Is ISIS in Retreat?
John Prados is a senior fellow of the National Security Archive and a Washington, DC-based historian. His current book is Storm Over Leyte: The Philippine Invasion and the Destruction of the Japanese Navy(PenguinRandomHouse). Visit his website at johnprados.com.
Seven decades on, the last monthsof World War II in the Pacific still have lessons for international security, specifically for the horrid war with terrorists. In October 1944, as the Allies invaded the Philippine island of Leyte, the Imperial Japanese Navy sacrificed itself in a huge paroxysm of force, a last desperate roll of the dice, to try and wound the Allied enemy. Today, in eerie parallel, the militants of ISIS utilize tactics that could have been poured from the same mold as those of the world war. Studying the genesis of this tactical approach still has value today, not to mention implications for strategy.
That was a suicide tactic. At the same time the Japanese Naval Air Force innovated the kamikaze, where the airplane itself, not its bomb load, became the weapon. Needless to say, this was also a suicide weapon. Both the fleet and the kamikaze had their debuts at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944.
The Japanese enjoyed a modicum of success. More Allied ships were destroyed than in many months of combat. Equally important, the kamikaze tactic made the Allies vulnerable again, and helped restore Japanese fighting power. From then until the Pacific war ended in the summer of 1945, the Allies again incurred a steady stream of losses.
But there is a cycle of development, offense versus defense, in warfare. The Allies evolved to counter the kamikaze threat, refining the concept of fleet air defense. First they innovated the radar picket line, stationing destroyers in an outer ring, far removed from the core fleets, just to have their radars furnish early warning of kamikaze raids. Next they added even smaller vessels, landing ships or other auxiliaries, to advance the radar horizon that much further. Then the Allies began to have the radar pickets themselves control packets of interceptors, both to protect them and to weaken the larger raids en route to their aircraft carrier targets. These defensive tactics measurably reduced the dimensions of the kamikaze threat.
Meanwhile the success of the kamikaze tactic, from the Japanese perspective, perhaps obscured its strategic myopia. Because the kamikazes were suicide weapons, by definition they were one trick ponies, and each flight weakened the air force by one more aircraft. Equally problematic, many of these planes were trainer aircraft pressed into combat service. That also meant reducing Japan’s capacity to prepare new airmen for their crews. Thus each kamikaze attack reduced both Japan’s present and future strength. In strategic terms such tactics could only lead to the diminution of Japanese combat power.
Fast forward to ISIS and the Taliban in the war against terror. Again the tactics of desperation are evident. The insurgent enemies of American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have never been able to engage with superior strength. They have sometimes benefitted from advantageous terrain, and sometimes have had a rough balance, but could never match the adversary’s heavy equipment, tanks, artillery, airplanes, drones, and so on. Special counters have been the order of the day from almost the beginning. Improvised Explosive Devices, car bombs, and suicide bombers have made up for the difference in raw firepower. Excepting the IEDs (including car bombs rigged as IEDs), these tactics have the same defects as Japan’s kamikazes. The islamists did fashion one wrinkle the Imperial Navy could not match, however. They could pull back onto neutral territory (Syria, Pakistan) where coalition forces could not follow. Nevertheless, tactics borne of desperation could not yield victory—that became their strategic myopia.
Once the United States began to pull back from these wars the militants saw their chance. They might engage purely Iraqi or Afghan troops on more equal, or even superior terms. Indeed, movements built on suicide bombers might call upon determination greater than that of national police or line military units. Over the past couple of years that has seemed true, but the more success the Islamists have enjoyed, the more the United States and other outside powers have been drawn back into the hostilities. Meanwhile, coming out of sanctuaries, and needing to defend terrain, has made the militants less mobile and left them more exposed. Their losses of late—like the destruction of the Japanese surface fleet at Leyte Gulf—may indicate a caliphate on its last legs. At least we may hope so. The recent surge of car bombs in Baghdad, horrible and destructive as it is, is suggestive of an enemy again resorting to the tactics of desperation.