The Seductive Charms of Air Power


Initial hopes that the war against Iraq would be relatively short and cheap, courtesy of overwhelming U.S. and allied air power, evaporated within days of its beginning. Notwithstanding spectacular gun-camera videos and early claims to the virtual destruction of Saddam Hussein's command-and-control system and his nuclear- and chemical-weapons facilities, the tone of official briefings became decidedly more sober and cautionary by the war's second week.

Iraq's economy and military machine are exceptionally vulnerable American air power. And Kuwait is neither Vietnam, with its mangrove swamps and triple-canopied jungles, nor Korea, with its roadless and frozen mountain fastnesses. The flat and open country offers few natural places to hide.

Nor do we confront in the Persian Gulf materially austere and tactically elusive Asian foot infantry enjoying significant access to arms and supplies from abroad. Militarily blockaded Iraq has a powerful but logistically ponderous and largely road-bound conventional army that provides a far more "target-rich environment" than communist forces in Korea and Vietnam ever did.

Moreover, by all accounts, the present air campaign against Iraq is the most efficiently organized and executed in the history of air power. The combination of thorough planning, unparalleled target intelligence information, superb guided weapons and five months of intensive on-the-spot pre-hostilities has yielded quick attainment of widespread air superiority as well as the destruction of many key targets inside both Iraq and Kuwait.

More important, U.S. and allied air forces operate with a single, integrated campaign plan. U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine aviation have been placed under a single commander. (In Vietnam, these three services, along with the Air Force's Strategic Air Command, conducted what in effect were four separate air wars in Indochina.) Nor are air commanders hamstrung, as in Vietnam, by constant White House meddling in tactics and target selection.

During the campaign's first week U.S. and allied planes flew more than 12,000 combat sorties, losing only 14 aircraft to enemy fire. This translates into a loss rate of .0012 percent, or one plane downed for every 857 sorties flown. Compare this loss rate to the 2.5 percent and 5 percent, respectively, for British and German air forces during the 1940 Battle of Britain; .2 percent for U.S. aircraft during the Korea War; and 2 percent for U.S. B-52 bombers during the 11-day Linebacker 2 campaign against Hanoi and Haiphong in 1972.

Many observers conclude that the war against Iraq can be won by air power alone, or at least without any major, prolonged and bloody offensive on the ground. Just before Desert Storm was launched, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, declared that a war with Iraq would last no more than five days.

These judgments betray an ignorance of air power's history as well as an underestimation of the resilience and determination of Iraq's leadership.

If, as it has become fashionable to say, Saddam Hussein is a Hitler, the Nazi regime proved remarkably durable when subjected to the greatest air campaign ever mounted. The Anglo-American bombing offensive lasted three years and entailed 1.5 million bomber sorties and 2.7 million fighter sorties, but Hitler did not throw in the towel until Soviet ground forces were practically on top of his Berlin bunker.

And though imperial Japan by the end of 1944 had become as militarily isolated as Iraq is now, it took almost eight months of round-the-clock bombing and two atomic bombs to compel Tokyo's surrender. Air power has never won a war by itself.

Three aspects of the current air campaign also deserve mention. First, early U.S. achievement of air superiority was the result in part of Iraq's refusal to challenge American air power head-on. Mr. Hussein has kept most of his air force out of harm's way: An estimated 80 percent of Iraqi combat aircraft have been deployed northward, placed in concrete shelters, or dispersed in remote areas along the country's highways, and 100 or so planes appear to have decamped to Iran.

Second, weather has adversely affected air operations, as it did in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Fog and cloud cover have slowed the pace of operations and retarded timely damage assessment.

Third, much of the U.S. air effort has been diverted to destroying the launch sites of Iraq's seemingly endless supply of Scud missiles, which, while capable of frightening civilian populations, have virtually no military significance.

More important, Saddam Hussein is no tin-pot dictator, and his ++ country is no banana republic. Iraq is an efficient and ruthless totalitarian state. As the post-World War II U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey concluded, in attempting to account for Germany's stamina in the face of allied bombing, "The power of a police state over its own people cannot be underestimated." In the brutal eight-year war with Iran, the Baghdad regime, despite some near-disastrous military setbacks, not only retained full control over its army and people, but also ultimately prevailed over Iran on the battlefield.

There is, too, the fact that, however badly the war may go for Mr. Hussein, there is increasingly little incentive for him to capitulate or even negotiate, especially since the Bush administration has inflated U.S. war aims from simply liberating Kuwait and partially disarming Iraq to a demand for a Nuremburg-style war-crimes trial for Mr. Hussein. This is tantamount to a demand for his personal unconditional surrender, a policy whose effect in World War II was to prolong German and Japanese resistance.

Even Iraq's loss of Kuwait, which will require a large-scale and costly U.S. ground campaign (hopefully delayed until air power has thoroughly softened up Iraqi defenses), could still leave Mr. Hussein in power, and in possession of substantial military forces as well as many U.S. POWs (and we should remember that the POW issue prolonged both the Korean and Vietnam wars for over a year); and Iraqi soldiers and civilians alike can be expected to offer strong resistance to any Anglo-American advance on Baghdad.

In sum, there is little prospect for a conclusive victory over Iraq through air power alone -- though there is no chance of victory without it.

Jeffrey Record comments on military affairs for The Sun.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad