The news media writes about air strikes in Iraq and Syria and those who are uneducated in military affairs read one thing. Those who are in the community read something different. The difference between the two means that the vast majority of the country thinks that we have ordered something to be done and is evaluating the action on that basis, even though it has little tie to reality. It would be important for the Pentagon to fix this misperception, however there seems to be little concentrated effort to do that work. If you are an interested civilian, as I have been, it’s possible to sort things out and get educated fairly quickly because the military does publish the necessary resources. They just don’t push them enough to actually create an educated public.
When the military sends an aircraft out to conduct an airstrike, there are two subcategories of strikes that are relevant, close air support and interdiction strikes. The former is a much harder task than the latter because with very small errors, you end up killing men on your own side and not the enemy’s. Interdiction strikes lack this danger because they are conducted behind combat lines. They are designed to starve the front line of supplies, ammunition, and further military units to replace combat losses. Close air support effects are immediate, direct, and measurable. They require close coordination with someone on the ground to properly identify the targets. There is a checklist of bits of information that need to be provided to ensure a proper strike. The more holes or errors in the checklist, the more likely you are to kill your own instead of the enemy. There are courses to teach how to do this. The people we are aiding in Iraq include personnel who have taken these courses. The people we are aiding in Syria have not.
Interdiction attacks take longer to matter and depending on how robust the enemy’s behind the front lines operation is, you have to do more to get any perceptible effect at all. If the enemy counts on you knocking out 3 trucks in 10 and your interdiction rate is only 2 in 10, the effect of your interdiction effort at the front line is negligible.
We are providing both interdiction and close air support in Iraq but as a result of the lack of trained personnel, only interdiction missions in Syria. Confusing media stories make it clear that the distinction is not generally understood. Few seem to be asking the question of when or how the ability to do close air support missions in Syria will happen, what is the pace of operations needed to overcome ISIS’ logistics design margins, or much of anything else useful.
Media on the left, center, and right are all guilty of this lack of discernment. In a US with a volunteer military with popular oversight of the government, civilians need to do better so we’re at least educated enough to ask the right questions and intelligently hold the politicians accountable.