Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Shot heard around the world: Daesh (Islamic State) downs first coalition warplane, pilot captured

It was a shot heard around the world.

Hours after Daeseh militants claimed they had shot down a Royal Jordanian Air Force warplane over the Syrian city of Raqqa, internet search engines were kept humming with fresh updates on the identity and life history of the captured pilot.

As the rest of the world waits to usher in Christmas, the captured Jordanian pilot, said to be First Lieutenant Moaz Youssef al-Kasabeh, faces a fate worse than death.

He has become the centrepiece of Daesh's info ops campaign, which is apparently maximising the propaganda value of his capture. Going by how Daesh has treated its prisoners, the end game for the first pilot in IS hands isn't likely to be pretty.

For newsrooms around the world, starved of diary events as the corporate world winds down for Christmas and the New Year, this development is likely to become a fixture on their bulletins tonight and in tomorrow's newspapers.

It has already gained traction in cyberspace, just hours after Daesh militants claimed they shot down the warplane - the canopy of the downed plane (above) indicates it is an F-16 -  with a MANPADS. Whether the single-engine jet fighter was brought down by enemy action, mechanical failure or pilot error, this event marked the first time a coalition warplane went down in Daesh territory.

So on the basis of news value alone, the "first" flagged for this event has caught the attention of newsrooms worldwide. And rightly so.

Add to this the dramatic pictures pumped into cyberspace from Raqqa, which apparently show al-Kasabeh soon after his capture and the riveting, made-for-TV story literally writes itself. It's just the thing that newsrooms need on a slow news day. This has helped Daesh corner world attention.

From what we can tell, Raqqa hasn't been bombed back into the Stone Age. And comms links with the outside world seem to work well enough for those images to be piped to the internet and thence to smart devices for a worldwide audience. Commonsense tells you that if those updates can get out from Raqqa, so can all sorts of other bulletins and instructions to sympathisers plugged into cyberspace.

If the account painted by Daesh can be verified, the downing of the jet after weeks after coalition airstrikes sends a clear and unmistakeable signal that IS has yet to be de-fanged. Indeed, the militants in the pictures hardly look on the brink of surrender nor malnourished due to the siege around their base.

Daesh has shown it can absorb intense punishment from the combined air armada put together by the Arab armies and western forces - including nuclear-armed states. The concentrated air power unleashed by coalition forces would have put some armed forces in our neighbourhood out of business. And yet Daesh continues to fight on with a tenacity that is noteworthy.

Armed forces who rely principally on air power as the linchpin of their deterrence strategy should take note of the speed and the effectiveness with which the opposing force's propaganda machinery cranks into action to exploit the PR value of captured airmen. Mind you, that value gains a multiplier in the event of captured airwomen.

Happy time: The Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot (first from left) said to have been shot down by Daesh waits in line to meet his King, and is seen on parade (below).

The importance of sanitising one's profile in cyberspace cannot be overemphasised. This episode once again highlights how social media accounts such as facebook will be mined for images and nuggets of information, to be tweeted and rebroadcast as fast as one can type.

Armed forces professionals may think nothing of such images during peacetime, but such images can easily be exploited to hurt one's loved ones or test the mettle of one's comrades when individuals are catapulted to media attention during a crisis. The question that begs asking is how one's armed forces can stand up to such theatrics when that moment comes unexpectedly.

In addition, the shoot down shows the disproportionate effect that setbacks - real or perceived - in an air campaign can have on the public psyche and world opinion.

The mental image of warplanes hitting hard with relative impunity, day and night with shock and awe, comes crashing down the moment the first pictures of a downed warplane start circulating in cyberspace. When captured pilots are paraded as war trophies, the limitations of air power as an instrument of war become stark, even unnerving. We saw this as long ago as Gulf War 1, when Royal Air Force Tornado pilots who were in the vanguard of coalition air strikes against Iraq were shown on Iraqi TV news, apparently battered and cowed into submission.

Now, we have a non-state actor whose playbook does not include long-term rehabilitation of POWs.

If past is prologue, we may have just seen a dead man walking.


Juan Carlo Hernandez said...

typo: "For newsrooms around the world, starved of ,dairy events as the corporate world winds down for Christmas and the New Year, this development is likely to become a fixture on their bulletins tonight and in tomorrow's newspapers."

earlyfalloutboy said...

Should we choose to contribute non-combat air power to operations against IS, the risk of loss will be substantially lower.

Yet the question ought to be, whether we should do so even if we have to accept the same odds that that other civilized nations already face, in the skies over Syria and in their own homelands.

My humble opinion is that we are a part of this fight. Contributing combat air power to those already fighting IS is not a matter of political alignment. In terms of combat air power, we are better resourced than many of our moral allies would like to be.

Indeed, for all its fearsome reputation, IS thrives only because free nations limit themselves to an air campaign and are not willing to commit the necessary forces to wipe them out on the ground. This may be beyond our ability, but we should do what we can.

David, do you agree?

Cyril said...

They will most likely not kill the captured pilot for the time being; may use him as bargaining chip for exchange something important to IS.

David Boey said...

@Juan Carlo Hernandez: Typo fixed. Many thanks :)