Airpower in Southwest Asia

Aug. 1, 1987

The most intense air war in the world today is the Iran-Iraq conflict, now in its seventh tragic year. In Afghanistan, Soviet air-power plays an important role in the struggle, now in its eighth year for control of that devastated nation. Both the Iran-Iraq war and Soviet aggression in Afghanistan are of special concern to the US in the conduct of international security af­fairs.

The Iran-Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are being waged within the confines of the world’s most politi­cally tumultuous region. This vol­atile and incredibly diverse area, which really can be considered as a single geographical region only in the context of US security objec­tives, is outlined by the limits of the United States Central Command.

Ethnicity, tribalism, a patchwork of languages, religious differences, and political divisions superim­posed across cultural boundaries all contribute to instability and con­front US security interests in the area at all levels across the spectrum of conflict. The overland distances, rigorous terrain, and lack of war-fighting infrastructure increasingly make tactical airpower the deciding factor in conflicts in the region.

The primary importance of this area to the free world is, of course, oil. Over the past year, the US has more than doubled its imports of Gulf oil, and many Asian and West­ern European states increasingly rely on the Gulf to satisfy a signifi­cant percentage of their require­ments. Altogether, about one out of every three barrels of oil imported by the non-Communist world is pumped from the Gulf. More signifi­cantly, more than half of the world’s proven oil reserves are located there. Over the longer term, begin­ning in the early 1990s, the area will increase in importance as domestic US and European sources of oil di­minish and become increasingly ex­pensive to recover.

Also significant are the area’s strategic chokepoints, including the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, and Bab el Mandeb, the strait link­ing the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The nations that control these routes of commerce have an importance for all of us far out of proportion to their size and gross national product.

The Iran-Iraq War

The seven-year-old Iran-Iraq war is the result of both a centuries-old territorial dispute and a conflict of ideologies. This war is a curious hodgepodge of strategy and tactics, one being fought with a World War I mentality in the age of high technol­ogy. Iran’s use of zealous Revolu­tionary Guards (Basij), attacking in human waves against strong for­tifications, is reminiscent of the Russian Front in World War I. The Revolutionary Guards are essen­tially a light infantry force, often with little professional military training, but with audacity and a firm commitment to Islam. This, along with heavy (and continuous) artillery barrages against an en­trenched enemy and the use of poi­son gas, has led to high casualties on both sides. There have been more than a million casualties so far. Iraq has lost fully three percent of its population and Iran 1.5 percent of its much larger population in this strange war of attrition.

When the war began in the fall of 1980, both states had large invento­ries of combat aircraft. Under the Shah, Iran was well equipped with more than 450 aircraft, including the F-14 (with the Phoenix missile), F-4, F-5, P-3, C-130 aircraft, and helicopter gunships. The Iranian revolution and the wave of im­prisonments, executions, and exiles cost the Imperial Iranian Air Force its best officers. An arms embargo grounded most of the combat fleet. These factors reduced the Air Force of the Islamic Republic of Iran to little more than a static display. By 1986, the International Institute for Strategic Studies rated Iran’s effec­tive air strength at about eighty op­erational F-14, F-4CID, and F-SE/F fighters.

In contrast, Iraq’s air force was, and still is, equipped with large numbers of Soviet tactical combat aircraft and a smaller number of so­phisticated French fighters. At the outbreak of hostilities, according to Institute figures, Iraq possessed slightly more than 330 combat air­craft, including MiG-19s, -21s, and -23s, Su-7s and -20s, and a small bomber force that included the Tu-22. By 1986, Iraq’s air order of battle had increased to more than 500 combat aircraft and almost 100 armed helicopters. Iraq had also added MiG-25 aircraft and a small number of French-built Mirage F-1 fighter-bombers with Exocet mis­siles.

With these resources and the dis­parity in force structure, Iraq has held air superiority since early in the conflict despite problems with training, doctrine, and operational skills. Even so, Iraq used its air force timidly and ineffectively in the early stages of the conflict. Thus, tactical airpower on both sides con­tributed only modestly to the course of the conflict during the first five years, and neither side used its modern systems effectively.

