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Dealing With ISIS Through ‘Boots with Wings’

Commentary, 30 September 2014
Terrorism, Middle East and North Africa
If we are to opt for ‘boots on the ground’ in confronting ISIS, military planners should consider airmobile forces that promise agility, force projection and most importantly, a temporary time-span.

If we are to opt for ‘boots on the ground’ in confronting ISIS, military planners should consider airmobile forces that promise agility, force projection and most importantly, a temporary time-span.

Pathfinder Parachuting During Exercise Eagles Eye MoD Image c Crown Copyright

Friday’s parliamentary debate put an end to the question over UK’s return to military involvement in Iraq with a positive vote for airstrikes. The focus now shifts to the debate over boots on the ground.  Strong pros and cons on both sides of the argument make it a complex and emotional debate, and one unlikely to produce a good result whatever the choice.

Military leaders have compounded the problem by allowing their thinking to become constrained by a simple choice between no boots, boots only in the form of Special Forces, or long-term deployment of large numbers through Expeditionary forces.  The ISIS problem is too politically and militarily complex to be reduced to these two choices and demands more agile thinking.

Western countries have airmobile forces designed to deploy rapidly for small-scale short-term operations. Not used for decades, this capability could provide better military and political outcomes at lower risk.  If used effectively, airmobile forces have the potential to provide a meaningful boost to the Iraqi ground forces without the disadvantages of becoming targets of Iraqi militias or being seen as occupation forces.

Those who want boots on the ground rightly say that airpower is limited in its ability to degrade ISIS and that eventually land forces will be needed.  Opponents point out that the Iraqi Army, Shia militias and the Peshmerga already provide ‘boots’ for that purpose.  Both sides privately harbour doubts about the capability of Iraqis to recapture territory soon, increasing the time, level of commitment and risk burden on the West.

But foreign forces in Iraq are intrinsically linked to the idea of occupation. Proponents of boots on the ground seem to have forgotten the 2004 massive allergic reaction from both Shia militias and Sunni insurgents which led to widespread attacks on coalition forces.  A bloody unstoppable revolt was only averted by the intervention of Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Sistani, A bloody unstoppable revolt was only averted by the intervention of Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who persuaded Shia militias to stop fighting the coalition. 

With the possible exception of Kurds, most in Iraq are violently opposed to the idea of Western forces fighting on the ground. Memories of the coalition’s large citadel bases and its belligerent convoys and thousands of civilian casualties of the fight between foreign forces and insurgents remain in Iraqi minds. Western leaders understand that resentment of perceived occupation made coalition troops a perpetual target for Sunni insurgents and renegade Shia militias. That is why US and UK governments are currently opposed to combat troops on the ground.

The Case for Airmobile Forces

However, using airmobile forces as part of a well thought out land campaign designed to cut the current ISIS controlled territory into smaller dislocated chunks could make a decisive contribution to speeding up its degradation.  The UK’s 6 Air Assault Brigade claims to ‘combine the speed and agility of airborne and air assault troops with the potency of Apache attack helicopters.’  These troops can be deployed to locations by aircraft capable of landing on desert strips, by helicopters and by parachute.  They are lightly armed but are capable of defeating small-scale armoured forces.  Their strength lies primarily in their ability to deploy quickly, manoeuvre rapidly during combat, seize and secure medium size objectives such as refineries, airfields, bridges etc., and get out as soon as the job is done.

By seizing key facilities and ground that local forces would struggle to win and handing it over to Iraqi forces to hold, airmobile forces will not just make a valuable contribution to the fight but will also send out a powerful political message.  This message will help destroy the myth that Western governments use these conflicts as a cover for occupation and control of Middle Eastern lands.

The British Air Mobile brigade is dwarfed by the USA’s capability which is supported by an awesome fleet of aircraft including the Osprey vertical take off aircraft and squadrons of helicopter gunships.  Coalition partner, Jordan, has a small but potentially formidable parachute force.  So, there is no lack of resources or doctrine, only an apparent inability by governments and military advisors to think of existing capabilities in a new way.

No matter how good a force or tactic is, its success or failure is dependant upon the effectiveness of the strategy within which it is employed.  Having set the grand strategic design of using foreign coalition airpower to support Iraqi ground forces as the primary means of degrading and destroying ISIS, President Obama now needs his generals to produce an effective land component strategy capable of exploiting the coalition’s huge air campaign advantage. 

Iraqi land forces have recently conducted a few successful operations.  Recapturing the Mosul Dam, thwarting ISIS’s attack on the Haditha Dam and lifting the Amerili siege have all been largely defensive operations. Wisely conducted at a pace that ensured necessary confidence-building through success, the speed of progress has revealed the Iraqi forces’ current inability to take the offensive and their inability to exploit the advantage of rapid manoeuvre when it does.  This is where foreign airmobile forces can be a battle-wining combination. 

If used to quickly seize ISIS held objectives, for the Iraqis to hold and then surge, airmobile forces could dramatically cut the time required to reduce ISIS territorial control and degrade its capabilities.  If the strategy aims to cut ISIS’s long spines of territory into chunks then it could destroy it as a cohesive force, dislocate it from the leadership and isolate it from communication lines sustaining its fighters with money and supplies.

Like all capabilities, airmobile forces must be skilfully and sparing applied.  Overuse could be counterproductive.  They must not be seen as boots on the ground but as ‘boots with wings,’ which fleetingly walk the ground to catapult Iraqi land forces forward.  That way they can make a valuable military contribution while avoiding the disadvantages of expeditionary land forces of the recent past. 

Dr Afzal Ashraf was an  Engineer officer in the Royal Air Force (RAF), retiring three decades later as a Group Captain.  His tours of duty included counterinsurgency and policing focussed operational tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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