Lesson Number One

Oct. 1, 1991

On the eve of the Persian Gulf War, President Bush summoned the Joint Chiefs of Staff to Camp David to hear their views on how it would go. The Air Force’s Gen. Merrill A. McPeak “told me exactly what to expect from airpower” and was so upbeat about it that the President suspected him of overstating his case, Mr. Bush recalled later.

As it turned out, “General McPeak, like the rest of the Air Force, was right on target. . . . Lesson number one from the Gulf War is the value of airpower,” the President declared.

Airpower was a big winner in that war for all the world to see. Operation Desert Storm left no doubt that airpower can dominate modern war and can even prove decisive if there is no need to take and hold terrain.

There are caveats. Conditions around the Gulf were more conducive to the deployment, coordination, and application of airpower than they likely would be in many other parts of the world. The weather was bad for the region but very good by the standards of more northern climes. Modern air bases and support infrastructures were available to US and allied air units in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Ground targets stuck out in the treeless, featureless terrain.

One thing is certain: The war did wonders for the Air Force’s image. Never again will blue-suiters have to bear up under the hoary barb that the US has never won a major war since the Air Force became an independent service.

“We’ve heard that kind of kidding over and over through the years from our friends in the Army, Navy, and Marines, but we won’t hear it any more,” says Lt. Gen. Michael A. Nelson, Air Force deputy chief of staff for Plans and Operations (XO). “There can no longer be any serious question—if there ever was—about the validity of the Air Force as an independent service with a huge array of capabilities to bring to national requirements. To think of the Air Force in any other way is just nonsense.”

Air Force leaders take great pride in the accomplishments of airpower in the Gulf War and in USAF’s star role. As General Nelson says, “The record speaks for itself.” They also emphasize, however, that airpower wasn’t everything and that the Air Force had lots of help both in the air and on the ground.

A Favorable Environment for Airpower

Lt. Gen. Charles A. Homer, Jr., who orchestrated the allied air campaign as commander of the Central Air Forces (CENTAF) component of US Central Command, claims that Operation Desert Storm “emphasized the role of airpower because of the strategy and the environment– the nature of the war. It did not make airpower the only element or the supreme element, but it did emphasize the contribution of airpower.”

The Air Force came out of the Gulf War with high marks for far-sightedness as well as firepower. The war was a proving ground for the doctrine, tactics, training, and systems that USAF had developed. For example, it underscored the importance of stealth, precision guided munitions (PGMs), integrated electronic combat, and centralized direction and coordination of air campaigns-something sadly lacking in the Vietnam War. Now the Air Force can continue to emphasize all these things with the high confidence that springs from success in battle.

In the Gulf War, USAF did what it was born to do.

The Air Force was formed as a separate service after World War II chiefly for the strategic mission, a mission with enormous influence on the outcome of that war and one uniquely and demonstrably suited to airpower. The Gulf War gave Air Force strategists a sense of deja vu. They claim that USAF’s aerial campaign against military targets in and around Baghdad and elsewhere deep inside Iraq was a classic example of the strategic mission. It was also eye-catching evidence that strategic airpower need not be synonymous with the use of nuclear weapons, they point out.

Through the years following World War II, as it deployed its bombers and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force under the banner of nuclear deterrence, the Air Force’s strategic mission came to be defined as strictly nuclear, even though its leaders kept insisting–and sometimes demonstrated, as with strategic bombing in Vietnam–that the mission had a distinctly nonnuclear side as well.

In Desert Storm, the Air Force showed that side to a fare-thee-well, and its leaders are emphasizing the nonnuclear side in claiming that the B-2 Stealth bomber has a legitimate place in their plans to deter or wage conventional war. They are careful not to slight the nuclear side of the equation, though. They insist that nuclear deterrence is every bit as important as ever, notwithstanding recent progress in US-Soviet bilateral accords in cutting strategic arsenals.

The Air Force’s Key Role

General Nelson, for example, notes that “the first order of business of the US Department of Defense is to deliver a credible nuclear deterrent,” because “the Soviet nuclear capability remains the one thing in the world that could bring terrifying physical harm to our country and call into question our survival.” He also notes that Air Force bombers and ICBMs constitute two-thirds of the US triad of strategic weapons designed to deter such a nuclear attack and that “we continue to take that mission very seriously.

“But the Air Force has now demonstrated beyond doubt that it has a key role in the national strategy as a deliverer of conventional weapons,” General Nelson declares. Given their precision and lethality, those conventional weapons are gaining on their nuclear cousins in terms of military effectiveness—destruction of key targets. Their prowess was one of Desert Storm’s most dramatic revelations. Another was stealth.

Air Force F-117s took advantage of stealth and precision guided munitions in their surprise attack on a Baghdad military telecommunications facility that touched off the strategic side of the allied air campaign.

For the record, the first attack in that campaign, tactical in nature, was carried out by a team of Army AH-64 Apache helicopters and Air Force Special Operations Forces MH-53J Pave Low electronic warfare helicopters against Iraqi frontline air defense radars. [See “Apache Attack.“] But the F-117s had already penetrated Iraqi airspace, having escaped detection by Iraqi radars, and were bearing down on Baghdad as the helicopters opened fire.

