The US Department of Defense frequently releases press statements detailing the targets US-led coalition airstrikes have bombed in Iraq and Syria as part of their ongoing war against Islamic State (ISIS) militants. These statements invariably describe how many ISIS vehicles, fighting positions, supply routes and tactical units coalition airstrikes have destroyed on a given day of the air campaign.
Since the Vietnam War-era the US hasn’t “body counts” as an indicator of how well they are doing against a particular adversary. While in this war, they do announce whenever they manage to kill some ISIS leader, they have, for the most part, focused on keeping count of how much damage they are doing to infrastructure in ISIS-held territory and how many of their vehicles and weapons they are destroying. For example the Pentagon announced last September that they had done serious damage to ISIS’s chemical weapon capability by destroying a pharmaceutical plant which they suspected ISIS had been using to produce chlorine and mustard gases in a barrage of airstrikes.
The US military is likely correct in many, if not most, of these cases. However, there is reason to suspect that there is more to these estimates and figures than meets the eye. When Syrian Kurdish-led forces managed to capture the city Manbij from ISIS in August they discovered a large ISIS stockpile of fake weapons, many of them anti-aircraft guns, which were clearly designed solely in order to deceive coalition jets – and possibly divert their attention away from targets which were of actual importance to the militants. The discovery of that stockpile raises serious questions about how successfully ISIS may have managed to fool the coalition about how successful their campaign against the militants is going, or how strong/well-armed the militants have been in the first place.
Although it might surprise at first sight, deception is nothing new in the repertoire of military warfare. Russia has been known to literally place tank-shaped balloons across its territory to trick its neighbours, and potential enemies, into believing its military is much larger than it actually is. In the run-up to D-day in World War II the allies successfully misled the Nazi Germany about where they would invade in Operation Fortitude – which saw the creation of phantom field armies that, to the Nazis, appeared to be massing in preparation to assault different French and Norwegian fronts.
Even though ISIS is unlikely to ever get the upper-hand in this war it could potentially prolong the war against its technological advanced enemy by utilizing clever deceptive tactics as part of a broader range of asymmetrical methods to counter or put a strain on the coalitions resources.
Unlike the Russian Air Force in Syria – who have been dropping unguided “dumb” bombs from their ageing Soviet stockpiles – the US-led coalition has been relying primarily on more expensive precision guided bombs to target ISIS in approximately 12,500 airstrikes until end of May 2016. In total the majority of approximate 42,000 bombs dropped on suspected ISIS targets have been dropped by US aircraft since the start of this war two years ago. This has led the US to raid its stockpiles around the world as this campaign continues and even seek to build another 45,000 for future use, a clear indicator of how depleting sustaining this campaign has proven to be on their reserves (Marcus Weisgerber, “The US Is Raiding Its Global Bomb Stockpiles to Fight ISIS“, Defense One, 26 May 2016).
British Brimstone missiles (which cost between 65,000 and 125,000 a unit, if development and additional costs are excluded) were deployed essentially for use against simple ISIS Toyota pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns (classic technicals) in support of the coalition campaign. The fact that such bombs and missiles could well have been fired against phony ISIS weapons and positions show the risk the coalition might be running of expending large quantities of such expensive ordnance.
Between the beginning of the US-led air campaign against ISIS in August 8, 2014 to September 26, 2016, US Central Command estimates that a total of 31,900 suspected ISIS-related targets, ranging from Humvees to oil infrastructure, have been destroyed by coalition bombing. These estimates are based on the daily reports which have accumulated over the course of the last two years and could well include a number of fake targets.
As ISIS continues to incrementally lose territory and as coalition airstrikes are helping allied forces on the ground advance closer to ISIS’s primary stronghold cities of Mosul and Raqqa the coalition needs to be cautious that such deceptive tactics do not lead it to commit any fatal blunders.