Escalation With Airpower

Since 1985, however, Iraq has es­calated the economic war through the use of its air force. It has struck oil export facilities, oil fields, and refineries by air, using its Russian and French fighter-bombers. Iraq’s strategy appears to be to employ tactical airpower to strangle Iran economically. Iraq is enjoying some success, though it remains to be seen whether this will materially af­fect the outcome of the conflict.

It is unlikely that Iran will seriously be able to contest Iraq’s con­trol of the air anytime soon. Iran has to gain a military victory on the ground, and it must accomplish this before a deteriorating economy un­dermines the Iranian political struc­ture. In the past several months, Iran has mounted a series of at­tacks, which apparently have met with some small success. To accom­plish this, Iran has used its three-to­-one population advantage, attack­ing with little sensitivity to losses, using massive artillery barrages coupled with waves of massed Basij volunteers.

Recent Iranian offensives (code-named “Karbala IV” through “Karbala X”) have taken their toll on Iraq, both in air and ground force losses. According to published ac­counts, these Iranian offensives have cost Iraq about ten percent of its total air strength—roughly again as many aircraft as Iraq had lost total since the war started in 1980. The losses underscore both im­proved Iranian air defenses and Iraq’s increased willingness to use its air force to counter Iranian nu­merical superiority on the ground. Iraq does not have much more land it can yield to Iranian advances without incurring unacceptable po­litical repercussions.

In addition, there are many—as yet unconfirmed—reports that Iran has purchased a number of Chinese fighter/ground attack aircraft (spe­cifically the F-6, a Chinese deriva­tive of the Soviet MiG-19). China, it appears, is emerging as a significant source of arms to the Islamic Re­public of Iran, firm Chinese denials of an arms-transfer relationship with Iran notwithstanding. On the other hand, numerous reports say that the Soviets have moved quickly to replace Iraq’s losses with some of their latest systems—including MiG-27 and MiG-29 aircraft, the lat­ter having “look-down/shoot-down” capability.

An important corollary to the Iran-Iraq conflict has been a series of attacks on oil tankers and mer­chant shipping in the Gulf. Begin­ning in February 1984, more than 200 attacks had been mounted through 1986, most of them carried out by tactical fighters. This coun­ternaval use of land-based tactical airpower is a continuing source of concern to those nations needing Gulf oil, since Iraq has targeted shipping that supports the Iranian oil export trade. Iran has targeted the ships of moderate Gulf states and other nonbelligerents that it felt to be supporting the Iraqi war effort. Kuwaiti flag carriers have been especially hard hit, which has prompted widely reported discus­sions on the need for protection of Kuwaiti and other nonbelligerent Gulf shipping.

A continuation of attacks on ship­ping as well as bombing raids on Iran’s oil facilities in the Gulf (such as Kharg Island) can be expected. Iran, lacking an effective counter to Iraqi attacks on shipping, may re­taliate against those Gulf nations ap­pearing to aid the Iraqi war effort. This more effective use of tacair car­ries a danger of widening the number of participants in the war, to the detriment of the world’s econo­my.

Both Iran and Iraq have em­ployed aircraft extensively in the tanker war. Iraq has found a potent combination in the Mirage F-1 and the Exocet missile, as demon­strated by the tragic attack on the USS Stark in May. Iran has report­edly used its P-3 and C-130 aircraft to track maritime targets and then attack them with either F-4s (with Maverick missiles) or armed heli­copters.

The widely reported Iranian ac­quisition of large, Chinese-made surface-to-surface cruise missiles has added a new and dangerous di­mension to the Gulf crisis. It is un­clear what use Iran may make of these weapons, which, unlike other munitions employed in the tanker war to date, have the capability to sink large oil tankers. This could lead to a de facto closure of the Strait of Hormuz and almost cer­tainly would invite both intra- and interregional military involvement.

The Afghanistan Conflict

The war in Afghanistan has dev­astated and depopulated much of the countryside. A standoff remains between the Soviet/Afghan military and the freedom fighters (mujahe­deen), with heavy losses on both sides. After nearly eight years of brutal occupation, the Soviet Union has failed to consolidate its rule and has been forced to revise its military tactics drastically. Today, Soviet military forces focus more on small unit operations with specialized (Spetznaz) units and air attacks and no longer rely as much on massive valley sweep operations. The mili­tary campaign has been ruthless and has included a “scorched earth” policy.

