Les Aspin Was Dead Right

Feb. 28, 2012

“The Military Option”

Rep. Les Aspin, democrat of Wisconsin

Chairman, House Armed Services Committee

White Paperon Persian Gulf Crisis

Washington, DC

Jan. 8, 1991

FULL TEXT VERSION

In early 1991, Washington was agonizing about possible war with Iraq. Some hawkish members of Congress—notably Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.)—were opposed. On Jan. 8, Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.) stepped forward with an unexpected message. He said he was bullish about US airpower’s ability to knock out Saddam Hussein’s forces in a swift, phased campaign. The war would be short and casualties relatively few. His remarks probably had some influence. Four days later, Congress narrowly approved armed action. Five days after that, President George H. W. Bush launched Operation Desert Storm. It lasted 43 days and, but for the final 100 hours, was entirely an air campaign. Said Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney: “The decisive character of our victory in the Gulf War is attributable in large measure to the extraordinary effectiveness of airpower.” Aspin had been proved right.

This White Paper summarizes what I have drawn from … hearings and other sources on the military option. It is my report and not that of the House Committee on Armed Services. …

The coalition’s airpower provides the clearest and most one-sided advantage enjoyed by the anti-Iraq forces. Coalition forces will have an almost three-to-one edge in numbers of combat aircraft and an overwhelming edge qualitatively. … Coalition forces should be able to establish air superiority relatively easily over Kuwait and over Iraq, as well. … Control of the air in a part of the world where there is little to no concealment available for deployed forces will permit coalition air forces to range over both Iraq and the battlefield and attack strategic and tactical targets at will. …

My review of the testimony presented to the committee, as well as private conversations with former and active defense officials, convinces me that we will fight a phased campaign in the Persian Gulf. The war is likely to begin with an air campaign against strategic and military targets in Iraq and then proceed to a sustained air campaign against Iraqi military forces in or near Kuwait. The final phase of the campaign would involve the commitment of ground forces. …

The first task in a strategic air campaign against Iraq would be to establish air superiority. Iraqi aircraft, airfield, and air defense assets, particularly surface-to-air missiles, would be top priority targets at the outset. Iraq’s ballistic missiles would also be targeted from the outset in an effort to preempt any Iraqi attacks against Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab countries. The air campaign would then focus on Iraq’s chemical, biological, and nuclear capabilities—stockpiles, delivery vehicles, production facilities, and so on. Iraqi military command and control complexes would be high priority targets as well. …

None of the military experts appearing before the committee questioned our ability to execute successfully the strategic air phase of a military campaign against Iraq.

During [the tactical air campaign] phase of the war, airpower would be used against Iraqi military forces in the Kuwait theater of operations: operational and tactical reserves in their assembly areas, supply depots, field command headquarters, and first echelon forces deployed in their defensive positions along the border and coast in Kuwait. The objective would be to interdict the highway and rail lines of communication north of Basra, destroy the logistics facilities in southern Iraq, reduce and disrupt Iraqi reserves in the rear areas, and reduce the forward defenses of the Iraqi Army.

The limited road and rail network, the large natural lake of the Hawr Al Hammar, and the marshy conditions of the lower Tigris-Euphrates delta constrict available lines of communication from Iraq to its forces in southern Iraq and Kuwait to a relatively narrow area around Basra. A successful interdiction campaign concentrated on that area would effectively cut off Iraqi forces. …

Iraqi forces in their prepared positions in the desert will be readily identifiable to observation from the air and vulnerable to air strikes. …

There is little doubt that a tactical air campaign against Iraqi forces would inflict heavy losses on Iraq’s logistics infrastructure and to its reserves. Iraq’s ability to sustain forces deployed in southern Iraq and Kuwait would be weakened and the capability of its operational and tactical reserves reduced. How much damage would be inflicted upon the first echelon forces … is uncertain. …

The objective [during a final ground phase] of a coalition ground force campaign against Iraqi forces would be their defeat and forcible ejection from Kuwait. … The success of the ground phase of an air-land campaign would depend upon the efficacy of airpower. General Dougherty told the committee that the “only way to avoid numerous casualties at the outset of conflict in this area is to exploit initially the special strength of our external mobile air forces—Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marines.” ….

I am convinced that if we must go to war, we will fight a phased campaign, one that begins with an air campaign against strategic and military targets in Iraq, then proceeds to a sustained air campaign against Iraqi military forces in or near Kuwait, and ends with the commitment of ground troops. …

While I believe the possibility of achieving a “bloodless victory” is small, the prospects for a rapid victory with light to moderate American casualties, perhaps three to five thousand including 500 to a thousand or so fatalities, are high. I judge the risk of a bloody campaign, with casualties in the 10,000 to 20,000 range including several thousand fatalities, to be small. …

On a vote to authorize the President to use force to liberate Kuwait, the right vote is “yes.”