U.S. war planners are devising a different kind of air campaign against Iraq compared with Desert Storm a decade ago.
Breakthroughs in precision weapons and a new strategic goal this time will mean fewer missions and potentially less destruction of infrastructure, such as bridges and power plants, military sources and analysts say.
The air component of what senior Bush officials believe will be a quick war will be shorter 10 days or less before a full-throttle ground offensive begins. In the fight to liberate Kuwait 11 years ago, tactical and heavy bombers struck for more than 30 days before a ground invasion.
Because the objectives are different this time, there will be fewer overall targets. The United States wants to kill or capture Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and is gearing its target list to achieve that well-defined objective.
That was not the stated goal in 1991. From day one, the Air Force had to bomb huge concentrations of Iraqi troops in and around Kuwait. It also had to attack the infrastructure that supported them, such as supply bridges south of Baghdad.
This time, the United States is trying to befriend much of the Iraqi army in the hopes that it stays neutral, or better yet, turns on Saddam and storms the capital.
Gen. Richard B. Myers, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, said this week that the military is “postured” to accept the help of Iraqi generals in the event of war. Bush administration sources told the Associated Press yesterday that it’s unlikely that the president will make a decision about going to war until late next month or early February.
Bridges inside Baghdad may be bombed to cut off escape routes and reduce mobility for Saddam’s prime security force, the Special Republican Guard. But bridges elsewhere are likely to be exempt, officials said. This would be similar to the coalition bombing of Afghanistan, where bridges and electric power were spared to ease post-war reconstruction.
“This is a war of liberation,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney. “We want to send a signal to the people that we are not after them. We are after regime change and weapons of mass destruction.”
Military sources say some targets have not changed. The allies will have to hit communication lines to ensure that Saddam cannot easily direct his troops. Barracks and headquarters of the Republican Guard also are on the list.
“If we can neutralize internal security forces for some period of time, the Iraqi military can get its act together to do what it has wanted to do for 20 years” overthrow Saddam, said retired Air Force Col. John Warden, who helped design the 1991 campaign from a basement office at the Pentagon.
Quasi-military targets such as bridges and industrial sites can be spared this time, officials say, because Washington wants reconstruction to be as seamless as possible.
“You certainly would not blow up all those darn bridges across the Tigris and Euphrates,” Col. Warden said.
What U.S. forces don’t destroy, Saddam might. U.S. intelligence officials said this week that Iraq is preparing for a scorched-earth campaign if it goes to war, targeting its own oil fields, food supplies and power plants and blaming America for the devastation.
Saddam intends to create a humanitarian crisis to hamper a U.S. advance and garner sympathy from the international community, said the officials who briefed reporters at the Pentagon on the condition of anonymity.
The officials said they expect Saddam to use biological and chemical weapons against U.S. forces in Iraq, Israel and Kuwait.
A big advantage will be evident on the war’s opening night. In January 1991, the United States had to rely heavily on the F-117 stealth fighter and sea-launched cruise missiles to do damage in downtown Baghdad. The city’s heavy air defenses prevented the use of non-radar-evading planes.
This time, the United States has two new weapons: the B-2 radar-evading bomber and the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). When paired, 16 B-2s and the JDAMs will be able to hit more than 200 targets the first night. The bomber can destroy key air defense and command structures that took weeks to bomb in the 1991 campaign.
“When you roll it all together, we’re 10 times more powerful,” Gen. McInerney said.
The Air Force believes its blitzkrieg of Iraqi occupying forces softened them up to the extent that few units wanted to resist Army and Marine Corps ground forces.
He said there is little need in this war for Army armored brigades to engage Republican Guard tanks. Instead, he said, tactical aircraft can pick off the tanks one by one using satellite- or laser-guided bombs.
One debate still ongoing in the Pentagon is the extent to which the allies should bomb electric power grids.
“I would shut down the electricity,” Col. Warden said. “I know I’m in a minority here. The reason I would do it is Saddam’s strength is in the cities. If you shut down the electricity it makes it that much harder for him to operate and resist from the cities.”
The new air campaign will continue the Air Force philosophy of “effects based” attacks, an idea promoted by Col. Warden and other planners about 15 years ago.
The goal is to achieve a desired effect, such as shutting off electric power or communications lines, without destroying the supporting infrastructure.
For example, the Air Force can destroy an electrical grid or node that can be rebuilt quickly, while sparing the source of power a generation plant which would take months to rebuild.
“All we want is for the lights to go out, not to do relatively long-term damage,” Col. Warden said.
He recalled that during the height of the 1991 war, Defense Intelligence Agency analysts circulated a report that attacks on electric power were a failure because many circuits were not bombed.
Col. Warden said that what mattered was that the lights were off in Baghdad.
“People are still very much in an attrition-war mentality,” he said. “If it isn’t rubble, then you haven’t done much to it.”