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The war in Syria from 2011 onwards has featured heavy reliance on air power, not just by the US and its allies but also by the Russian Air Force. In this exciting episode, Dr Aaron Stein discusses his new book, The US War Against ISIS, which details how air power played a crucial role in the conflict against terrorist groups in Syria. He also reveals the fascinating and almost unbelievable engagements between US and Russian aircraft in this complex conflict.
Dr Aaron Stein is Director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia in the US. He is the author of Turkey’s New Foreign Policy: Davutoglu, the AKP and the Pursuit of Regional Order and has published in the peer-reviewed journals Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, Insight Turkey, and The Journal of Strategic Security.
Header image: An MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter from HSC 15 flies as the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) conducts flight operations in the US 5th Fleet area of responsibility supporting Operation INHERENT RESOLVE.
Benjamin S. Lambeth, Airpower in the War against ISIS. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2021. Maps. Tables. Images. Notes. Bibliography. Hbk. 305 pp.
Reviewed by Richard Shimooka
In the study of contemporary air power operations, Benjamin Lambeth has primarily led the field for over 40 years. A long-time RAND Corporation political scientist and now a non-resident fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Lambeth has written numerous books that have provided deep insight into modern operations and issues. A key example of Lambeth’s work was his in-depth dissection of the 1999 effort to liberate Kosovo from Serbian control, NATO’s Air War for Kosovo (2001).
Continuing in the comprehensive manner of his previous work, in Airpower in the War against ISIS, Lambeth reflects on the five-year campaign against Daesh in Syria and Western Iraq between 2014 and 2019. This book joins recent works that have examined this subject area, including the recent RAND study The Air War Against the Islamic State: The Role of Airpower in Operation Inherent Resolve (2021). Although Lambeth covers the same subject matter, he provides a more argumentative perspective on the conduct of the air war against ISIS. In addition, Lambeth’s book includes a deep level of detail surrounding the issues faced by the allied planners and practitioners, based on interviews with many personnel directly responsible for the strategy, planning and execution of the campaign. However, while Lambeth uses these interviews in conjunction with a variety of published works, the analysis in this book, which is derived from the aforementioned sources, fails to live up to the standards of his previous work. Indeed, blurs the debate on this topic rather than illuminate it.
Lambeth’s scope complicates the book’s analysis. He frequently questions the political and strategic decision-making emanating from the White House, Pentagon and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). Lambeth then draws a straight line from these strategic decisions to air power practitioners’ operational and tactical issues in the field. A core theme, for example, is that President Barack Obama was too hesitant to intervene in the initial phase of ISIS’s growth. In Lambeth’s view early intervention could have forestalled the growth of the nascent movement. He identifies this ‘unproductive gradualism’ as a misuse of air power that greatly hindered its use and utility until the late stages of the campaign. In making this argument, Lambeth compares the application of air power in the war against ISIS to the equally unsuccessful Rolling Thunder campaign during the Vietnam War in the 1960s (p. 11). Moreover, Lambeth argues that the U.S. administration’s approach to military operations was too restrictive in its employment of air power and too beholden to the requirement to prevent civilian casualties, so much so that military operations became paralysed.
The persuasiveness of Lambeth’s argument is weakened, however, by the book’s superficial treatment of the political and strategic decision-making process. Rather than considering how and why U.S. leaders made their decisions, Lambeth depicts them as simple orders, without examining the trade-offs inherent in the policy-making process that guide their creation. As a result, the book is more comfortable critiquing the policy without examining its connection to the broader grand strategy objectives of the United States. This is unfortunate, as there is no shortage of material available on the Obama administration’s political decision-making surrounding ISIS. That administration did not believe that ISIS was an existential threat, and the White House sought to limit the U.S.’ involvement in the conflict. The book could have benefitted from a richer discussion about managing engagement in this case as part of a proper critique of Obama’s grand strategy approach, thereby providing a better understanding of the strengths and shortcomings of limited engagement in a conflict.
A key component of Lambeth’s argument concerns the proper role of air power in modern conflicts. Chapter Two presents a review of air power’s employment and theory in the post-Cold War period, critically analysing the operational usage and broader political and strategic dynamics. This is one of the book’s best sections, and a useful reference work on modern air power thinking. Based on this chapter, Lambeth advises against the subordination of air power to ground forces when it comes to counterinsurgency operations, arguing that such an approach corroded the institutional knowledge and capacity to fully exploit the capabilities of air power between 2001 and 2011 (p. 39). Moreover, the book emphasises how institutional set-up and broader policy decisions made by then U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates diminished the U.S. Air Force’s stature and influence in military operations over Syria and Iraq (p. 32).
These observations tie into a broader critique of the flawed initial perceptions of ISIS as primarily a counterinsurgency threat rather than an embryonic state entity. This improper framing of the organisation, according to Lambeth, contributed to a far less effective employment of air power against the Islamic State (p. 199). This is an interesting observation made by several interviewees within the book, which can be viewed as part of the ongoing debate concerning whether air power has unique capabilities and how to utilise it in a battlefield properly. While Lambeth does not directly engage in this area of theoretical discussion, the book’s essential thrust suggests that air power’s unique characteristics have been constantly misapplied over the past two decades. This argument may have increasing relevance as the United States disengages from stability operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan to counter near-peer threats such as China and Russia.
It is within this context that Lambeth provides detailed critiques regarding excessive civilian casualties. For example, at one point Lambeth quotes an article by David French in support of his views. An Iraq War veteran and practising attorney, French details what he believes are the consequences of the civilian casualties:
It’s time to consider the true cost of America’s self-imposed constraints [American combatants] don’t just comply with the law of war. They go beyond the requirement of the LOAC [Law of Armed Combat] to impose additional and legally unnecessary restrictions on the use of military force. Rules of engagement [in their most suffocating form] represent true war-by-wonk, in which a deadly brew of lawyers, politicians, soldiers, and social scientists endeavor to fine-tune the use of military force to somehow kill the enemy while ‘winning over’ the local population, even as the local population is in the direct line of fire. (p. 190)
This quote lays bare the disconnect between Lambeth’s analysis and the Obama administration’s perspectives, the latter of whom were focused on winning over the population and preserving domestic support. Consequently, Lambeth presents a caricature of their views and arguments to push forward his preferred approach that would loosen up the rules of engagement to permit greater civilian casualties. Ironically, this resembles the type of military thinking of which the Obama administration seemed most wary of when responding to the challenge of ISIS and led them to seek an alternative strategy.
Nowhere are the book’s contradictions more evident than in its treatment of Russia’s role in the conflict. Moscow’s 2015 intervention was one of the turning points in the war and helped to reverse the declining fortunes of Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad government in its fight against ISIS. Russia’s application of air power played a critical role in halting ISIS’s advances into government-held terrain, and then supported a counter push that crippled the nascent state’s war-making capability. Yet, at the same time, the effort was highly controversial in its use of indiscriminate aerial bombing over civilian targets.
Despite its important role in bringing the conflict to its conclusion, Lambeth’s book is largely devoid of any discussion of Moscow’s actual contribution to the outcome. Instead, it offers a highly questionable account of its motivations for intervening:
Eyeing the lucrative opportunity that must have seemed all but irresistible for such a brazen move enabled by President Obama’s failure to honor his ostentatiously declared “red line” after Assad ignored it and used chemical weapons against his own people, Russia’s President Putin no doubt saw a ripe occasion for the first time since 1972 to establish a new, and this time potentially enduring, Russian foothold in the Middle East after the Soviet Union had been rudely ejected from the region by a brilliant stroke of diplomatic force majeure orchestrated behind the scenes by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and executed by Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat. (p.151)
This account is inaccurate, and Lambeth even cites sources that refute it, such as Sanu Kainikara’s excellent overview, In the Bear’s Shadow: Russian Intervention in Syria (2018). Syria has remained Moscow’s closest Arab state since the 1970s, as evidenced by the large Russian naval base at Tartus on its northern coast. Moreover, ISIS and its affiliates also posed a direct terrorist threat towards Russian security, such as in the Caucasus region, which provided additional motivation for an intervention. The rest of the chapter includes almost no mention of Russia’s actual military role in the conflict but rather is devoted to detailing its indiscriminate attacks that caused civilian casualties and how Russia’s presence was a nuisance for the Allied prosecution of the conflict. The chapter reinforces the overall problem of the book’s one-sided portrayal of the political and military strategy surrounding the effort, which brings into question many of the book’s other observations and conclusions.
