WASHINGTON. — The Air Force, the workhorse of Desert Storm with 10 percent of the forces and two-thirds of the sorties, has done so well, people may misunderstand how well, and why. The principal lesson is technology matters, but trained people matter more.
A misperception of the air campaign is that technology takes passive pilots for rides, and stand-off weapons like cruise missiles make pilots dispensable. But Tomahawk missiles cost $1.5 million. That limits how many can be held in inventory. One of their best uses is to destroy defenses -- to produce undefended targets that manned aircraft can more safely attack.
Stealth aircraft suggest a naval analogy. Rather than buying many $200 million submarines, we buy fewer but better (stealthier, meaning quieter) submarines costing from four to six times as much. With aircraft, cheap is no bargain because having the second-best air force is like having the second-best poker hand: You have only two choices -- to bluff or fold.
Stealth aircraft are expensive but cost-effective in terms of results-per-sortie. Such aircraft are less than 3 percent of Desert Storm aircraft but account for 30 percent of strategic targets destroyed. When ''non-stealthy'' aircraft attack defended targets they are more expensive than they seem because they need a panoply of supporting (rescue, jamming, defensive) aircraft.
As radar was revolutionary, so is military technology that obviates it. A senior Pentagon official compares stealth's restoration of tactical surprise to the shock factor that enabled Pizarro and a handful of soldiers to achieve victory over many thousands of professional Inca warriors who were unnerved by the Spaniards' iron weapons, horses, gunpowder, even their beards.
It took about a dozen days for Desert Storm air power to dispatch most strategic targets -- chemical, biological and nuclear facilities, weapons manufacturing, assembly and storage plants, and organs of internal control, including radio, TV and secret police headquarters. Since then, tactical targets have proved the value of precision-guided munitions and high-quality
A 2,000-pound unguided bomb costs about a dollar a pound, cheaper than hamburger. But when such a bomb lands even just 20 meters from a tank, it does not destroy the tank. To do that, says a Pentagon official, you had ''better hit it on its hood ornament.'' B-52 bomber strikes, although satisfactory for ''area'' targets such as large storage facilities or troop encampments, are not suited to tank-busting.
When used for the latter they can be an echo of the battle of the Somme, where huge artillery bombardments did slight damage to the German capacity for defense. Used against tanks, B-52s often bring big bomb loads for close misses. It is better to reduce the loads but hit what you are aiming at. Today, precision weapons are destroying Iraqi tanks one at a time.
A Soviet air marshal watching Desert Storm must marvel at America's human as well as technological virtuosity. U.S. pilots are performing in ways Soviet pilots are not allowed to perform because of the systemic sickness of the Soviet system.
Germany's air force reports problems integrating Soviet-trained East German pilots into its ranks. Their skills have been stunted by a system in which individual discretion and initiative were discouraged by keeping pilots on a short leash to ground control.
When American pilots are assigned a target, they plan their mission. Soviet pilots are handed a plan. Many U.S. sorties in Desert Storm involve pure pilot initiative: They head for the Kuwait theater, then go hunting for tanks.
Some Soviet aircraft carry radar that scan many miles (the figure is classified) for ground control but probably less than one third of that scan is shown on the pilot's screen. Some Soviet pilots must await not merely permission but an unlocking impulse from ground control before munitions can leave the aircraft.
The pilot proficiency that comes from flying, say, 20 rather than just 12 hours a month in combat simulations is another benefit of the 1980s defense spending. It is one reason there have been no planes lost to friendly fire or collisions in congested skies over targets.
Nevertheless, many press reports of this air war stress an uncertainty, that of bomb-damage assessments. What we have here, says a Pentagon official equably, is a clash of cultures. The press is in the information business and becomes impatient with uncertainty. The military is trained to operate amid uncertainties. Indeed, military personnel often are promoted in part because of their ability to act confidently in such circumstances. That is why the workhorse is performing like a show horse.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.