Less than two weeks after Iraq invaded Kuwait, on 14 August, the first U.S. Air Force war plan was prepared. Baghdad was the symbolic heart of that initial scheme, which assumed that if Saddam Hussein were eliminated, the Iraqi Army would withdraw from Kuwait, according to government documents. Instant Thunder, as the initial plan was called, sought an airpower-only victory.
But airpower-only never had a chance of flying. Not only were there the doubtful World War II, Korea and Vietnam histories to contend with, and the U.S. military mantra of "jointness," but the Bush administration was intent on guaranteeing that Iraq would no longer threaten its neighbors. Few believed that airplanes alone were sufficient to fullfill the military and political objectives.
As ground forces were added to the equation, the plans for the air campaign evolved. More and more airplanes and targets were accumulated and the priority became support for the ground troops. Washington ordered that the military remove Iraq from Kuwait. But the Bush Administration also had to keep a fragile coalition intact and was intent on avoiding the dreaded "micro-management" of the military from afar.
Baghdad was the public's window on the war. Out of the limelight, hundreds of bombers, attack jets and fighters unloaded tens of thousands of tons of bombs (standard and smart alike) on the Iraqi military in the south. Air power boxed in, demoralized, and pummeled Saddam Hussein's legions, making the 100-hour ground assault a walkover. Weeks before the ground war kicked off, the Iraqi leader tried to maneuver a negotiated settlement. Nothing in his arsenal not Scud missiles shot against Israel, not propaganda about civilian casualties, not chemical weapons, and certainly not the Iraqi military was able to deflect the intended U.S. endgame.
Most of Desert Storm's enduring memories opening night in Baghdad as broadcast by CNN, new stealth fighters and cruise missiles, the bombing of the Amiriyah shelter, Saddam Hussein's "baby milk factory," even the "highway of death" remain of air battles, not skirmishes on the ground. Since the super-smart weapons and the carefully chosen video clips of attacks suggested perfection, it is no wonder that minor errors and the natural bloodletting of war received inordinate attention. Over time the battle of Baghdad, the most visible tip of the air campaign, became as much a problem to manage as an integral part of the war effort.
The U.S.-led coalition fought at least two kinds of wars. Over the desert battlefields of southern Iraq it unleashed massive air power. In the central Baghdad laboratory it practiced surgical bombing and tested new weapons and theories. Air power was the undisputed champion of the war. But by putting too much faith in smart weapons, and assuming that intelligence information could match the new technology, and by leaving lots of breathing space in Baghdad, the campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein ultimately failed.
Analyst William M. Arkin has studied and written on the coalition air war since his 1991 work with Harvard on civilian casualities in Desert Storm.
Editor's Note: To review the evidence on which analyst William M. Arkin bases his views, browse the case studies and the database of airstrikes, documents, video and original photographs. Gen. Charles Horner, the Desert Storm air war commander, responds to Arkin.
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