Debunking Myths about USAF Air Power and Gulf War I

Excerpts from an article at War on the Rocks (lots of thoughtful pieces there); sad that one has seen almost no public writing by serving Canadian Armed Forces personnel for quite some time:

Toward a More Nuanced View of Airpower and Operation Desert Storm

Approaching the 30th anniversary of Operation Desert Storm, airpower enthusiasts will undoubtedly crow about airpower’s key role in the coalition’s swift victory, and not without reason. The dominance of coalition airpower, and the U.S. Air Force specifically, enabled one of the most lopsided victories in the history of warfare. During the six-week air campaign, the U.S. Air Force accounted for nearly 60 percent of the coalition’s 112,000 combat missions, all but three of the 35 aerial victories, and over 90 percent of the 7,400 tons of laser-guided weapons dropped by coalition aircraft. Once the ground war began, it lasted a mere 100 hours, and despite the coalition’s two-to-three disadvantage in men and equipment, the coalition suffered just under 300 casualties. During the brief ground war, the invasion penetrated 150 miles into Iraq, traveling nearly twice the speed of the famed Nazi blitzkrieg of World War II. By all measures the campaign was an undisputable success.

Col. John Warden’s influence on the air campaign against Iraqi infrastructure and leadership targets is held up as the principal component to the war. In the year leading up to Desert Storm, Warden led the Directorate of Warfighting Concepts. Known as Checkmate, the organization was charged with studying and solving complex strategic problems. Recognizing the dangerous situation developing in Iraq, Warden anticipated the need for offensive airpower options and directed his staff to construct an offensive air campaign modeled on Warden’s War College paper-turned-book, The Air Campaign: Planning for Combat. The plan, named Instant Thunder, imagined an air campaign focused on Iraqi leadership, communications, infrastructure, and air defenses. Warden’s conceptualization definitely broke from the Air Force plans for defending Saudi Arabia but the influence of Instant Thunder is often overstated.

While important, it was not Warden’s Instant Thunder plan, nor the doctrinal ideologies of strategic attack and air superiority, that made the swift coalition victory possible in 1991. Instead, airpower’s most decisive impact came through the sustained fury of the Gulf War air campaign against the Iraqi army. Further, two decades of interservice cooperation leading up to Desert Storm played a key role in the lopsided coalition victory [emphasis added].

…Warden and Checkmate briefed the Instant Thunder plan to Schwarzkopf on Aug. 10 and presented a slightly revamped version to the Central Command air component commander, Gen. Chuck Horner, 10 days later. But Horner was not pleased. In Horner’s mind, Instant Thunder completely disregarded the single most dangerous aspect of the impending war, the Iraqi army. Further, Horner felt Instant Thunder “used new technologies to refurbish ideas about strategic bombing that could be traced at least to the Army Air Forces in World War II.” In short, the plan was incomplete at best and at worst recycled historically shaky airpower doctrine [emphasis added, see post linked to at the end of this one]. Warden’s plan disregarded the Iraqi army and focused exclusively on targeting Iraqi political and military leadership, their command-and-control infrastructure, along with the Iraqi air force and KARI air defense network. In Warden’s mind the strategic air campaign was the only part of the air campaign that mattered and there was no reason to use the air component for any other mission, no matter what. Warden believed that the strategic air campaign would win the war…

Instead of adopting Warden’s plan and ideology as written, Horner unceremoniously sent Warden back to the Pentagon and instead tapped Brig. Gen. Buster Glosson, Lt. Col. David Deptula, and members of the Checkmate staff to revamp the air plan. The new team formed a planning entity enigmatically dubbed the “Black Hole.” Horner wanted the Black Hole to focus on the ground commanders’ priorities and develop an offensive air campaign far beyond Instant Thunder…

…the third and fourth objectives, interdicting the Iraqi army and providing close air support to coalition armies, is where airpower truly made its mark. In particular, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, did not want the invading Iraqi army to escape — he wanted it destroyed in the field. The destruction of 50 percent of Iraq’s combat power was a pre-ground invasion goal, and air planners took that goal seriously. The air armada struck Iraqi army targets on the first day of the war, and the onslaught expanded every day. By war’s end, the coalition sent nearly 40 percent of all sorties against more than 27,000 Iraqi army targets, decimating Iraqi resistance, and enabling coalition armies to end the ground war in just 100 hours [emphasis added]. The Black Hole placed so much emphasis on air-to-ground support that it categorized the Iraqi Republican Guard as a strategic-level target rather than a tactical one, and these elite units endured relentless air attack during the entire air campaign. As D-Day for the ground invasion approached, coalition airpower poured fire into Iraqi ground forces, with over 90 percent of all strike sorties — and more than 80 percent of all sorties — directed against the Iraqi army in Kuwait and southern Iraq…

…Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Merrill McPeak bragged shortly after Desert Storm, “This is the first time in history that a field army has been defeated by airpower.” Even Bush and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney acknowledged airpower’s critical role in the coalition’s victory.

McPeak, however, went on to acknowledge the limits of airpower, even in the lopsided victory of Desert Storm. What McPeak recognized was that the success of Desert Storm did not come from the ideology of strategic bombing but the previous decade of Army-Air Force cooperation [emphasis added]

In the aftermath of Desert Storm, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the deep reductions in military spending in the United States, doctrinal and budgetary animosity between the Air Force and the Army returned as airpower advocates pushed for a return to more air-centric doctrine, embodied by Warden and articulated in The Air Campaign

After Desert Storm, the Gulf War narrative offered a simplified view of the role of airpower. It often presented the war as an airpower victory and touted the Air Force as the force of the future. But this overlooks the importance of the use of airpower against the Iraqi army and the significance of interservice cooperation in the U.S. military. Undoubtedly, the Air Force’s contribution in Desert Storm was pivotal, but it was born in the previous decade, and was a direct product of cooperation in acquisitions, doctrine, and training. It was not a victory of strategic airpower or air superiority alone. The lesson of Desert Storm is how devastating the U.S. military can be when interservice cooperation trumps any one service’s ideology…

Lt. Col. Matt Dietz is a former F-15E pilot and currently a professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He holds a Ph.D. in history and specializes in military history, policy, and strategy.

Indeed. See this earlier post about trying to win a major war by air power alone:

It Wasn’t just the UK’s “Bomber” Harris who Claimed Strategic Bombing could Win World War II

Mark Collins

Twitter: @mark3dsTwitter: @mark3ds

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