Is 150 a big number or a little number?

In his speech this week, President Obama said:

Last month, I ordered our military to take targeted action against ISIL to stop its advances. Since then, we have conducted more than 150 successful airstrikes in Iraq.

He made it sound like a big deal … and built on the point, saying that the air strikes would continue across a wider target area.  Possibly extending into Syria.

Picture from NATO web site

Of course, the comment got me thinking … are 150 airstrikes a lot or a little?

Works out to about 5 missions per day … which doesn’t strike me as up there with shock & awe.

But, I wanted to put 5-a-day in context and got some counsel  from a friend…


My friend reminded me of Bill Clinton’s NATO air campaign in Kosovo … circa. 1999

According to the NATO web site:

NATO launched an air campaign, Operation Allied Force, in March 1999 to halt the humanitarian catastrophe that was then unfolding in Kosovo.

During 78 days of air strikes,  more than 38,000 sorties – 10,484 of them strike sorties – were flown without a single Allied fatality.

After first targeting the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’s air defenses, NATO gradually escalated the campaign using the most advanced, precision-guided systems and avoiding civilian casualties to the greatest extent possible.

Target selection was reviewed at multiple levels of command to ensure that it complied with international law, was militarily justified, and minimized the risk to civilian lives and property.

Let’s do the math: 10,484 “strike sorties” in 78 days equates to about 135 strike missions per day … about 5 per hour if flying round-the-clock …  a strike flight about every 10 or 15 minutes.

Bottom line: Using Kosovo as a “base rate”, the President has to increase the mission intensity by a factor of about 24 to “degrade and destroy” from the air.

That sounds doable, doesn’t it?

P.S.  I especially like the part about “not a single allied fatality”.


Side point: Obama missed a rhetorical opportunity by referencing the questionable successes in Yeman and Somolia instead of flashing back to a clear success Kosovo.

He could have presented a credible analogical case of an air-only campaign working …  and could have basked in Bill Clinton’s popularity halo.


More data: : In the first 145 days since taking over operations, NATO has flown 19,877 flight missions over Libya,  including 7,505 strike sorties.

That works out to more than 50 strike missions per day …  flying 24 hours / day, that’s about 2 strike mission every hour, around the clock.


Thanks to AL for feeding the analogy and data source


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2 Responses to “Is 150 a big number or a little number?”

  1. John Says:

    I had to think about this for a while prior to posting. Let me get this straight. Is the point that Obama’s response to ISIL/ISIS is not appropriate? Sortie numbers is a poor judge of that. I can find lots of other comparisons that make Kosovo look puny…let’s say WWII… or even Bush (squared) incursions into Iraq. How is any comparison like that that relevant? These are separate war theaters with different enemies and completely different agendas.
    The real question… is the military effort inappropriate for the warfare goals? In this case I propose that Obama’s response is entirely appropriate. He is keeping the US as far as possible from a completely un-winnable local conflict with a hundred (or more) year history of strife among many different factions none of whom have even the slightest positive opinion of the US or US ideals.
    So his response is designed to get a dam back for the closest thing we have as a friend (Kurds) and assuage the media hysteria about a few independent media types who got killed for being someplace they should not have been in the first place.
    So far, seems to be working. Unlike the Bush era I am not worried that Obama will commit our armed forces into a unending civil war or launch my soldier nephews into a morass of death and extremism that can have no possible outcome favorable to the US.
    Mission Accomplished.

  2. Andrew L. Says:

    John: I think that you raise a few good points (though with a few cheap shots). The policy, it appears now, is that we are going to “do something” about ISIL. Since they are a non-state actor, we can’t sanction them. We cannot damage their economy. They have no concern about their citizens. So, if you want to do something, you have to do it with military power.

    If you aren’t going to do it on the ground – and it looks like right now we aren’t – that means air or water. And unless we have flotillas on Therthar or Hadithah lakes, that leaves you with air (including Naval assets for those of you who want to get smart).

    So then you have to ask, can just an air war defeat an enemy? And the answer is yes. We’ve done that once before. Just once though. Kosovo.

    And the lesson from Kosovo is that you can defeat an enemy with just an air campaign, but you have to drop a lot of ordinance to do it. How much? We don’t know. The Joint Staff guy who’s job that is doesn’t have time to blog right now.

    Reasonable to say, however, that defeating at least 31,000, and maybe as many as 80,000, psychopaths armed with M1A1/T-72 tanks, SA-6/SA-7/Stinger missiles, and 155MM medium artillery and occupying several hundred thousand square miles is going to take more than FIVE MISSIONS A DAY.

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