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Airpower in the War Against ISIS

11 April 2021

Airpower in the War Against ISIS, Benjamin S. Lambeth, 2021, ISBN 9781682475591, 305 pp.

Airpower in the War Against ISIS by Benjamin S. Lambeth

Lambeth’s book captivatingly makes a complicated and revolutionary new dimension of aviation’s history into an easily understandable, fully comprehensible story. During this fantastically expensive and greatly asymmetric four year war to defeat ISIS he worked as an analyst as well as advisor to those who advised the Chiefs of Staff at the time. His accuracy as well as objectivity is highly acute as are his opinions. To Lambeth’s special credit, he clearly defines his historic material from his opinions so as to not mislead his readers. The depth and breadth of his strategic understandings are impressive and he brings the reader from the strategic decision makers to the person in the cockpit, or the grunt on patrol, illustrating ramifications as well as describing unintended consequences.

His thesis is that airpower in this war was initially underutilized (to be kind) by the Obama administration as well as the Department of Defense (DoD). Politically as Obama was voted into his presidency in part due to his candidacy of withdrawing the U.S. from the war in Iraq. He faults the DoD for fighting an insurgency war—as had been done in Iraq for the previous decade—when ISIS was a de facto nation-state with strategically targetable infrastructure like logistic and training centers, research laboratories, factories as well as a command and control network. Incredulously, these targets were ignored for several months and some even for years. It is difficult to refute his thesis. Slowly the administration and the DoD inched toward prosecuting the war proper. Later in the time line Lambeth equally and objectively addresses the Trump administration’s pros and cons in relation to this war with the same style of cold, objective, analysis.

And the war only got worse. Instead of airstrikes being counted in the high thousands per month (as in previous wars with Iraq) they numbered in the low hundreds. ISIS controlled Syrian territory was ignored as were the northern Iraqi oil fields now owned by ISIS. These fields generated huge sums of money on the petroleum black market ($500M during a profitable month)—gifting ISIS time to consolidate, recruit and build.

This, of course, changed especially with the anti-ISIS impetus created by that organization’s increasing cruelty—notably the many public beheadings. As this airwar progressed it became less micro-managed by U.S. based commands and precision weapons became the norm to limit civilian casualties and overall structural damage. Still, billions of dollars were spent waging this war and tens of billions worth of damage was caused by the coalition countries. Lambeth has the numbers and the interviews—impressively, always with highly placed people or greatly experienced people—and he does not miss much at all in his analysis.

Then Russia enters the war. This development created a complex environment—one which had not previously existed anywhere—an alternately shared airspace with shared (exchanged) air superiority. Coalition aircraft remained separated from Russian and Syrian aircraft for the most part though at times coalition assets would roll out to leave the airspace to non-coalition aircraft only to roll back in. This meant not only bombers and fighters but also ISR (Information/Surveillance/Reconnaissance), airborne control, tankers and drones—usually only with short warning. Potentially opposing aircraft each flying well within “no escape zones” of air-to-air missile envelopes at hundreds of miles per hour demanded a decentralizing of control to those in the cockpits. Deconflicting the airspace, as it came to be known. Lambeth describes several harrowing accounts vividly through combatant interviews and quotes.

Lambeth’s understanding of weapons systems and techniques (e.g., Russia’s limited but successful use of precision weapons) is insightful and on point. He does not mince words or omit material in his analyses. For example: noting the superiority of the F-22’s awareness of the airborne situation as well as its supercruise and stealth capabilities but lack of active targeting systems (e.g. laser designation or video imaging).

Lambeth underscores an additional lesson—aside from not entering a war unless going in it to win it—of not leaving an unstable country prematurely, in this case the result allowed Russia a return to Syria. Lambeth also discusses how the airpower lessons learned a decade earlier in Iraq had been forgotten when this war began, having to be relearned.

The author addresses ISIS equally as well as he does the coalition air forces (emphasizing the U.S. efforts) in terms of their strategies on the ground. There are revelations such as ISIS possessing heavy weapons captured due to the previous collapse of the Iraqi Army which included M1 Abrams main battle tanks. Although ISIS did not possess air forces or significant surface-to-air missile capability, save man portable items, Lambeth describes their innovative use of commercially purchased drones for remote viewing as well as delivering 40mm grenade-type munitions—giving ISIS a microscopic air superiority in the world of a platoon on a mission.

Several individuals from all sides are mentioned as are sources of information as well as organizations. Quotes and citations as well as page notes give tools enabling the reader to dive deeper into any of the many aspects of this war. Airpower in the War Against ISIS is a treasure chest laden with knowledge, experience and insight. It is also well and accurately written.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Benjamin S. Lambeth permalink
    14 April 2021 16:51

    I am the author of this book so generously reviewed above. Could the reviewer contact me? I would like to express my sincere appreciation.

    • travelforaircraft permalink*
      14 April 2021 22:55

      We will get him right on that and have the reviewer email you directly. The book and your work are the effort though and excellent both are, indeed.

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