Editor’s Note: Reed Foster is the Head of Military Capabilities Analysis Team at IHS Jane’s in London. The views expressed in this commentary are solely the author’s.
A year after Mosul fell to ISIS, Iraq's PM has appealed for more access to weapons
But Reed Foster says the militants advance using light weaponry and mobile fighters
The weapons requested are unlikely to shift the balance in the fight against ISIS, Foster says
With the approaching anniversary of the dramatic fall of Mosul to ISIS last year, coalition ministers recently gathered in Paris to discuss how to stem and reverse the growing blight of the group, specifically within Iraq’s borders.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi made an appeal for access to a greater volume of weapons to counter the group’s advances.
Nearly a year after ISIS’ parades of U.S.-made heavy military equipment showcased significant gains in materiel and military equipment, to what degree has this advanced weaponry enabled the group to expand its presence within Syria and Iraq?
Analysis from the IHS Jane’s Military Capabilities team indicates that ISIS’ continued expansion cannot be attributed to its seizure of heavy military armaments, but rather its astute employment of relatively low-tech equipment – operated in conjunction with highly-effective tactics.
Once heavy armaments seized from sacked Iraqi garrison were observed being employed or transported by ISIS, coalition aircraft made it a priority to engage and destroy such hardware.
The ease by which this equipment can be identified and struck – coupled with the amount of training, maintenance and spares required to operate it effectively – has meant tanks and artillery have been largely absent from the battlefields of Iraq and Syria.
However, as ISIS’ continued military gains in the region have illustrated, not only is the deployment of heavy weaponry simply impractical, it is also unnecessary to achieve the group’s tactical objectives.
Mobile, motivated fighters
Cities and military bases have not fallen to ISIS through its deployment of ex-Soviet tanks and iconic U.S.-made Humvees. More commonly, ISIS has advanced by launching coordinated IED attacks – sometimes utilizing those very Humvees as vehicle-borne IEDs – before assaults by highly mobile and motivated fighters equipped with a variety of small arms and light weapons. And so it proved nearly a year after the fall of Mosul, when a well-coordinated assault by ISIS fighters ended a protracted fight for Ramadi.
The employment of speed, mobility and violence proved to be as effective against Iraqi state forces in that city in May as it was in Mosul a year prior. By using its own brand of “shock and awe,” ISIS has been able to been able to deploy vehicle-borne IEDs and relatively small, well-coordinated groups of highly motivated and relatively lightly-equipped fighters to exploit the inherent shortcomings of the larger Iraqi Security Forces.
In many ways ISIS has achieved more with light pickup trucks, explosives and mobile phones than its better equipped and organized state-based opponents. Speed and concentration of force has been a tactic utilized successfully throughout the history of warfare and is unlikely to be much-altered by ISIS if it can continue achieve success through such means.
However, the speed and mobility that ISIS has displayed thus far has suited the largely offensive nature of its operations, through which it has made its most spectacular gains.
ISIS has largely avoided protracted defensive engagements that obviate mobility and allow for heavier state-based weapons to be brought to bear. Although Iraqi state operations to liberate Tikrit were ultimately successful, it is not believed that ISIS invested significantly in the city’s defense. It is perhaps too early to tell how effective the group may be in the defense of urban areas in Anbar or Mosul.
The danger is that the capacity-building and equipping of the Iraqi Army by international partners may not be sufficient to outpace the rate at which ISIS consolidates its gains. Although the U.S.-trained Iraqi Special Forces are considered to be capable, their numbers are too few to provide both offensive and defensive capacity for the state, and their numbers cannot be quickly or easily replenished.
The rank-and-file of the Iraqi army remains largely untested and has been found wanting in areas now controlled by ISIS. The country possesses significant amounts of protected mobility, armor and the assistance of coalition air power but these elements can only be used effectively with close coordination and adequate training.
Ultimately, the weapons and equipment that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi seeks are unlikely to shift the balance in the fight against ISIS – nor will ISIS likely oblige the Iraqi State in allowing it the time to increase its tactical quality or technical proficiency.
ISIS can be defeated militarily, but vanquishing the group will likely fall to similarly equipped and motivated forces of the Shia militia. These militia are increasingly being depended upon to conduct not only localized defensive operations within Shia-populated areas, but also to support – and increasingly supplant – the Iraqi Security Forces offensively.
However, even if the Shia militias prove to be the decisive factor in the fight against ISIS, the victory may well hold unforeseen consequences for the country.
A future Iraqi state where the militias emerge as the dominant military force is unlikely to remain free of strife. The nearly inevitable conflict following in the wake of victory will presumably culminate with the fracturing of the country along ethnic fault lines.