In the 1987 issue of Soviet Mili­tary Power, the US Department of Defense observed that “the mixed success of the Soviets in attaining their basic military objective is due largely to their inability to build the Afghan armed forces into an effec­tive, independent fighting force.” This is certainly true in the case of the Afghan air force, which has proven ineffective and which lost, reportedly to mujahedeen sabo­tage, a whole squadron of fighter aircraft in a single incident in 1985. However, the losses by the Afghan air force are being heavily backstop­ped by the Russians. Soviet Military Power further says that “some of the latest equipment in the Soviet in­ventory is being deployed to Af­ghanistan, not only for testing but also for improving firepower, mobil­ity, and survivability of Soviet forces.”

The Soviets have employed tac­tical airpower in the conflict with effectiveness and resourcefulness, using such improved ground attack systems as the Su-25 Frogfoot fight­er and the Mi-24 Hind helicopter, and have placed greater emphasis on aggressiveness and indepen­dence of action by Soviet aircrews.

As a professional US airman, I cannot help but think how the con­flict is giving a generation of Soviet pilots actual combat experience at a time when the US combat-condi­tioned aircrews of the Vietnam era are fast approaching retirement. With Soviet troop strength in Af­ghanistan continuously higher than 100,000 since December 1979, large numbers of Soviet military men, pi­lots included, have rotated through combat assignments, and there are now increasing indications that a tour in Afghanistan is an important step for professional officers. From our standpoint, this Soviet combat exercise has implications for US servicemen worldwide. They would now face a better combat-trained enemy than would have been the case in the 1970s.

The Afghan freedom fighters, the mujahedeen, remain committed to the struggle, which they view as a religious obligation. Soviet and Afghan MiG aircraft are not very effective against the resistance. The relentless bombing of civilian vil­lages and destruction of crops have robbed the mujahedeen of some of their support, however, as the local inhabitants have fled the country. The Hind helicopter gunships, heavily armed and armored and each capable of carrying a squad of troops, have been harder for the mujahedeen to deal with.

Recent mujahedeen advances in air defense, with use of man-porta­ble surface-to-air missiles said to be increasing, have driven Soviet air­craft to higher altitudes and have taken an increased toll on aircraft and helicopters. At the very least, these small, mobile missiles have made the Soviets revise their air tac­tics. The mujahedeen are holding their own against the Soviets—for now. The immediate future will be critical. While the war has been costly for the Soviets, there is little indication that the Soviet military occupation will be a short one or that final withdrawal of Soviet forces will be on terms other than favorable for the Soviets.

Across the Border

Just as the flexibility of airpower has contributed greatly to a broad­ening of the Iran-Iraq war, so too has tactical airpower extended the war in Afghanistan into Pakistan. Soviet

aggression in Afghanistan has driv­en millions of refugees across the border, and threats against Pakistan for support of Afghan resistance and refugees have been thinly veiled. Pakistan remains strong in its support of the mujahedeen, de­spite a Soviet campaign of sabotage and subversion in the border areas. Soviet/Afghan air violations of Pakistan’s territory to attack the ref­ugee sanctuaries tripled in 1986, and cross-border artillery shellings in­creased by a factor of five.

These violations have posed some real problems for Pakistan. Its air force has been equipped mostly with older Chinese systems, nota­bly the F-6 (a twin-engine derivative of the Soviet M1G- 19) and the A5 (a twin-engine ground-attack hybrid, mating the F-6 and other technolo­gies). Pakistan’s air defense struc­ture has not been up to dealing with the Soviet/Afghan air threat, and initial Soviet air incursions and bombing of border areas and refu­gee camps went unanswered.

More recently, US security assis­tance, including transfer of the F- 16 multirole fighter, has strengthened Pakistan in this regard. The height­ened tempo of the air war along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan has caused the Pakistanis to redou­ble their efforts to seek improve­ment of their command and control network, particularly their airborne early warning and control capabili­ties.

