The Redefinition of Strategic Airpower

Oct. 1, 2003

Strategic airpower. … The words still bring to mind the image of B-29s launching from Saipan or B-52s over Hanoi. Since Gulf War I in 1991, however, the concept of “strategic” airpower has been stretched to include not just heavy bombers but bomb droppers of all types—from stealthy F-117 fighters to pilotless cruise missiles.

It was Operation Iraqi Freedom, though, that redefined the planning and execution of strategic airpower once and for all. B-52s equipped with targeting pods dropped laser guided bombs. A B-1B carried out a quick-response strike targeting Saddam Hussein and his top henchmen. Stealthy B-2s attacked Republican Guard targets. In sum, all the old strategic airpower targeting categories went out the window.

Gone, too, were preconceived ideas about phasing and timing, overwhelming blows, and the place of strategic attacks within the joint campaign. Neither the most enthusiastic airman nor the “shock-and-awe” crowd nor the media pundits could have foreseen exactly how diverse and flexible strategic airpower would turn out to be.

With clever advance preparation, and overwhelming force, the strategic air attacks of Operation Iraqi Freedom closed the door on many old verities and cleared the way for new ones.

The success of strategic attack operations in Gulf War II came against a backdrop of continued suspicion about the concept of strategic airpower itself.

Magnet for Controversy

Strategic attack long has been one of the most potent and controversial forms of modern airpower. The massed raids of World War II helped win the war, but they also left behind long-lasting images of devastation that made strategic airpower a magnet for political controversy.

Even the recent buildup of precision guided weapons did not end the debate. Precision bombing of fixed targets in and around Belgrade in 1999 attracted criticism and fretful comparisons to the past, despite the fact that NATO member nations approved each and every target before it was struck.

Strategic airpower’s controversial image was still alive in 2003. The first television pictures of bombs exploding in Baghdad triggered an outburst of criticism, even though one such picture showed several Joint Direct Attack Munitions going off in a well-placed line, signifying extraordinary accuracy.

Reporters pelted US military briefers with questions about the bombing. One asked, “When will you show us pictures of what happens when precision bombs don’t go where they are supposed to, when they fail to hit their designated targets, or if they fail to go off at all?”

With the cessation of major combat operations came charges of ineffectiveness.

One such complainant was Thomas Houlahan, a former Army officer and now director of the Military Assessment Program at James Madison University in Virginia. In an April 23 UPI dispatch, Houlahan opined that “dramatically increased bombing accuracy notwithstanding, strategic bombing once again failed to bring Saddam Hussein’s regime to its knees.”

The recycled complaints missed a more important point. History aside, the actual employment of strategic airpower had changed—dramatically and for the first time in decades.

From 1918, when US airpower was first used in true combat, right through the end of the 20th century, the tools of strategic airpower changed but the underlying principles did not. Take, for example, the first American treatise on the subject. In 1919, Maj. Edgar S. Gorrell, US Army Air Service, wrote up the history of “strategical” bombardment in World War I. He observed that both sides realized “that to affect the armies in the fields it is necessary to affect the manufacturing output of the countries” supporting them.

The 1991 Gulf War marked immense improvement in the technical capabilities of airpower. US airplanes struck more targets on the first day of Gulf War I than Eighth Air Force struck in the entirety of the combined bomber offensive of 1942-43. However, the style of strategic attack in the 1991 war would have been recognizable to planners in 1943 or even to Gorrell.

Case in point: The Gulf War I targeting categories—airfields, industries, lines of communications, and so on—were roughly analogous to those of the earlier wars. Moreover, strategic attacks were planned and assessed as an independent component of the overall campaign. Strategic airpower focused on key target sets measured and sequenced to create specific effects on the enemy’s will and capacity to fight. It was the same whether it was Breguet biplanes bombing German towns in World War I or F-117 stealth fighters striking Baath Party headquarters in 1991. Rules of the road for strategic airpower in 1991 were not so different from those in 1918 or 1943.

The key step forward in Operation Desert Storm was that multiple types of target sets were attacked at once and with far fewer sorties. In fact, strategic targets took up barely a fifth of the total of 41,309 strike sorties flown during Gulf War I. Direct attacks on fielded forces still mattered greatly, far more than some theorists would concede. More than half of the strike sorties flown in Gulf War I were directed against Iraqi fielded military forces.

Steps Forward

For the rest of the 1990s, strategic airpower capabilities grew and evolved. More fighters became precision fighter-bombers. The JDAM, which was guided by GPS satellite signals rather than by a laser beam or an infrared emanation, conquered weather because it could attack precisely through rain, fog, and clouds. Improved intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance capability in both manned and unmanned vehicles increased the output of real-time targeting information.

The debut of the stealthy B-2 with JDAM in Operation Allied Force in 1999 and the dominance of precision weapons in the NATO-led campaign hinted at what was to come.

Theories about strategic airpower flourished, too. Most concentrated on gains in precision and information technologies, as they seemed to promise that parallel warfare might now be possible for strategic airpower.

Next came a concept of rapid dominance that seemed a perfect fit with strategic airpower. Seductive and empirical, rapid aerospace dominance and parallel warfare became popular themes of future military planning.

Harlan K. Ullman and James P. Wade and their collaborators put these thoughts into a 1996 book under the terminology “shock and awe.” Although it came from outside official government circles, this concept captured the hopes that precise, discriminate airpower might now be capable of inflicting that overwhelming blow. As applied to strategic airpower, the shock-and-awe concept also retained the core DNA of strategic campaigns: the notion of independent effects so powerful they would put all other aspects of air warfare and joint operations in the shade.

Those who had experience in employing strategic airpower knew better than to expect such miracles. Moreover, the 1990s crop of strategic airpower theories dwelt too much on features of strategic airpower that were about to pass: isolation, rigid synchronization, and targeting to paralyze a whole state.

Operation Enduring Freedom, the 2001 war in and over Afghanistan, pried open the concept a bit more. The war opened with a short, sharp air campaign to firmly establish air superiority, but the main action centered on air strikes to aid attacks by Afghan irregular forces on the strong points of the ruling Taliban.

As Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said at the time, there were “not a lot of high value targets” in Afghanistan, and thus there was scant reason to conduct a traditional strategic campaign. Rather, the role of strategic airpower was to work with special operations forces on the ground and carry out swift strikes that stayed in step with constantly shifting command priorities—for example, hitting leadership targets.

If the Afghan war stretched the concept of strategic airpower, Gulf War II broke it wide open. As late as March 2003, it seemed that US Central Command might begin the war with an air campaign of a few weeks in advance of ground operations. Gen. Richard B. Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, implied this on March 4. Just over two weeks later, however, the old ideas about phasing and target categories fell by the wayside. CENTCOM first launched a sudden, highly constrained surgical strike in an attempt to kill Saddam Hussein. Then came the ground campaign.

The full force of the air campaign (“A-day”) did not begin “in earnest” until half a day after the start of the ground war. On March 21 at about 9 p.m. local time, bombers, fighters, and cruise-missile-firing warships unleashed precision attacks on numerous fixed, strategic targets throughout Iraq. Thirty minutes later, Rumsfeld announced at a Pentagon press conference that A-day was under way. “Their [Iraqi] ability to see what is happening on the battlefield, to communicate with their forces, and to control their country is slipping away,” Rumsfeld said as the attacks started. The precision-heavy strikes fanned out across Iraq’s major military centers. “Several hundred military targets will be hit over the coming hours,” Myers added.

The opening salvo left observers wondering why the strategic air war didn’t unfold differently. In fact, the air component had already accomplished the most vital task assigned to strategic airpower: gaining access to the battlespace. With that advantage, CENTCOM could juggle its opening move.

