This year marks the 100th anniversary of manned flight. When the Wright Brothers first flew their fragile aircraft at Kitty Hawk in 1903, weapons of mass destruction, world wars, fascism and what Churchill later called the “foul baboonery of bolshevism” all lay in the future. Much has changed during the intervening years, but one constant throughout that time has been the aspiration of aviators to make air power the “winning weapon” in modern warfare. It is a remarkable coincidence that this year will witness the realization of that dream in a place that didn’t even exist in 1903 — Iraq.
The United States has assembled a mighty air armada around Iraq — perhaps the first ever that can accomplish “shock and awe” without using nuclear weapons. When hostilities commence, heavy bombers will attack Iraq from Diego Garcia and Oman; fighter-bombers will attack from Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia; carrier-based strike aircraft will attack from the Gulf and Mediterranean; additional manned and unmanned aircraft will fly from half a dozen countries, including Jordan and the UAE; and hundreds of sea-based cruise missiles will be launched every day. No targets are off the table — the air campaign will be unprecedented in its scale, diversity and simultaneity.
The coming air campaign has little in common with those of the past. The Army Air Forces developed precision-bombing doctrine in the 1930s and put it into practice in a 1941 war plan that called for targeting fascist electrical grids and communications nodes, but it soon became apparent bombers couldn’t hit anything smaller than a city. One series of raids against a Japanese aircraft-engine plant in 1944 produced only 4% damage from 835 B-29 sorties. After that, the Air Force turned to attacking cities. Postwar nuclear deterrence made a “virtue” of indiscriminate bombing — the first integrated nuclear war plan, completed in 1960, envisioned killing 360-420 million people in a single blow.
Gulf War II will be nothing like that. Although thousands of aimpoints will be attacked each day, the training, coordination and precision of air units — combined with comprehensive intelligence — will produce relatively few civilian casualties. Hundreds of innocents may die, but far fewer than Saddam’s secret police kill in any year. The Air Force plans to practice a doctrine of “dynamic adaptation” in which strike packages and mission objectives are continuously revised to match changing military circumstances. Navy pilots will follow a similar practice that enables them to retarget while en route to objectives.
With unfettered access to a dozen airbases in the south and limited access to three in the north, the Air Force should have little difficulty executing its plan. It is already flying hundreds of sorties per day, mainly against air-defense targets. Use of carrier air in the Med may be constrained by Turkish reluctance to grant overflight rights, but each of the three carrier air wings in the Gulf is capable of precisely hitting 700 aimpoints per day — day or night, in any weather. When the weight of so many munitions falling is combined with various electronic, information, psychological and special operations unfolding at the same time, it’s clear the coming air campaign will be a brief but decisive affair.
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