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WINGED VICTORY
- The planning behind the Iraq war was informed by a belief in the potency of air power

The author is a retired air marshall of the Indian air force

Within a month of the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom, General Tommy Franks held his first conference in Saddam Hussein’s palace, thus symbolizing victory. Such symbolism seemed forced in the absence of a leadership which has abandoned its country, its military and its people, and one which was far removed from the realities of modern-day warfare. Gulf War II can boast of being the swiftest campaign in military history supported by high technology. By embedding the media within forward military formations, it gave the world a close-up of war as witnessed by those executing it on the ground. In doing so, however, it conveyed the erroneous impression to the public at large that like wars of yesteryear, today’s wars are primarily about ground forces. In the bargain, little was seen and even less heard of air power, the real ace of this campaign right from concept to conclusion.

One must wonder what it was that Franks and his superiors knew that allowed them to conceive of a bold and cheeky military campaign without traditional military reserves, knowing the logistic challenges of supporting formations over large distances in hostile terrain and the limitations imposed by Turkey’s last-minute denial of its territory. All this within the backdrop of a likely chemical or biological threat, forcing cumbersome clothing on the ground troops already encumbered by rising desert temperatures and domestic sensitivity to military casualties. This writer believes that the answer to what drove the confidence of Pentagon planners in the run up to Gulf War II has its genesis in the Gulf War of 1991.

It was then that for the first time in modern warfare, primacy was given to air power within an integrated battle plan. Ground forces were to be committed only when the enemy’s ground fighting capability had been severely hampered by the use of air power. The plan to subdue Iraqi air defence and communications systems and neutralize its air force, thus creating a situation of “air superiority” worked as planned. Thereafter, other target systems were systematically destroyed through air attacks. After a sustained 38-day air campaign, the baton was handed over to the ground forces that over-ran the Iraqi Republican Guards within a mere 100 hours.

This was indeed a textbook application of an integrated air-land battle-plan with air-power at the forefront. Modern warfare and associated technologies no more afford luxuries to military planners to fight the last war. It is this recognition that made the Pentagon apply lessons learnt from Gulf War I to evolve future campaign and operational strategies.

They decided on a doctrinaire shift towards an operational and acquisition strategy that would emphasize precision and long-range weapons, weapons against specific targets like deep-bunkers or weapons of mass destruction storage sites; along with the ability to provide seamless and integrated information not only to battlefield commanders, but right up the command and control chain. Clearly there was also confidence that given adequate air-power resources, a simultaneous air and ground campaign was possible, as against the earlier sequential air and ground one.

While these longer-term objectives were put into play, there was also an ongoing operational plan. As far as the United States of America and to an extent the United Kingdom were concerned, preparations for Gulf War II have been afoot for the last ten years. Patrolling the “no fly” zones over north and south Iraq, coalition air force aircraft have been busy identifying Iraqi aircraft, air defence radars, command and control systems and missiles and often destroying them. In addition to collecting intelligence about potential targets, the primary military objective of this ten-year operation has been to ensure that when Gulf War II came, the US and its allies could plan and operate in an environment of complete “air superiority”. It was this preparation that finally paid off when the moment of reckoning came. Had even a handful of Iraqi air-force fighter aircraft shown up when the coalition forces were advancing towards Baghdad, they could have caused much damage to Frank’s bold plan.

Superiority of intelligence, firepower, mobility, range and flexibility are some of the characteristics central to successful military campaigns. In each of these, air and space technologies have brought in revolutionary capabilities, which in some cases did not exist even at the time of Gulf War I. The vast improvement in the C4ISR (Command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) capability of the US forces to determine what is going on and round-the-clock availability of airborne platforms waiting to respond within minutes even under the most dynamic and challenging climatic conditions enabled the coalition forces to commence both the air and ground campaigns almost simultaneously.

While this was a bold tactical move, never were the ground forces unduly exposed as the way was softened by air strikes which systematically neutralized Iraqi command and control systems and forces on the ground. No coalition ground forces were ever left without the cover of air. Inherent in the complex planning was one underlying belief — that of the potency of air power, especially when operating under conditions of total or limited air superiority. Aided by precision-guided munitions, even urban targets could be destroyed without collateral damage, as indeed was demonstrated.

There was round-the-clock air surveillance to enable commanders to have a real-time picture of the ground situation. Contributing to this were space platforms, aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles and special forces on the ground. Information from varied sources was integrated to enable commanders at different levels to assess the situation as it evolved and respond instantly. Forward air controller planes were operating on a 24-hour basis to guide fighter aircraft on to their targets and attack aircraft from five aircraft carriers, and nearly 30 airfields were on station, stacked and controlled by airborne warning and control system aircraft to any target. Flight refuellers were on station to replenish fuel for longer loiter times. Not surprising, within minutes of information of any threat to friendly forces or a target location, it was engaged from the air.

While much publicity has been given to PGMs, as a class, it is worth mentioning that there is a broad spectrum of such weapons spanning cost, technology and destructive power. It has been reported that some 70 per cent of weapons used in this war were PGMs. At the lower end of the spectrum were joint direct attack munitions which are old 1,000/2,000 pound iron bombs fitted with tail units suitably guided by external means, costing around $ 20,000 a piece. Cruise missiles, at the other end of the spectrum, are unmanned aircraft that cost $ 1 million apiece and some 750 were used during the war.

At least a third of the air-delivered armament was still conventional and a B2 stealth bomber is reported to have flown from its base in the US, dropped eighty 500-pound general-purpose bombs on an Iraqi garrison and returned to base after flying non-stop for 34 hours. This gives an idea of the firepower, range, mobility and flexibility that modern day air-power can bring to bear in a conflict scenario. Other interesting aspects of the air war were contribution to Psyops (psychological operations), whereby some 43 million leaflets were dropped over Iraq before and during the operations or the ability to rescue downed airmen or captured soldiers within hours of the event.

If there was one area where lessons of the past were re-learnt, it was perhaps in the realm of “friendly fire” incidents. As will happen in the fog of war, there were instances of friendly forces being attacked and friendly aircraft being downed. This remained a weak area for the coalition forces in spite of their technological and military superiority, though reports indicate that automated aids to prevent such errors are under active development.

Clearly what was promised as a campaign of “shock and awe” proved to be true. Planners in the Pentagon have for decades overcome traditional inter-service rivalries for a larger strategic security cause. That of using integrated military power to win wars. Tough diplomatic talk leading to Gulf War II was thus backed by sound technological, military and operational preparations.

Closer home, this writer recalls events soon after the Gulf War in 1991, when there was considerable international media comment on the new- found potential of air-power. Being swept away by this trend, air headquarters were inundated with requests from the powers that be to review plans and submit proposals. The memory span of the Indian security establishment, however, rarely extends beyond crisis periods and this instance was no exception. Today our concept of war-fighting still centres on the ground forces. Talk of counter-air operations against enemy air-power to enable limited or total “air superiority” elicits criticism of the air force wanting to fight its own war.

Many of the recommendations approved by the group of ministers on the basis of the Kargil review committee have still to see the light of day. The need for a chief of defence staff has been accepted, but none appointed. Air power still does not register on the radar screen of our security planners. The percentage share of the defence budget for the air force has remained more or less constant in spite of the primacy of air power in modern warfare.

It was in keeping with this blissfully ignorant security trend that in the midst of Gulf War II, and soon after the abortive forward deployment of troops, one heard of Pakistan being a fit case for pre-emptive strikes. As Gulf War II demonstrates, rhetoric and posturing, backed by sound military planning and preparation, serve national interests. The reverse is not true.

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