Airpower, One Year Later

Feb. 1, 1992

The Gulf War lasted for forty-three days, and except for the last 100 hours, nearly all of it was an air campaign. It almost–but not quite–laid to rest a 50-year-old controversy about military airpower.

The establishment of the US Air Force as a separate service in 1947 did not sit well with those who regard airpower as an adjunct to the classic forms of military power, represented by armies and navies. That became the basis for a long-running dispute about service roles and missions that has flared up sporadically ever since.

Among those conspicuously fanning the flames recently is the military reform analyst, Jeffrey Record, who has attacked airpower in one scathing article after another since 1989. Dr. Record charges that airpower was not “decisive” in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam. He says that airpower does not deliver what its advocates promise and challenges the justification for the Air Force’s continued existence as a separate service.

Such views have clearly been the extreme, but through the 1980s and into the 1990s the Air Force’s image often trailed that of the Navy, which billed itself as the “force of choice” for global power projection and dominated the spotlight with its “maritime strategy.”

For all of that, it was airpower–79 percent of it from the US Air Force–that struck Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the early morning hours of January 17, 1991. By sunrise, Saddam’s ability to command and control his forces or mount a coherent military response had been destroyed.

In short order, airpower shut down the Iraqi electrical power grid, cut the output of Saddam’s oil refineries to zero, neutralized the world’s sixth largest air force, and had the world’s fourth largest army hunkered down.

Twenty to 40 percent of the Iraqi troops subjected to aerial attack deserted their units before the coalition ground action began. Interrogation pointed to the air strikes as the main reason for desertion.

Lest we mistake this for some noteworthy achievement by airpower, the critics explain that the outcome was wholly predictable, an easy victory against an inept enemy. (They do not say why this was not apparent in the autumn of 1990, when the expectation was for a long, difficult conflict and massive US casualties.)

Nobody hammers this perspective harder than Dr. Record, who finds it remarkable that airpower left some targets undestroyed in a strategic bombardment campaign he disparages as “indecisive.” He deems it “a failure and an embarrassment” to the Air Force that Saddam and his regime survived the war. He complains that airpower did not get all of the Scuds and missed some of the Iraqi nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons facilities.

Airpower did not obliterate Baghdad or destroy Iraq. That was not the objective. Had it been, a ruthless air campaign could have done an adequately awesome job of it. Instead, the coalition air forces conducted a campaign marked by precision and restraint.

The plan, marvelously executed was to disable Saddam’s military operation while avoiding collateral damage and civilian casualties. Instructions to F-117 Stealth fighters were especially precise. They stipulated hitting not merely a target but a particular part of it, such as a corner, a vent, or a door. If they hit the right target but the wrong spot, the sortie was scored as a miss.

Dr. Record sees great significance in the fact that Saddam did not agree to a cease-fire until ground forces pushed into Kuwait and southeastern Iraq.

Surely Dr. Record does not take that to mean the Army was the decisive combat element in the Gulf War. He would have even less reason to perceive the Navy or the Marine Corps as decisive. His accusations of indecisiveness, however, are for airpower and airpower alone, which gives his theory the overtones of an obsession.

The Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have recognized airpower as the decisive combat arm of the war. It would be difficult to reach any different conclusion.

In a different war under different circumstances, some other combat arm may be demonstrated to greater advantage. As this magazine has said before, it is pointless to argue about whether any of the individual services is automatically “decisive” in isolation. Modern warfare is a combined arms proposition.

It is time, however, to stop wondering if military airpower is effective in combat and whether the US Air Force is worth keeping. The Gulf War answered those questions more than adequately for those who may have harbored an honest doubt.