When President Bush reversed his immediate reaction to Iraq’s August 2, 1990 invasion of Kuwait (he had originally ruled out any use of force), the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, was only the most senior of the military officers and defense officials who opposed sending U.S. troops into Saudi Arabia. In part their objection was “political” (or at least it was dismissed as such by Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney): they argued that the Saudi ruling family would not fatally compromise its Islamic legitimacy by openly helping infidels against fellow Muslims—and that even if the Saudis were reckless enough to do so, the United States should not become the instrument of their demise. But there was also a purely military objection: bitter memories of Lebanon and Vietnam induced a powerful reluctance to expose badly outnumbered U.S. troops to uncertain hazards for unspecified purposes. For there was no intention as yet to mount a full-scale expedition, and still less to dislodge the Iraqis from Kuwait.
The alternative offered by Powell and those who sided with him was to rely on air power alone, whether to protect Saudi Arabia by threatening punitive bombardment, or eventually to force Iraq’s withdrawal by the same means, very likely in the context of negotiations.
Even when the President overruled Powell and ordered the U.S. Central Command to start Desert Shield on August 6, 1990 with the airlift of the 82nd Airborne division and other light forces, and the transfer of Marine Corps prepositioned ships from Diego Garcia to Saudi ports, this was still then regarded as a largely symbolic gesture. Insofar as any sort of combat was considered at all, only air bombardment was envisaged by the original “Instant Thunder” plan, whose very name represented the rejection of Vietnam-era gradualism. For instead of attacking peripheral targets mostly of modest importance, as in President Johnson’s “Rolling Thunder” bombing campaign of 1965-68, Instant Thunder called for the concentrated precision bombing of the most important sites in Baghdad from the very start of a war.
In broad outline, the plan amounted to a self-sufficient air offensive in three phases. The first and shortest was intended to win air superiority over the whole of Iraq and Kuwait by the systematic attack on the main Iraqi radar and air-defense command centers, the runways of the civil and military airfields where Iraqi military aircraft were already dispersed, and some of the major antiaircraft missile batteries.
In addition to these typical “defense-suppression” targets, the first phase also included the most urgent strategic targets, notably the major military and regime headquarters with their communications, mostly in Baghdad. Targeted too were the fixed launchers and known storage sites of Iraqi Scud missiles and biological and chemical weapons, in order to diminish the then much-feared threat of chemical attacks against Israeli and Saudi cities as well as U.S. ports of entry.
The second phase was to focus the air attack against Iraq’s entire military infrastructure, starting with ammunition dumps, oil refineries, petroleum-product tank farms, and the major depots for weapons of all kinds. Success in attacking those “military-support” targets would henceforth limit Iraqi military units to the fuel and ammunition they already held in their forward areas, enough for only 72 hours or so of intense operations. The larger effort of this second phase, however, was to be the bombing of Iraq’s entire military-industrial base—the weapon-assembly lines, the factories and repair workshops, and the laboratories and plants where chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons were being developed or actually produced. In addition, Iraq’s civil infrastructure was also to be incapacitated by precision attacks on electrical-power plants, radio and TV stations, telephone exchanges, water-treatment plants, etc.
The third phase, starting in the second week of the air offensive, was to focus on Iraq’s main strength, its ground forces, with air strikes against the railway and road bridges between Baghdad and Kuwait, the area-bombing of Republican Guard and other selected Iraqi ground forces, and precision attacks against naval vessels and Iraqi aircraft in and out of their shelters, among other such “high-value” targets.
In the event, by the time the war began there were more U.S. and allied aircraft on hand than had originally been anticipated, so that the three phases were greatly compressed. Still, Instant Thunder was to remain the essence of the war plan that was actually carried out.
The logic of relying on long-range air power against an enemy whose only strength lay in short-range ground fire now seems self-evident. Yet between August 1990 and the outbreak of war on January 16, 1991, as the Desert Shield deployment evolved by stages into a full-scale expeditionary effort of Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force units, there was intense debate in and out of the Pentagon about the value of bombardment alone against Iraq. Many insisted that it could not achieve very much.
