Comment June 2002

The American Way of War

The third of three essays on the revolution in air power
From the archives:

"Why the Gulf War Served the National Interest" (July 1991)
"Even distant disorder can have effects that hurt, influence, or disturb the majority of people living within the United States." By Joseph Nye

"Why the Gulf War Was Not in the National Interest" (July 1991)
"U.S. foreign policy has remained wedded to outdated, faulty assumptions about the nature of international relations." By Christopher Layne

The Gulf War was America's first serious war after Vietnam. It is tempting to think of this conflict largely as a land war. The principal public hero of the war was a land man, U.S. Army General "Stormin'" Norman Schwarzkopf. Some of the most conspicuous aspects of the Gulf War had to do with the so-called ground war: the largest invasion force gathered since World War II facing "the fourth largest army in the world" along the feared Saddam Line; the U.S. Army's VII Corps in its great wheeling assault on the Iraqi forces in Kuwait; the slaughter of retreating Iraqis on the "highway to hell."

This view of the war is misleading. A dry but accurate summary of what really happened may be found in the General Accounting Office's 1996 report "Operation Desert Storm: Evaluation of the Air War":

Operation Desert Storm was primarily a sustained 43-day air campaign by the United States and its allies against Iraq between January 17, 1991, and February 28, 1991. It was the first large employment of U.S. air power since the Vietnam war, and by some measures (particularly the low number of U.S. casualties and the short duration of the campaign), it was perhaps the most successful war fought by the United States in the 20th century. The main ground campaign occupied only the final 100 hours of the war.

Approximately 1,600 U.S. combat aircraft, supported by about 100,000 sailors, Marines, and pilots, took part in the Gulf War. These included thirty-year-old B-52 bombers; the Air Force's F-16 and the Navy's F/A-18; the F-117 stealth fighter; and A-10 Warthog close-air-support attack planes, plus ship- and air-launched cruise missiles. In some 42,000 strikes the allied planes dropped 88,500 tons of bombs on Iraq and on Iraqi targets in Kuwait. About 9,500 bombs were laser- and television-guided "smart" weapons, and about 162,000 were conventional "dumb" bombs.

From the first the U.S. warplanes and cruise missiles were able to penetrate Iraqi air defenses with near impunity and to strike their targets with remarkable accuracy. The effect of this was terrible. "In the past, air forces fought through elaborate defenses and accepted losses on their way to the target or rolled those defenses back," Thomas A. Keaney and Eliot A. Cohen wrote in the Air Force's official analysis, Gulf War Air Power Survey. "In the Gulf War, the Coalition could strike Iraqi air defenses immediately, and they never recovered from these initial, stunning blows." The cruise missiles and the F-117 stealth fighters (which flew only two percent of the total attack sorties but hit nearly 40 percent of the strategic targets) were especially terrifying: "These platforms were able to set the terms for air operations over Iraq and to bring the reality of the war home to the residents of Baghdad."

The accuracy of the bombing was extraordinary. As General Michael Dugan, a retired Air Force chief of staff, wrote, the F-16 and F/A-18 fighters were able to place 50 percent of their bombs within thirty feet of their aim points; but "even 30-foot accuracy is no longer interesting." The smart bombs routinely hit within three feet of their targets. Desert Storm, Dugan wrote, "was a vindication of the old concept of precision bombing; the technology finally caught up with the doctrine."

And the new American air power delivered, finally, on the old dream of a relatively bloodless victory. Counting casualties in both the air war and the ground war, the U.S. forces lost 146 lives in combat. Only thirty-eight allied warplanes were lost, and only fifteen American tanks. Moreover, and more incredibly, air power delivered this wildly lopsided victory in a fairly humane fashion. Estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths owing to bombing are still a matter of debate, but there is no question that, considering the huge number of bombs that were dropped, not that many noncombatants were killed.

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