What Ted Cruz means when he talks about ‘carpet bombing ISIS’

What Ted Cruz means when he talks about ‘carpet bombing ISIS’
Image: NBC News video screen grab (via Mediaite)

Ted Cruz has come in for a lot of pile-on criticism for his repeated references to “carpet bombing” ISIS.  But although the terminology itself is incorrect – based on his own definition of what he’s talking about – he’s got everything else pretty much right.

It’s the ear of partisan politics that refuses to hear what he’s saying.  And it’s the brain of ignorance that doesn’t recognize the validity of his key – but unspoken – premise.

Herewith, an explanation.

First, here’s what Cruz has said, when challenged on his allusion to carpet bombing.  This video clip is from the 6 February GOP debate on ABC.

Boilerplate about political leadership aside, this is the key passage:

Now, when I say saturation/carpet bombing, that’s not indiscriminate.

That is targeted at oil facilities; it’s targeted at the oil tankers; it’s targeted at command and control locations; it’s targeted at infrastructure; it’s targeted at communications.

It’s targeted at bombing all of the roads and bridges going in and out of Raqqa.  It’s using overwhelming air power…

You know, a couple of weeks ago, it was reported that a facility is open called “jihadist university.”  Now, the question I wonder – why is that building still standing?  It should be rubble.

That’s what Cruz is referring to.

Military experts queried by the media have of course pointed out that “carpet bombing” is not a military term. And it’s not; it’s a popular expression the military itself doesn’t use, precisely because “carpet bombing” connotes the long-abandoned practice of blanketing a target area with bombs in order to do maximum damage across the area.  Once it became possible to make bombs more accurate and increase their lethality within a smaller radius, military planners saw less and less need to rely on generalized destruction to accomplish the goals set for them.

But that doesn’t mean there’s never a need for what Cruz describes.  What he describes is a perfectly legitimate military method.  But it’s not identified by the way you bomb, which relates to weapons and tactics; it’s identified as a type of campaign.

Not “bombing method” but “campaign type” or phase

It’s called an interdiction campaign.  (If you like, it’s an air interdiction campaign, although that is, for most purposes, understood.)  It refers to attacking key military targets from the air (mostly): typically targets with strategic significance, and the infrastructure the military and the enemy’s political leadership rely on.

And Cruz is right, in principle, to keep referring back to Gulf I/Desert Storm, because that war started with a lengthy, intensive interdiction campaign.  It’s the quintessential example of the interdiction campaign from the modern warfare era.

In fact, the interdiction campaign of the first Gulf War was a phase of its own in the overall design of the operation – much longer, at five weeks, than the “100-hour” ground war in February 1991.

Now, does that mean that we should attack ISIS using the very same campaign design?  No.  But it illustrates that what Cruz is talking about is a legitimate military method and has a name.

It also translates, in modified form, to the way we’ve been fighting since Gulf II/Iraqi Freedom in 2003.  There are differences today, 25 years after Desert Storm, but each difference has mainly shaved the time requirement off interdiction phases, and allowed them to be integrated more closely and dynamically with ground operations.  In a situation where our forces have big advantages – as we would versus ISIS – campaign planners won’t envision anything like a five-week, Desert Storm-style interdiction phase.

The force improvements since Desert Storm include the following: our baseline air-delivered munitions are significantly more accurate and lethal; there are multiple platforms in the Air Force and Navy that can deliver more ordnance per single sortie than we even dreamed of in Desert Storm; and we have a total force now with more than 10 years’ experience in integrated air-ground operations, including highly evolved and responsive tactical command and control.

We have the capability – when we can bring the resources to bear – to accomplish interdiction goals much faster than we did in 1991.

And this next is important too.  The fact that we can envision integrating air interdiction with ground operations more quickly and seamlessly means that there will often be operations in which we do less pure interdiction overall.

That doesn’t mean there will be absolutely less air-to-ground bombing.  Once our troops are in contact, a lot of what’s done will be attacking targets on their behalf – and that will be done with attack helicopters and fighters in close air support, along with artillery.

But interdiction, as a separate discipline with a separate campaign purpose, may be scaled down, if the integrated combat approach gets our troops rolled in when less of it has been done to start with.  That’s basically what happened in both Afghanistan and Iraq, in 2001 and 2003, respectively.

The mainstream media’s experience, for the most part, goes about as far back as Afghanistan and Iraq II – or substantially less.  Many of them, in fact, can’t really remember how we did anything before Obama.  Obama’s style of military operations has been unique – discontinuous from his predecessors in important ways – and does not represent a package of methods that has any hope of being effective.  He would presumably understand an interdiction campaign if it were explained to him, but he has not ordered or allowed anything like one since he took office.

The nature of the enemy

The other criticism levied at Cruz is the one ABC’s Martha Raddatz frames in her debate question at the beginning of the video clip (emphasis added):

Senator Cruz, you advocate what you call “carpet bombing” or “saturation bombing” to defeat ISIS, citing the more than 1,100 air attacks a day the U.S. carried out during the first Gulf War in 1991.

Explain how a strategy to defeat a standing army would work against an unconventional terrorist group that is now hiding amongst the population.

