- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 3, 2001

As the secretary of defense conducts his top-down review, his analysts in the Pentagon should be mindful of the lessons of the Persian Gulf war.

Ten years ago, coalition forces liberated Kuwait from the grasp of Saddam Hussein. After six months of diplomacy, followed by six weeks of one of the most intense air campaigns in history, coalition ground forces, attacking along a broad front, crushed the Iraqi army. In a stunning 100-hour operation, the U.S. military had achieved the objectives set by the first President Bush.

While Operation Desert Storm was an outstanding success, some have forgotten or distorted the lessons of that conflict. Although the Persian Gulf war successfully demonstrated the ability of high-tech "smart" weapons to destroy enemy equipment and facilities from long distances, some forget that despite massive air strikes the bulk of Saddam's armed forces remained intact and entrenched in Kuwait. A ground assault was required to evict them, and to end Saddam's aggression. The vital lesson from Desert Storm is that if we are to achieve decisive results quickly, our nation needs to be able to put soldiers on the ground to defeat a determined enemy.

Air and sea power played an important role in setting up the Iraqis for a decisive stroke, but the knockout punch required powerful ground forces. Although a good jab is important for a boxer to set up his opponent for a knockout blow, jabs alone do not win fights and air power alone does not win wars. Ground forces achieved in 100 hours what air power could not achieve in six weeks of around-the-clock bombings.

The ground attack forced the immediate, complete and unconditional withdrawal of all Iraqis forces from Kuwait and restored Kuwait's legitimate government. From the enemy's perspective, air strikes are no substitute for the lethality and dominance of well-equipped, well-trained and well-led ground forces. When questioned after the war, a captured Iraqi commander stated, "When the war started I commanded 41 tanks. After five weeks of the air campaign, I had 39 tanks. After less than six minutes of combat with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, my command was completely annihilated."

Some theorists argue that our success in the Gulf war demonstrated that victory in future warfare can be achieved by sophisticated, precision-guided weapons that defeat the enemy at long range and reduce the need for powerful ground forces. They argue that such weapons can be delivered by aircraft or ships from such high altitude and at such long range that enemy forces can be brought to their knees without our ground forces ever coming within striking distance of the enemy.

In many ways, these arguments are a throw back to air power theories advocated by strategic thinkers such as the Italian Gen. Giulio Douhet and the American Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell in the 1920s. Then, as now, the argument was that air power alone could win conflicts. Now, as then, there are those that advocate relaxing the targeting restrictions imposed by the law of war to enable direct attacks on civilian targets in order to inflict punishment on the population in hopes of generating opposition to their regime.

The history of warfare, from the strategic bombing in World War II, through the massive air strikes in Vietnam, to the latest air campaign in Kosovo and recent weapon performance in Iraq, reveals that air power is not a "silver bullet" the reality of our experience does not match their theory. Indeed, our experience bombing the Germans in Dresden, the Vietnamese in Hanoi and the Serbs in Belgrade provides ample evidence that air campaigns do not generate effective pressure on the target regimes. Instead they often fortify enemy resolve, as the Germans also discovered in 1944-45 with their V2 rocket campaign against the British.

Those who argue that use of ground forces increases the risk of massive casualties should also remember the lessons of the Gulf war and Operation Just Cause in Panama. Ground forces, when employed decisively, can reduce casualties by using overwhelming power to shatter the enemy's capability and will to resist and recover, resulting in rapid termination of the conflict.

While the failure of overwhelming air superiority to force Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait during the Gulf war demonstrated the limited ability of air power to coerce an opponent, more recent history demonstrates its limited ability to deter an enemy. Former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic knew that efforts to ethnically cleanse Kosovo would result in NATO air strikes, but he used his troops to force hundreds of thousands from their homes. For weeks, the Serbs withstood extensive damage to their military and economic infrastructure. Mr. Milosevic only capitulated when he recognized that the United States was preparing to send ground troops into Kosovo.

If we are to protect our friends and deter or defeat our enemies, we must take the fight to where humans live on the ground. Air attacks can kill and destroy but they cannot defend or dominate.

As we celebrate our nation's victory over aggression in the Gulf war, and as the new Bush administration conducts its national security review, we should not forget the central lesson of the Gulf war. A great nation needs a great military, with complementary service capabilities, that provides our national leaders with a wide range of options to protect and promote U.S. interests in an uncertain world. Potential adversaries must know we have the capability to respond across the spectrum of conflict from deterring the use of weapons of mass destruction to waging effective and sustained operations to enforce the peace. The Army provides the decisive element of that capability.

Gordon R. Sullivan was the Army vice chief of staff during the Persian Gulf War. He became the Army's 32nd chief of staff before retiring and is currently president of the Association of the United States Army.

Gordon R. Sullivan was the Army vice chief of staff during the Persian Gulf War. He became the Army's 32nd chief of staff before retiring and is currently president of the Association of the United States Army.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide