At the moment, it seems as though everything related to the expansive chaos enveloping the Middle East is contingent on air power and responses to it. Aerial combat has been a major factor in warfare for decades, but the wildly different strengths and vulnerabilities of the various factions fighting everywhere from Libya to Afghanistan has pushed airpower to the top of the agenda in fascinating new ways.
The Obama White House has apparently come to view tactical airstrikes as an important augmentation to old-fashioned arms shipments. The US might even regard airpower as a more sanitary alternative to shipping crates of ammunition and weapons to forces abroad.
Previous administrations from Reagan to Clinton have been fond of the occasional barrage of strategic airstrikes. However, flying tactical missions to help out embattled allies, on the ground rather than just shipping them weapons, like the US did in the Iran-Contra scandal, keeps those allies on a shorter leash, and can limit later blowback.
After the Kurdish peshmerga fell short of expectations and withdrew under assault from the Islamic State, airstrikes helped reverse the setback. The Kurds have been vocal in their thanks for the air support, and US airstrikes were lauded as being critical in helping Kurdish and Iraqi forces recapture the Mosul Dam from ISIS.
In fact, the effect of US aerial attacks has been widespread, even if its impact on the Islamic State's capabilities has been limited. The current level of air activity won't do much to stop or even really slow ISIS, which has begun to adapt to the aerial threat. Islamic State leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi has even reportedly scooted back to Syria, outside of the range of US airpower (for now, at least).
Naturally, the Islamic State would like to do a bit more to respond to US airpower than just hide. Navy jets are already taking small arms fire. But stopping a competent, modern air force is going to take a lot more than potshots from AK-47s. It means using some sort of surface-to-air missile (SAM) to either down jets or force them to operate less effectively.
Given the desire to shoot down US aircraft in Iraq, helicopters bombing rebels in Syria, and Israeli aircraft hitting Gaza, the demand for SAMs, especially the shoulder-launched variety known as MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems), must be exploding.
Major powers have become very reluctant to arm friendly rebel groups with MANPADS or other SAMs because they're such highly sought-after commodities. They fear that the weapons could end up in the hands of enemy forces.
The downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in July vividly illustrated how a loose surface-to-air capability can create a big mess. The attack on a civilian airliner was a tragedy in its own right, but it has had a huge political impact on the conduct of that conflict. No matter how much a country wants to help out allied partisans on the ground, nobody wants to become irrevocably mired in the ugly aftermath of a similar mess.
The kicker in this whole deal is Libya. Many countries buy arms for show rather than utility, and when they do, they sometimes end up with enormously lopsided stockpiles. In Libya's case, it means Qaddafi ended up buying enormous quantities of munitions. Once his government fell, those stockpiles were left completely unattended — except for the looting. So a whole mess of SAMs and MANPADs have gone missing, and nobody is entirely sure where they are. In fact, the US's ill-fated diplomatic mission in Benghazi was preoccupied, at least in part, with trying to find some of those looted MANPADs and get them off the market before they found their way into the hands of wrongdoers.
Angst about the missing missiles has been a persistent source of concern for watchers of the Middle East. When militants in the Sinai shot down an Egyptian military helicopter in January, observers were afraid that, instead of an isolated incident, it could be the proverbial surface-to-air canary in the coal mine.
Today there are still concerns about when and where those missiles will surface. Earlier this month, the Small Arms Survey, a Swiss research group, issued a report warning that there were at least eight models of MANPADs floating around Syria, including three that hadn't previously been seen outside of governmental control. This prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to almost immediately bar US commercial aircraft from flying over Syria, based on fears that an American civilian plane might prove too tempting a target.
But if the region is awash in MANPADs, why isn't ISIS using any to shoot down US combat aircraft? It's not clear what's keeping Islamic State militants from getting or using MANPADS, but they certainly haven't resigned themselves to being American targets.
In what might be one of the most gruesomely high-profile messaging campaigns in modern history, the Islamic State beheaded kidnapped Western journalist James Foley to demonstrate how very unhappy they were with US airstrikes. The remarks Foley delivers under duress and the statement from the militant that follows (note: this linkis to a transcript of the video, not the video itself) are focused heavily on airpower. The ominous threat to behead Steven Sotloff, another captured American journalist, if airstrikes continue hints at how effective the aerial campaign has been.
Warfare exists to serve political ends, and information warfare can augment or even supplant conventional violence by achieving the intended effect. Because its objective is to avoid being targeted, it probably doesn't make much practical difference to the Islamic State whether it eliminates the threat of US aircraft by using barbaric propaganda instead of weaponry.
However, this messaging by decapitation is unlikely to accomplish the Islamic State's aims. On the one hand, its decision to execute a journalist rather than another kind of prisoner shows a good understanding of media. The media will spend much more time covering something that happens to one of their own rather than more "ordinary" victims, like the 15 unfortunate Yemeni soldiers who were beheaded less than two weeks before Foley. On the other hand, their chosen medium of communication — high-definition decapitation — is so shocking that the medium has completely drowned out the threat itself.
One particularly ugly possibility is that the Islamic State might decide to go all-in on the idea that "repetition is the father of learning." A recent rash of kidnappings of Westerners in Syria, including the recent abduction of two Italians and a Japanese man, raises the ugly possibility that Islamic State militants are experimenting, trying to figure out if cutting off a head might prove as useful as firing a missile when it comes to responding to attacks from the skies.
Alternatively, the Islamic State might not be looking to use this particularly vile messaging tactic as a complete substitute for surface-to-air missiles. If their supply of missiles is limited, they might be saving them for a truly major push, like trying to take Baghdad. Previously, ISIS forces have been pretty systematic about preparing the battlefield in advance of a major assault. From infiltrating suicide bombers to setting ambushes and traps, they've proven patient enough to get everything in order before the big attack.
If it comes down to a big battle for Baghdad, the Iraqi air force (such as it is) will be fighting for their lives. Iran will probably be fighting the Islamic State and its allies with abandon. Pressure on the US and the West to support the Iraqi government could be too overwhelming to resist. In that scenario, the Islamic State could very well need all the missiles it can get.
In the meanwhile, the militants might have calculated that hostages are simply more expendable than missiles.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan