Framework for Victory

Sept. 1, 2003

For all practical purposes, the verdict is in: The decisive military factor in Gulf War II was “jointness.” It is agreed that the US was able to pulverize Iraqi defenses because air, space, land, and sea forces worked togethr as never before.

Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the war commander, and Donald H. Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, say US forces did more than simply stay out of each other’s way. They achieved true “integration” of their efforts. Victory stemmed from joint power—not any single service.

Franks and Rumsfeld are clearly correct. It has never made sense to assert that one service is more “decisive” than another.

However, this does not mean the debate has ended. New lessons-learned reports regularly appear. (Example: A June 23 paper by the Center for Army Lessons Learned says the war “validated … the continuing relevance of the Army’s heavy forces.”) Such analyses are bound to stir new controversies.

These postwar reviews—especially DOD’s main report, now in preparation at US Joint Forces Command—are important. Rumsfeld says the JFCOM study “will most certainly affect how the armed forces … organize, train, and equip for many years to come.”

JFCOM’s final review may not be out for a while, but some general conclusions about air and space power already can be reached.

For instance, no one seriously questions the enormous value of strategic and tactical airlift or the advantage conferred by air superiority in the most recent war.

Likewise, space power is widely recognized as a critical force multiplier, as is the Air Force’s unmatched air refueling capability. Stealth proved itself once again.

As for precision guided weapons, all signs are that Iraqi forces took so much damage from the air that they often could not engage US ground forces.

“Shooters” dropped 29,199 bombs and missiles, two-thirds of them precision guided. Rumsfeld called it “the most powerful and precise air campaign” ever.

Some believe that the impact of airpower is felt in deeper and even more important ways.

In a new study for the Aerospace Education Foundation, Rebecca Grant, a top airpower analyst, concludes that Gulf War II was “an airpower war.” She does not claim USAF won the war. Rather, she reports, airpower created a “framework for victory.”

Airpower, Grant writes, set the conditions for success. It made it possible to: destroy Iraqi air defenses and communications in advance of war; reshuffle, at the last minute, the order of opening attacks; wipe out much of the Republican Guard before US forces came into contact; sustain the war even when the ground force was not moving; and wage simultaneous and very different wars in the south, north, and west of Iraq.

This framework, Grant argues, afforded coalition forces unprecedented flexibility, power, speed, and surprise. It allowed a relatively small coalition ground force to handle potential threats ranging from armor attack and Scud launches to terrorism and oil field sabotage, while opening the way for a rapid advance on Baghdad.

In Senate testimony, Rumsfeld offered his own view of the war’s key lessons. He noted (besides jointness) three factors: speed, intelligence, and precision.

He said “overmatching power”—power delivered precisely and at precisely the right moment—is more important than “overwhelming force,” and that while the US once defined force in terms of mass—the number of troops on the ground—“mass may no longer be the best measure of power in a conflict.”

Rumsfeld’s words echo “Joint Vision 2010,” a 1996 Joint Chiefs of Staff paper that held that information technology and precision strike—hallmarks of airpower—made it possible to produce the “effects” of mass without actually massing troops and equipment.

Rumsfeld’s remarks suggested endorsement of “effects-based operations”—attacks designed not to destroy a target but rather to produce a desired effect. Careful targeting and precision munitions lessened the danger to noncombatants, producing fewer civilian casualties. Today, EBO is largely an airpower domain.

A fundamental difference between Gulf War I and Gulf War II was use of information to dramatically compress the time required for an attack. The infrastructure that made the difference—mobile intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance systems, powerful and reliable voice and data communications—was provided by air and space forces.

Maj. Gen. David A. Deptula, Air Combat Command’s director of plans and programs, and Lt. Col. Sigfred J. Dahl, wrote recently that the wars of the 1990s, and Gulf War II especially, saw “the use of airpower as a distinct maneuver element against enemy ground forces.” He predicted more of these “battlefield air operations” in which ground forces will support air operations.

Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the Gulf War air boss, recently concluded his own lessons-learned report, which, according to the various press accounts, noted not just successes but also a number of shortcomings, such as weak battle damage assessment and shortages of electronic bandwidth.

Those specific problems, however, certainly are negligible compared to the magnitude of airpower’s contribution to the joint fight in Iraq.

We repeat: This war was won by the Joint Force, not the Air Force. Given different circumstances, airpower might not look as dominating as it did last spring in Iraq. However, it’s hard to deny that, in Gulf War II, airpower made it happen.