Washington Watch: McPeak on the War

May 1, 1991

In a recent public assessment of Operation Desert Storm, Gen. Merrill McPeak carefully and repeatedly stated that “all the services made a very important contribution” to the smashing US victory in the desert. Even so, the Air Force Chief of Staff said plainly that the story of the war “is largely a story about airpower, a success story for US and coalition air forces.” In an aside, he noted something else: “My private conviction is that this is the first time in history that a field army has been defeated by airpower.”

General McPeak delivered his postmortem on the war to Pentagon reporters on March 15, only a few weeks after the cease-fire brought the fighting with Iraq to a halt. In addition, the Air Force prepared a number of internal studies documenting various aspects of the war against Iraq. Together they help clarify certain facets of the war and fill in some gaps in the record.

Here, presented largely in his own words, are highlights of the General’s presentation.

Critical opening minutes. In General McPeak’s view, the most critical period of the Gulf conflict came in its first minutes, on January 17 (Baghdad time), when the allies struck Iraq with stunning ferocity. These opening minutes, he asserted, “dramatically influenced the outcome of the entire war.”

The General’s explanation: “This was a massive attack in the very beginning moments of the war. We [coalition air forces] attacked all of the strategic targets–the electrical power, communications, air defenses, and so forth. It was a very heavy attack, very precisely delivered.”

At the heart of the attack was the F-117A Stealth fighter, which struck thirty-seven major targets in Iraq and Kuwait on the first night and was never touched by Iraqi air defenses. General McPeak added that, as far as the Air Force can tell, the F-117 was never even tracked by any Iraqi radar. It operated for forty-three days with invulnerability.

“In my judgment, the Iraqi Air Force never recovered from this opening attack,” the Air Force leader maintained. “We took the initiative at the beginning, and we held it throughout the rest of the war period.”

General McPeak explained that the blows made it possible to destroy rapidly the rest of Iraq’s air defense system. “In my judgment,” he added, “only the United States Air Force could have disintegrated that air defense system as quickly as we did, with such overwhelming shock power that it totally stunned the Iraqi Air Force.

“In essence, the issue was decided in the first few hours of the engagement.”

“Brilliant air deception.” The Air Force Chief of Staff disclosed that the opening-night success hinged on more than the superiority of coalition weapons. Old-fashioned trickery played a paramount role.

At H-hour (3:00 a.m. Baghdad time, January 17), Iraqis watching their radar screens would have seen nothing unusual, only US E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft and several coalition fighters flying combat air patrol (CAP) in Saudi airspace-activity that had been going on routinely since the US Air Force deployed to Saudi Arabia last summer.

“They were seeing a situation that we had been showing them since August,” said the General. “These AWACS orbits and these CAP points had been there for months and were something the Iraqis were used to seeing.”

At that point, said General McPeak, the coalition pulled off a “brilliant bit of air deception,” formulated by the Army’s Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander in chief of US Central Command. As H-hour neared, US and allied attack aircraft by the hundreds got airborne, formed up, and topped off their fuel tanks, but they did so “just beyond the radar warning capabilities” of Iraq’s air defenses.

Then, in rapid succession, stealthy F-117s, “which these Iraqi radars could not see,” jumped into enemy airspace, blinded Iraqi air defenses by knocking out vital radars, and proceeded to work on the rest of the strategic targets.

“Having opened up the gateway then,” said General McPeak, “other strike packages [hundreds of planes orbiting in Saudi airspace] rushed through [the holes], and we hit very hard.”

The Iraqi air force never knew what was coming.

“Calling audibles.” As General McPeak tells it, the US and its allies ran into a few surprises themselves, requiring far more improvisation than heretofore has been acknowledged. The Chief of Staff summed it up in football parlance: “There were some audible calls at the line of scrimmage.”

One audible was the unplanned “merging” into a single, gigantic operation of what had been originally cast as three sequential phases of the air campaign.

Initially, said General McPeak, Air Force officers planned to take about a week to ten days to achieve air superiority over Iraq, take one day to destroy the Iraqi field army’s mobile air defenses, and then take some three weeks to demolish Iraqi armor, artillery, and other war equipment. Overall, the three phases would occur in sequence over about thirty days.

In the weeks before D-day, however, the air campaign plan changed, with General Schwarzkopf deciding to do all three phases at the same time. Helping to make this possible was the coalition’s surfeit of forces. On November 8, President Bush had ordered a near doubling of US aircraft strength in the theater. When it was completed, said General McPeak, “there was more than enough airpower on the scene to do the phase one job at the beginning, and we simply diverted it” to the other two phases.

He emphasized that “there was no time from day one on that the Iraqi ground forces were not under heavy air attack.”

The onset of a highly unusual Middle East weather pattern forced coalition air forces to check off yet again at the line of scrimmage. From almost the beginning of the air war until the cease-fire was declared on February 28, large swaths of Iraq and Kuwait lay hidden by thick cloud cover and heavy rains, creating major, unexpected headaches for fighter pilots sent to drop bombs on enemy ground targets.