The reason was that 70 years of overpromising by air-power advocates from the 1920’s onward had left a deep residue of distrust in Washington’s military culture. Because bombardment was thought to have failed in Indochina, because it was not considered to have been “decisive” in the Korean War, or in World War II before it, many believed that it could not defeat Iraq, either. Indeed, those who called for a reliance on bombardment rather than a prompt ground war were dismissed as (in the words of a New York Times editorial) “air-power fanatics.”
Moreover, in the debate that began in August 1990 there was a widespread tendency to apply negative judgments of the value of bombardment drawn from the unfavorable tropical setting and (mostly) guerrilla combat of Indochina to the desert setting of an entirely conventional war with Iraq. Yet in the Middle East, bombardment had always been much more successful than in the tropics with their all-concealing vegetation. As early as 1916, the German squadron based in Palestine that supported the Ottoman army kept the Arab rebels on the run and the British army of Egypt on the defensive, and then in turn Allenby’s airmen were decisive in 1918 in the conquest of Palestine. Later, air power was clearly decisive in both the North African campaigns from 1941 to 1943, and in the Arab-Israeli wars from 1956 onward.
There was a parallel failure to recognize the new quality of bombardment brought about by “stealth,” by the systematic attack on air defenses, and by precision bombing. But this failure was far more understandable because it was by no means self-evident that each would actually work in combat as advertised, and that their combination would turn out to be so exceedingly powerful. Just how powerful can be grasped by a comparison between World War II and Desert Storm.
After years of bombing, much of Berlin was in ruins by January 1945, but Goebbels could still broadcast nationwide, Hitler could still freely send out orders and receive reports from all fronts by radio and teleprinter, the German army could still supply and move its forces by rail, the Luftwaffe could still challenge Allied bombers, and Berlin’s population at large still had electricity, telephone service, water, and adequate supplies of all basic necessities.
By contrast, after less than 48 hours of bombing in January 1991, Baghdad was still largely intact—as it remained throughout the war (CNN showed a few of the 50-odd destroyed buildings, again and again)—but Saddam Hussein could no longer broadcast on television or nationwide AM radio, all major military headquarters were wrecked, military telecommunications no longer worked, Iraqi air defenses were largely incapacitated, and in Baghdad the population at large was deprived of electricity, telephone service, and piped water.
During the next few weeks, the Iraqi army was cut off from food, fuel, and ammunition resupply by the destruction of rail and road bridges; more and more Iraqi tanks, artillery pieces, aircraft in and out of shelters, and naval vessels were destroyed by direct hits from guided weapons; and any forces that moved out of their dug-in positions were quickly detected and attacked, so that the Iraqi army in and out of Kuwait was almost entirely immobilized.
Again, the six years of bombing in World War II killed many Germans and ruined many German towns and cities without defeating Nazi Germany. In Desert Storm the opposite happened: a few weeks of bombing hardly damaged Iraqi towns and cities but totally defeated Iraq’s military power. The result was that the final ground offensive of Desert Storm was not offensive at all but rather an almost unopposed advance. Heavily protected American M-l tanks got through unscathed, but so did lightly armored troop carriers, and so did the jeeps of the French Foreign Legion, and the rented cars of adventurous journalists. Air power had finally done it.
But not through the sheer tonnage of bombs dropped. Contrary to the impression left by the briefings with their daily “total sortie” counts of 2,000 and more—counts which conflated transport, refueling, defensive-patrol, reconnaissance, and escort flights with the minority of actual strike sorties—the weight of bombs dropped in Desert Storm, roughly 85,000 tons, was by no means huge: in March 1945 alone the American and British air forces dropped 134,000 tons on Germany. In any case, it was the roughly 8,000 tons of precision weapons that made all the difference, rather than the 177,999 plain bombs which accounted for 90 percent of the tonnage dropped on Iraq and Kuwait and which were no more effective than the bombs of previous wars. In short, what was decisive about Desert Storm was not the quantity but the quality of its bombing campaign.
