On August 7, 2014, Barack Obama announced "Operation Annoy ISIS," ordering U.S. aircraft to drop humanitarian supplies to tens of thousands of Yezidi refugees fleeing the terrorists of the Islamic State. He also ordered U.S. combat aircraft to be ready to launch airstrikes to protect Americans in Erbil, Iraq, and to lift the siege of the Yezidis.
On September 10, 2014, Obama declared his intention to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS, while precluding a combat mission for American ground forces in Iraq.
As of October 7, 2014, 60 days into the air campaign against ISIS, a total of 376 airstrikes have been conducted, 266 in Iraq and 110 in Syria, the vast majority targeting vehicles, equipment and buildings, not terrorists.
Supporters of the Obama Administration's approach to the ISIS threat cite the 1999 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) air campaign in the Kosovo War as an example of how air power alone can end wars.
On the night of 24 March 1999, NATO launched Operation Allied Force in response to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians. The violence had already taken the lives of more than 250,000 people by 1995, and when the conflict continued to escalate, the United Nations Security Council warned of an "impending humanitarian catastrophe" if action was not taken.
During the 78-day campaign, NATO aircrews flew 38,004 sorties, 10,484 of which were strike sorties. Overall, the U.S. Air Force flew 30,018 sorties, including 11,480 airlift, 8,889 fighter, 322 bomber, 6,959 tanker, 1,038 Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), 834 Special Operations, and 496 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) missions.
In contrast to the conventional wisdom, however, it was not air power that brought the Serbs to the negotiating table, but the threat of a ground invasion.
According to a Washington Post article, although President Clinton ruled out ground troops from the start of the 78-day air war in the Balkans, secret preparations for an invasion of Kosovo were extensive, and progressed much further than that known at the time.
On May 27, 1999, after the air campaign had dragged on for nine weeks, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen met with the defense ministers of Britain, France, Germany and Italy. After 6½ hours of debate, the five ministers reached a momentous conclusion. Their governments must decide whether to assemble ground troops, and they must make the choice within days.
Despite public denials throughout the war, the CIA worked closely with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLO) to gather intelligence about the disposition of Yugoslav troops in Kosovo. Relying in part on a clandestine relationship with the KLO, NATO's leadership was probing Yugoslav defenses. NATO engineers were reinforcing a vital roadway for use in an armored thrust. By mid-May 1999, General Wesley K. Clark, the supreme allied commander in Europe, had come up with a preliminary plan for an attack from the south by 175,000 troops, mostly through that single road from Albania.
As the Washington Post's Dana Priest described, when the ethnic Albanian rebels launched a major offensive in late May 1999 with NATO's full prior knowledge and active air support, Milosevic and his generals seem to have concluded that NATO was on the brink of an invasion. That, NATO commanders now believe, was an important factor in the Serbian leader's sudden retreat. Whatever Milosevic's calculations, it is clear in retrospect that at the very moment the Serb leader was preparing to capitulate, Clinton was thinking seriously about the ground option.
On the evening of June 9, 1999, Milosevic signed an agreement allowing the incursion of 50,000 NATO soldiers, but as peacekeepers, not warriors.
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired colonel with 29 years of service in the US Army Reserve and a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq. Colonel Sellin is the author of "Restoring the Republic: Arguments for a Second American Revolution ". He receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org.