Gulf War's Misread Lessons


Washington. -- In the four months that have elapsed since the end of Operation Desert Storm, some Air Force planners have become persuaded that air power defeated Iraq almost single-handedly -- Indeed, that General H. Norman Schwarzkopf's ground invasion of Kuwait would have been unnecessary had the air campaign been permitted to continue for another week or two.

They also believe Desert Storm proved that the kind of carefully phased air campaign conducted against Iraq is universally applicable, and with similar results, against future U.S. adversaries in the Third World.

Air power's decisiveness in the gulf war is beyond dispute. Without it, the Pentagon could not have even dreamed of liberating Kuwait at a politically acceptable cost in American blood.

Yet, Desert Storm's predictable resurrection of confidence in cheap and easy victories through air power is a potentially dangerous consequence of the war itself. The gulf war was in many respects unique, and the unusual combination of highly favorable political, diplomatic, strategic and operational conditions upon which Desert Storm's stunning success rested are most unlikely to be replicated in future conflicts.

The gulf war was the first in American history in which an accommodating enemy granted the United States the choice of time and place to initiate hostilities. Additionally, the very possibility of waging a large-scale air war against Iraq hinged on Saudi Arabian permission to use the kingdom's abundant air bases. Such access may or may not be forthcoming in future U.S. military operations in the Third World.

Moreover, if there was ever a country and a military establishment that was tailor-made for defeat through air power, Iraq and its army were it. The composition and exposed nature of Iraq's economic and military infrastructure made the country easy game for a rapid shut-down from the air; and Iraqi forces in the open desert expanses of the Kuwaiti theater of operations could neither move safely or hide effectively.

Stock also must be taken of what the air war against Iraq failed to accomplish. Iraqi forces in Kuwait may have been bombed into an operational and tactical coma, but Saddam Hussein and his brutal regime remain in power. The most efficient strategic bombardment campaign in history did not, despite early White House and Pentagon expectations, topple Iraq's political leadership -- which testifies once again to the political stamina of totalitarian police states, even under fierce external military pressure.

No less ominous is the apparent survival of significant elements of Iraq's nuclear-weapons program. Much of Saddam Hussein's army also escaped destruction from the air, and was subsequently and savagely employed against religious Kurds and Shiites.

The air campaign, in short, did not eliminate the long-term Iraqi threat to peace and stability in the Persian Gulf.

As for the role of U.S. and allied ground forces in Desert Storm, we will never know whether a longer air campaign would have rendered their invasion of Kuwait unnecessary. We do know that Baghdad's acceptance of U.N. conditions for a cease-fire came only in the wake of the coalition's advance into Kuwait and southeastern Iraq. We also know that the very presence of large U.S. and allied ground forces in Saudi Arabia blocked Saddam Hussein from playing his strongest single card: an invasion of the kingdom, which would have threatened the very bases from which the air campaign itself was conducted.

Proponents of victory through air power have long tended to view air power as a potentially complete substitute for ground forces, and have often failed to recognize the political and strategic risks of attempting to win wars without forces on the ground. For example, the Air Force entered World War II believing Germany could be defeated via aerial bombardment alone, and throughout the war strongly opposed the diversion of strategic bomber forces to such tasks as supporting the Normandy invasion. Even today, some Air Force thinkers believe that strategic air power, had it been shielded from such diversions, could have forestalled the need to land allied ground forces in northern France.

The problem with this view, aside from its implicit dismissal of Russia's enormous and indispensable contribution -- on the ground -- to Nazi Germany's defeat, is that it fails to recognize that an absence of powerful Anglo-American forces in the heart of Germany at the time of the Third Reich's surrender would have virtually guaranteed Soviet occupation and control of Western Europe as well as Eastern Europe. Thus, the price of pursuit of victory through air power alone would have been simply a change in Europe's slavemasters, from Hitler to Stalin.

Air power can do many things, but it cannot take and hold territory. It requires, moreover, bases on land or at sea from which to operate -- bases which can be put out of commission by enemy air or ground attacks. The exhilarating sight of U.S. aircraft-delivered guided bombs sailing through reinforced concrete shelters housing Iraqi aircraft on the ground ought to be taken as an omen of what an intelligent, innovative and modern enemy -- which Iraq assuredly was not -- might visit upon our own air bases some day in the future. U. S. Air Force aircraft shelters in Europe and elsewhere are inferior to the Yugoslav-designed Iraqi shelters destroyed by U.S. air attacks.

The United States is not the only country drawing lessons from the gulf war. Other militarily significant Third World states having hegemonial ambitions at odds with U.S. security interests are drawing their own conclusions, such as the importance of denying the United States time to deploy overwhelming force, and of having effective ballistic missiles and usable chemical munitions and nuclear weapons.

Desert Storm proves that a massive and imaginatively planned and conducted air campaign can have rapid and decisive results against a strategically incompetent enemy singularly naked to air attack and without a clue as to how to employ his own air power effectively. To read more into the Desert Storm air campaign is to assume that the United States will be as fortunate in picking its future enemies as it was in the gulf war.

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