Overall, Airpower against ISIS is a mixed effort. It offers an extremely detailed portrait of the operational and tactical issues surrounding contemporary western air power operations. It provides critical insight into the challenges of undertaking a campaign of this type, that should be read by anyone with a professional or private interest in the field. However, its flawed treatment of the political and strategic considerations limits its value overall and thus needs to be read critically and in conjunction with other works to extract its full value.
Richard Shimooka is a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, Canada. He was a Senior Fellow at the Defence Management Studies Programme at Queen’s University from 2007–2012, and a Research Fellow at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute from 2012-2017. Richard works’ cover a diverse array of topics, including Canadian and American foreign and defence policy, modern air power and defence procurement.
Header image: Two United States Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft fly over Iraq, 3 March 2016 as part of Operation INHERENT RESOLVE. (Source: Wikimedia)
With eyes pinned on Europe´s eastern frontier, it has never been more critical to have the means to reduce tensions between key NATO allies and Russia. Are there ways to help lessen costs that come with such an undertaking?
According to reports, Russian aerial platforms increasingly violate the airspace of its western neighbours, which is generating considerable unease. While NATO is responding routinely by intercepting the invading aeroplanes and increasing the presence of its combat troops on its eastern flank (four battalions stretching from Poland to the Baltic), a question has arisen over whether or not it is possible to beef up defences in Eastern Europe, while de-escalating tensions. Russian officials consistently say that NATO was responsible for openly displaying its anti-Russian intentions by deploying forces in Poland and the Baltic States.
However, NATO’s recent creation of a new Atlantic command and logistics command, with additional reports showing that since the end of the Cold War the alliance has never actually prepared for the deployment of combat troops on its eastern flank, is thus an implicit admission that NATO is not in a position to deploy large-scale forces the way Russia can. In particular, Russia is paying close attention to the defence of its airspace and has made plans to increase its air defence capabilities, to prevent violations. Meanwhile, NATO lacks both combat aircraft and short-range air defences. According to a report issued by the RAND Corporation, If Mr Putin opts to launch a land grab against the Baltic States, his forces could occupy at least two Baltic capitals within 60 hours.
Although the utmost effort should be taken to de-escalate and resolve the current crisis, preparations are necessary to maintain a state of deterrence against Russia, while also reassuring ‘front-line’ members, i.e. Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Deploying squadrons of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) provide several key benefits: They offer credible ISTAR (information, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance) and strike capabilities, which help maintain a level of deterrence, but will not pose a threat or spark offensive actions by the Russians.
Drawing upon a study that examined among other things, the rapid expansion of Israeli Air Force (IAF) squadrons in response to unforeseen needs following the outbreak of the Second Intifada, a committed effort by NATO to amass six to eight armed UAV squadrons (each with 20-24 platforms) over a period of two years should be both feasible and more cost-effective than deploying conventional forces. The recent difficulties in mobilising and deploying a mere 4,500 troops to NATO’s eastern flank indicates that the alliance has a shortage of both combat troops and political capital to enhance recruitment among member states.
In contrast, turning to unmanned, increasingly autonomous platforms as the first line of defence could not only (at least in the first instance) rely on existing infrastructure (e.g. air force bases, communication infrastructure etc.) but would also sit better with electorates reluctant to send troops to allies in Eastern Europe. Politically, member states probably would be far more willing to finance the acquisition and maintenance of UAVs squadrons by local teams. This would also help solve the issue of mobilisation as was demonstrated with NATO’s brigades. UAVs can help realistically build deterrence and even if there are failures, or even if half of the squadrons are destroyed, no lives, i.e. aircrews, would be lost.
Relations between Russia and the West are in a poor state, and tensions continue to escalate. Those member states who oppose the increased deployment of combat troops and the build-up of more offensive capabilities (e.g. tanks or jet fighters), could be more receptive to opting for cheaper solutions, which negates the need to deploy military personnel. The fact remains that Europe needs better deterrence in the face of Russian aggression. Therefore investing in unmanned autonomous systems, would go some way in providing, the security and surveillance that will be crucial in the years to come.
Emily Boulter is a writer based in Switzerland. She is the creator of the current affairs blog ‘From Brussels to Beirut.’ From 2010 to 2014 she worked as an assistant to the Vice-chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the European Parliament. She is a frequent contributor to Global Risk Insights.
