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Syria bombing report shows the limits of air power

By Peter Jennings

The mistaken killing of more than 80 fighters 'aligned to the Syrian government' in a botched Coalition bombing operation last September is a tragedy of war but sadly only a small footnote to the greater human disaster unfolding in that country. 

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed and millions displaced as refugees in a civil war for which there is no end in sight. 

The United States-led review into the air strike released early Wednesday morning highlights two key points about the international coalition's air war over Syria: first, that even the best planned military campaign will make mistakes and kill innocents, and second, that the Coalition air campaign has been one of the most tightly controlled in the history of air power. 

The remarkable thing is that more people haven't been wrongly killed by Coalition strikes. This constraint on air operations is legally and morally right, but the effect has been to render much of the Syrian air campaign useless. 

The review makes it clear that a number of factors contributed to inadvertently targeting a position near Dayr az Zawr, on 18 September occupied by Syrian Army or militia forces. For some reason intelligence reporting incorrectly identified the position as occupied by so-called Islamic State fighters.

The review finds that some overlooked intelligence reporting cast doubt on whether the position was IS controlled. There seems also to be been confusion over map coordinates between digital and paper maps.

After the air strikes began a Russian officer called the coalition's Combined Air Operations Centre but the requested contact was not present to receive the call. A second Russian call was made, some minutes later, presumably after the strikes had destroyed their target.

If that sounds messy, it is. But mostly its the result of trying to graft a 21st century precision air war on a battlefield more closely resembling the wars of medieval Europe. The air campaign has suffered from the absence of teams on the ground able to precisely pin point and verify targets. 

Imagery from drones and combat aircraft cannot give complete assurance that the right target is about to be hit. That's why a very high proportion of coalition air sorties return to their bases without dropping bombs. Under western rules of engagement, if there is no guarantee that civilian's won't be hit, the missile doesn't get fired. 

The report into the air strike gives a sense of the complexity of trying to manage an air campaign with different types of aircraft from the US, UK, Australia and Denmark: missile carrying Super Hornet jets, the Australian Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft, the slow but deadly American 'warthog' A-10 ground attack aircraft and unmanned drones were all trying to find targets with real-time intelligence and sensor data. Russian combat jets and Syrian Army helicopters and anti-aircraft missiles complicated the intelligence picture.

On the ground an array of military, militia, foreign forces, terrorist groups and non-combatant civilians were moving over contested territory which, at one moment might be in enemy hands, and an hour later may be under control of 'friendly' forces not on coalition target lists.

It's a testament to the discipline of the coalition air campaign that many more civilians haven't been killed. As of 17 November, the US Defence Department reports that 5,822 air strikes have been launched in Syria and a further 10,469 in Iraq.

In early November the US military's Central Command which is running the air campaign estimated there had been 119 civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria since the start of the war.  While no number of civilian deaths is acceptable, the fact is that this is a remarkably low figure given the scale of fighting in both countries. 

US and coalition discipline in using air strikes stands in marked contrast to the behaviour of the Russian Air campaign.

Although the Russian strikes have been carried out often under the guise of targeting the Islamic State, the reality is that their campaign has often not made any distinction between civilians and combatants and has targeted any opponents of Russia's client, Syrian President Al-Assad. 

Russia has not been using guided weapons to precisely target fighters. Rather they are using old-fashioned unguided bombs, hitting broad area targets, including with internationally banned anti-personnel cluster weapons and even more devastating thermobarac bombs which disperse and then detonate clouds of explosive fuel.

What lessons can be drawn from the report of the mistaken 18 September air strikes? First, although the international coalition has remarkably refined the tactics of precision bombing there will never be a credible guarantee that the wrong people will not be hit from time to time.

A second lesson is that we have reached the likely limit of what air power can do without their being ground based forward air controllers to better target strikes. It may be that the Iraqi push on Mosul is slowing precisely because of the lack of sufficient specialist troops on the ground to direct air strikes.

Finally, as sad as this incident is, the broader story is that the Australian and other allied Air Forces are doing an amazing job of minimising non-combatant casualties. But this comes at the price of delaying a decisive end to the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. In Syria there is no end in sight to a war that has destroyed the country and thrown the Middle East into a bloody competition for regional dominance. 

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a former deputy secretary for Strategy with the Department of Defence.
Originally published: The Australian online. 30 November 2016

Originally published by: The Australian on 30 Nov 2016