By Dr Benjamin S. Lambeth
Editorial Note: 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Operation DESERT STORM. To mark this anniversary, during 2021, From Balloons to Drones will be publishing a series of articles that examine various aspects of DESERT STORM’s air campaign. We will be publishing pieces throughout 2021, and if you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at firstname.lastname@example.org or via our contact page here. The official call for submissions can be found here.
From Balloons to Drones is pleased to be working in conjunction with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies to publish a series of articles on various aspects of the DESERT STORM air campaign. These articles were initially published as part of a Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies special report, Desert Storm: 30 Years Later – Lessons from the 1991 Air Campaign in the Persian Gulf War. These article were originally presented at a day-long Mitchell Institute program on the DESERT STORM air campaign held on 19 March 2016, You can download the report here.
In this latest instalment, we are pleased to present a piece by Dr Benjamin Lambeth of the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment. In this article, Lambeth discusses some of the lessons learnt and forgotten from the DESERT STORM air campaign and their influence on more recent operations.
It is a special honor for me to have been invited to share the podium with this symposium’s roster of distinguished speakers to offer some final thoughts on what I believe we all would agree still remains even today – a quarter of a century later – the most epic American combat experience since Vietnam. Having now heard all of the preceding presentations this afternoon, I believe that my charter for my concluding remarks is to try to reinforce the most important and memorable recollections that were voiced earlier by those who were actually there in the fight—both in the war zone in Southwest Asia and back here in Washington.
A Combat First
To begin with, as most of you all will remember, not long after Operation Desert Storm ended, then-Secretary of the Air Force Don Rice commissioned the Gulf War Air Power Survey, or GWAPS as it is more commonly called for short. That was an in-depth, five-volume assessment of the air war modeled on the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey conducted after World War II. Professor Eliot Cohen at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies here in Washington led it.
In the preface to their unclassified synopsis of the GWAPS effort, Eliot and his co-author Tom Keaney wrote that one important purpose of the exercise had been to provide ‘an analytical and evidentiary point of departure for future studies of the air campaign.’ Inspired by that enticement, I subsequently sought to try my best to make broader sense of the Gulf War and its meaning in a substantial study of American air power’s evolution since Vietnam that was sponsored by General Ron Fogelman during his tenure as Air Force chief of staff. That study was eventually published as a commercial book by Cornell University Press in 2000. After much careful consideration, I finally chose as its title, The Transformation of American Air Power. I did so, I will now admit, before what I later came to disparage as the ‘T-word’ became so popularized and devalued by the Rumsfeld Pentagon that it eventually ended up meaning almost anything one might want it to mean. But I still have no regrets over having made that title choice, since, if used with all due discretion and discipline, ‘transformation’ remains an uncommonly powerful word. My dictionary defines ‘to transform’ as ‘to change the nature or character of something radically.’ And that is exactly what I believe happened to the substantially improved American air posture after Vietnam that we finally took to war against Saddam Hussein in 1991.
Transformed Airpower in Action
We have already heard abundant first-hand testimony this afternoon as to the main details of the air component’s performance throughout the campaign, so I will not waste time recapitulating any of those events in my own remarks. Let me just say that after the campaign’s cease-fire went into effect, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind about the determining influence that the initial air attacks had in producing the subsequent course and outcome of Desert Storm. Those attacks against Iraq’s air defenses and command and control facilities were uniformly effective, with initially, more than 600 strike sorties launched in radio silence against the country’s most significant targets the first night and with just one coalition aircraft lost to enemy fire—a Navy F/A-18, presumably to a lucky long-range infrared-guided air-to-air missile fired from an Iraqi MiG-25 that had somehow escaped being detected and identified by our E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft that was operating on station nearby. Over the next three days, the air war struck at the entire spectrum of Iraq’s military assets, gaining unchallenged control of the air and the needed freedom to operate with near-impunity against Iraq’s airfields, ground forces, and other targets of interest. In one of the first serious assessments of the campaign’s air offensive to have appeared in print after the dust settled, the United Kingdom’s most respected commentator on air warfare, retired RAF Air Vice-Marshal Tony Mason, aptly characterized it as ‘the apotheosis of 20th-century air power.’
