Iraq prime minister’s air power obsession

There is tragic irony when it comes to understanding the use of air power in quelling rebellions in Iraq.

The current Iraqi government is under pressure to restore its credibility, writes Ashraf [Reuters]

Having refused the US’ suggestion to retain a small cadre of forces in Iraq after the end of its mission in 2010, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s request for US air support on June 18 was met with a similarly negative response. The request betrays the Maliki regime’s desperation, not only because of the serious threat it faces from the rebels led by the group now calling itself the Islamic Caliphate (formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) but also because of its belief in the critical role that air power will play in delivering the country from its current ordeal. In fact, the prime minister told the BBC on June 26 that if Iraq had the 36 F-16s it had ordered from the United States, then it would not be in this dire situation.

Maliki is not alone in believing that air power can deliver more than it can and he is certainly not alone in underestimating its potential for political harm to its users. Will he be able to get the balance right between military advantage and political damage in his use of air power? Indeed, will he even be able to make effective use of the delivery of Russian jets that has recently been announced?

There is tragic irony when it comes to understanding the use of air power in quelling rebellions. One of the earliest uses was in Iraq in the air power when the previously Ottoman-controlled region of Mesopotamia came under British control. With millions of square miles of extra territory to control and an army that had suffered the loss of millions in World War I just a few years earlier, the problem was solved with the new concept of air policing. The newly formed Royal Air Force would police the country with ruthless efficiency.

Aerial bombardment

Rebellion would be quashed quickly by aerial bombardment. The process was summed up by a young RAF officer who was to later become the British architect of airpower against civilian targets in Europe, as Air Marshal Arthur Harris: “The Arab and Kurd … now know that within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured by four or five machines which offered them no real target, no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape.”

This terrifying prospect of an aerial attack against which there was little or no defence provided different lessons for both the users of aerial bombardment and their victims. The Germans added a siren to their Junkers 88 dive-bombers when they first used them to flatten the Spanish city of Guernica in 1937. Guernica was not an insurgency but it was what James Corum described as terror bombing of civilians.

The most obvious interim option is to use foreign pilots, possibly Russians. That will present an interesting challenge for the government both internally and internationally. Any grievances against the Baghdad government will multiply if it is believed that foreign pilots caused civilian casualties.

The Allies adopted that policy of terror from the air during World War II against Germany. Even former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill admitted to “bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror”. It was only after the horror of bombing civilians with napalm was graphically illustrated by news reporters in the Vietnam war that Western states actually made serious attempts to avoid civilian casualties.  

So it was photo journalism that gave voice to the indignity of aerial warfare. In the age of mass communication, state actors began to respond to this indignity with a desire to seek revenge through some form of reciprocal humiliation and terror. Even when the West made a great effort to avoid civilian casualties in the first Gulf War, the mere sight of US Commander Norman Schwarzkopf gleefully displaying videos of vehicles and buildings being destroyed by laser-guided bombs sent a subliminal message to those with an anti-Western outlook.

Ten years later, al-Qaeda was at the vanguard of a terrorist campaign which celebrated the destruction of buildings and Western military vehicles in a similarly gleeful manner.

It created a genre of Internet videos that promoted otherwise discrete tactical successes in terrorist attacks to break the myth that Western technological superiority in the air offered “no opportunity for glory as warriors, no effective means of escape”.

Drone strikes

Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the West has initiated no large-scale aerial bombing campaign. Instead, it has relied on drone strikes using precision weapons against specific counter-terrorism or insurgency targets. Yet opposition against drone strikes is growing despite the relatively low number of civilian victims. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the increased precision and reliability of aerial attack weapons has not been matched by similarly precise and reliable intelligence to identify targets.

Attacking one wedding in the Afpak tribal belt might be a mistake but several weddings indicates that the intelligence used is not just unreliable, but is probably being manipulated by those who wish to harm Western policies. Secondly, drones – unlike manned aircraft – tend to more routinely infringe sovereign airspace and the mere absence of a pilot to strike back at confirms to the targets the indignity of “no opportunity for glory as warriors”, in defence.

So while Western states have attempted greatly to reduce the impact of air power on civilians in recent years, civilian opposition to aerial bombardment has increased significantly during the same period. Apart from the physical casualties arising from air power, opposition appears to be motivated also as much by the indignity of invasion, albeit only of airspace, by an alien state.

Non-Western states have not progressed as far along this evolutionary path. Israel bombed Lebanon in August 2006. When challenged by the West on attacking centres of civilian populations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed to the British and US bombing of Dresden, killing tens of thousands, as a precedence for Israel’s actions.

The question therefore is: How the far along the evolutionary path of airpower ethics is the Maliki regime? The belief that with F-16s, the Islamic Caliphate-led advance from Mosul southwards would have been halted is somewhat fanciful. To be able to hit a target on a road used by civilian traffic from an F-16 requires precision-guided weapons, advanced training and accurate intelligence.

Judging by the way the Iraqi army was caught off-guard by the rebels, intelligence on the ground was woefully lacking. Judging by the way the army collapsed and failed until almost two weeks later to mount a counter attack, its training was barely adequate. So the F-16s would most probably have been used in the same way that Syria is using its air force; against rebel targets in close proximity to civilians, without much regard for innocent lives.

Lack of empathy

That mindset must surely persist in the Maliki regime, encouraged subliminally in some individuals with a lack of empathy through sectarian hatred and through harboured grievances against the Sunni-dominated Saddam regime. As the Iraqi army begins its pushback and as aircraft are increasingly brought to bear, the response of the rebels would be to seek cover in urban areas. It is almost impossible to attack the rebels in an urban setting without killing innocents. The best way to defeat them would be to employ strategic patience.

But the current Iraqi government is under pressure to restore its credibility by being seen to eliminate the grave threat the current rebellion poses to the state, and patience is therefore unlikely. Perhaps that is something well understood by Iraqi civilians fleeing from cities like Mosul. Some of them feared the expected counterattack by the Iraqi army more than the so-called Islamic Caliphate.

Another possible flaw in the Maliki airpower plan is the likelihood that Iraqi pilots will not be ready to use the new Russian aircraft in time for the promised operations. It can take several weeks to train a pilot on a new aircraft type, and an additional week or so at least, to learn to use its weapons system. Even if the pilot has flown the aircraft type in the past, he will need a week or so to refresh his skills before becoming operational. He will almost certainly need retraining on the weapons system.

The most obvious interim option is to use foreign pilots, possibly Russians. That will present an interesting challenge for the government, both internally and internationally. Any grievances against the Baghdad government will multiply if it is believed that foreign pilots caused civilian casualties. Externally, the situation of about 300 US military advisors on the ground, with possibly Russian or other “unfriendly” pilots in the air, could add an unwelcome complexity to an already difficult political scenario in Washington.

So both the political context and the military circumstances suggest that air power will be used in a way that could lead to civilian casualties. The potential to store up another phase of grievances between the Sunni heartland and Baghdad seems great. Any short-term military success might come at the expense of long-term political damage.

Afzal Ashraf is a Consultant fellow at Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) and served in the UK Armed Forces. He was involved developing a counterinsurgency strategy and in the Policing and the Justice sector in Iraq.