The Three-Week War

March 1, 2004

The conventional combat portion of Gulf War II, which began a year ago this month, lasted three weeks. Though brief, it ushered in what should be—but has not yet been—recognized as a new advance in the role of military air and space power.

Main combat began March 20 and ended with the fall of Baghdad on April 9. That phase was preceded by mistakes regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and followed by a bloody occupation, problems which have diverted much attention from the victory on the battlefield.

The public has focused on the revelation that Iraq did not possess WMD, as advertised, and on the effort of die-hard Iraqi Baathists to kill and injure US troops.

Such matters deserve the most careful attention, but there has emerged a kind of vacuum about the war itself. Into this vacuum have rushed various commentators with various claims, some of which have clouded the role of airpower.

For that reason, it is worth recalling basic facts about Operation Iraqi Freedom. They include the fact that US-led ground forces were able to race the 300 miles from Kuwait to Baghdad largely because their path had been opened by devastating air and space power operations. Another is that airmen kept the skies clear of any threat; not a single Iraqi pilot even tried to take off.

On the main axes of advance, USAF, Navy, Marine, and allied airpower attacked enemy formations on the flanks, permitting land units to maneuver past them and thereby keep up a rapid advance.

Coalition aircraft using precision weapons—aided by space-generated intelligence, communications, and satellite signals—virtually destroyed three Republican Guard divisions south of Baghdad, eliminating a potentially large threat.

In Iraq’s western desert, airpower forces, working with small numbers of Special Operations Forces, became maneuver elements, destroying enemy units and helping to control the countryside.

In a support role, USAF tankers refueled not only Air Force aircraft but also those of the Navy, Marine Corps, and allied air forces. Theater transports delivered supplies and expendables for critical operations. In the north, C-17 airlifters helped to create an entirely new front.

This is not to say that air and space power, by itself, won the war. It did not. The Joint Force prevailed. The important point is that modern airpower, as exemplified in Gulf War II, seems to be moving to the center of how the US will fight future wars.

A “new way of war” can be discerned in the words of Pentagon officials and officers at US Joint Forces Command, which has been charged with divining the war’s key lessons. In the view of its commander, Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr., the US will no longer rely for victory on “overwhelming force,” as in the past. Instead, he said, the new gold standard will be “overmatching power.”

Force traditionally has been measured in terms of mass—numbers of troops, aircraft, warships, and so forth. Today, mass no longer is the best metric. Iraqi forces weren’t defeated by overwhelming numbers, Giambastiani said; they were crushed by superior capabilities used in innovative ways.

As Giambastiani notes, this kind of “overmatch” stemmed from four key qualities, noted below. All of these are inherent in airpower.

  • Knowledge. Coalition forces acquired more data, more quickly, and with fewer systems than ever before. Satellites, UAVs, and specialized surveillance aircraft were vital. The Air Force E-8 Joint STARS ground surveillance aircraft used increased satellite capabilities and communications links. This, Giambastiani said, “vastly improved” US knowledge of enemy dispositions.

  • Speed. Deployment of aircraft and smaller ground forces took just three months. With superior information and mobility, coalition forces ranged rapidly over the whole of Iraq. Though the JFCOM commander didn’t mention it, USAF has also drastically curtailed the time needed to attack a specific target. Orbiting bombers provided on-call firepower.

  • Precision. Two-thirds of the ordnance dropped by aircraft were guided by satellite signal or laser beam. SOF teams on the ground provided “precision decisions” to help direct US smart weapons. According to Giambastiani, coalition forces achieved their objectives using one-seventh the air ordnance expended in Desert Storm.

  • Lethality. In OIF, 90 percent of air-ground operations were fully integrated, compared to 10 percent in Desert Storm. This and the increased capability of US aircraft produced startling results: While in Desert Storm it took an average of four aircraft to destroy one target, in Operation Iraqi Freedom it took one aircraft to kill about four targets.

Even before the latest Gulf War postmortems, the importance of these four factors was obvious. These qualities are intensified in and by air and space power.

The implications for defense planning are large. The shift could reduce the need for heavy surface forces optimized for close combat in theater war and increase the emphasis on swift, precision attack.

Already, according to a Washington Post report, US commanders have begun revising war plans for Korea, the Mideast, and other areas, on the assumption that theater conflicts can be fought more quickly and with fewer forces. This, said the Post, reflected advances in precision munitions, SOF capabilities, and jointness as seen in the Iraq war.

Clearly, defense officials liked what they saw in Gulf War II and want more of it. That makes it highly likely that the prominence of air and space power forces will increase, too.