Washington Watch: Airpower Opens the Fight

March 1, 1991

Cruise missiles, launched by US warships in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf and aimed at faraway command and communications centers, were the first weapons to strike Iraq. Then, in quick succession, came the stealthy F-117A attack fighters. Engines muted, they slipped through enemy air-defense radars and bombed airfields and missile sites.

Operation Desert Storm had begun, set off by an air campaign that would soon prove unprecedented in its intensity, precision, and lethality. Never before in war had so many air forces and aircraft worked together so well and with such telling effect.

Air traffic control–directing and coordinating the steady streams of multiservice, multinational, combat and support aircraft in and around Iraqi and Kuwaiti airspace–was enough in itself to bend the mind. All went smoothly, thanks to US Central Command’s air tasking order and to the proficiency of allied pilots in executing it.

That ATO, drawn up by US Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles A. “Chuck” Horner, USCENTCOM’s air commander, was the blueprint for the allied air campaign. It held up from the start.

Thirty-six hours into Operation Desert Storm, General Horner declared, “We’ve worked hard to bring together this very complex, very large campaign plan. We’ve been able to integrate all our forces because we all fly off a common air tasking order.”

Success in the air came swiftly and was sustained. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Commander in Chief of USCENTCOM and of the US-led coalition of forces, credited General Horner as having been ‘the architect of our air campaign” and called him “a superb leader.”

Despite a brief lull and a temporary letdown caused by bad weather, the allied air campaign appeared to improve as it went along. Two weeks into it, General Schwarzkopf claimed “air supremacy” for the coalition throughout the region. He said his air forces had flown more than 30,000 sorties, averaging more than 2,000 a day, and had lost only nineteen aircraft, all to ground fire (most of it from guns, not missiles) or in accidents.

“We’ve destroyed twenty-nine Iraqi fighter aircraft with not one single air-to- air loss on the part of the coalition,” General Schwarzkopf asserted. He added that “not a single Iraqi aircraft has penetrated the coalition airspace since this war began.”

Said the CINC, “In the last three days alone, F-15s have shot down nine MiG-23s and Mirage F.1s. The Iraqi early warning system has completely failed, and their aircraft have been caught totally by surprise when we attacked them,”

“Relentless” Attack

General Schwarzkopf claimed that “relentless” allied air attacks had destroyed or severely damaged most of Iraq’s primary command, control, and communications facilities and air defense systems. As a result, he said, the Iraqis “have been forced to switch to backup [C3] systems [that are] far less effective and more easily targeted,” and they “have abandoned centralized control of their air defense within Iraq and Kuwait.”

This, he said, was “a very important point,” because “it accounts, in part, for the very, very low attrition rate of coalition aircraft.” .

He emphasized that “pilot skills also account for that low attrition rate.”

Desert Storm’s dazzling demonstration of those skills under fire is part of a larger revelation: The Pentagon has made better decisions, and has spent its money more wisely, than it may have been given credit for.

Skillful pilots are a big part of the Pentagon’s payoff. They are the products of smart recruiting, solid instruction, and realistic training in exercises approximating actual combat. The Air Force has put a premium on all such endeavors in recent times.

Desert Shield’s triumphant air campaign was clearly a tribute to Pentagon systems-acquisition policies and programs as well, with emphasis on the Air Force role. Put to the test, aircraft and other systems performed superbly. They also proved to be rugged. Keeping them fit to fly and fight posed no major problems. USAF’s combat aircraft, averaging three tough sorties every day, sustained an astounding mission capable rate of close to ninety percent.

Desert Storm also made a case for advanced technology. The air war left no doubt that advanced technology is conducive to–not at odds with–the durability and reliability of aircraft and their ancillary systems. The war may have discredited, once and for all, criticisms that the Pentagon wastes money on weapons that cost too much, don’t work, or don’t hold up.

The early days of Desert Storm were seen as validation of the Air Force’s stated policy of “global reach, global power.” In striking that theme, the Air Force never claimed that airpower can do it all, only that it can do an awful lot and that little else is possible without it.

Desert Storm soon made the point. By itself, airpower may not have been enough to dislodge Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, but it surely was needed to soften them up, and it did so.

