Imperative of Air and Space Power

Nov. 1, 2003

A century ago, near Kitty Hawk, N.C., Orville and Wilbur Wright ushered in the age of sustained powered flight. Later, visionaries such as Mitchell, Andrews, Arnold, Eaker, Spaatz, Doolittle, and others advanced the military application of the airplane. They are the forefathers of today’s United States Air Force—a 21st century Air and Space Expeditionary Force.

Throughout USAF’s history, its people, technology, and culture of transformation have served it and the nation remarkably well. In World War II, it took nearly 3,000 air sorties to eliminate a single target. Today, an aircraft can destroy multiple targets in a single sortie. The Air Force continues to transform, as was seen most recently in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Airmen, fighting alongside soldiers, sailors, Marines, and allied forces, attacked Iraq on March 20, 2003, local Baghdad time. Together, they ended the ruthless, decades-old dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

The Air Force Association (AFA) and the nation salute all the men and women of the armed forces for their service during Operation Iraqi Freedom and in the ongoing war on terrorism. AFA is especially proud of the Air Force. The courage, commitment, and skills of airmen today are truly phenomenal. Their bravery and outstanding decision-making abilities were on full display in Iraq.

US and coalition airpower forces achieved air dominance at the outset of the war. Together, airmen delivered debilitating air strikes against Republican Guard divisions, their command and control systems, and key leadership.

Iraqi Freedom was the first major military operation since the announcement in 2002 of the new National Security Strategy of the United States. In essence, the strategy states America will take action against emerging threats before they are fully formed. This places a premium on intelligence capabilities, especially space and airborne systems primarily funded and operated by the Air Force.

Most Americans saw the war through the eyes of 630 “embedded” journalists—admittedly, a soda straw view of the battlefield providing virtually no perspective on air and space contributions. The media experienced firsthand the professionalism and heroics of US ground forces as they advanced on Baghdad. The extraordinary achievements of air and space personnel went largely unreported, mainly because of host country restrictions on news coverage of US air operations.

Thirty Days Over Iraq

In the first 30 days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Air Force:

  • Flew more than 24,000 sorties, 58.4 percent of the coalition total.
  • Conducted about 9,300 strike and counterair sorties, 45 percent of the coalition total.
  • Carried out more than 13,600 air mobility sorties, 81.3 percent of the coalition total.
  • Provided aerial refueling that off-loaded more than 376 million pounds of jet fuel, 90 percent of the coalition total.
  • Flew approximately 880 intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance and command and control sorties.
  • Executed more than 190 combat search and rescue sorties.
  • Flew approximately 110 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle ISR or strike sorties, with Predator and Global Hawk systems.
  • Conducted more than 1,500 Global Positioning System satellite uploads, providing enhanced GPS accuracies for coalition operations throughout the theater.

By mid-April 2003, the Joint Air Component had dropped on enemy targets 19,948 munitions, 68 percent of which were precision guided. Additionally, Air Force aircrews dropped more than 31 million leaflets in support of psychological operations and other activities and carried out approximately 136 aeromedical evacuation sorties.

Beyond the view of the cameras, global power projection forces in air and space played a pivotal role in the success of joint operations that demonstrated speed, range, flexibility, lethality, and precision—all fundamental attributes of modern airpower. Moreover, specialized USAF forces working near and behind enemy lines aided precision bombing by directing devastating air strikes.

Air and Space Dominance

Air operations in Operation Iraqi Freedom used virtually all Air Force combat aircraft types: B-1Bs, B-2s, B-52s, F-15s, F-16s, F-117s, A-10s, AC-130s, and Combat Search and Rescue and Special Operations Forces helicopters. In a combat first, one force package included all three bomber types—B-1Bs, B-2s, and B-52s. Another first entailed the B-1B’s use of moving target indicator data from ISR aircraft.

