A lot is said on the campaign trail in the US, especially when it comes to military ventures overseas. In December 2015, Republican candidate Jeb Bush, determined to talk tough on the President and IS, argued that the administration’s bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria had become bogged down by bureaucracy. 75% of sorties, he claimed, were returning to base without having dropped a single bomb on the enemy – the product of an overly cautious desire to avoid civilian casualties.

“We only think in terms of our inherent advantage. We only think of it as, ‘We’re the most technologically advanced military in the world, so we must be able to defeat IS’.”

“Take the lawyers off the warfighters’ backs and let them go and do the job,” the now-defeated presidential candidate told George Stephanopoulos on This Week.

Bush’s comment was undoubtedly motivated by the rough-and-tumble politics of primary season, but there was some truth behind his statement. No offensive air campaign waged by the US has had as low an ordnance expenditure rate as Operation Inherent Resolve; no bombing campaign has been more cautious about collateral damage. Although at the time of writing, it’s estimated that 200 civilians have been killed by coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq since June 2014, US pilots have spent most of their time in the air, scoping out targets.

“Roughly one in every four flights winds up expending ordnance on to IS targets,” says Chris Harmer, a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “It’s well established that Operation Inherent Resolve has an extremely low take rate in terms of what percentage of the sorties flown actually expend ordinance on the enemy. It doesn’t get any smaller than this. Because of the extremely restrictive rules of engagement, we want to absolutely, at every level, minimise civilian casualties.”

Don’t drop the bombshell

US air campaigns weren’t always so low key. The Second World War, which ushered in the age of large-scale bombing campaigns against urban areas, saw almost 100% of Allied flights expend their ordnance for a simple reason: there were no qualms about killing civilians. If anything – as seen in the case of the RAF’s infamous firebombing of Dresden – it was encouraged; seen as an essential blow to the German populace’s morale. Major cities were bombed with total abandon and hundreds of thousands were killed as a result, and US bombing campaigns in Korea and Vietnam were conducted with a largely similar attitude.

But war has since changed, and with the advent of 24-hour news and military transparency, as well as more advanced technology, these numbers have dropped. The first Gulf War saw 90% of flights drop ordnances, yet the second, even at the height of “shock and awe” against Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard, saw 60–70% drop bombs on Baghdad.

Fast-forward to the past few years, and the rise of IS and the brutality of Syria’s Civil War has brought American firepower back to the region. But the war against IS isn’t as simple as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: the group thrives in highly populated areas, feeding off the bitterness of Sunni populations against their Shi’a-backed rulers.

“Their natural support zone is majority-Sunni populations that have been marginalised by the existing political structure,” says Harmer. “Take eastern Syria: these people were used and abused by the Assad regime for decades, so they were ripe to support anybody who could bring some sense of control and some semblance of authority. That’s where IS would thrive.

“It’s almost impossible to bomb IS inside Mosul, because they’re mixed in with the civilian population: unless you’re willing to kill ten civilians for every IS fighter, you just can’t do it.”

Exposing the enemy

It’s against this backdrop that knowing what’s happening on the ground in real time is more important than ever, and where effective ISR becomes an essential component of an effective strategy. Without boots on the ground, ISR becomes the only effective way to target IS fighters. But how to separate civilians from soldiers?

Sometimes, it’s easy – particularly when the enemy is on the offensive. When IS forces moved out of their stronghold to march on the Kurdish city of Kobani in September 2014, they left themselves wide open to airstrikes – and the reinforcement provided by the coalition has been credited with helping the Kurds repel the siege and regain critical ground.

“They’re driving their Jeeps and Humvees, and that’s an easy place to hit them because they’re exposed in open terrain,” says Harmer. “Now, you’ve got something approaching an observable, definable line.

“But that’s difficult to replicate. There are a couple of places in southern and central Iraq where we were able to do something similar, but from this point on, it just gets more difficult.”

Much of the difficulty the US and its allies face, Harmer argues, comes down to a major shortcoming in the American way of war: an overreliance on expensive technology. For most of recent history, the US has relied on superiority in hardware in war, and while this has generally meant success, it constrains the ways policymakers in Washington think about the war against IS.

“We only think in terms of our inherent advantage,” he says. “We only think of it as, ‘We’re the most technologically advanced military in the world, so we must be able to defeat IS’.” But it’s not that simple.

In the major strongholds of the organisation, isolating IS from the civilian population can be nearly impossible: all the ISR technology in the world can’t bring them out of hiding. They might be using technology that can be intercepted – mobile phones, are popular, for example, but while a voice-print can be analysed to identify the location of fighters, sooner or later, this tactic runs out of steam, and the enemy resorts to using runners with written messages to exchange information.

“In very short order, we’re going to be able to say, ‘There’s a cellphone being used at this coordinate that belongs to an IS commander,’” says Harmer. “But from 30,000ft, the best ISR in the world can’t tell if the child with a satchel is carrying a message for IS or if he’s the local bakery’s delivery boy.”

Capture human intelligence

In these types of combat situations, human intelligence – often neglected – becomes essential to finding out what’s happening on the ground, and the coalition has to build significant support within the local population if strikes are going to be effective. One model for how this human-intelligence-focused approach could work is the 2006–2008 surge in Iraq, wherein the US worked with the local Sunni leadership to push al-Qaeda out of Sunni strongholds in the west of the country. Through a combination of political and financial incentives, the tribal factions were convinced that the coalition was the side to support.

“We got enough human intelligence from the Sunni tribes of central and western Iraq to know when and where to hit al-Qaeda,” says Harmer. “We don’t have anything approaching that today. We’ve got to reconvince the Sunnis of Iraq and Syria that the US is a reliable partner for security, and we are dealing with a credibility deficit in that regard.”

There are other ways, however, that intelligence can be gathered about the locations of IS forces. The Syrian Civil War has been displayed as widely on social media as on our television screens, and every day a deluge of information about troop locations, bombing strikes and battles – not to mention propaganda and recruitment – is uploaded to sites like YouTube and Twitter. Citizen journalists are already taking advantage of the enormous amount of open-source information available to report on a war in which journalists on the ground face the threat of death from all sides. This is something the US could be exploiting to collect information about potential targets.

“It should be, but because it doesn’t come from a traditional technological advantage, the US military has a difficult time figuring out how to use it,” says Harmer. “It’s difficult for the military to say, ‘I want to use free information,’ when they’ve spent massive amounts of money developing highly classified information.”

The US and its allies

But the US is not fighting alone, and 20 countries are playing a role in the intervention against IS, whether through collaborative air strikes, humanitarian aid or hardware. While these countries don’t have the technological advantages that the US possesses, Harmer says “they’re more open-minded about there being different ways to solve these problems than just a dedicated, massive, high-tech infrastructure”.

“It’s difficult for the American military to flex out of its high quality, super expensive command and control ISR structure.”

The US’s allies with the best-developed human intelligence in the region are its partners in the GCC, which possess extensive networks in Iraq and Syria, and a regional stake in the conflict that their allies simply do not have. But getting them to contribute more fully to a reluctantly US-led war effort and getting the US to cede control from their current risk-averse attitude will require a major change in mindsets. With potentially years of further fighting until IS is defeated without it, they need to act fast.