Sending Signals and Projecting Power

Dec. 1, 1997

0n Sept. 29, Iran bombed two camps occupied by Iranian rebel groups in southern Iraq. Iraqi fighters responded, although the Iranian aircraft had returned to base by then. It was the latest in a string of violations of the Southern Watch no-fly zone that the United States and its coalition partners have been enforcing since 1992.

The principal concern was that the Iraqi air force was getting restive and bolder. On Oct. 2, the Pentagon ordered the aircraft carrier Nimitz, then in the South China Sea, to skip a port call in Singapore and hurry, ahead of schedule, to its next station in the Persian Gulf.

The news media played the story as a cliff-hanger, following the progress of Nimitz daily. A front-page headline in the New York Times said, “Iran­Iraq Battles Lead US to Rush Carrier to Gulf,” adding, “Pentagon Feels Urgency.”

On Oct. 13, the day after Nimitz arrived in the Gulf, Newport News Shipbuilding bought large newspaper advertisements to proclaim the carrier was on station. The ads quoted President Clinton repeating the Navy’s stock claim that in time of crisis, the question on everyone’s lips in Washington is, “Where is the nearest carrier?”

Assuming the events of Sept. 29 qualified as a crisis, the answer was that the carrier was 7,000 miles and 10 days away. A better question to ask would have been: “Where is the nearest effective force?”

On Sept. 29, the US Air Force was already in the Gulf Theater with 120 combat aircraft-fighters, deep-strike aircraft, and two B-1B bombers-at bases in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. That force was eminently capable of whatever military action was desired against Saddam Hussein and his recalcitrant regime in Iraq.

Announcing the dispatch of the carrier, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen said, “I did this to send a signal to Iraq that the coalition is serious about enforcing the no-fly zone over southern Iraq.” A National Security Council official said, “We are trying to send the signal to all parties that we will enforce the no-fly zone. A senior defense official told CNN that “We are doing this to get Saddam’s attention, to tell him to watch it, to be careful.”

These officials carefully declined to say what actions they might take, other than sending signals. If all eyes remained on Nimitz, though, it was possible to adopt a tough-sounding position for 10 days without actually doing anything.

It is questionable how Saddam interpreted these signals. He certainly knew that Air Force and coalition aircraft in the theater could strike then and there if ordered to do so. He probably remembered as well that during the Gulf War, the US Air Force shot down 41 of his aircraft, compared to three he lost to Navy fighters. What additional pressure he may have felt from the carrier’s approach last October is unknown.

Upon arrival, the Nimitz air wing became part of the Joint Task Force/Southwest Asia, responding to the same air tasking order as coalition aircraft, the Air Force wing in Saudi Arabia, and an air expeditionary force that had been operating in Bahrain for the past month. The Navy keeps a carrier in the Gulf for approximately 270 days a year, but it is the Air Force that flies 68 percent of the Southern Watch sorties.

The way the Nimitz story was told perpetuated a misconception about the projection of power. The Navy argues that carriers are the force of choice, but their utility depends increasingly on being in the right place at the right time for limited operations. Compared to land-based airpower, carriers take longer to deploy, have less strike capability, and they cost more.

Intercontinental reach is well established as a characteristic of land-based airpower. In 1986, Air Force F-111s flew from Britain to take part in air strikes against Libya. In January 1991, seven B-52Gs took off from Barksdale AFB, La., struck in Iraq, and landed again at Barksdale.

For the past two years, the Air Force has been demonstrating its air expeditionary force concept. Air Combat Command says that, beginning from a cold start, it can have an air expeditionary force on location and operating in 72 hours. With strategic warning, the time drops to 48 hours. Air Force bombers from the United States can be over a regional target within 36 hours.

Furthermore, when the action is of any considerable scope or duration, the Air Force role is likely to be substantial and sustained. It flew 70 percent of the US air sorties in the Gulf War, just as it now carries most of the load in Southern Watch.

Perhaps in emphasizing the military power that would arrive with Nimitz in 10 days, the Administration was putting off a decision or trying to look–to the American press, anyway–more resolute than it really was. If so, that borders on bluffing, which is seldom a good policy. Alternatively, the Administration might not have fully realized the possibilities that were open with Air Force airpower.

The President may or may not have actually wondered where the carriers were in September, but if that’s all he wondered, he needs a better briefing on his options.