August 20, 2021

From Forever Wars to Great-Power Wars: Lessons Learned from Operation Inherent Resolve

By Stacie Pettyjohn and Becca Wasser

What lessons can be gleaned from recent U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria that are relevant for a potential future war against a great-power adversary like China or Russia?

The U.S. Department of Defense is attempting to make the long overdue pivot from focusing on the Middle East to shoring up deterrence in the Indo-Pacific and Europe by improving its ability to prevail in large-scale combat against a great power. But it is important that the Pentagon does not relegate the lessons learned from its recent operational experience in the Middle East to the trash bin. Aaron Stein and Ryan Fishel argue that the U.S. Air Force needs to prepare for proxy war scenarios akin to Syria. The Defense Department undoubtedly should learn from its experience competing with Russia and Iran in Syria below the threshold of conventional war. But it can and should also learn lessons from U.S. operations in the Middle East for great-power conflict as well.

It is important that the Pentagon does not relegate the lessons learned from its recent operational experience in the Middle East to the trash bin.

The war to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), known as Operation Inherent Resolve, presented one of the most permissive operating environments U.S. airpower could expect. Issues that emerged in this environment are likely to be far more acute against a more capable adversary. American military operations in the Middle East highlighted clear deficiencies in some missions that would be essential to winning a future great-power conventional war. U.S. forces should address the vulnerabilities identified during this conflict related to deliberate targeting, operating in contested airspace, and integrating air- and ground-based fires to prepare for future great-power conflict.

As the U.S. military prepares for war against a great power, military leaders have re-emphasized developing offensive platforms and weapons systems to improve firepower. Currently, U.S. air operations are centered around an air operations center that preplans deliberate airstrikes as a part of a 72-hour air-tasking cycle. In Operation Inherent Resolve, however, the deliberate targeting process routinely took “from days to weeks.” This proved to be too slow to keep up with a highly adaptive adversary and rapidly changing battlefield.

Read the full article from War on the Rocks.

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