There is obviously much to be learned from Desert Storm, but any attempt to define the “lessons” of the air war is just as obviously premature. Even the plain facts remain to be sorted out, with much study still needed just to reconstruct what happened, let alone extract lessons properly isolated from the many peculiarities of the war. But some highly preliminary observations may be in order.
First, the international context was crucial not merely in a broad diplomatic sense but also specifically in regard to the air war. Because Iraq was diplomatically isolated before it was attacked, the bombardment went unchallenged by any third-party intervention. In the past, for example, we might have witnessed a Soviet airlift of the latest and best air-defense equipment, possibly complete with crews. Regardless of the technical effectiveness of such help, the airlift itself could have inhibited the air attack.
Second, the situational limits of air power must not be overlooked in celebrating its signal achievement in Desert Storm. The value of bombardment depends on the strategic value of the targets it can actually destroy, and the less a war is conventional, the fewer are the stable and easily identifiable targets of high value. Against elusive guerrillas who present no stable targets at all of any value (as in Vietnam), bombardment remains of little use even if it is perfectly accurate.
In lesser degree, the geographic setting is also significant. In spite of the extreme accuracy of the latest navigation techniques, even in Desert Storm bad weather with dense clouds and low ceilings was sufficient to restrict air operations for days at a time. Against moving targets that had to be spotted with the naked eye to be attacked at all, and most famously the mobile Scud launchers, the effect of bad weather was very direct. In the days when the felt urgency of striking at Scud launchers was at its height, on D+13 (January 30) only three sorties were flown to look for Scuds, on D+14 only one sortie could be flown, rising to a mere nine on D+15, with none at all on D+16.
As it happens, the reduced pace of air operations caused by bad weather merely delayed but did not change the outcome, because the Iraqis were unable or unwilling to take advantage of the respite to carry out ground attacks of their own. Against a more aggressive enemy, however, the consequences might have been severe. Clearly, this factor must be taken into account in applying any lessons of the war to other possible wars that might unfold in less favorable geographic settings, against more active opponents.
Third, strategic thought has become more important than ever in planning an air campaign. In the past, when bombing was a hit-or-miss affair, it did not help much to select exactly the right targets, and assign exactly the right priorities to them—the chances were that they would not be hit anyway, and certainly not in any specific sequence. From now on, by contrast, air strategy will be made up of exactly such choices.
For even in a most uneven encounter, the planner of a bombing campaign must contend with scarcity—he cannot attack all possible targets immediately and concurrently. Some targets, notably those required for defense suppression, automatically warrant the highest priority. Others, notably urban areas as such, may easily be dismissed as useless or even counterproductive. It is among the myriad possible targets in between that the planner must select what to bomb and in what sequence, according to his best estimate of the vulnerabilities of the enemy, and especially of the enemy’s own strategy (the highest form of warfare is to attack the enemy’s intended course of action rather than his forces, or his country).
Science is everywhere applied in air warfare but no scientific theory can guide the choice of targets, on which the strategic success of bombardment entirely depends. There is no other recourse but to study as broadly as possible the country, its political leadership, all that is known of its current goals in the conflict at hand, the peculiar strengths and weaknesses of its armed forces and their presumed military modus operandi, down to the tactical level.
The aim is to construct an “anatomical chart” that identifies the key links and organs of the enemy-in-action. The goal is to defeat him by attacking his brain and nervous system (i.e., his command and communications) rather than his digestive system (his supply); or the latter rather than his muscles (his field forces); or the latter rather than his body as a whole (by the area bombing of cities, industrial zones, etc.). Just such an exercise was conducted by the planners of Instant Thunder, who selected their priority lists from a mass of potentially significant targets to formulate the bombing plan.