Skirting the Holy Places

Choosing targets and coordinating attacks on them in this Mideast war–a war that General Horner described as, “in some respects, a technology war, although fought by men and women”-were tasks complicated by humane considerations. His mandate, he noted, was to “avoid any damage to civilian targets and to the holy shrines that happen to be located in Iraq.”

He continued, “We’ve looked at every target from the outset for avenues of approach, the exact type of weapon to cause damage to the target but [to] preclude damage to the surrounding area, and precision delivery.”

Early on, General Homer’s headquarters provided eye-popping examples of such delivery. Videotapes from TV cameras aboard F-117s and F-111 s showed the planes’ laser-guided bombs hitting such targets as a runway, a missile storage building, and “my counterpart’s headquarters in Baghdad” right on the money, with no collateral damage to civilian facilities.

General Horner described the planning of the air campaign as “an enormous effort” made possible by “a lot of computers [to] bring together the tens of thousands of minute details–radio frequencies, altitudes, tanker rendezvous, bomb configurations, who supports whom, who’s flying escort.”

He added, “There are just thousands and thousands of such details, and we work them together as one group, put them together in what we call a common air tasking order.” He likened that ATO to “a sheet of music” from which “everyone sings the same song.”

The ATO was the master plan for interservice and cross-national teamwork. “We’ve been able to execute because we’ve trained very hard,” the air commander said. “You’ll find sorties where a Saudi aircraft will drop bombs escorted by an American fighter and supported by other aircraft from [other] countries.”

He related a recent example: Saudi Tornados, escorted by USAF fighters and supported by Navy EA-6B electronic countermeasures aircraft, had taken out a vital runway just across the Saudi border in Iraq.

“The types of aircraft we have in this campaign have been the key to its success,” General Horner declared. “There’s no doubt that our air defense and our awareness of what’s going on in the air battlefield are a result, in large measure, of what the AWACS provides us and of the defense that aircraft such as the F-14 and the F-15 provide our forces.”

Mission planning was the key to applying airpower in Desert Storm. The near-perfection of that planning was evident right from the start.

On the first night, as the Tomahawks headed for their targets, a four-ship flight of F-15Cs took off from their base in northeastern Saudi Arabia. They headed north, followed by other Eagle flights, to fly cover for the ground-attack aircraft, electronic warfare planes, and defense-suppression aircraft even then marshaling for missions into Iraq and Kuwait.

The F-15Es Swoop In

Only minutes after the first waves of Tomahawks and F-117As had taken enemy defenders by surprise, F-15Es armed with Mk. 82 and Mk. 84 iron bombs, cluster bombs, and runway-cratering bombs swooped into Iraq and Kuwait. To the south and west, B-52s were forming up after long flights from Diego Garcia over the Indian Ocean and all the way from Barksdale AFB, La., to pound Iraqi ground forces and facilities in Kuwait with an assortment of bombs, including parabraked M117s. AWACS planes shepherded the bombers. F-15Cs flew cover. Meanwhile, Air Force EF-111 Raven and EC-130 Compass Call electronic countermeasures planes, in concert with Navy EA-6B Prowlers, had moved into their assigned sectors of coverage to make life easier for aircrews on the attack.

With F-15Cs flying combat air patrol and F-4G Wild Weasels clearing the way through enemy fire-control radars, the first full-up Air Force strike package, with F-15Es and F-111Fs in the forefront, penetrated Iraqi airspace. As the F-4Gs egressed, Navy F/A-18s also armed with radar-homing AGM-88 HARM missiles, ingressed to take over for them.

Before the night was through, the allied air assault would involve virtually every type of Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps combat aircraft deployed in the region through the previous five months, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2. Army attack helicopters also came into play as part of special operations.

Over the next fourteen hours, without letup, the allied air arms of the US-led international coalition arrayed against Iraq flew more than 1,000 sorties. They would improve on that pace and intensity, averaging more than 2,000 sorties–half combat, half support– every twenty-four hours, with time out for a short stretch of bad weather, through the days and weeks to come.

