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"U.S. foreign policy has remained wedded to outdated, faulty assumptions about the nature of international relations."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.

In Operation Desert Storm the generals fought not the last war but the next. The Gulf War was the template for the United States' following three important military conflicts—the two Balkan campaigns and, most recently, the battle of Afghanistan.

In the summer of 1995 NATO launched a military offensive against the Bosnian Serb forces waging an "ethnic cleansing" war against Bosnian Muslims. In eleven days of air strikes supported by Bosnian and Croat ground offensives, the U.S.-led warplanes of Operation Deliberate Force flew 3,515 sorties, attacking forty-eight target complexes with 1,026 bombs, 708 of them guided weapons and 318 unguided, plus twenty-three cruise missiles. The operation essentially destroyed the Serbs' command-and-control structure; relatively few enemy civilians were killed. Almost immediately the Bosnian Serbs began negotiating, and within months they signed the cease-fire they had refused to contemplate for three years.

In the spring of 1999 a NATO coalition again went to war against the Serbs, in Operation Allied Force. This time they faced the main forces of Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia, in Kosovo. The attack was waged entirely by air, and employed 1,055 aircraft from fourteen nations, with U.S. warplanes handling up to 80 percent of the workload in 13,000 attack sorties over the course of a seventy-eight-day campaign. The allied planes delivered 23,000 bombs and missiles (of which 35 percent were precision-guided), including 329 cruise missiles against 490 fixed targets and 520 movable ones.

The campaign destroyed or severely damaged most of Yugoslavia's industrial and communications infrastructure, wrecked its economy, destroyed a large measure of its armored assets, inflicted (by NATO's estimate) 5,000 to 10,000 casualties, drove the Serb forces from Kosovo, and led to the toppling of Milosevic's government. Only two allied planes were downed, and only thirty bombs caused civilian casualties, with about 500 civilians killed.

The campaign in Afghanistan followed the model of the previous three and advanced beyond them to achieve what The Washington Post reporter Thomas E. Ricks called "the new American way of war, one built around weapons operating at extremely long ranges, hitting targets with unprecedented precision, and relying as never before on gigabytes of targeting information gathered on the ground, in the air, and from space."

Since October 7 U.S. warplanes have flown 24,000 sorties over Afghanistan, delivering 22,000 bombs, missiles, and other ordnance. In the Gulf War only five percent of the bombs dropped were precision-guided; in Afghanistan the equivalent figure was about 60 percent. "Precision" had become very close to ubiquitous, and was grafted on to weapons that once were (famously) imprecise. In Afghanistan the old B-52s that had carpet-bombed Vietnam were guided by satellite-fed data from ground troops to drop bombs in designated 1,000-yard-long areas. And precision became cheap. The chief instrument of precision in the Gulf War, the Tomahawk cruise missile, cost more than $1 million apiece. In Afghanistan precision was most often supplied by the Joint Direct Attack Munition, an $18,000 kit that uses a GPS system to convert a dumb bomb into a smart one. Of 6,650 JDAMs dropped in Afghanistan, the Air Force reports, less than 10 percent missed their targets.

The Taliban government of Afghanistan fell, in a few months, with only 4,000 U.S. troops on the ground, and with only seventeen American deaths. The independent Project on Defense Alternatives estimated the number of civilian bombing deaths at 1,000 to 1,300—higher than in Kosovo, but still remarkably low.

With its twelve nuclear aircraft-carrier battle groups (no other nation has anything even remotely comparable), its stealth bombers, its cruise missiles, its remarkable global guidance and communications systems (which allowed the war in Afghanistan to be run in real time, on the ground, from U.S. Central Command), its generations-ahead fleet of warplanes—with all this the United States stands alone in the world and in history.

No nation before has possessed any force like this; no other nation possesses any force like it now, or any force capable of sustained defense against it. "Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing," the historian Paul Kennedy observed after the battle of Afghanistan. "One hears the distant rustle of military plans and feasibility studies by general staffs across the globe being torn up and dropped into the dustbin of history."