Challenges to Regional Stability

In intraregional crises short of overt Soviet aggression, US policy is based on the assumption that states should answer their own se­curity challenges wherever possi­ble. However, at the request of friendly states, the US has some­times responded to contingencies with sized force packages. Given the great distances and the need for rapid response in such cases, the support has involved tactical air packages of fighters, tankers, and/ or early warning aircraft—or tac­tical air assets on US Navy carriers. To date, such deployments have in­variably been successful in defuzing potentially explosive situations.

On several occasions in the 1960s and 1970s, fighter aircraft were dis­patched to Saudi Arabia to demon­strate US support for Saudi sovereignty and US resolve. The ex­tended US E-3A AWACS deploy­ment to Saudi Arabia, continuing since 1980, has helped send the same message: It is our intent to keep the Gulf war from spreading. On three occasions in 1983 and 1984, USCENTCOM deployed AWACS, tanker, reconnaissance, and other assets to friendly states in the Middle East to aid them in re­sponding to actual or imminent ag­gression. With these few exceptions in which our friends asked for con­tingency help, moderate regional states have answered their security challenges successfully and without recourse to US force involvement.

To promote these successes, and in the absence of forward-deployed US forces, security assistance is an especially important tool for US­CENTCOM. A comprehensive US security assistance effort to the moderate regional states, to include US arms transfers, may limit or ob­viate entirely the need for involve­ment of US forces in situations short of overt Soviet aggression. In any case, these security assistance efforts enhance military coopera­tion and interoperability with US forces and promote development of such regional defense organizations as the Gulf Cooperation Council, which seeks to reduce threats to sta­bility.

There is no better single example of the impact and effectiveness of the US security assistance program in the region than the 1984 Saudi response to airspace violation by Iranian fighter aircraft—an intru­sion that threatened critical Saudi oil facilities. US-built Saudi F-15 aircraft intercepted the intruders and downed at least one. This sin­gle, resolute act undoubtedly has had a containing effect on the Gulf war. It also bolstered the confidence of the Royal Saudi Air Force.

Faced with diplomatic constraints on US presence in the region, it is easy to understand that the security assistance effort has become a pro­foundly important aspect of US re­lations and interaction. In several cases, most notably Egypt and Pakistan, states that once relied on Communist support have “bought American” and are integrating US aircraft into air forces even though they are still predominantly equipped with Soviet or Chinese air­craft. In one other case—North Yemen—US and Soviet security as­sistance efforts coexist on the same airfield. US-built Yemeni F-5s com­pete daily in a not-so-friendly rival­ry with Soviet-supplied Yemeni MiGs. This interesting situation may work to US advantage, since, from all reports, the Soviet assis­tance suffers by comparison.

The Russians Push South

While the challenges to regional stability are many, the main threat to US and free world interests in the area is that posed by the Soviet Union. While the Russian invasion of Afghanistan caught analysts off guard in December 1979, Soviet am­bitions toward this entire region should not have come as a surprise. The Russians have tried to expand their borders and influence south­ward since the time of Peter the Great in the seventeenth century. This desire to expand to the south does not appear to have diminished during the Soviet era, as pre- and post-World War II Soviet machina­tions in Iranian Azerbaijan attest.

Today, in addition to bases in Af­ghanistan, the Soviets have the use of military facilities in Ethiopia and South Yemen. They also have a large advisory presence across Af­rica, providing access to a network of bases from which Soviet naval forces in the Indian Ocean could threaten critical sea lines of commu­nication.

In the early 1980s, the Soviet forces that directly faced Iran and the Gulf were assigned to a new So­viet Southern Theater of Military Operations (or Southern TVD). These forces include more than thir­ty mechanized and armored divi­sions and nearly 1,000 tactical aircraft. There are many questions yet unanswered about this southern theater, but the man in charge is General of the Army Mikhail Zaytsev, the former commander of the Group of Soviet Forces Ger­many. As commander of the South­ern TVD, he is a combined-arms commander, directing all operations in the area, including those in Af­ghanistan. He reports directly to the Supreme Soviet High Command. The orientation of his TVD has evi­denced a more aggressive character over the last several years.