On September 26, 2017, modernised Tupolev Tu-95MS bombers of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) Long-Range Aviation Command executed another strike with Kh-101 air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) against targets in Syria. According to Russia’s Defense Ministry, the missiles targeted ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra ‘command posts, hardware and manpower concentration areas as well as ammunition depot.’ As with previous Russian ALCM strikes during the conflict, the heavily publicised September 2017 strike was intended to serve yet another reminder to the United States and NATO (as well as to other potential adversaries) of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ growing long-range precision-strike capabilities.
Designed by MKB Raduga, the Kh-101 is an advanced conventionally-armed cruise missile with low observable characteristics. The missile has a reported operational range of 4,500km (2,800 miles), and features a guidance package that includes an inertial navigation system (INS), a terrain contour matching (TERCOM) system, a digital scene-matching area correlation (DSMAC) system, and a GPS/GLONASS receiver. Compared with the older, conventionally-armed Kh-555 ALCM, the Kh-101 features significantly improved accuracy and a larger payload, making it suitable for use against hardened targets. Drone footage of Kh-101 strikes from Syria, including the September 2017 strike, appears to attest to the missile’s high-accuracy (though the impact of only several missiles is shown).
Russian bombers first utilised Kh-101s in combat on 17 November 2015, when Tu-160 bombers delivered the new cruise missiles against targets in Syria. The strike, which also included Tu-95MS bombers armed with older Kh-555 ALCMs, marked the combat debut of both the Kh-555 and Kh-101 as well as the Tu-160 and Tu-95MS. Exactly one year later, on November 17, 2016, modernised Tu-95MS bombers executed their first strike with Kh-101 cruise missiles. Before the integration of the Kh-555 and Kh-101 on the Tu-95MS and the Tu-160, and their subsequent employment in Syria, the two bombers were utilised solely for the nuclear deterrence role and did not participate in conventional conflicts.
The only Russian bomber currently in service with the Long-Range Aviation Command to have seen combat before Syria is the Tu-22M3, which flew sorties in the Soviet-Afghan War, the First Chechen War and, more recently, the 2008 Five Day War with Georgia. In all three conflicts, the Tu-22M3 was used exclusively for delivering unguided (or ‘dumb’) bombs – a mission which it continues to fulfil in Syria. Given that bombers delivering unguided munitions are likely to find themselves within range of enemy fighter aircraft and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), such an approach is only viable for low-intensity conflicts in which the adversary lacks credible air defences. Even then, multiple sorties against a single target may be required, and excessive collateral damage may be caused due to the poor accuracy of unguided bombs. Russia witnessed the difficulty of operating its bombers in a contested airspace first hand in August 2008, when one of its Tu-22M3s was shot down by a Georgian SAM during a strike sortie against a Georgian military base.
The introduction of the Kh-555 and Kh-101, therefore, represents a crucial new capability for Russia’s Long-Range Aviation Command, one which allows it to partially compensate for the lack of a long-range very low observable platform. Unlike the USAF, which operates the B-2A stealth bomber, the VKS does not currently field a long-range very low observable platform capable of penetrating modern integrated air defence systems (IADS) and won’t be fielding one until at least the end of the next decade. Hence, to avoid being targeted by adversary fighter aircraft and ground-based air defences in the event of a conflict, Russian bombers will need to launch long-range conventionally-armed ALCMs from stand-off ranges. This is particularly true for the cumbersome turboprop-powered Tu-95MS – the backbone of Russia’s Long-Range Aviation Command, – which, unlike the Tu-160 and Tu-22M3, is not capable of operating at supersonic speeds.
In this regard, the integration of the Kh-101 on the Tu-95MS dramatically expands the legacy bomber’s conventional strike capability, which until recently, was limited to dropping unguided bombs, transforming it into a formidable long-range precision-strike platform capable of accurately engaging hardened targets in heavily defended areas. At present, Russia is also outfitting its Tu-95MS bombers with SVP systems (developed by ZAO Gefest i T), which will enable Russian bomber crews to retarget their missiles before launch. This will further enhance mission flexibility, allowing modernised Tu-95MS bombers to strike not only fixed but also relocatable targets. The ability of the Kh-101 to cover very large distances also reduces the Tu-95MS (and Tu-160’s) need to rely on in-flight refuelling for long distance missions. This, as several analysts have noted, makes the Kh-101 a particularly valuable asset given Russia’s relatively small fleet of aerial-refuelling tankers and limited overseas basing options. A modernised Tu-95MS can carry up to eight Kh-101 ALCMs on four externally-mounted two-station pylons, while a Tu-160 can carry up to 12 such missiles on two internally-mounted six-station rotary launchers.
