Tad Oelstrom on the U.S. Airstrikes in Iraq

August 8, 2014
By Jenny Li Fowler

American warplanes launched a series of airstrikes today (August 8) against Islamic militants in northern Iraq. Tad Oelstrom, adjunct lecturer in public policy and U.S. Air Force (retired), shares his perspectives on the strategic and military tactics behind this operation.

Q: What is the U.S. trying to achieve through the use of airstrikes?

Oelstrom: On the surface, the U.S. inferred objectives are humanitarian – with a focus on protecting a religious group called the Yazidis; to protect U.S. citizens and forces, there are currently 40 U.S. troops reported in Irbil; and to respond to the government of Iraq’s request for help.

Q: What resources are being deployed in this operation?

Oelstrom: Employed will be a large array of intelligence resources used to find, fix, and target enemy assets; weapons and ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) platforms in the form of tactical and strategic aircraft that are directly linked to the intelligence sources and the command and control elements; U.S. Air Force airlift assets to provide humanitarian aid to the isolated religious group; and a robust capability of air-to-air refueling and special operations assets.

Q: How long do you foresee this operation to last?

Oelstrom: Until clearer objectives are laid out, it is impossible to forecast the length of the operation. With the inferred goals mentioned in my answer to the first question, the potential length could be months.

Q: Could these airstrikes prove to be a 'game changer' in Iraq?

Oelstrom: Define ‘game changer.’ Use of airstrikes has potential to impact—both negatively and positively—the ground situation, security and humanitarian concerns, and geopolitics. These strikes will not solve the complex issues in the region, but may—at this point—help to save lives and provide time to initiate and consummate longer term solutions.

Q: Have similar air strikes served American interests in the past?

Oelstrom: As short term actions to save lives and create space to implement more lasting solutions, the answer is yes. The question must be broadened to include service to the interests of allies and the contribution to global security. Intervention into the situation near Irbil, Iraq today should be considered a ‘thumb in the dike’ to an unbelievably complex array of security issues in the region. Air strikes are merely one tool available to decision makers—and should be considered as part of a more broadly based set of military and diplomatic actions.

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Tad Oelstrom, adjunct lecturer in public policy

Tad Oelstrom, adjunct lecturer in public policy

Photo Credit: Harvard Gazette

"Until clearer objectives are laid out, it is impossible to forecast the length of the operation."