Southern TVD air assets include all the primary, state-of-the-art So­viet fighters, including the MiG-29 Fulcrum (a very capable counterair fighter), the Su-25 Frogfoot (front­line close air support aircraft), Su-24 Fencer (highly versatile all-weather fighter-bomber), Su-27 Flanker (air-superiority intercep­tor), as well as the Mi-26 Halo (the world’s largest heavy lift helicop­ter).

CENTCOM as Counter

The only effective counter to this threat from the Southern TVD would be the forces of US­CENTCOM. Born out of the real­ization that the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force could only be a temporary remedy for a more per­manent problem, the command was established in 1983 as a separate unified command at MacDill AFB, Fla. It reflects a growing US recog­nition of the importance of the re­gion and its resources, the region’s instability, and the threat of poten­tial Soviet aggression.

The Gulf is more than 7,000 air miles from the eastern United States, and the sea lines around the Cape of Good Hope are more than 12,000 miles long. Challenges in­clude the lack of transportation and communications infrastructures, an expansive and physically rigorous region, and diplomatic limitations on US military access that inhibit prepositiornng of forces for deter­rence. This latter factor slows, somewhat, US response to con­tingencies. The US must rely in­stead on the rapid deployment of CONUS-based forces.

Several carrier battle groups and a substantial number of tactical air force squadrons are part of the available planning force. Tactical airpower can disrupt and delay a So­viet invasion of Iran, should the Russians choose that route. It is the tactical fighters and attack aircraft of the US Air Force and Navy, cou­pled with the conventional bombing capability of the B-52, that could provide the hammer to blunt a Sovi­et advance. The rugged terrain awaiting advancing Soviet forces in northern Iran would support a suc­cessful US air interdiction cam­paign.

Given Iran’s limited road network through these mountains to the south of the Soviet border and the many associated physical con­straints and chokepoints facing ve­hicular traffic, air interdiction could be expected to degrade Soviet op­erations seriously. US tactical strikes could focus precisely on such constrictions and choke-points. The employment of “smart” munitions is absolutely critical here, not only because of the nature of the threat and the need for preci­sion delivery but also because of the long logistics tail that restricts the quantity of munitions that can be transported. The rapid introduction of US tactical airpower and the sub­sequent air interdiction campaign would provide additional time for major US ground forces to reach the area, if required.

The threat of rapidly deployable and combat-capable tactical air-power and conventional B-52s pro­vides an effective deterrent to di­rect, large-scale Soviet military aggression. Our new national re­solve in recognition of the region’s importance has caused more than one analyst to remind us that where the US has marked an area as vital and has developed a military capa­bility to intervene effectively, these factors have served as a deterrent and as a barrier to direct, overt So­viet military intervention.

The area stretching from Egypt eastward through Pakistan and south across the Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa to Kenya is an area in which the importance of tactical airpower is magnified. The intratheater distances, coupled with the lack of roads, harsh terrain, and lack of large standing armed forces and military supporting infrastruc­tures, have caused regional states as well as the United States to lean toward tactical airpower as a prob­lem-solver in crises.

Tactical airpower hasn’t always been employed to full capacity in regional conflicts, as the Iran-Iraq war shows, but it remains a vital component in protecting the ter­ritorial integrity of moderate region­al states and an important tool in promoting and defending US secu­rity objectives, particularly in this region almost devoid of other US forces. The hallmarks of tactical air-power, including speed, flexibility, power, and, in some cases, indica­tions of serious intent, make tactical airpower—both land-based and sea-­based—the cornerstone for re­sponding rapidly to regional securi­ty challenges. Only airpower gives credibility to US security policy at such long distances and in such a difficult environment.

At the time this article was written, Ma]. Gen. Davis C. Rohr, USAF (Ret.), was Deputy Commander in Chief, US Central Command, MacDill AFB, Fla. In this capacity, General Rohr was responsible for US military activity in a nineteen-country area in the Persian Gulf, Horn of Africa, and Southwest Asia. A West Point graduate, General Rohr flew 245 combat missions as an F-100 pilot during the Vietnam War. He assumed his position at US Central Command in August 1984. He recently retired.