Reflections on Airpower: Offensive Strike

Jason Koxvold and Dan Ryan


Part Two of "Reflections on Airpower"


  Part One of "Reflections on Airpower"

Part One of "Reflections on Airpower"

The F-22 Raptor currently plays an active role in providing close air support and delivering strategic strikes. Despite being operational since 1997, the aircraft is still shrouded in secrecy. (Jason Koxvold)

From Mosul to Raqqa, the destruction of logistic depots, training camps, communication facilities, and financial complexes, in addition to the destruction of their fighting units in direct contact with friendly forces, applies pressure on every aspect of the organization.

Since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom and the destruction of the Iraqi military in the opening phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S. military and its coalition partners have maintained air superiority over the skies of both Afghanistan and Iraq. When Islamic State fighters surged south across Iraq, the aircraft of the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, and coalition partners were able to provide critical support to the Iraqi military as it attempted to halt the advance. This support included a range of tasks, from the vital resupply of equipment and ammunition to close air support for embattled units on the front lines. As the Islamic State advance was brought to a stop, coalition aircraft were free to attack the enemy from their front line positions to deep into the territory they held. The uncontested hold of the air provides the United States and its allies the ability to target and destroy the support network that keeps the self-declared caliphate functioning. From Mosul to Raqqa, the destruction of logistic depots, training camps, communication facilities, and financial complexes, in addition to the destruction of their fighting units in direct contact with friendly forces, applies pressure on every aspect of the organization.

The 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance and Attack Squadron, which pilots the Predators from Creech AFB in Nevada, keeps a small team of pilots on the ground to handle takeoff and recovery, which must be piloted from a local station due to the inherent latency of a satellite link from the other side of the world. (Jason Koxvold)

The intersection of a multi-faceted operation that combines deeply integrated close air support with wide-area interdiction of Islamic State materiel, forces, and key personnel, clearly demonstrates the importance of how a favorable air situation, that is air superiorityin this case air supremacyallows coalition ground and air forces to create joint opportunities for fully seizing and exploiting the operational initiative against their enemy.

Focusing more narrowly on the Air Force, every day airmen step to jets as diverse as cutting edge F-22 fighters to B-52s as old as their parents to rain munitions from the skies over Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan upon unsuspecting Islamic State or Taliban fighters. These crews and their aircraft depart their respective bases in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility, loaded with an array of munitions to conduct their tasked missions for the day. The airframes are diverse, and include everything from an MQ-1 Predator with two, 100-pound Hellfire missiles to a single B-52 carrying over 32,000 pounds of precision munitions. They will fly to the frontlines to provide close air support to friendly ground forces as they battle daily to regain territory. If not tasked with frontline support these crews will fly deep into hostile territory, hundreds of miles from friendly forces, to strike at critical enemy targets. These attacks behind the lines create a diversion of effort for the Islamic State while denying them freedom of movement and security, placing it in a dilemma of decision on where to place critical materiel or whether to move it to maintain their waning war effort. Through effective control of the air, not only are the enclaves of the Islamic State isolated and constricted, but also movement and communications are limited because of interdiction––further weakening their physical ability to resist coalition ground forces. The scope of this daily effort can be seen in the Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve daily strike reports. For instance, on 4 July 2017 alone, there were 37 separate strikes with 107 engagements in Iraq and Syria. The intersection of a multi-faceted operation that combines deeply integrated close air support with wide-area interdiction of Islamic State materiel, forces, and key personnel, clearly demonstrates the importance of how a favorable air situation, that is air superiority—in this case air supremacy—allows coalition ground and air forces to create joint opportunities for fully seizing and exploiting the operational initiative against the enemy.

In 2016, the United States dropped 26,171 bombs in seven countries; 24,287 of these were dropped on Iraq and Syria in the fight against Da’esh. I wanted to understand how to begin to visualize this66 bombs every day. As a major logistical hub for the region, one of the two bases houses a munitions yard, through which much of these weapons pass. (Jason Koxvold)

When sealift and airlift are combined, relative efficiencies are created by complement.

This war machine against the Islamic State consumes an enormous amount of fuel and ordnance, presenting a huge logistical challenge. An entire fleet of KC-135 and KC-10 tankers are deployed to the Middle East to refuel these aircraft during their missions. This allows for extended range and loiter time of not only the strike aircraft but also command and control aircraft like the E-8 JSTARs, RC-135, and E-3 AWACs which provide critical coordination and intelligence gathering. Furthermore, rapid resupply of coalition ground forces is crucial to the defeat of the Islamic State. Supplying the required munitions involves another fleet of airlift and sea assets constantly transporting ammunition from stores all over the world or directly from the manufacturer.

While naval supply ships move most munitions, occasionally airlift will be used to shorten the transport time, or effect rapid dispersion within the theater itself, to maintain a rapid pace of supply for war materiel. A C-17 is capable of carrying 170,000 pounds of cargo—just over five full payloads of a B-52 loaded for bear with precision weaponry. On average it takes approximately 30 hours for an aircraft to make a trip from the United States to the Middle East. While certainly quicker than a ship, it is not a process which is efficient. However, when sealift and airlift are combined, relative efficiencies are created by complement. Providing munitions to the Air Force, as well as American ground forces supporting the war effort, requires that U.S. Transportation Command to maintain a continuous stream of supplies that discerns the increasing pace of kinetic operations. This multi-faceted operation of supply, intelligence, maintenance, and more enable the scale of kinetic strikes currently being conducted and showcases the U.S. Air Force and its partners capability to rapidly deliver air power when and where it is needed most.


Jason Koxvold is a Featured Contributor on The Strategy Bridge and a widely published photographer based in Brooklyn, NY. He has worked in every corner of the globe, from Arctic Russia to South Africa, China to Nigeria; his most recent deployment was with Operation Resolute Support in Kabul and Bagram. You can find his work in magazines including Newsweek JapanWiredSlate, and National Geographic Traveler. See Jason’s photographs at koxvold.com and follow him on Twitter at @jkoxvold.

Dan Ryan is an U.S. Air Force officer. He is an Associate Member of the Military Writers Guild. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force.


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Header Image: MQ-1 Preadator, flown by the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance and Attack Squadron (Jason Koxvold)