More important, the opening rounds of Operation Iraqi Freedom proved that 21st century strategic airpower was no longer tied to traditional timetables. Strategic forces did not mount a parallel attack in isolation. Rather, strategic airpower bent and flexed to fit an array of campaign objectives, ranging from suppressing enemy communications to pursuing time critical targets. Strategic airpower could operate anywhere, anytime, and commanders varied the phasing of strategic attacks with other jobs of the air and land campaign.

The objective was not, as some anticipated, to affect the will, perception, and understanding of the Iraqi leaders. A-day strikes were more focused, with more specific objectives. The more than 500 cruise missile strikes and about 700 aircraft strikes, carried out across Iraq, went after command and control, communications, and Republican Guard headquarters and facilities.

The strategic air campaign of Operation Iraqi Freedom was guided by a philosophy wholly different from what had come before. It was one of a handful of distinct air battles being waged by the air component. Its goals came directly from the broad joint campaign objectives articulated by Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander, US Central Command. It was not crafted to overturn the regime in a single night or to send messages. Planners made no attempt to lace together clever patterns of air strikes in hopes of breaking the “will” of the people or deflating the regime by destroying categories of “strategic” targets it held most dear.

Gen. T. Michael Moseley, who was the combined force air component commander, declared that strategic attacks formed but a single portion of the spectrum of airpower at his command. The spectrum included—besides strategic attack—counterair, interdiction, close air support, mobility operations, and ISR, all employed simultaneously.

Nowhere was this refinement of thinking more evident than in the change in the strategy for targeting the electrical grid.

In 1991, electricity was one of the 12 major strategic targeting categories set forth by coalition planners working in “the Black Hole,” the nickname given to the Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, workplace used by a special Air Force planning group. Shutting down the electric grid—to undermine the enemy’s will to fight—was an idea that harkened back to strategic bombing theories of World War II. Desert Storm aircrews flying B-52s, A-6s, F-111s, F-16s, F/A-18s, and GR1s carried out 202 strikes on electricity targets. Ships at sea struck the grid with 63 Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles. While this was a small fraction of the master target list’s 9,731 total “strategic” strikes on targets ranging from airfields to Scud sites, the electricity targets represented an effort to paralyze Saddam’s regime and to do it with discrimination, to lessen the impact on civilians.

The Air Force’s postwar survey found that the attacks shut down 88 percent of Iraq’s generation and distribution capacity, leaving in operation only smaller, local plants that had not been attacked. However, the survey also found that these attacks pushed “the Iraqi leadership and military on to backup power.” Turning the lights out in Baghdad did not leave Saddam Hussein in the dark. Nor did it cut off military communications or darken the screens of surface-to-air missile operators and other forces with their own power generators.

In Gulf War II, the power grid did not occupy the same central place in airpower calculations. “There are other ways of taking down the integrated air defenses,” Vice Adm. Timothy J. Keating, the Navy’s 5th Fleet commander, told the New York Times.

“You can disable the radars by striking them. You can take down the facility itself by putting a bomb in the roof. Or you can disable the means of communicating the information drawn by the radars and observers to higher headquarters.”

Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Leaf, Moseley’s point man working with the land component commander, concurred, noting in a New York Times interview that there were many ways to attack “without really turning off the juice.”

Commanders now had minute control over the effects to be produced by strategic airpower. In the past, it would have been impossible to identify and strike enough individual pieces of the air defense network to make a difference. The theory of targeting electricity sought to boil down to a manageable group the number of strike sorties needed to achieve an effect such as disabling air defenses. Now, with the guarantee of precision, there was no need to take such a secondary route.

Nor were specific assets dedicated to “strategic” attacks. Instead, bombers, fighters, and unmanned aerial vehicles shared responsibilities for attacking strategic targets. Moseley’s strategic campaign was defined by its output—the product, such as targets killed—not by the input—the number of sorties and tonnage dropped.

OIF’s greatly enhanced ISR architecture made strategic airpower more efficient, flexible, and discriminate. “In Desert Storm, pilots used target photos that were often two or three days old,” Myers said. “Today, our aircrews have photos that are often only hours old and can determine coordinates for precision engagement in just 20 minutes.” In some cases, the process moved even faster.

