In HG Wells’The Shape of Things to Come, published in 1933, the Air Police of the World State establish an air base in Basra, the city in southern Iraq, in 1979 and set about eliminating the Moslem religion by aerial bombardment. About 40 years behind schedule, something like that has been instituted. A number of countries now have aircraft based in the region and are bombarding the world’s most hardcore Islamists, the immolators of Islamic State.
Until Russia joined the effort in 2015, that effort was ineffectual by design. The United States has been spending US$11 million per day in wearing out their fighter aircraft and depleting war stocks of precision guided munitions. Australia has been doing the same, with expenditure appropriately at one-tenth the US level. Islamic State is aware that they are doing their bit to help bankrupt the United States, with one of their videos noting that Maverick missiles cost US$250,000 each while Islamic State uses bullets costing US$0.50 each.
The US rules of engagement are hampered by a desire to not kill civilians. As Dave Deptula, a former US Air Force deputy chief of staff for Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance and who served as the principal attack planner for the Operation Desert Storm air campaign, notes,
“There is little morality inherent in a campaign approach that limits the use of airpower to avoid the possibility of collateral damage when it ensures the certainty of continued Islamic State crimes against humanity. Today’s coalition leaders should factor into their casualty-avoidance calculus how many of the Islamic State’s intentional murders of innocents would be avoided by rapidly collapsing the structural elements of the Islamic State that the coalition now allows to operate out of excessive concern of inadvertent civilian deaths.”
The US and its coalition partners, at great expense to themselves, have set out merely to make life in Islamic State more miserable. Islamic State aims to kill as many Westerners as they can, and thus the attack in Paris and so on. The West can’t abandon the air campaign because Islamic State will simply up the rate at which they undertake terrorist attacks. But continuing the current Children’s Crusade-like level of violence is ineffectual and will bankrupt us. A report that Russia was setting up an airbase in at Qamishli in northeast Syria suggests a solution. The Russians subsequently denied the report, but we, Australia, could do something similar to great effect.
There is a former Syrian Air Force base at Tabqa (35°45’N, 38°34’E), 45 km southwest of the Islamic State capital of Raqqah and three kilometres south of the main east-west highway. The airfield could be seized and used as a base of operations, supplied by air, that would split Islamic State in two. There would have to be an improvement in the rules of engagement to make this work. Specifically, every vehicle within 30 km of the base would be destroyed. Islamic State would have to attack this base, so close to their capital, and they could only approach it on foot. And they would not be able to bring artillery within range. It is flat, open desert in all directions around the base so approaching Islamists could be detected a great distance away.
Islamic State would wear itself out in attacking this base. This will help Kurds approaching from the northeast and the Assad regime approaching from the west. The question of who will take over the Sunni areas currently run by Islamic State remains unanswered. But whatever that answer might be, it will come more quickly and cheaply than if we continue doing what we are doing now.
As Islamic State itself has pointed out, the US and its coalition partners are not using the one big advantage they have in this conflict: Islamic State is not equipped to shoot down aircraft flying above 5,000 feet. The weapons we are using are inappropriately sized and priced for the targets they are used against. If aircraft are safe from being shot down, the weapons they launch don’t need rocket motors. Neither do they need wings that fold out; fixed wings for gliding are good enough. An aircraft at 20,000 feet could hit targets six kilometres either side of the flight path using GPS guidance. Targets that need a bit more precision could be hit with laser-guided weapons such as Raytheon’s Pike missile. The solution to destroying a $10,000 Toyota Hilux is something that costs under $1,000.
Australia has been fighting wars in the Middle East for over 100 years now, on and off. No matter what replaces Islamic State in the Levant, we do not want to hang around to do any nation-building, despite the pitiful looks of the street urchins. The whole region is headed for a big population collapse due to starvation, at some stage, and we do not want to own any part of that problem.
As the Germans are finding out, the people themselves are execrable. So harden your hearts; we have to develop ways to kill Islamists more cheaply. Winston Churchill noted in The River War that,“were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.”
We have the science. All we have to do is apply it.
David Archibald is the author of Australia’s Defence (Connor Court