Technology, if not science, does help in the more detailed analysis of vulnerability. Now that bombs can be guided down the air shafts of aircraft bunkers and onto a specific spot on a large bridge, the expertise of structural engineers and a host of other such specialists has become correspondingly important in planning an air campaign. A pontoon bridge that loses one of its middle segments is soon repaired, but if cut from its moorings to float downstream it will have to be replaced. Likewise, different types of buildings in Baghdad called for radically different forms of attack (and critics of modern architecture will be reinforced in their beliefs by the prompt collapse of the most modern high-rise buildings). Actually this sort of engineering-in-reverse was highly developed by the end of World War II but it became a lost art with the advent of nuclear weapons, when strategic bombing was equated with wholesale destruction. Now it is back again.
Naturally the tactical and operational discoveries of the war were more dramatic, though also not easy to interpret safely. Desert Storm began with the world’s second coordinated “defense-suppression” campaign, the first being the much smaller and much faster Israeli annihilation of the Syrian air defenses in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley during the 1982 war. That, and the use of “stealth” aircraft to bomb the best-defended targets in and around Baghdad, had two results, one very obvious, and the other rather subtle. The first was that losses were exceedingly small, with a grand total of only 39 aircraft lost in combat by the entire coalition. That collective rate was minuscule (0.05 percent of the force), but it was still substantially higher than the yet smaller loss rate of the U.S. Air Force (0.034 percent), even though it was the latter that attacked the deepest and presumptively best-defended targets.
The more subtle yet actually more valuable benefit of stealth was that it allowed the reconquest of the middle altitudes, from where aircraft can bomb most effectively. Instead of being forced by air defenses to fly too high—or too low and too fast—to see anything, let alone aim their weapons carefully, the American F-117s could fly at moderate speeds and at the heights best suited to identify their targets and then launch weapons against them with all due deliberation, still being overhead to observe and film the immediate results, not only for television viewers around the world but also for the planners of their next attack.
By contrast, the ultra-low altitude, very highspeed bombing tactics cultivated over the years by the British Royal Air Force to circumvent Soviet missile air defenses were wrong for Iraq, whose missile defenses were disrupted from the start, but where an abundance of anti-aircraft guns made the lowest altitudes quite dangerous. The British in fact lost one-sixth of their Tornado force in six days. Moreover, in all circumstances their tactics turned aircraft into blind and unresponsive missiles, which could not usefully employ the most reliable and most economical of current precision weapons, the laser-guided bombs that glide down to their targets. Similarly, the high-altitude flight of U.S. B52s was also incompatible with the effective use of the most widely available precision weapons, allowing in practice only “area” bombing of doubtful value.
For of course the greatest discovery of the Iraq air war was that virtually all bombing should nowadays be precision bombing. It was even found that ground forces themselves are best attacked by individual precision strikes against their major weapons, tanks, artillery pieces, and so on.
Another key discovery was that stealth aircraft, though expensive, can be very economical. The paradox has a simple explanation: to avoid losses, non-stealth bombing aircraft must now be escorted by fighters flying top cover against enemy fighters; by more fighters armed with radiation-homing missiles to attack enemy radars; by electronic jamming aircraft; and by tankers for the lot of them. During the first two weeks of the Iraq air war, such supporting aircraft routinely outnumbered the aircraft that actually bombed. But stealth aircraft needed no protective escorts, so that their unit cost was also their total cost.
So, too, the cheapest of all precision air weapons, the laser-guided bombs that cost $9,000 to $15,000, also turned out to be the best. Next in value were the air-launched missiles that cost ten times as much or more. Finally, the cruise missiles, much celebrated in the press and costing more than a million dollars each, were the least useful. A very great help during the first hours, when they could be launched without risking a pilot against the then-unknown dangers of Iraq, they simply could not compete against cheaper weapons when these too could be used with impunity.
Because each reality of war exists concurrently at so many different levels, only tentative conclusions are possible about what happened and why, let alone what might happen in the future if the same methods and weapons were to be employed again, in another part of the world, against a different enemy. But at least it may be said that after 70 years the old promises of “Victory Through Air Power” were finally redeemed in 1991 in the skies of Iraq.