In the 2003 Iraq war, strategic airpower had four major roles. First, already achieved by March, was to guarantee access to the battlespace by neutralizing Iraq’s integrated air defenses. Second, strategic attacks sought to “strategically dislocate” the regime and narrow command and control of Iraqi military forces to a trickle. Third, the air component moved to maintain air superiority and extend it by destroying SAM batteries in the north. The fourth role was to go after the three categories of time sensitive targets: leadership, terrorists, and weapons of mass destruction.

These goals had to be pursued with the utmost effort to avoid collateral damage and deaths of civilians. This became an essential part of strategic airpower. “Do you want to see pictures on CNN of the baby who died because power to the incubator was cut off?” asked one planner, talking with Washington Post reporters.

Air strikes in Baghdad were not approved unless they met rigorous criteria. By the time Gulf War II began, the layout of the capital had been examined in minute detail, with the data going into a database of potential collateral damage metrics.

Next, the real-time control gave the air war planners the ability to chase time sensitive targets, such as Saddam and his two sons. The April 7 B-1B strike on a suspected leadership meeting site took about 45 minutes—first intelligence tip to bombs on target—and may have missed Saddam by minutes.

This strategic air campaign also made the most of an unprecedented ability to go after other fixed targets, like communications antennae. Part of the task of the strategic air campaign was to develop and pursue both fixed and mobile targets as the theater commander’s requirements dictated. Taking part were all types of aircraft, from B-2 bombers to Predator UAVs.

Gen. John P. Jumper, the Air Force Chief of Staff, described efforts “to shut down Iraqi TV” with a Predator strike. Iraq had a portable satellite dish, he said, “and they put it right outside the Grand Mosque in Baghdad. And of course we weren’t going to use a 1,000- or a 500-pound or a 2,000-pound bomb that close to the Grand Mosque.” An F-15 pilot, who happened to be “flying” an armed Predator UAV that day, blasted the antenna with a Hellfire missile, said Jumper.

In all, the coalition claimed to have struck 156 true TSTs and another 686 “dynamic” targets. It was a display of strategic airpower at a level of precision and responsiveness that could scarcely have been imagined only a decade earlier. Instead of delivering a massive blow, the air component provided rapid response to meet the commander’s intent.

Control over attacks on fixed targets far exceeded anything seen in previous wars. On the first day of the air war, Rumsfeld grew annoyed at comparisons with World War II. “There is no comparison,” he said. “The targeting capabilities and the care that goes into targeting, to see that the precise targets are struck and that other targets are not struck, is as impressive as anything anyone could see,” Rumsfeld said.

This high level of control and accuracy transformed the application of “strategic” airpower.

“ I think you have seen, time and time again, military targets fall while the civilian infrastructure remains in place,” Franks said a week into the campaign. “And it’s the same with civilian lives.” Bombs did sometimes malfunction, or go long and miss targets, but the coalition’s ability to adjust its attacks to minimize collateral damage was remarkable.

Strategic airpower remains one of the unique tools that airmen bring to warfare. No other implement can so rapidly reach so many types of targets—all at minimum risk and maximum effect. It is strategic airpower that takes the fight deep and can strike even the most heavily defended targets.

Gulf War II should put to rest the false debate about what strategic airpower can or cannot do on its own. Operation Iraqi Freedom was a mosaic of action at all points on the compass and at different levels of intensity. Fighters, bombers, and even Predator UAVs served as “strategic” weapons by striking high-value targets. Strategic airpower will continue to be a major advantage for US military forces, but it need no longer be tied down to its historical baggage.

Rebecca Grant is a contributing editor of Air Force Magazine. She is president of IRIS Independent Research in Washington, D.C., and has worked for Rand, the Secretary of the Air Force, and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Grant is a fellow of the Eaker Institute for Aerospace Concepts, the public policy and research arm of the Air Force Association’s Aerospace Education Foundation. Her most recent article, “Saddam’s Elite in the Meat Grinder,” appeared in the September issue.