveillance missions over northern Iraq are aware that ISIS fighters below have shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. So far, the pilots say, they haven't detected any launches.

That being the case, it might make sense to use Air Force A-10 strike jets. They are built to fly low and slow so they can sort out enemies from friendlies on the ground, the kind of target discrimination that pilots going high and fast can't easily do. An A-10 "Warthog" pilot can loiter over an area until he or she eyeballs a target, and then fire missiles, rockets or the A-10's massive 30 mm Gatling gun. It makes an unholy ripping sound that is terrifying even when you're expecting it and know that those deadly rounds are going well over your head into the enemy's lines on that next ridgeline.

The A-10, in fact, was built precisely for the kind of mission we're talking about against ISIS: Close Air Support (CAS). It requires agile, low-altitude maneuvering to hit enemy fighters and avoids the civilians and friendly troops in close proximity. A-10s are the grunts of American airpower -- not so sophisticated or as sleek as the dazzling F-22 supersonic stealth fighter (never used in combat) or the yet-to-emerge F-35 fighter. The A-10 has seen plenty of combat, has been extraordinarily effective in Close Air Support (ask any infantry guy who's had A-10s show up during a firefight) and even when damaged, has survived.

Too bad the A-10s are either assigned to Afghanistan -- or headed to the Air Force bone yard, being retired to save money to pay for the more high-tech (and pricey) F-35. Sadly, the F-35 won't even begin to be delivered to the Air Force until the end of 2016, nor to the Navy until 2019, if the current schedule holds.

Air Force Gen. Mark A. Welsh, the service's chief of staff, argues that F-15s and F-16s can kind of do the anti-ISIS mission -- although "not as well as the A-10," he admits in Joint Force Quarterly, the professional journal of the National Defense University.

But F-15s and F-16s have been actively at war over Iraq for nearly a quarter century, as the Air Force frequently reminds us, starting with the 1991 launch of Desert Storm, then Operations Northern and Southern Watch and continuing on beyond the 2003 invasion. Wear and tear have ensued. The current fleet of F-15s and F-16s, which has sagged by 20 percent since 2004 due to attrition and retirements, averages well over 20 years old.

Just last month, the Air Force grounded 82 of its F-16s because of cracks in their airframes, and ordered worldwide inspection of F-16s the U.S. has sold to Turkey, Israel, Belgium, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Denmark and Norway -- some of the very folks President Obama is counting on to take part in "kinetic" air operations against ISIS. While technicians work to patch up the aircraft, pilot training -- already truncated because of budget cuts -- could be delayed two to three months, the Air Force said.