US Central Command’s headquarters in Saudi Arabia disclosed the makeup of the coalition attack force on that first night of the air campaign. The Air Force accounted for 530 of the attack aircraft, the Navy and Marines for ninety, Britain for twenty-four, and France and Saudi Arabia for twelve each.

The coalition attack force also included US Air Force, US Navy, Saudi, and Canadian counterair fighters and interceptors; US Air Force, US Navy, and British airborne warning and control aircraft; and US Air Force and British tankers. Rounding it out were aircraft of at least one service or nation devoted to such missions as electronic warfare, suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), and tactical reconnaissance. The latter mission also involved the Navy’s ship-launched Pioneer unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

“The main thing we always try to do,” explained an Air Force official, “is to take advantage of surprise and mass–to mass our air assets at specific locations at certain times to overwhelm the defenses, generate the necessary destruction, and egress. We apply the mass and set the timing of each successive wave–or force package–so that each complements the job done by the one that went before.”

A Clockwork Operation

Timing is everything, “clockwork” the byword. TOT–time over target–of attack elements is a matter of only a minute or so. Aircraft must adhere to “deconflicting” flight paths, altitudes, and airspace boundaries while ingressing and egressing target zones in profusion and in rapid succession.

“You don’t commit all assets in one wave,” an official explained. “You like to hit targets with three to five waves, each of them, perhaps, with different types of airplanes, each ingressing and egressing in different locations. The idea is to make it difficult or impossible for the defenders to comprehend what’s hitting them and where it’s coming from.”

In Desert Storm’s early days of drumfire air assaults, the number and types of airplanes in each allied force package tended to remain constant from sortie to sortie against certain kinds of targets. Individual pilots and planes in those packages changed identities. Pilots rotated among cockpits. Planes were allocated “downtime.” All schedules were aimed at keeping flyers fresh and aircraft mission capable.

Allied attack aircraft reportedly averaged three sorties every twenty-four hours. More often than not, each plane was flown by two different pilots and around the clock. Rotation of cockpit assignments depended on how far planes and crews had to fly to and from targets and on how tough the flying and fighting turned out to be. “Pilots striking downtown Baghdad on four-hour sorties may have flown only once a night,” one source said.

The master plan for all that was the common air tasking order, the ATO, mentioned by General Horner earlier -a 600-page computer printout revised and redistributed daily to all air combat and support outfits.

General Schwarzkopf saw fit to enunciate the aims of the ATO.

“In our first phase,” he said, “we wanted to disrupt leadership command and control; destroy centralized air defense command and control; attack combat aircraft in the air and on the ground to achieve air superiority; damage chemical, biological, and nuclear storage and production capability; and commence attack on Republican Guards [elite Iraqi troops in northern Kuwait and just north of the Kuwait-Iraq border].

“Once we had that done, we planned to go into a second phase, which was to destroy the air defense radars and missiles in the Kuwaiti theater of operation to achieve undisputed control of the air–some people call that air supremacy–and, finally, to sever supply lines in [that] theater. . . .

“Once that phase was completed we planned then to isolate the Kuwait; theater of operations, continue our attacks on the Republican Guards–and we have other objectives, which I will not discuss further.”

Smacking the Airfields

The fundamental soundness and adaptability of the ATO became apparent as the bombing of enemy airfields went on and on, day after day. Allied air planners had targeted sixteen primary Iraqi airfields and twenty- eight dispersal airfields. Over two weeks, with time out for bad weather, allied planes flew more than 1,300 sorties against thirty-eight of those airfields, struck many of them at least four times, and put nine irreparably out of operation.

Ground-hugging British Tornado attack fighters armed with JP-233 cluster bombs accounted for a great deal of the damage to airfields and took relatively heavy losses early on. “We never had any intention to render all of the airfields inoperable,” General Schwarzkopf explained. “Our intention is to render the [Iraqi] Air Force ineffective.

This happened fast. More than two dozen Iraqi warplanes, including six Soviet-built Tu-16 “Badger” bombers and an Adnan radar plane, were destroyed on the ground. The Iraqis took to hiding their planes in hardened shelters, which became the objects of “systematic destruction,” General Schwarzkopf said. Before long, seventy shelters had been blasted, and Iraqi aircraft were “running out of places to hide:” said the CINC.