“This is, perhaps, the thing that hurt us the worst,” said the Air Force chief. “This was certainly the poorest weather in fourteen years in the Baghdad and Kuwait area,” or since the Air Force began keeping precise records of climatological data on the region in 1977. Indeed, the General added, the weather was at least twice as bad as the worst-case estimates.

What was the effect? “We lost a lot of Iraqi targets, especially [for] the -117s, where low cloud cover prevented them from acquiring the targets.”

Fighter pilots were told to bring their bombs and munitions home rather than risk dropping them on a sensitive site. The weather seems to have forced planners to extend the planned air campaign from thirty to thirty-nine days.

Finally, said General McPeak, the Air Force underwent a major, unplanned, midcourse correction to deal with the political danger caused by Iraq’s firing of Scud missiles. “What surprised us,” he remarked, “was that we put about three times the effort that we thought we would [into] this job.” Air Force documents report that the coalition mounted 2,493 dedicated sorties against Scud missiles. On each of six days early in the war, the coalition flew more than 100 such sorties.

General McPeak says that the big problem was finding and hitting the mobile Scuds. “Mobile Scud launchers operated at night, drove into these launch boxes, and launched, so we had to do a lot of road recce, even with the A-10s,” the General said.

Beyond that improvisation, the Air Force cobbled together a new operational tactic linking two previously unused systems-the F-15E fighter and the Joint STARS (Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System) plane.

“Probably the most effective thing we did was to put F-15Es in airborne CA{s right [above] these Scud launch boxes and then use Joint STARS” to troll for Scuds, said General McPeak. “When we found one that looked suspicious, then these Joint STARS aircraft were able to divert these airborne CA{s and perform on-the-spot, ad-lib attacks.”

The various means seemed to have worked. The General says that Scud launches, which averaged five per day for the first ten days, averaged only one per day for the last month.

Iraq no “featherweight.” While Iraq’s Air Force clearly was outclassed, General McPeak would be the last to denigrate it. “Basically, this was a fairly strong opponent,” he observed. “[It had] on the order of 1,000 aircraft, some of them very good aircraft, . . . with a very good infrastructure, widely dispersed around the country, [and] a good offensive capability with their long-range aviation and Scud missiles.”

Iraq’s air defense setup, said the General, was “state-of-the-art,” having 17,000 surface-to-air missiles, 9,000 to 10,000 antiaircraft artillery pieces, and modern radars, “all lashed together with high-tech equipment,” including computer data links, fiber-optic connections, and hardened control nodes buried in concrete bunkers.

The Air Force leader maintained that Iraq’s pilots “put up a pretty good fight” for a few days. “We had a fairly good fight on our hands-not real good, but at least some kind of a fight -for the first three days.” After that, he added, “this effort really wasn’t very good.”

Why was the Iraqi air arm defeated so quickly? The General believes simply that no one could stand up to the planes and pilots that the US and its allies deployed. “They [the Iraqis] just ran into a buzz saw,” said General McPeak. “It’s not that they were featherweight opponents. It’s just that they picked on the wrong guy.”

A lost generation. In General McPeak’s view, Iraq’s Air Force has suffered grievous damage, perhaps even more extensive than is commonly thought. “In my judgment, it will be a generation before the Iraqi Air Force recovers to anything like its previous strength. At least a generation.

“Their infrastructure is heavily damaged. Their airfields, their maintenance facilities, their operational facilities, their aircraft shelters, their aircraft are gone. The ones that are surviving are mostly out of the country. A generation of pilots and crew chiefs and mechanics and air leaders has certainly vanished. I think it will be a long time before they constitute a significant threat again.”

Air Force documents note that, at the start of the war, Iraq fielded about 750 fighter/attack aircraft and 200 support aircraft. Now, says General McPeak, the US has confirmed that the Iraqis lost ninety aircraft in combat, six in wartime accidents, sixteen to attacks by coalition ground forces, and 122 that are impounded in Iran, for an overall loss of 234 aircraft.

In reality, says the General, the carnage may yet turn out to have been much worse. The US Air Force attacked most of Iraq’s 594 hardened aircraft shelters, destroying or badly damaging at least 375. A conservative estimate is that the shelter-busting drive destroyed another 141 Iraqi aircraft hidden inside, said General McPeak.

Exodus to Iran. One of the more mysterious aspects of the war, at least at the time, was the exodus of Iraqi aircraft to a kind of sanctuary in Iran. General McPeak maintains that this action has a simple explanation.

As he tells it, the coalition demonstrated in the first three days of the war that Iraqi pilots could not survive in the air, and Iraq’s Air Force “folded its hand” and decided to ride out the war in shelters. On day seven of the war, however, the US Air Force and others began scoring big against the shelters themselves.

“I think they made a decision that, since they were no longer safe in shelters, they would have to leave,” said General McPeak. “Then they started out to Iran.”

Iraqi support aircraft, mostly transports, went out first. On day nine, the whole Iraqi Air Force seemed to stand down. The next day, the first of two big groups of planes scurried to Iran.

