The Force at War

March 1, 1991

Washington, D. C., Feb. 8

THE GULF WAR took the nation by surprise, but it did not catch the armed forces unprepared. Even if the services had known the war was coming, no drastic changes would have been indicated to get ready for it.

Thus far, the campaign against Iraq has been a strong vindication of the doctrine, technology, training, plans, and requirements that the Pentagon and the military departments have been pursuing steadily all along.

That seems to amaze–and in some cases, disappoint–critics who had depicted the armed forces as a bunch of bunglers, wasting money on complicated weapons that didn’t work and spinning scare stories about conflicts that would never happen.

The aircraft, missiles, and munitions have been impressive and often spectacular.

Television viewers could judge for themselves. As they watched, a fighter rolled in on the Iraqi Defense Ministry in Baghdad and put a bomb neatly down the airshaft. They saw Patriot batteries knock incoming Scuds out of the sky. Infrared film footage showed them what the aircrews saw as a flight of F-15Es, equipped with LANTIRN navigation and targeting pods, bombed mobile Scud launchers, destroying at least three and perhaps seven on a single night attack.

The F-117A Stealth fighter has been a particular standout. Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, Air Force Chief of Staff, likens stealth to an ambush. Neither works perfectly every time, but there is “an overwhelming military advantage,” he says, “when we come into a tactical situation with the element of surprise on our side.”

US airpower effectively neutralized Iraq’s Air Force, military radars, centralized air defense, and early warning systems in the opening days of the war and put major kinks in the supply and command and control systems.

It is impossible to avoid all civilian casualties and collateral damage, but the air operation has spared Iraqi citizens to a greater extent than they might realize. Careful targeting and precision guided munitions lessen the danger to noncombatants, and so does substantial accuracy with gravity weapons.

Most strikes in urban areas have been at night, when most civilians are indoors. Planners avoid attack headings that align with hospitals, religious sites, and similar locations in case ordnance should fall short or long.

Military leaders are immensely pleased with the excellence of support operations and the rugged reliability of the systems. Despite heat, sand, and other complications, fighter aircraft average three sorties a day. The in-commission rate for combat aircraft hovers around 93 percent.

If an airplane is grounded by a broken part, a “Desert Express” airlifter delivers the needed item from a depot back home in 48 hours or less. That’s faster than the mechanics could expect the part if they were back home.

Data from airborne radar provide field commanders an unprecedented grasp of activity in the battle area. The E-3 AWACS spots anything moving in the air, and the E-8A Joint STARS–still in development and operating with mixed military- contractor crews–keeps watch on ground traffic.

Every five weeks, strategic airlifters fly in tonnage equivalent to the total delivered in the Berlin Airlift.

Examples of success have been abundant in nearly all aspects of the operation. A much-maligned fax machine, built to military specifications at extra cost, stood up to blowing sand and kept transmitting target imagery while the casings melted off its commercial counterparts on desert runways.

In all of this, there are some ironies. During the second week of the war, Raytheon, the company that makes the Patriot missile, laid off another 300 workers. The defense industrial base, the source of the equipment doing so well in the Gulf, continues to disintegrate.

The following week, the Air Force confirmed that it will cut 130,000 more troops for budget reasons over the next five years. The nation has decided that 5 percent of GNP for defense is an unbearable burden. Some of those currently fighting in the Gulf will be forced out of service when and if they get home.

Despite an excess of pontificating, much of it transparently hostile, by radio and television journalists who wouldn’t know a glide bomb from a plow handle, the coverage has been completeenough forthe publictofigure out what is going on in the Gulf.

Opinion polls report that public confidence in the armed forces is at the highest level in years. It remains to be seen how long this support will hold or how lasting the lessons will be.

Forthe moment, though, a majority of Americans seem to understand that US troops and weapons are the best in the world and that the nation’s need for strong, flexible military power has not yet come to an end.