Jordan has released a video montage showing the kickoff of its retaliatory air campaign against ISIS in Syria. Over 20 Jordanian F-16s struck ISIS targets while US F-22s, F-16s, surveillance and tanker aircraft supported them. Although the idea of such a campaign represents a powerful show of force, the video hints at a much grimmer and more questionable story.
Beyond the messages written on bombs and the noses of Jordan's second-hand F-16 fleet, most making declarations against ISIS's ideology as well as proclamations of vengeance, what was most noticeable in the video was all the dumb bombs (Mk82, Mk83, Mk84) loaded onto the aircraft. In other words, few jets appeared to have precision guided munitions loaded onto their weapons stations, and those that did were equipped only with a pair of relatively small and older, but still effective, GBU-12 laser guided bombs, which are more suited for taking out small buildings and vehicles than large fixed structures.
Even when deployed from an advanced fighter jet with digital avionics, dumb bombs are much more accurate the lower they are released. As the altitude of their release increases so does their Circular Error Probability (CEP), in quite a drastic manner. Using this method of weapons delivery from over 15k feet, above most man portable air defense systems (MANPADS) and anti-aircraft fire, makes hitting individual structures very problematic. One way to overcome this issue is to throw more sorties at each target, but for each attack made the risk to aircrew making follow-on attacks increases. In fact, every extra minute over enemy territory increases the risk to aircrews. Additionally, and even more importantly, these bombs end up exploding somewhere regardless of if that somewhere is playground or an ammunition dump full of enemy fighters and their use greatly increases the chances of unintended causalities.
On the other hand, if Jordanian F-16s are flying at low altitude, right into the heart of the MANPADS, anti-aircraft and even small arms fire envelope, in order to more accurately deliver their unguided weaponry, then that is a very poor and dangerous decision, both for Jordan and the coalition. Bravery aside, doing so could puts many more coalition warfighters at risk as the chances of an aircraft being brought down are quite high. This means a combat search and rescue (CSAR) mission would most likely be launched, which is another low altitude and even riskier affair that could result in an Osprey or Black Hawk full of pararescuemen being downed as well. The startling possibility that Jordan may be putting aircrew at high risk due to the possible lack of adequate guided munitions also comes as US CSAR assets are now confirmed to be operating out of northern Iraq, a move that seems extremely overdue.
What the widespread use of dumb bombs by Jordan equates to is a set of puzzlingly simple tactics being used, ones that are highly ineffective or highly risky, while trying to obtain a very complex outcome. If Jordan hit all high-priority targets on a targeting list, they are either doing so at great peril to any innocent people nearby, or to themselves and the coalition, or they are creating a target list based on their limited weapons stores and capabilities.
This would mean that they could be selecting a few high-priority urban targets for precision guided munitions and the rest of the targets would be those in rural areas with little potential for unintended casualties when dumb weapons are applied. Either way, dictating what targets you hit, especially on the first day of a highly invigorated air campaign, based on the limited munitions you have at hand is a poor way to fight a modern air war in 2015 and it could usher in either a large loss of innocent life, which could dangerously erode support for the operation as whole in the region, or Jordanian forces are mainly hitting very low priority targets that are located literally in the middle of nowhere.
Another issue that could have led to the use of so much unguided weaponry could be Jordan's lack of targeting pods for their F-16AM/BM fleet. Costing millions of dollars themselves, they could be, and probably are, in very short supply. This would make the delivery of precision guided munitions impossible for much of the RJAF F-16AM/BM fleet as Jordan has not purchased GPS guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) that do not require a laser targeting pod when used against fixed targets.
Considering that the video is showcasing the first 'shock and awe' strike by Jordan, the fact that only a small portion of the jets are using precision guided munitions also makes it fairly clear that the Jordanian Air Force is not really in a place to sustain an effective air campaign over time on its own. With this conclusion in mind, it makes much more sense as to why King Abdullah was in Washington literally begging for 'expendables' (munitions, countermeasures, and fuel, as well as certain spare parts) so that they can take on ISIS for the long haul. Although the King's weapons supply situation seems more dire than imagined as it is not just a question of his forces running out of precision guided munitions sometime in the future, but it is one of not having enough now.
Then there is the question of the target list itself that Jordan pursued on Thursday. After months of bombing, and even the use of American F-22s in an offensive strike role, why do targets remain on a list that are so large Jordanian F-16s can go after them using unguided weaponry? At this point in the game how are there any targets on that list at all? The answer may be much more damning for the U.S., which leads the anti-ISIS coalition operating over Iraq and Syria, than for Jordan, as any sustained air campaign that is many months old should have wiped out all of ISIS's fixed targets early on, with new and time sensitive ones being dealt with on a very consistent basis. This is especially true considering that ISIS does not possess an integrated air defense system or any aerial defenses at all beyond shoulder-fired missiles.
If the U.S. is in fact dragging its feet when it comes to striking ISIS targets deep inside Syria then the whole operation needs to be questioned. If this is not the case and these are just new targets acquired from recent intelligence, then how are they magically low enough of a priority to have Jordanian F-16 pilots slinging dumb bombs at them? Or if they are not new, but are of such a low priority that they were not even worth hitting with precision weapons by coalition forces long ago, then why on earth are we risking Jordanian and American air crews on them at all? If 'optics' is the answer then Washington has some serious explaining to do.
If Jordan's use of a large portion of dumb bombs on its first 'alpha strike' against supposedly key ISIS targets in Syria is a matter of lack resources on Jordan's part and lack of prior commitment on the coalitions part, then the U.S. should immediately transfer large stocks of precision guided munitions, targeting pods and spare parts to Jordanian forces to that they can continue to do what the US and the coalition will not — keep the pressure on ISIS in their own backyard via precision air power. Additionally, considering it costs America way more to field similar expeditionary forces in the region over the long haul, reinforcing Jordan's fighter and ISR (information, surveillance, reconnaissance) fleet should be examined in the near term as well. There are plenty of used F-16s available and U.S. stocks of precision guided weapons are better off being used by Jordanian pilots protecting their own region than American ones sent there to do it for them.
In the end, information is a powerful and proven weapon in its own right and an uplifting montage showing Jordanian fighters taking the fight to the enemy in order to avenge their countryman should be a powerful weapon for the coalition. Yet, in this case, when you look closely, the reality is exactly what I predicted: issuing strong statements and putting fighter jets in the air does not equate to a solid strategy with a plausible endgame of defeating ISIS in mind, and King Abdullah knows this all too well. The evidence is in his hat-in-hand trip to Washington paired with the clips seen in this video depicting inadequate weaponry being used in inadequate volume against an asymmetric and powerful enemy.
Then again, the same can be said for the entire anti-ISIS operation as a whole. There have been endless soaring statements on the need to act decisively to defeat ISIS by many nations, and especially the U.S. and Britain, and there has been a lot of jet fuel burned in the process, but is there really a plausible strategy for victory, yet alone the resources available needed to realize it?
No, not by a long shot.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com