Perhaps the single most important point to be made about the planning approach that underlay Desert Storm’s air effort has to do with its having sought and achieved desired combat effects as a major departure from our earlier targeting practice. For example, there was no assessed need for the air component of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) that conducted the campaign to destroy each and every last Iraqi acquisition and tracking radar and surface-to-air missile (SAM) site. It was enough for it simply to be so effective in its initial SAM-suppression attacks that Iraq’s SAM operators were intimidated from turning on their radars and engaging the coalition’s attacking aircraft, since they had quickly learned from the first-hand experience of others that if they did, they would invite a high-speed anti-radiation missile (HARM) shot down their throats with the certainty of sunrise.
And, by the same token, there was no assessed need for the air component to destroy each and every last Iraqi fighter aircraft. The coalition was so totally dominating in the air-to-air arena that the Iraqi Air Force soon lost any incentive to turn a wheel. Before long, it was said by some inside observers of the ongoing air war that the three most fearsome words to an Iraqi fighter pilot were ‘cleared for takeoff.’
What Made it Possible?
To sum it all up in brief, American airpower showed during Operation Desert Storm that it had finally matured in its ability to deliver the kinds of outcome-determining results that its early visionaries had promised in vain years before. Thanks to our exploitation of the latest technology, our pursuit of more realistic aircrew training, and our development of better strategies and concepts of operations after Vietnam, American airpower in all services underwent a nonlinear growth in capability as a result of the advent of stealth and our ability to attack targets consistently with high accuracy around the clock. Only later, of course, with the subsequent advent of the satellite-aided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), could it do so in any weather conditions as well.
But by the time of Desert Storm, our air assets had finally gained what they needed by way of combat wherewithal to set the conditions for victory in high-intensity warfare. They also ever more steadily came to supplant the traditional role of our ground forces in contributing the bulk of heavy lifting toward achieving joint-force combat objectives, with friendly ground forces now fixing enemy ground troops and air power doing most of the killing of them rather than the other way around, as had been the case in all previous joint air and land operations.
To offer just two examples of this momentous combat role reversal, during the pre-campaign Operation Desert Shield buildup of allied forces in the war zone, CENTCOM shipped nearly 220,000 rounds of M1A1 Abrams main battle tank ammunition to the forward area, of which less than 2 percent were actually fired in combat. For its part, the air component dropped more than 23,000 bombs on Iraq’s ground forces, making for 67 percent of the campaign’s overall air effort.
By the same token, fast-forwarding to the three-week major combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in early 2003, the U.S. Army flew only two deep-attack missions with fewer than 80 of its AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, and it fired only 414 of its high-end MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) in support of its march northward from Kuwait to the heart of Baghdad. In contrast, CENTCOM’s air component during the same three weeks flew more than 20,000 strike sorties, using 735 fighters and 51 bombers to attack, with devastating effect, more than 15,000 Iraqi target aim points in direct facilitation of CENTCOM’s land offensive, but also mostly ahead of and independent of any friendly ground-force action.
Perhaps the most compelling testimony to what that air capability allowed in Operation Iraqi Freedom came from Lieutenant Nate Fick, a Marine Corps platoon commander during CENTCOM’s land offensive, who later wrote in his book One Bullet Away:
For the next hundred miles, all the way to the gates of Baghdad, every palm grove hid Iraqi armor, every field an artillery battery, and every alley an antiaircraft gun or surface-to-air missile launcher. But we never fired a shot. We saw the full effect of American air power. Every one of those fearsome weapons was a blackened hulk.
Later Airpower Successes
With respect to the air component’s successful performance in beating down Iraq’s ground forces in the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations (KTO) in just a little more than a month to a point where they no longer presented a major threat to the coalition’s final four-day land push, some observers tended for a time afterwards to dismiss that performance as nothing more than a one-off anomaly. It was, they said dismissively, the open desert setting, or the unusual vulnerability of Iraq’s armored forces to precision attacks from above, or any number of other unique circumstances that somehow made the air war an exception to the familiar time-honored rule that it takes friendly ‘boots on the ground’ in large numbers, and ultimately in head-to-head close combat, to defeat well-endowed enemy forces in high-intensity warfare.