“We put an air CAP along the Iranian border and began intercepting aircraft coming out of Iraqi airspace and into Iran, so they quit going into Iran,” he said. After a period of inaction, “we pulled that airborne CAP down because it looked to us as though they had stopped going to Iran, and they went back at it again. They were playing kind of a cat-and-mouse game here.”

The US Air Force once again began patrolling the border, and “that was essentially the end of the story.” The whole Iraqi Air Force “went brain dead” for the rest of the war, refusing to come out and fly at all.

Huge growth of force. When President Bush gave the order to deploy on August 7, said the General, “we began flying squadrons to the theater immediately.

“The first squadron arrived in-theater in thirty-four hours. Since fifteen of those thirty-four hours were flying hours for this particular squadron, that meant that squadron launched in less than twenty-hours from getting the deployment order” from Washington.

After the initial force arrived in Saudi Arabia, the Air Force and allied air contingent underwent two major growth spurts.

Between November 8, 1990 (when President Bush ordered a major increase in forces), and D-day, January 17, the inventory of fixed-wing aircraft doubled. On D-day, the Air Force had on hand 652 fighter and attack aircraft, eighty-seven other combat aircraft, and 394 support planes.

By the start of the ground war on day thirty-nine, however, USAF’s force had grown again. “After the opening of combat operations, some of our coalition partners agreed to allow us to conduct operations” from their territory, explained General McPeak. For instance, Air Force B-52s began to fly from Spain and Britain.

The Air Force built up to where, on the day the ground war started, it had 747 fighter and attack combat aircraft, 10.4 full tactical fighter wing equivalents, in the theater. It had 161 combat aircraft of other types and 463 support aircraft on hand.

The US Air Force provided about fifty percent of all the aircraft deployed by the coalition. According to USAF documents, a sizable portion of this armada was based in Turkey, north of Iraq. There, at Incirlik AB, a composite wing of USAFE aircraft had set up shop under a single commander whose job it was to conduct offensive and defensive air operations and to freeze enemy forces in northern Iraq.

Forces based at Incirlik, says the document, included twenty-four F-16s, twenty-eight F-15Cs, eighteen F-111Es, twenty-six F-4G and F-16C Wild Weasels, six EF-111 s, four F-4E Pave Tack fighters, three EC-130s, three E-3 AWACS planes, eight RF-4Cs, and fifteen KC-135 tankers.

Weight of the bombing campaign. The scope and magnitude of the bombing effort were staggering. According to Air Force documents, the US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps dropped 210,800 “dumb” bombs–nearly 77,000 tons. They also dropped 15,500 precision-guided munitions-7,400 tons. Allied air forces added to these amounts. USAF aircraft dropped seventy percent of the dumb bombs and eighty-eight percent of the precision weapons.

Though dumb bombs were used in profusion, “it was precision munitions that did the most important work,” said General McPeak. He pointed out that the Air Force had delivered virtually all of these. His best estimate is that about ninety percent of all the Air Force’s laser-guided munitions hit their targets.

One could see the impact of this bombing, said the General, in the destruction of bridges in Iraq. During the course of the war, the coalition forces identified and attacked fifty-four major bridges crossing the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. Some were important because they were part of the mobile Scud network. Most were important as supply nodes.

The Air Force did not knock down every bridge, but at the end of the war, said the General, about forty of the fifty-four were “in the water.” Most of the rest were badly damaged, though not totally impassable.

When assessing bomb damage and destruction of major pieces of Iraqi army weaponry, the General added, allied estimates were conservative throughout the war, with officials claiming that about fifty percent of tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery tubes were destroyed. “Once we actually did push in on the ground, it was obvious that we had achieved destruction rates well above something like the fifty percent we may have been claiming in all classes of major equipment,” said the Air Force Chief of Staff.

An Air Force chart claims the coalition destroyed all but about 400 of Iraq’s 4,400 tanks and virtually all the artillery in the Kuwait/southern Iraq theater of operations.

War and morality. In the war’s final hours, when coalition forces demolished retreating Iraqi forces, did the allies resort to excessive violence? General McPeak, not surprisingly, says no.

“When enemy armies are defeated, they retreat, often in disorder, and we have what is known as the exploitation phase,” he said. “It’s during this phase that the true fruits of victory are achieved from combat, when the enemy’s disorganized.

“The alternative is that we should never attack a disorganized enemy–we should wait until he is stopped, dug in, and prepared to receive the attack.

“You may recall how disappointed Lincoln was with General Meade when he failed to pursue Lee south after Gettysburg. It certainly prolonged the Civil War, perhaps by a year or so, and many more young northern and southern men were killed as a consequence. Ail American generals should remember that lesson. If we do not exploit victory, then the President should get himself some new generals.”

The big lesson of the Gulf War, suggested General McPeak, is that being Number Two carries a high cost.

He said that the Iraqi Air Force was “a pretty good outfit. They happened to be the second-best air force in the fracas. Having the second-best air force is like having the second-best poker hand. It’s often the best strategy to fold early. I think they folded early. The lesson for us is we do not want ever to enter combat with the second-best air force.”