The US Air Force at War

May 1, 2003

Washington, D.C., April 10

Gulf War II quickly stirred up the airpower skeptics. In the aftermath of Gulf War I, President George H.W. Bush had declared that “lesson one” was the value of top-notch airpower, but Operation Iraqi Freedom touched off a negative blast.

University of Chicago Professor Robert Pape warned, “Wars can’t be won only from above.” Columnist George Will claimed, “Airpower alone will never supplant ground power.” Retired Army officer and theorist Ralph Peters observed, “Once again, it has taken ground forces to provide the main thrust of military operations.” And so on.

Worse, the 800-pound gorilla of airpower—the US Air Force—was momentarily invisible. Skittish host nations refused to allow TV crews anywhere near USAF’s overseas fighter and bomber units.

The net effect was to muffle, for a time, the story of USAF at war.

Now that the facts are coming out, we see that the story is one of extraordinary success. After three weeks, the war was not yet over, but it is worth noting what airpower already had accomplished.

USAF has been the dominant airpower force. Over the first three weeks of the war, its crews flew nearly 40 percent of the combat sorties and delivered two-thirds of the munitions tonnage. The rest was divided between the Navy, Marine Corps, Royal Air Force, and Royal Australian Air Force. USAF carried out a third of Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance sorties, 70 percent of air refueling sorties, 86 percent of combat search and rescue missions, and all the airlift sorties.

The coalition swiftly seized command of the air. In the months before the war’s March 20 launch, warplanes patrolling Iraqi “no-fly” zones bombed 80 air defense sites. By March 25, Defense Chief Donald H. Rumsfeld could claim, “We’ve got total dominance of the air.”

Coalition air attacked at will. In three weeks, USAF and its friends dropped some 15,000 precision guided munitions and launched 750 cruise missiles. In contrast to the 1991 war, when nine of 10 expended weapons were unguided “dumb” bombs, about 75 percent of today’s weapons are precision guided.

Late on March 21, Baghdad time, coalition air forces struck scores of Iraqi targets in an effort to force a surrender. This attempted knockout punch, which the media called the “shock and awe” phase, didn’t work as planned but was worth a try.

Soon, coalition airpower shifted from strategic targets to concentrated attacks on Iraqi military forces. USAF flew roughly 300 strike sorties each day, 80 percent in direct support of ground forces.

Airborne ISR systems provided an unparalleled view of activity in the battle area. The E-8A Joint STARS has been especially busy, spotting and tracking the enemy’s ground forces and missiles. Global Hawk and Predator UAVs have provided continuous real-time pictures of tanks, troops, and artillery. The Combined Forces Air Component Commander, USAF Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, had access to some 50 US satellites for surveillance, warning, weather forecasting, and other needs.

In a single week, the hundreds of in-theater coalition aircraft destroyed 1,000 Iraqi tanks and reduced the strength of Republican Guard divisions by 50 percent or more—sometimes much more.

On April 5, Moseley reported: “Our sensors show that the preponderance of the Republican Guard divisions that were outside of Baghdad are now dead.”

He was right. With Saddam Hussein’s best forces pulverized, Army and Marine forces pushed on and reached Baghdad in two weeks—an achievement of historic proportions.

As soon as the coalition invested Baghdad, USAF activated a new concept of operations, Urban Close Air Support, to assist ground forces. Hovering over Baghdad at all times were two airborne forward air controllers and five or six pairs of fighters, armed and ready to attack.

As usual, the unsung heroes were the aerial tankers, flying gas stations that kept the bomb-droppers in action and accounted for 15 percent of all sorties.

To the surprise of no one, US airlift proved to be a critical advantage. USAF flew 4,900 airlift sorties. These included about 3,500 in-theater airlift sorties that moved 6,300 tons of cargo and 5,500 passengers. In a major nighttime airdrop, 15 long-range C-17s delivered 1,000 Army paratroopers and 40 vehicles into northern Iraq.

The war has unexpectedly renewed the debate about the future of heavy ground forces. Gulf War II’s ground force was only half the size of that deployed in the 1991 war, even though the 2003 war aims were more ambitious. Some Army partisans were upset that the attack featured only one tank-heavy division. Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a Gulf War I commander, said, “In my judgment, there should have been a minimum of two heavy divisions and an armored cavalry regiment on the ground.”

However, the swift victory of the smaller ground force put such critics in an awkward spot, facing the question of whether modern airpower means commanders need fewer heavy ground forces to attain victory.

Gulf War I’s “air boss,” retired USAF Gen. Charles Horner, told Bill Gertz of the Washington Times, “They [some Army leaders] think you need a larger ground force, but I think that what we’re seeing is that that is not the case.”

It is impossible to judge whether Horner is correct until all the facts are in. The ultimate indicator will be the outcome of the war in all its dimensions. And all of the services were vital to success.

For the moment, however, there is every reason to believe President Bush’s 1991 declaration is still valid.