E-3 AWACS, E-8 Joint STARS, RC-135 Rivet Joint, U-2, and EC-130 aircraft provided round-the-clock command, control, communications, surveillance, and electronic warfare capability. Unmanned systems such as Global Hawk and Predator UAVs also provided remote surveillance. For the first time, Global Hawk was used for strike coordination and reconnaissance. In another first, four Predators flew simultaneously in support of combat operations.

The contributions of space systems were substantial. While this war featured 40 percent fewer troops than were deployed in 1991, the amount of available bandwidth increased by almost 600 percent. The Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite constellation provided accuracies to about 10 feet and allowed the delivery of 5,500 GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) with pinpoint precision and minimal collateral damage. Some 50 US satellites provided communications, surveillance, warning, and weather forecasting to the Combined Force Air Component Commander (CFACC). For the first time, the CFACC was designated as space coordinator.

Workhorse C-17 and C-130 aircraft, along with C-141s and C-5s, staged a massive airlift. In one major nighttime operation, 15 C-17s air-dropped approximately 1,000 Army paratroopers and 40 vehicles into northern Iraq—the first time the C-17 had been employed operationally in a combat personnel drop.

A USAF tanker contingent of 149 KC-135s and 33 KC-10s formed the backbone of air operations and kept combat and support aircraft from all services fueled and on station. Combat search and rescue assets flew more than 190 sorties. Air Force Special Operations Forces aircraft also operated effectively in the skies over Iraq.

The war plan was a success. As the operation unfolded, Iraqi forces were not able to initiate attacks on US and coalition forces, mount an attack against neighboring countries, or destroy Iraqi oil fields. There was no refugee crisis, and the number of Iraqis who fled the war was much less than anticipated.

In the first six months of action, more than 290 US service members were killed, and more than 1,000 had been wounded. While major combat operations were declared over on May 1, 2003, postwar Iraq remained a dangerous place. US military forces have transitioned from combat to restoration of civil order and basic services and the delivery of humanitarian assistance in a country with little functioning infrastructure. It is apparent that long-term stability in Iraq will require considerable resources and a lengthy commitment of US military forces.

Those who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq, and others who continue to do so in the ongoing war on terrorism, have the eternal gratitude of the nation. Their families and loved ones deserve our continuing support.

The loss of life might have been greater were it not for the airmen who helped shape the battlefield, protect the flanks of rapidly advancing US ground elements, and decimate whole divisions of enemy forces. Airpower operated 24-hours a day, in all weather conditions, including sandstorms. Targeted by overhead satellites, manned and unmanned aircraft, and specialized forces on the ground, the enemy could not escape as precision strike was brought to bear. Iraqi forces that survived the bombings were cut off from their leaders, left without command and control, and made vulnerable to ground attack.

Lifting the Fog of War

The imperative of modern airpower in the 21st century is now apparent. It can deliver the appropriate amount of firepower on enemy locations, in day or night, in all weather, and with a precision unparalleled in the history of conflict.

The Combined Air Operations Center, or CAOC, helped display information from C4ISR aircraft such as AWACS, Joint STARS, Rivet Joint, Global Hawk, Predator, and satellites in space. These assets produced a near real time view of the battlefield.

The fog of war is beginning to lift, an event spurred by vastly improved situational awareness within the common battle space. Concurrently, sensor-to-shooter time is shortening, making it possible to apply lethal force more swiftly and effectively.

Fundamental differences between Gulf War I and Gulf War II included the maturation of information operations, the prevalence of precision strike, and the compression of operational timelines. Air and space power provided the key infrastructure that made the difference in Operation Iraqi Freedom—ISR, communications links, mobility, strike, and security.

The introduction of Effects-Based Operations has furthered a new American way of war, one that has moved beyond strategies of annihilation and attrition. The goal now is to achieve rapid dominance by obtaining effective control over systems an adversary relies on for power and influence. The new American way of war gains leverage from modern military capabilities such as information superiority, mobility, and precision strike and uses them to achieve US goals.