The stunning success of the F-117 mission to downtown Baghdad, followed in bang-bang fashion by the Navy’s Tomahawk land-attack missile (TLAM) strikes in the same vicinity, may well have been the beginning of the end for Iraq. Some airpower enthusiasts now insist that the war was over, for all practical purposes, as soon as the “black jets” and the TLAMs had their way and showed that Iraqi air defenses could do little or nothing about them.

With Air Force fighters in the forefront, allied air forces quickly gained control of the air and hit critical radar installations, airfields, war plants, and command-and-control nodes on land, leaving Iraq unable to defend against air attack or to produce offensive weapons. Those air forces fractured the enemy’s military infrastructure, paralyzed its strategic communications, and strangled its logistical system.

By Air Force calculations, it took only one one-hundredth the number of bombs used against Vietnam through eleven years of war to shut down Iraq’s gasoline production, cut off its electricity, and severely disrupt its transportation in the first few days of the air campaign.

General Horner points out that airpower played a pivotal role in strategic defense as well as on the attack. Deployed quickly, if thinly at first, Air Force airpower may well have prevented an Iraqi invasion of Saudi Arabia. With Iraqi forces poised for such a thrust, “it meant an awful lot to me” to have American and Saudi F-15s and Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft immediately available for patrolling and defending Saudi air-space, General Horner recalls. “Then we got the F-16s and the A-10s and the Navy carriers over there, and that also meant a lot in terms of slowing down an invasion. It didn’t mean we could defend Saudi Arabia if we were attacked, but it meant that we could sure make it painful [for attackers] .”

War on Allied Terms

General Homer credits Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander in chief of US Central Command and of coalition forces, with having been “right on target in using airpower to maintain the initiative and fight the war on our terms rather than on Saddam Hussein’s terms.” This was pivotal, the allied coalition’s air boss maintains.

Why? Because, he says, Saddam Hussein wanted to attack us. He didn’t care if he lost a quarter of a million men so long as he could inflict seven to ten thousand casualties on us and say he defeated the Americans. His whole strategic point was to inflict casualties, and we were able to withhold that from him by using airpower to maintain the initiative.”

Air Force Secretary Donald B. Rice sees the job of “reaching out and blocking aggressors” as one of airpower’s prime functions nowadays. In his view, the Gulf War was “a snapshot of global reach and global power” and “proof that airpower– from all the services–has emerged as a dominant form of military might .”

Dr. Rice and General Homer are among the Air Force’s most emphatic exponents of the B-2 bomb as a leading agent of US nuclear and conventional airpower in the years ahead.

General Horner says he feels compelled “to make sure that people who go to war in the next one have the same kind of tools that I had,” and “this is why I . . . talk about the need for the B-2.”

Declares Dr. Rice, “We saw the value of heavy bombers in the war and the value of stealth. A long-range, high-payload, highly survivable bomber would have been very useful.” In his view, “the B-2 captures the essence of airpower” and is needed for “the mission of deterrence of all conflict, nuclear and conventional.”

Some airpower champions see the B-2 as the key to establishing airpower as the prime instrument of national security. They take the position that the US, now planning to withdraw from many overseas bases, will have to rely more and more on strategic attacks by stealth bombers from Stateside bases to keep enemies at bay around the globe. They also believe that strategic airpower has the potential for making land wars things of the past. As a result of the Gulf War, some have concluded, for example, that battle tanks are already obsolete in the new heyday of airpower.

After the war, General McPeak said at a Pentagon briefing that allied air strikes had destroyed or decommissioned forty percent of Iraq’s tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks, and artillery pieces in the Kuwaiti theater of operations. It turned out that his figures, based on the best available bomb-damage assessments at the time, were quite conservative.

At Least Sixty Percent

Air Force sources now claim that airpower accounted for at least sixty percent of all kinds of Iraqi military vehicles along and behind the battlefront. This prompts some airpower enthusiasts to conclude that the Iraqi army would have surrendered the field sooner or later without having been attacked by allied ground forces—and, thus, that airpower could have won the war sooner or later all by itself.

The Air Force’s uniformed leaders claim no such thing. They extol airpower but stop short of depicting it as the end-all of the Gulf War or of modern warfare in general. They tip their caps to ground forces and are quick to share credit with the air arms of coalition allies and the Army, Navy, and Marines.

For example, General McPeak expressed his “private conviction that this is the first time in history that a field army has been defeated by airpower–a remarkable performance by coalition air forces.” He went on to say, “There are some things that airpower can do and some things that it cannot do, and that we should never expect it to do very well: move in on the terrain and dictate terms to the enemy. Our ground forces did that.”

Air Force leaders appear to agree that airpower can win wars outright only “when the President decides there is no need to occupy territory and we can go ahead and use air until we achieve the national objective,” as General Nelson says. The Air Force DCS/XO emphasizes that all the services and all their air assets would likely be involved in such circumstances. He points out, for instance, that the application of US airpower in the Gulf War had as much to do with the “absolutely indispensable” airlifters and tankers (“not enough has been said about the role of the tankers”) as it did with the fighters and bombers.