Considering that neither ISIS, nor the other factions with whom Russia is presently engaged in active combat with field capable air defenses, the Long-Range Aviation Command’s use of modernized Tu-95MS and Tu-160 bombers with Kh-101 ALCMs in Syria stems from Moscow’s desire to test both the reliability of its new air-launched weapon and its carrier platforms as well as the proficiency of Russian bomber crews under real combat conditions. As with the occasional use of conventionally-armed Kalibr sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) in the Syrian conflict, the employment of Kh-101s is likewise intended to convey a strong signal to Russia’s potential adversaries and reflects Moscow’s desire to place greater emphasis on conventional deterrence. The need to expand precision-strike capabilities and increase reliance on conventional weapons for deterrence has been highlighted in Russia’s 2014 Military Doctrine and has been voiced by Russian military officials. As Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, noted in February 2017, though:
[t]he development of strategic nuclear forces remains an absolute priority for us […] the role of nuclear weapons in deterring a potential aggressor will decrease first of all due to development of high-precision weapons.’
For the United States and NATO, Russia’s growing emphasis on conventional long-range precision-strike weapons such as the Kh-101 represents an increasingly pressing need to bolster missile defences.
Guy Plopsky holds an MA in International Affairs and Strategic Studies from Tamkang University, Taiwan. He specialises in air power, Russian military affairs and Asia-Pacific security. You can follow him on Twitter.
Header Image: A Russian Tupolev Tu-160 ‘Blackjack’ in flight over Russia. (Source: Wikimedia)
 For a description, see: Russian Ministry of Defense, ‘Нанесение авиаударов Ту-95МС крылатыми ракетами Х-101 по объектам ИГИЛ в Сирии [Tu-95MS Airstrikes with Kh-101 Cruise Missiles Against ISIS Objects in Syria],’ YouTube video, 3:01. Posted September 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NaI0QuvgKJA.
 ‘Министр обороны России генерал армии Сергей Шойгу провел военно-техническую конференцию [Russian Defense Minister Army General Sergei Shoigu held a Military-technical Conference],’ Russian Ministry of Defense, October 6, 2016
 Piotr Butowski, ‘All missiles great and small: Russia seeks out every niche,’ Jane’s International Defense Review, October 2014, pp. 48-9.
 For example, see the video footage from September 2017 strike in fn1.
 David Cenciotti, ‘Russian MoD Video Shows Tu-160, Tu-95 and Tu-22 Bombers (with Su-27 Escort) Bomb ISIS in Syria,’ The Aviationist, November 17, 2015.
 ‘РФ впервые применила в Сирии новые ракетоносцы Ту-95МСМ с крылатыми ракетами Х-101 [Russian Federation Employed new Tu-95MSM Missile Carrier with Kh-101 Missiles in Syria for the First Time],’ TASS, November 17, 2016.
 For example, see: Russian Ministry of Defense, ‘Боевой вылет дальних бомбардировщиков Ту-22М3 с территории РФ по объектам террористов в Сирии [Combat Sortie of Long-range Tu-22M3 Bombers from the Territory of the Russian Federation Against Terrorist Targets in Syria],’ YouTube video, 2:10. Posted January 25, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55ni9KbpSv4.
 Anton Lavrov, ‘Russian Air Losses in the Five-Day War Against Georgia,’ in Ruslan Pskov (ed.), The Tanks of August (Moscow: Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, 2010), p. 100.
 ‘PAK DA: Russian Defense Ministry Reveals When New Bomber Will Fly,’ Sputnik, April 27, 2017.
 Dave Majumdar, ‘One of Russia’s Most Deadly Bombers Now Has a Scary New Capability,’ The National Interest, July 5, 2017.
 For example, see: James Bosbotinis, ‘Russian Long-Range Aviation and Conventional Strategic Strike,’ Defense IQ, March 5, 2015.