To many people, that argument sounded reasonable enough when American and allied air power’s rapid rout of the Iraqi army was something the world had never seen before. Yet in the 12 years that followed Desert Storm, allied air power prevailed again in four widely dissimilar subsequent cases, starting with NATO’s two air-dominated wars over the Balkans in 1995 and 1999 and followed soon thereafter by Operation Enduring Freedom against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in late 2001 and then by the major combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March and April 2003. True enough, in none of those five cases, with the one exception of Kosovo, did air power produce the sought-after result all by itself. Yet one can fairly say that in each instance a mature air component was the main enabler of all else that followed by way of producing the desired outcome at such a low cost in friendly and noncombatant enemy lives lost. In so doing, American air power showed to the world that it had finally come of age, at least for high-intensity wars against well-equipped enemy forces.
Airpower’s Triumphant Years
In the wake of that uninterrupted succession of air warfare achievements, the first twelve years that followed Desert Storm looked for the entire world like an unqualified air power success story. Thanks to its preeminent role in the 1991 Gulf War, it seemed to many that the air weapon had finally become the tool of first choice for U. S. Joint Task Force (JTF) commanders. That impression was further reinforced by the similarly preeminent role played by air power in shaping the equally successful outcomes of Operations Deliberate Force and Allied Force in 1995 and 1999. Indeed, as Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute remarked at the turn of the 21st century, by the time the second Bush administration took office in January 2001, ‘not only did it look like air power could win wars, but there was a new crop of policymakers ready to embrace that message,’ starting with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
That view was further reinforced by the outcomes of the major combat phases of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom in late 2001 and early 2003, both of which were also largely enabled by the effective use of air power in making possible the unimpeded ground operations that brought an early end to the existing regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. In all, by the end of major combat in Iraq in April 2003 after just three weeks of sustained allied air and land operations, the evolved capabilities offered by transformed American air power seemed finally to have heralded a new style of war for the United States and its coalition partners, at least with respect to high-intensity combat against conventional forces like the ones that Saddam Hussein had fielded.
Unfortunately for that fact-based and well-founded conviction, however, the end of major combat in Iraq heralded a new era of warfare for Americans in not just one way but in two. Just as the Iraqi Freedom experience confirmed our final mastery of high-intensity combat, it also confronted us with a newly emergent wave of counterinsurgency fighting for the first time since Vietnam. That second challenge, for which we were totally unprepared, became clear within just days of the occupation’s onset as coalition ground forces were shown to have been both completely untrained and un-resourced to meet the needs of post-campaign stabilization. A similar challenge arose in Afghanistan after the Bush team took its eye off the ball there, opening up a chance for the Taliban to move back into the ensuing power vacuum in an attempt to regain control of the country.
Before our initial successes in Afghanistan and Iraq went sour and morphed into prolonged land-centric wars of attrition, the main focus of the American defense debate in Washington had been on the relative merits of air power versus ground power in joint high-intensity combat. By the time we were ready to take on Iraq in 2003, the American ‘boots on the ground’ community had clearly become the more beleaguered of the two in the continuing inter-service tug-of-war over roles and resources. However, the insurgencies that soon thereafter consumed us in Iraq and Afghanistan for half a decade and more entailed enemy wartime conduct of a quite different sort—designed to avoid our greatest strengths and instead to make the most of our vulnerabilities and weaknesses. As a result, the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps gained a new lease on life after 2003 as the challenges of combating newly-emergent insurgencies moved the spotlight from air power to our ground forces as those bearing the brunt of daily combat losses and accordingly those in greatest need of daily sustenance and funding.
