The Air War Missed Its Biggest Target


November 21, 1991|By JEFFREY RECORD

WASHINGTON — Washington. - Saddam Hussein's continuance in power and the revelations of how much of Iraq's enormous nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs survived last winter's strategic bombardment campaign have irreparably tarnished claims still being made on air power's behalf by the Air Force and other air-power zealots.

To be sure, air power, in the form of tactical strikes directly against Iraqi military units and their supply lines, was decisive in cutting off and killing Iraqi forces in Kuwait. But that part of the air war conducted against Iraq's leadership and long-term capacity to threaten its neighbors with weapons of mass destruction must, on balance, be judged both a failure and an embarrassment to the Air Force's almost religious faith, despite decades of contrary experience, in the power of strategic bombardment -- as opposed to such ''peripheral'' air missions as interdiction and close air support -- to win wars.

Moreover, while the strategic bombardment campaign against Iraq inflicted remarkably few Iraqi civilian deaths, the Air Force's deliberate attacks on Iraqi fuel and electrical power sources, which had only a remote bearing on Iraq's ability to sustain its forces in Kuwait, have contributed indirectly to the post-war deaths via disease and malnutrition of tens of thousands of Iraqi non-combatants.

Notwithstanding ideal strategic conditions for an air campaign -- a politically and militarily isolated enemy, an abundance of air power and supporting facilities in the theater of operations, relatively good weather and open terrain, and an enemy air force that chose not to fight -- U.S. and allied air forces failed to dislodge from power either Saddam Hussein or his Ba'athist Party and police-state apparatus. Could it be that the Bush administration, fearing the consequences of a disintegrated central political authority in Iraq, cautioned the air war planners against bashing the regime into collapse?

Additionally, it appears that the Air Force left undisturbed far more Iraqi Scud missiles and nuclear, biological and chemical weapons facilities than it destroyed. According to reports from United Nations and other international teams inspecting suspect sites and activities in Iraq since the war, Iraq emerged from the conflict with no fewer than 819 Scud missiles (almost 10 times the number it fired); an undamaged 100-feet-long ''supergun'' designed for eventual use against Israel; 46,000 loaded chemical bombs, shells and missiles; 79,000 unfilled munitions; 600 tons of chemical warfare agents and three uranium enrichment/hydrogen bomb component factories.

Indeed, of an estimated 30 facilities related to Iraq's mammoth pre-war nuclear weapons program, which in terms of the number of people employed and inflation-adjusted cost approximated that of the U.S. Manhattan Project of World War II, only three were attacked by coalition air forces, one of them ineffectually and very late in the war.

Why did the Air Force miss so much in Iraq, especially those components of Iraq's arsenal regarded as the most destabilizing to the Persian Gulf's long-term security, whose elimination was the overriding U.S. war aim? For one thing, air war planners seem not to have recognized the degree to which Iraq's key military assets had been hardened and concealed in the decade preceding the war.

Saddam Hussein's first real taste of Western air power came not in January 1991 but in June 1981, when Israeli F-16s destroyed his Osirak nuclear reactor near Thuwaitha. This experience prompted him to disperse, harden and hide as much of his military-industrial infrastructure and even operating military forces as he could.

Deep underground shelters for Mr. Hussein, government ministries and vital communications centers were constructed in Baghdad. Existing air bases were hardened with aircraft shelters and new ones, including three buried completely underground, were built, many in remote areas. Nuclear facilities were multiplied and dispersed and chemical and biological weapons activities were scattered and often concealed in the guise of fertilizer, food-processing and petrochemical facilities.

Thus, by January 1991, when Operation Desert Storm began, Mr. Hussein had effectively protected much of his military power from air attack, a fact sure to be noted by other regional hegemons with ambitions contrary to U.S. interests. Thus, the 1981 Israeli attack, while it postponed realization of Iraq's nuclear ambitions, made it all the more difficult for the U.S. Air Force to erase Saddam Hussein's nuclear program a decade later.

A second reason for the coalition's indecisive strategic bombardment campaign was its colossal pre-war intelligence failure. Western intelligence agencies simply missed the scope and intensity of Iraqi efforts to acquire ballistic missile and hyper-lethal weapons.

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