The simplest way to approach this criticism is by pointing out that ISIS isn’t a mere terrorist group, in the way Raddatz means.  It’s a guerrilla insurgency that has the goal of achieving a lasting, territory-based political objective.

I’ve been emphasizing this since my very first post on ISIS in January 2014.  And even aside from all other considerations, it’s why Cruz is right in his assessment that ISIS has to be attacked in some of the same ways we would attack a nation-state with a national army.  It’s because ISIS acts like one.

This is Cruz’s unspoken premise, and it’s spot-on.  Moreover, it’s actually good news that ISIS is a territorial phenomenon.  A guerrilla force that occupies territory, and tries to politically administer and defend it, is easier to organize against than one (like Al Qaeda) that doesn’t.  Attacking a force that has weapons depots and command headquarters and training camps (“troop formations”), and makes money off selling oil, and tries to control the local civil infrastructure (roads, bridges, dams) – that’s what we’re already trained and equipped to do.

Moreover, it’s a force we can do substantial injury to with conventional attack.  ISIS’s center of gravity is geographic: the Euphrates Corridor from Raqqa to Ramadi.  And as long as ISIS is a territorial phenomenon, attacking it in its territory, and surrounding and annihilating it there (see footnote at link), will deal it a blow it can’t readily recover from.

That’s the case even though ISIS has outposts in Libya, Afghanistan, and the Caucasus, among other places.  The ISIS caliphate vision is intimately connected to the specific territory ISIS has been defending in the Euphrates Corridor, with its links to both northern Syria and central Iraq, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi imagines a future of apocalyptic happenings.  Annihilating ISIS in its core territory would force on it the choice of actually becoming something else, or ceasing to exist.

In the practical “medium run,” annihilating ISIS in the Euphrates Corridor would remove it as the spoiler for a pacification plan for Syria and Iraq.  One key aspect of this is that with ISIS annihilated in Syria-Iraq, the justification Iran is now riding to put paramilitary and proxy troops all over the theater, and thereby gain control of a lot of territory (see also the first map at this link), would be gone.

Raddatz’s question to Cruz in February revealed not that that Cruz misunderstands the situation, but that the media do.  ISIS inflicts terror on populations, no doubt.  And part of its own campaign strategy is to encourage terrorist attacks outside its theater of military operations (e.g., in Europe and South Asia).

But ISIS, by the nature of its motivating idea, is a very territorial, geography-oriented force.  That’s why the methods that work against such forces are suitable for ISIS.

A note on Cruz’s particular emphasis

Senator Cruz has been emphatic that he is talking about a lot of aerial bombing as the thing we’re not doing.  The effect of his emphasis is to make his proposition more of an interdiction campaign and less of a dynamically integrated approach, with ground forces featuring heavily.

I don’t assume that he’s out of his depth in this regard.  A commander-in-chief has the right to set conditions for a military operation, and one of them may well be that he wants to avoid putting in a lot of ground troops.

That said, what I hear Cruz saying is not that he rules ground troops out, but that we haven’t pushed interdiction as far as we could (he’s 100% right), and we need to start by doing that.

The smart approach would be to decide what our overall objectives are (funny, Cruz says that at the outset), and plan to expand or adjust if a true, robustly prosecuted interdiction campaign doesn’t achieve enough.  Frankly, the timeline should be relatively short for this.  ISIS isn’t ten feet tall.  ISIS isn’t even ten inches tall.  ISIS in the Euphrates Corridor is a bunch of landlocked, strategically surrounded pissants; ruthless, to be sure, but unarmored and as subject to rapid demise as the rest of us.

I can see that Cruz doesn’t have a background in military campaign design, and doesn’t use the lingo as a military planner would.  But his strategic sense is sound.  He sees what matters.

The public dialogue

You can decide for yourself why he’s been getting no help on this terminology stumbling block from popular pundits.  When it comes to the military experts, I don’t think it’s because they’re hostile to him.  Nor is it because they wouldn’t understand what I’ve laid out here.  They’d understand it – but most of them didn’t specialize in targeting or designing interdiction campaigns.  A lot of them retired from active duty just at the time the Desert Storm paradigm of interdiction effectiveness, with its slow-rolling, stately-paced “air campaigns,” was giving way to the faster-paced, more integrated approach of Iraqi Freedom.  Unless you were plugged in with the joint planning ideas that lay behind that transition – ideas that were formulated among a handful of 4-star commands between about 1996 and 2003 – you wouldn’t necessarily even think in those terms.

Part of the problem is also that in our current political environment, it’s a bit misdirected to focus on the military steps the U.S. could take against ISIS, without addressing the big, strategic context first.  Significantly, I think there’s not a clamor from the people to understand Cruz better, because there’s no appetite for fixing Syria’s wagon – and that’s what people “hear” being discussed.  Cruz is actually talking about beating back ISIS, which is a national security concern for America.  But that’s rarely emphasized.

The biggest part of the problem, however, is probably that the media whip things along in political-soundbite terms – as well as simply in the terms they understand.  They can get mileage for a particular narrative by framing the proposition as “Ted Cruz said ‘carpet bombing’ and that’s stupid”; so that’s what they do.  On the issue of what kind of enemy ISIS is, they are woefully behind, and will probably remain so for some time.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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