Lessons Forgotten in the Fight Against ISIS
Looking now at our current effort against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it has already been under way at a lethargic pace for more than two years, with still no end in sight or any truly significant progress achieved so far, yet at a cost of more than $5 billion in sunk cost to date, to say nothing of the additional cost in reduced service life for our jets that have flown so many combat sorties for so little gain. To my mind, it has been more than disheartening to see just how far we seem to have regressed in the 25 years since the first President Bush told us after Desert Storm that “we’d finally kicked the Vietnam syndrome.” We are now back to Vietnam all over again, it appears, with the return of the daily body count and CENTCOM’s daily recital of the number of sorties flown, bombs dropped, and targets attacked in the absence of any more meaningful metrics of performance to show how effectively we are actually faring.
I am reminded too in this regard of how we seem to have forgotten the wise counsel of the classic Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz, who stressed the criticality of correct situation assessment and of duly fighting the war one is actually in rather than the war one believes one is in or would prefer to be in. In that respect as well, it is hardly surprising that a U.S. Army-dominated CENTCOM that has been so deeply habituated to counterinsurgency warfare as a daily diet for more than a decade would naturally roll into this latest fight against ISIS as though it were just a continuation of the counterinsurgency war in Iraq. That unthinking approach has, among other things, occasioned the draconian no-civilian-casualties rules of engagement that have so badly hampered our air effort since it began ever so haltingly in early August 2014.
But ISIS is not an insurgency. On the contrary, it is a self-avowed emerging nation state that is replete with coherent leadership, territory, an infrastructure, an economy, a central nervous system, and the beginnings of a capable conventional army, all of which are eminently targetable by precision air power. Accordingly, it should be engaged by our air assets as such and not in the more gradualist and ineffectual way in which CENTCOM has pursued the Obama administration’s half-hearted campaign so far.
Has Airpower Paid a Price for Its Precision?
In that regard, before turning to my final reflections on Desert Storm, it behooves us to ask first how the current fight against ISIS may offer the latest telling example of how our very ability to avoid causing noncombatant casualties in warfare almost routinely has increasingly rendered air power a victim of its own success since 1991. People like most of us in the audience here whose formative images of air power were steeped in Vietnam had our eyes opened during the first few nights of Desert Storm by watching cockpit weapon system video clips on the nightly TV news showing laser-guided bombs homing down the air shafts of Iraqi bunkers one after the other with unerring precision. Thanks to that substantially improved capability that was first pioneered in Vietnam, avoiding unintended civilian casualties in the course of conducting air strikes naturally became a goal that air campaign planners sought to bend every effort to strive for in future conflicts.
But by the time of Operation Deliberate Force against the Bosnian Serbs in 1995, just four scant years after Desert Storm, American political leaders and rank-and-file citizens alike had become so habituated to such accuracy that what campaign planners once strove for in good faith, because air power could now generally permit it, had become not just expected but was now a binding precondition for getting an approval to drop a bomb or strafe a target. Even one inadvertent civilian fatality as the result of an errant air attack was now likely to become front-page news, as it has been ever since our would-be air war against ISIS began in early August 2014.
True enough, air power’s heightened ability to minimize unintended civilian casualties in warfare has brought along with it a new responsibility on the part of airmen to make the most of that ability in their target planning in good faith. But at the same time, it has also levied a new challenge on our most senior leaders, both civilian and uniformed, to do better at managing public expectations when even the most stringent Laws of Armed Conflict are not as exacting as our own self-imposed rules of engagement have lately become. Otherwise, collateral damage avoidance will continue to trump mission accomplishment in priority, which is tantamount to the tail wagging the dog in the conduct of war.
What Made Desert Storm Unique
With all of that by way of background, how can we best summarize the main takeaways to be drawn from the 1991 Persian Gulf War? For my money, American air power between the end of the Vietnam War and the start of Operation Desert Storm had finally evolved to a point where it had become truly strategic in its character, thanks to its by-then proven ability to produce outcome-determining effects. That was not the case before the advent of low observability to enemy radar, precision target attack capability, and vastly better real-time battlespace situation awareness in the American air posture. Earlier air wars were limited in the combat successes they could achieve because it simply took too many aircraft and too many losses to achieve too few results at too high a cost. But by 1991, American air power had finally arrived at a point where it could make its presence felt quickly and could impose effects on an enemy from the very outset of fighting that could have a determining influence on the subsequent course and outcome of a campaign. How? In large part by enabling almost unopposed friendly ground maneuver and thereby establishing the needed conditions for achieving a JTF commander’s campaign goals fairly quickly. Or, put more simply, by granting JTF commanders and their subordinate forces freedom from attack and freedom to attack.