So the planes turned tail. .Within days, eighty-nine Iraqi aircraft, including top-of-the-line MiG and Mirage fighters and a warning-and-control radar plane, were flown out of harm’s way to safe havens in Iran, presumably for the duration of the war.

Iraq’s chemical, biological, and nuclear warfare plants were top targets on General Hornets ATO. Allied planes and ships mounted 535 sorties with Tomahawks and air-launched, precision guided missiles against thirty-one plant sites.

“We have destroyed all of their nuclear facilities,” said the commander in chief of the coalition forces two weeks into the war. He reported that Baghdad Nuclear Research Center “has been leveled to rubble” and that more than half of the chemical and biological warfare plants “have been severely damaged or totally destroyed.” General Schwarzkopf promised to “continue a relentless attack” on Iraq’s “heinous” chemical/biological weapons facilities.

As the coalition’s warplanes intensified their firepower against Iraqi ground forces in Kuwait, much of it directed at the Republican Guards, the occupied by those forces took on the look of a moonscape. B-52s from Diego Garcia and Jidda, Saudi Arabia, bombed the Iraqi almost without letup.

Said General Schwarzkopf, “We’re targeting the Republican Guards with about 300 sorties a day. We’re using very accurate bombing even in bad weather. The many secondary explosions are confirming that we’re inflicting continuous damage on them.”

In a typical day, twenty-seven B-52s dropped 455 tons of explosives on the Republican Guards, “not to mention the other strikes that we’re doing with F-16s F-15Es, A-6s etc.,” the commanding General said.

In one fifteen-hour stretch, such bombing destroyed 178 trucks, destroyed or damaged fifty-five artillery pieces and fifty-two tanks, and caused “heavy secondary explosions from revetments and fires all over the area,” including spectacular pyrotechnics from the explosion of 125 storage revetments “in the largest ammo storage area” in northern Kuwait, the CINC said.

He emphasized that allied planes were “attacking very close in to our [ground forces] positions, with over 300 sorties a day.” He noted, for example, that Marine Corps F/A-18s and Air Force A-10s in the course of one day, had destroyed at least fifty-four armored personnel carriers, eight tanks, a half-dozen self-propelled artillery pieces, and numerous FROG (free rocket over ground) missiles and heavy-equipment transports.

He tipped his cap to the Navy for its “great job in supporting the air campaign.” Through the first two weeks of the war, General Schwarzkopf said, the Navy flew 3,500 sorties from six aircraft carriers and launched more than 260 Tomahawks. The Navy also took to launching SLAMS–Standoff Land-Attack Missiles, a version of the AGM-84 Harpoon antiship missile that was in advanced development when the war began and that the Navy rushed into operation.

Though flexible, the allied air plan was never freewheeling. Everything about it had long since been thought through, organized, and coordinated. General Schwarzkopf set the objectives for the campaign last August, even before the massive US deployment to the Mideast in Operation Desert Shield. As the CINC worked up his strategy for the campaign to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, General Horner got down to details about the air campaign.

There was nothing impromptu about the air commander’s plan. He had known for quite some time that it might be needed. At CENTCOM headquarters, MacDill AFB, Fla., and in Air Staff plans and operations circles at the Pentagon, an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait had long ranked at or near the top of contingencies likely to confront the US in the post-cold war world.

General Horner and his staff had wide latitude. After the war began, he attributed the early success of the air campaign largely to “the freedom with which we’ve been able to plan it.” Apart from “stringent guidance with regard to civilian damage and things of that nature,” he had been given a free hand to “plan a very efficient military campaign,” he said.

There were no mysteries about how to do it. The basic elements of the plan were the same as in any war and in such exercises as Red Flag. The whole idea is always to establish air superiority–and preferably air supremacy, which means uncontested control of the air-and then to destroy the enemy’s offensive capabilities and roll back its defensive forces.

Gen. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, summed up: “The military objective that we set out to accomplish . . . is simply to eject the Iraqi army from Kuwait.”

How? “First we’re going to cut it off, and then we’re going to kill it,” General Powell declared.