James Holmes

‘Shock and Awe’ the Islamic State

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James Holmes

‘Shock and Awe’ the Islamic State

The air campaign against the Islamic State needs to concentrate firepower in time.

‘Shock and Awe’ the Islamic State
Credit: Flickr/ U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos

One imagines the ghosts of Lord Cornwallis, the Marquis de Lafayette, and the Duke of Wellington are frowning at the slow-motion air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Not because airplanes and precision-guided munitions are engines of war beyond the ken of 18th- and 19th-century soldiery. Hardly. Cornwallis, Lafayette, and Wellington were steely-eyed field commanders, possessed of minds supple enough to adapt to newfangled gadgetry and warmaking methods.

Masters of land warfare would intuitively grasp this novel form of long-range fire support. And indeed, despite what its most ardent champions claim, air power did not usher in some novus ordo seclorum. Successfully executed, air strategy helps commanders mass superior might at crucial places and times, advancing the strategic and political aims for which societies undertake martial endeavors. Despite today’s gee-whiz weaponry, there’s nothing especially new-age or incomprehensible about that. It’s Strategy 101 — and timeless.

No. What these fighters from a bygone age would find objectionable is the slow, intermittent character of this air war that (apparently) dare not speak its name. They would upbraid its overseers for neglecting tactical and operational principles at which European armies of their day excelled. Victorious hosts outmatched their antagonists when and where it mattered. In the days of musketry — of wildly inaccurate, muzzle-loaded, smoothbore weaponry — that meant lining up, synchronizing fire at close range, and thereby transmitting a sudden pulse of combat power.

Or rather, delivering as many successive pulses as their fire discipline and enemy counterfire permitted. That gave linear tactics their shock effect. An armed force’s strength derives both from physical capacity — numbers and quality of armaments, and so forth — and from resolve. Disciplined volleys struck at both elements of strength simultaneously. Or as the crusty army colonel who acted as cruise director for our faculty outing to the Saratoga battlefield bellowed stated meekly, “linear tactics were not stupid!!!”

And indeed, whittling down enemy manpower while sapping enemy morale is no small achievement. Ultimately, once orderly fusillades became ragged, commanders ordered soldiers to fix bayonets and charge. Neat ranks gave way to hand-to-hand combat. How the ensuing mêlée unfolded determined who won the field — and the day.

Coupla takeaways from those thrilling days of yesteryear for strategy vis-á-vis ISIS. One, strive for that thunderclap of force and the shock effect it imparts. Field commanders of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic age concentrated firepower in space, sure. Grouping men-at-arms on the battlefield was their only way to wring serious value from rudimentary firearms. But the Napoleons bestriding Europe also concentrated firepower in time. They unleashed hails of bullets as close to the same instant as their troopers could manage.

Unlike armies of old, air forces can disperse in space to pummel an array of targets. Yet the principle stands. The coalition must mete out heavy blows near-simultaneously to stun ISIS fighters while demolishing ISIS materiel. It’s doubtful coalition warplanes are inflicting that shock effect given the desultory pace of air strikes. Disperse across the map by all means, but let’s bombard lots of targets, hard, and at the same time.

And two, Revolutionary- and Napoleonic-age tactics embodied the principle of “continuity.” Clausewitz, who drew insight from those battlegrounds, instructs commanders to rain “blow after blow, all in the same direction” on an adversary once they knock him off balance. European armies cut loose with as many disciplined barrages as possible, then fixed bayonets and charged. Triumphant forces pursued a broken enemy as he fled the battlefield — crumpling not just his military machine but his willpower.

Continuity is how you consummate a victory. To win, in other words, be a bulldog. Sink your teeth into the enemy and refuse to let go. It’s far from obvious that air power is capable of that sort of constant, inescapable presence. Admiral Wylie doubts it is. Wylie insists that you can destroy from the air, but not control from the air. To control demands men on the scene with a gun, able to outface the men with guns the enemy deploys to impose control. Without a robust ground component, the coalition’s prospects for doing more than delaying ISIS and denying it victory appear dubious at best.

Where’s our Lafayette?