Land Power and the Islamic State Crisis


‘The airstrikes at the moment are a holding operation… Nobody has pretended the battle against Isil can be won from the air alone.’ These comments, made last week by Philip Hammond, the British Defence Secretary, speak to two essential truths in war: first, land power, ‘the ability to exert influence on or from the land’, remains a vital instrument; second, land power is still generated principally through the efforts of ground forces.

Land power matters because people live on land, and, because human political communities are territorially defined; taking territory, or threatening credibly to do so, remains a central component of warfare. This point was expressed eloquently by the maritime strategist Sir Julian Corbett, who noted that ‘Since men live upon land and not upon the sea, great issues between nations at war have always been decided – except in the rarest of cases – either by what your army can do against your enemy’s territory and national life, or else by what fear of what the fleet makes it possible for your army to do.’

As I argued in my recent book, Understanding Land Warfare, ground forces are still the crucial foundation of land power because they enable a persistent presence to be exerted over land. Airpower can exert a measure of negative control: it can deny a piece of territory to an opponent for a period of time; but it cannot hold it. This is partly because airpower is impermanent: air platforms cannot remain over their targets indefinitely. But it is also because there are a range of measures open to land forces to mitigate the effects of airpower: dispersal; camouflage; moving at night or in bad weather; deploying close to enemy forces or amongst, or in close proximity to, civilians; investing in man-portable air defences to raise the risk of air attack and force enemy aircraft into measures that will reduce accuracy, such as attacking from a higher altitude.  For these reasons, General Norman Schwartzkopf has noted that ‘There is not a military commander in the entire world who would claim he had taken an objective by flying over it.’

None of this is to argue that land forces are sufficient on their own: the exercise of land power will rarely require only ground forces. But land forces remain central. The combination of the political significance of land, and the persistence of land forces allows the exertion of control, especially over people. Control of ground is thus not just about denying it to the enemy: it provides the foundation for interacting with the local population: it provides the basis for the most comprehensive means of influencing and protecting local people. Land power has, therefore, the power of decision. As Admiral J.C. Wylie has commented: ‘The ultimate determinant in war is the man on the scene with the gun. This man is the final power in war. He is control.’

But if the Islamic State crisis highlights the inherent strengths of land power it also draws attention to the contextual difficulties associated with its exercise. Land power is central to Islamic State’s success; in consequence, if we wish to defeat them comprehensively, we will require overmatching land forces. That means, as Britain’s previous Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, argues, ‘You either have to put your own boots on the ground at some point, or else you have to very energetically and aggressively train up those who will do that with us and for us.’ And why not put Western land forces into the fray, given that President Obama has been clear about the advantages possessed by the US, reflected in his confidence that ‘we can rout ISIS on the ground’?

The difficulty for policy makers is that the instrumental advantages of land power are inextricably linked to a range of challenges that arise from the same origins. The point that territory is so important politically means that putting boots on the ground often has the largest political footprint: whilst this may often be a desirable signal of commitment, it may also be, as is the case in Syria and Iraq, an undesirable political escalation or a domestic political impossibility. Moreover, interaction with the local population may provide the foundation for influencing them; but it also makes ground forces vulnerable. Constant interaction between land forces and those that live and/or fight in the territory into which they are deployed multiplies the potential for casualties, friction, and for political controversies of a legal, moral and ethical nature. Thus, the exercise of land power has high potential costs: high physical costs because of the often great risks to the deployed military forces; and high political costs because of the domestic and international controversies that can follow.

At the same time, even if we could defeat Islamic State on the ground, land power remains only a means to an end. Unless strategy and policy provide appropriate goals and effective methods of employment, land power will remain a blunt instrument. As the contemporary strategist Colin S. Gray argues: ‘To be good at fighting is important, but rarely sufficient.’ Yet we are still struggling in the context of the nightmarish complexity of the crises in Iraq and Syria to formulate a workable set of strategies and goals. In such circumstances, even tactical military success will fail to deliver the desired political outcomes. Because of this, winning on the ground would provide no guarantee that Western governments in the long run would obtain what they wanted politically.

In the end, then, the dilemma facing policy-makers in the fight to stop Islamic State lies is the fact that land power might have the intrinsic power of decision in war; but there is nothing intrinsic to land power that guarantees a decision in our favour.

(The points contained here are developed further in Understanding Land Warfare (London: Routledge, 2014))

Image: Royal Marines of X-Ray Company, 45 Commando during a ground domination patrol in Afghanistan in 2009. Courtesy

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