The war gave “the whole picture of what airpower is all about: space assets, intelligence gathering and reconnaissance, command and control, electronic combat, the shooters, the SEAD [suppression of enemy air defenses] campaign,” General Nelson says. It was a textbook example of “the totality” of US airpower” Air Force air and space, Navy air, Marine air, and Army air with helicopters,” he says. “It is virtually impossible for me to imagine a military operation at this point in history that does not employ airpower in some way, whether to drop bombs or get troops and materiel to the scene, or provide intelligence, or whatever,” General Nelson says.

Airpower experts note that strategic air campaigns like the one in the Gulf War have enormous impact on ground and sea forces, because they influence decisions as to when, where, and how to employ those forces. By the same token, actions on land and at sea influence how airpower is employed.

Highly Integrated Airpower

General Nelson declares that the Gulf War “confirmed what we’ve known since 1942: that airpower must be highly integrated and used very efficiently and that the only way to do that is to have an airpower expert running the show with all the air assets in his grasp. Chuck Horner proved that that is indeed the way to do business.”

To General Nelson, the Vietnam War, in its loosely knit interservice air operations and absence of overall strategic purpose, was “a perfect example of how not to use airpower.” Even so, airpower proved persuasive in the end. The Air Force’s Linebacker II strategic air campaign against North Vietnam had a great deal—maybe everything—to do with Hanoi’s decision to talk peace.

In Linebacker II, long-range B-52 bombers and shorter-range tactical attack aircraft worked together in strategic attack. “So the Vietnam War also gave us, in that one instance, a glimpse of what could be done with integrated airpower in a strategic air campaign for national purpose,” General Nelson explains. “Since then, we learned an awful lot about how to do it, and when the time came [in the Gulf War] for us to do it, it worked.”

That war, he declares, “only underscored the doctrinal thinking that had been virtually consistent throughout the history of the Air Force–for example, that air superiority has to come first or you’re lost, that it’s important to have a single air component commander empowered to do everything that needs to be done in the air campaign.”

The Air Force was much better prepared and far more confident entering the Gulf War than it was throughout the Vietnam War, General Nelson claims. He points out that USAF, in colored-flag exercises at Nellis AFB, Nev., and elsewhere, had had “ten to Fifteen years of good hard practice in conducting a combined campaign in an electronic environment. We knew what we had to do with the various aircraft and how to work strike packages together in coordinating complex operations.”

Technology Catches Up

There appears to be a consensus among air warfare experts that airpower triumphed in the Gulf War largely because technology had caught up with doctrine, strategy, and tactics.

Desert Storm left no doubt that “there has been a revolution in technology with regard to airpower” and that stealth and precision guided munitions rank high among its main elements, General Horner says. He claims that “PGMs give great efficiency to air warfare; we learned that toward the end of the Vietnam War.”

As to stealth, “we have to realize that stealth is revolutionizing air warfare. I was as amazed by the performance of the stealth fighters as anyone. That first night [of the air campaign], I thought, boy, this is going to be tough, because Baghdad was a tough target. But those guys came back.”

The Air Force sees stealth as part of its electronic combat skein and EC as a prime example of technology teaming with doctrine and tactics to put more pizazz in airpower.

General Homer, who flew Wild Weasel aircraft on many a SEAD mission in southeast Asia, describes the Air Force’s EC in the Vietnam War as “kind of a string-along, learn-as-you-go affair. We were ill-equipped for electronic combat. The [electronic counter-measures] pods we had on the airplanes were pretty primitive. Many were R&D kinds of stuff. We never really had the EF-111 [standoff area-jammer aircraft] there. We never had a chance to integrate a whole [EC] package.”

The Gulf War was a much different story. “We had a well-trained and well-equipped [EC] force and we were able to bring EC together, and it did a superb job, as our [extremely low] loss rate showed,” the allied air boss asserts.

The war also revealed weaknesses that the Air Force is taking into consideration, along with the changing global military environment, in pondering future weapons and force structures. “It became obvious that we don’t have good all-weather PGMs and that we need to make some changes in the way we’re organized,” General Nelson says.

What lies ahead? “We will have a smaller, highly mobile Air Force capable of arriving unannounced, delivering weapons very precisely, and keeping casualties to the absolute minimum. We will have to emphasize stealth because–among other reasons–we won’t be able to afford all the combat support elements necessary to get a nonstealth force to work.”

Major changes appear to be in store for all the armed services in response to tight budgets, new challenges, and the lessons of the Gulf War, most notably its show of the importance of airpower.

Air Force Col. Dennis Drew, professor of military strategy and doctrine at Air University, Maxwell AFB, Ala., and author of books on airpower, is among those who have long believed that “airpower has come to dominate modern warfare.” This does not mean, he says, that land power and seapower have lost importance or are now relegated to support status. “Rather, it means new modes of operation, new forms of combat teamwork, new ways of thinking about the operational art, and revised force structures” all across the services.