In modern warfare, ground forces have a vested interest in maintaining a strong Air Force. Because of its superior airpower, the US has not lost a single soldier to enemy aircraft attack since the early 1950s.

Joint warfighters know the significance of air dominance and the impetus it lends to rapid decisive operations. Operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, Allied Force, and Desert Storm confirm the rising imperative of air and space power and its pivotal role in the security of the nation.

AFA does not advocate airpower going it alone. The services have unique and complementary capabilities, all of which are essential to successful joint operations across the spectrum of combat situations. Properly applied air and space power can, however, shorten a conflict and help to minimize casualties.


As time blurs our memories of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, we must resist the tendency to let down our guard. Terrorist attacks on the homeland and US interests abroad are still possible. We also cannot afford to neglect other current and future threats. We face the danger of major theater war as well as possible challenges in space. Potential adversaries are looking everywhere—including in cyberspace—for vulnerabilities. Given our nation’s ever-increasing reliance on computer networks, cyber attack could cause damage comparable to that from use of a weapon of mass destruction.

AFA believes nuclear deterrence provided by the triad of land-, air-, and sea-based nuclear forces is essential to our national security. The United States should maintain flexible, reliable, and survivable nuclear forces while continuing to press ahead with research and testing that could lead to a comprehensive missile defense capability.

As the world’s only superpower, this nation must maintain strong and balanced military capabilities in order to respond effectively across the spectrum of conflict. Potential adversaries will draw their own lessons from Iraq, and one will be the need to try to counter or disrupt US air dominance in the future, perhaps with the use of next generation surface-to-air missiles. The emergence of a serious adversary—not necessarily even a peer adversary—should be a concern.

Daunting Challenge

Now and for the foreseeable future, the Air Force must provide integrated and interoperable capabilities for executing joint and combined operations in support of the war on terrorism, deterring the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), dissuading regional threats, and supporting peacekeeping operations.

Current commitments, especially those growing out of the global war on terrorism, have substantially increased the operations and personnel tempo across the Air Force. AFA believes force structure should be sized to match the requirements of our national security strategy. Although funding for Air Force personnel, readiness, and modernization is up, more resources are needed.

Infrastructure funding also remains a concern. Recapitalization of aging and deteriorating facilities requires sustained additional funding. AFA believes the Administration and Congress should fund the equipment, training, and facilities required for the mission. Also, a fair and efficient method of identifying and reducing excess infrastructure must be pursued.

The impressive combat power brought to bear against Iraq was the result of years of sound leadership decisions affecting the acquisition structure and depots and our unmatched military, civilian, and aerospace industry workforce.

Air Force equipment performed well in Iraqi Freedom, in large part because of superb maintenance crews and logisticians. Still, the wear and tear on aging systems must be addressed, and replenishment of the munitions stockpile will be critical to preparing the Air Force for the next conflict.

DOD has indicated that it wants to reshape and not just reconstitute the force for the future. Nonetheless, servicing and repairing the Air Force inventory of equipment—from aircraft to communication equipment—cannot be postponed.

The Air Force is optimizing its capability within resource limits. Air Force investment plans directly support rapid global mobility, precision engagement, aerospace superiority, focused and sustained logistics, and agile combat support for future wars. By developing the skills of its airmen, fielding new technologies, and introducing new warfighting concepts, USAF maintains itself as the world’s premier air and space force. Still, air dominance cannot be sustained without adequate investment.

DOD must have access to military ranges and operating areas so as to provide the necessary training and testing environment for airmen seeking to prepare for combat today and in the future. The commitment to comprehensive and realistic training is, and should continue to be, compatible with the Air Force’s strong stewardship of the environment.

One hundred years after Kitty Hawk, rapid advances in air and space are possible but will require a sustained national commitment. Air and space power plays a central role in joint and combined military operations and holds the key to military transformation.