This breakthrough in capability, however, was not just about technology. As Congressman Les Aspin rightly remarked after the Gulf War ended when he was still chairman of the House Armed Services Committee: ‘One, the equipment worked and was vindicated against its critics.’ But also, he added: ‘Two, we know how to orchestrate it and use it in a way that makes the sum bigger than all the parts.’ His second point in that statement was really the more important of the two by far. For if Desert Storm’s ultimate successfulness heralded any ‘revolution’ in warfare, then it was as a result of the campaign’s effective exploitation of all the inputs discussed earlier this afternoon, including the critically important and unquantifiable intangibles like training, tactics, proficiency, skilled leadership, concepts of operations, and boldness in execution in addition to all the technology magic that Americans usually fixate on when considering the main ingredients of military capability.
What the Gulf War Bequeathed to Us
In light of all the foregoing, it is long past time for airmen to stop seeking their intellectual guidance from such outmoded prophets as the Italian general Giulio Douhet, who advocated for air power at a time in the early 1920s when it was still embryonic and had virtually nothing in common with what it has since become today. If we need to identify new sources of such guidance for tomorrow’s still-evolving air weapon, then they should be drawn instead from the successor generation of American airmen whose path breaking insights into force employment allowed the example set by airpower’s more recently acquired performance capabilities in 1991. For in Operation Desert Storm, air power showed, for the first time ever, its ability to achieve strategic effects directly through its increased survivability and lethality. In earlier years, air forces sought to impose the greatest possible pain on enemy populations and industry, as was done against Germany and Japan in World War II and even against North Vietnam toward that war’s end in 1972, because such a strategy was the only one that air power could then underwrite with any hope of achieving success. Today, however, there is so much more one can do with air power to produce combat outcomes that more directly affect an enemy’s ability—not his will, but his ability—to continue fighting.
Of course, all force elements, including ground forces, have the opportunity in principle to seek the effects of mass without actually having to mass by leveraging modern technology to the fullest in quest of greater precision in force employment. But what was unique about modern air power as it first showed its hand in 1991 was that it had finally pulled well ahead of surface forces in its relative ability to do this, thanks not only to its newly-gained advantages in stealth, target-attack accuracy, and battlespace awareness, but also to its long-standing and enduring characteristics of speed, range, and flexibility. That, I would suggest, is the main legacy of air power’s transformation since Vietnam that we saw demonstrated for the first time in Operation Desert Storm.
Dr Benjamin S. Lambeth is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in the US. He assumed this position in July 2011 after a 37-year career as a Senior Research Associate at the RAND Corporation, where he remains an adjunct associate. Before joining RAND in 1975, he served in the Office of National Estimates at the Central Intelligence Agency. A civil-rated pilot, Lambeth has flown or flown in more than 40 different types of fighter, attack, and jet trainer aircraft with the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and with eight foreign air forces worldwide. He also attended the USAF’s Tactical Fighter Weapons and Tactics Course and Combined Force Air Component Commander Course, the Aerospace Defense Command’s Senior Leaders’ Course, and portions of the Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) and Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Instructor’s Course. In 2008, Lambeth was appointed by the Secretary of Defense to serve an eight-year term as a member of the Board of Visitors of Air University, which he completed in 2016. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Air Force Association, the U.S. Naval Institute, the Association of Naval Aviation, the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, and the Editorial Advisory Boards of Air and Space Power Journal and Strategic Studies Quarterly. He is the author of numerous books including The Transformation of American Air Power (2000), which won the Air Force Association’s Gill Robb Wilson Award for Arts and Letters in 2001. His most recent book is Airpower in the War against ISIS (2021).