The Semifinal Verdict

June 1, 1992

The United States relies on the Air Force, and the Air Force has never been the decisive factor in the history of war.” So said Saddam Hussein just after he invaded Kuwait and before the roof caved in.

“The decisive character of our victory in the Gulf War is attributable in large measure to the extraordinary effectiveness of airpower.” So said US Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, looking back on the results of Operation Desert Storm.

Both perspectives on airpower are included in the Pentagon’s final report on the Gulf War, a whopping 1,262 pages long, delivered to Congress in April. The report was three months late, held up by fierce interservice wrangling.

The reason for the controversy is that accounts of the war–and this official report in particular_are not exercises in simple nostalgia. The findings are likely to figure for years to come in decisions about force structure, roles and missions, and budgets.

A leading point of contention, of course, was airpower, which showed to spectacular advantage in the Gulf. Behind careful and measured phrasing, the report confirms that, while airpower did not win the war alone it was the dominant element in combat. It is at pains to say–correctly–that the circumstances of the Gulf War were highly favorable to an air offensive.

The Pentagon sees the war as a validation of US doctrine, high technology, and the caliber of the all-volunteer force. It also identifies short comings. Improvement is needed, for example, in the collection and use of intelligence for targeting, bomb damage assessment, and tactical decisions.

Part of the reason underlying that particular deficiency is that standards have changed. It is no longer enough, the report says, for intelligence to report a target within a given complex of buildings. Targeteers want to know which part of what building. A precision guided weapon may be able to hit it on the nose.

Few readers will slog to the end of the report, which weighs almost seven pounds, but those who persist will gain a fresh understanding that the conduct of war involves much more than the shooting. Cargo delivered for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, for instance, was greater than the amount moved across the English Channel to Normandy in support of the D-Day invasion during a comparable seven-month period.

When the crisis broke in August 1990, the military communications infrastructure in the Gulf area was rudimentary. By November, there was more strategic connectivity (circuits, telephone trunks, radio links) than in Europe.

The Department of Defense may have turned in its final report on the war, but that does not mean it will be universally accepted as the final verdict on exactly what happened how the events should be interpreted, or what conclusions can be drawn from the experience. Indeed, the revisionists have already begun.

Hot on the Pentagon’s heels, the House Armed Services Committee published its own report. It agrees that airpower, technology, and the volunteer force were major reasons for the victory but also awards star billing to a fourth factor: the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986, which empowered the theater commander, established a single chain of command, and “assured that the services fought the same war.”

Recalling the “body count” imbroglio of the Vietnam War, the Defense Department does not speculate on Iraqi troop losses in the Gulf. The Committee, however, attempts an estimate, declaring it “militarily important for future contingencies.”

On the basis of what captured officers said during interrogation, the Committee deduces that original estimates of Iraqi Army strength in the battle theater (567,000) may have been inflated by as much as a third. When the ground campaign began, perhaps 183,000 Iraqi troops remained to resist it. Desertions and casualties (estimated total, 179,000) accounted for the rest.

It is a reasonable guess that much of what the Committee says in its report was produced by its prolific chairman, Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.). In a personal statement appended to the publication, Mr. Aspin declares that the Pentagon is right in claiming that technology provided a decisive edge but wrong in appreciating the implications.

“The increased efficiency of shooter aircraft means we need fewer of them to hit the same number of targets,” Mr. Aspin says. “High tech has altered the traditional balance between combat systems and support systems. More combat and less support no longer leads to the best results.

That conclusion aligns with one of Mr. Aspin’s favorite themes, the “silver bullet” strategy, which would severely limit quantities of the most capable weapons and rely on less advanced systems for the bulk of the force. He is currently applying the logic to the question of how many F-22 Stealth fighters the Air Force should get.

In his foreword to the Pentagon report, Secretary Cheney makes a point worth remembering: “Potential adversaries will study this war no less diligently than we.”

Postmortems of Desert Storm should be taken as instructive rather than predictive. The war was not as easy to win as it may have looked, and it could be a different story next time if we cut our margin too thin.