WASHINGTON -- By destroying bridges, bunkers and tanks by the thousands before the ground offensive began, allied air forces virtually defeated the Iraqi army by themselves, the U.S. Air Force chief of staff concluded yesterday.
Gen. Merrill A. "Tony" McPeak told reporters at the Pentagon, "This is the first time in history that a full army has been defeated by air power."
The victory in the air was assured within the first few hours after bombing began the morning of Jan. 17, he said, thanks to precision knockouts of Iraqi anti-aircraft radar and the bonus element of "tactical surprise."
General McPeak did take pains to credit Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and his air commander, Lt. Gen. Charles Horner, for their planning and overall handling of Operation Desert Storm.
But in reviewing the air campaign, he directed most of his remarks toward the accomplishments during the crucial first few hours of the war.
As the hour for the invasion approached, AWACS radar planes kept tabs on the Iraqi air force by flying near the Iraqi border, he said, while squadrons of coalition jet fighters and bombers massed in circling formations over northern Saudi Arabia, just beyond the range of Iraqi radar.
The first targets were Iraqi radar installations, which had to be knocked out quickly if coalition air losses were to be held down. The bombing worked, and in the first few hours not a single plane was lost, General McPeak said.
The Iraqi air force, meanwhile, offered little resistance. "It was a very heavy attack, very precisely delivered," he said. "And in my judgment, the Iraqi air force never recovered."
By the ninth day of the war, most Iraqi planes had been hidden in concrete bunkers, and when coalition planes began striking those targets, Iraqi pilots began their exodus to neutral Iran.
In describing this lopsided victory, General McPeak repeatedly referred to Iraq's "first class" air defense and air force. "This was not a featherweight opponent," he said.
But he added, "Having the second-best air force is sort of like having the second-best poker hand. It's often best to fold early, and that's what they did."
Although an Air Force press handout facetiously billed yesterday's wrap-up briefing as "The Mother of All Briefings," General McPeak was unwilling to go into detail on several facets of the air campaign.
When asked about the role of helicopters during the crucial first two hours of fighting, for example, he declined to answer. When asked if radar units assigned to identify moving ground targets in western Iraq could tell the difference between mobile Scud launchers and civilian trucks bound for Jordan, he said he couldn't answer and didn't know.
He also showed several film clips of laser-guided bombs zooming into missile launchers, bunkers, grounded aircraft, bridges and tanks, each of which exploded on the screen in a blinding flash of smoke and flame.
In one of the shots of Iraqi tanks rolling through the desert, a few Iraqi soldiers -- who showed up on screen as tiny, scattered dots -- ran in all directions for cover. Then, into the picture came the bomb, a darting white needle that plowed into the tank, obscuring the entire screen as it exploded.
In all such shots, enemy vehicles appeared to be little more than sitting ducks. When the general was asked whether the destructive air attack on retreating Iraqi columns of vehicles north of Kuwait City was necessary, he said: "That's exactly what happens when a rout occurs. . . . It's a very brutal business, and that's the nature of war."