MASTERMINDING AN AIR WAR
By William M. Arkin
On Jan. 15, 1991, President George Bush sent a memorandum to his main national security advisors, outlining the goals of the coming conflict with Iraq. The president was explicit in focusing U.S. military efforts in four major areas:
Col. John A. Warden III had begun preparing the Baghdad air war on Sunday, Aug. 5, 1990, three days after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Warden was well-known in air power circles. His 1988 book "The Air Campaign" argued war could be won from the air, using a strategy that would disable enemy "centers of gravity" and facilitate a more decisive and less destructive victory.
Warden and his staff, nicknamed "Checkmate," scurried to prepare an offensive action they called "Instant Thunder." The codename was in contrast to Vietnam's "Rolling Thunder," the on-again-off-again bombing campaign of gradual escalation and politically motivated pauses.
They proposed a massive weeklong air attack to "incapacitate, discredit and isolate [the Saddam] Hussein regime, eliminate Iraqi offensive/defensive capability ... [and] create conditions leading to Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait."
The plans focused on the "heart" of Iraq; the objective was "paralysis." They targeted high-level bunkers, regime headquarters, official residences, air defenses, telecommunications, electrical power plants, oil plants, military production facilities and transportation links.
Warden flew with his boss, Maj. General Robert M. ("Minter") Alexander, to MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., on Aug. 10 to brief Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the Commander-in-Chief of Central Command. Schwarzkopf fell in love with the plan.
Back in the Pentagon the next morning, Warden briefed Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell was not won as easily.
"If we go this far in the air campaign, I want to finish it. Destroy the Iraqi army on the ground," Powell said. Warden argued against simultaneous air and land operations, but Powell was adamant. "I can't recommend only the strategic air campaign to the President."
So Warden and his team turned Instant Thunder into operation Desert Storm. They incorporated attacks on Iraqi ground forces, folding in the Navy and Marine Corps, coalition aircraft and Tomahawk cruise missiles.
In late August, Warden arrived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to brief Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles Horner, the senior U.S. officer on the scene. Horner and his staff had been working feverishly on ways to stop the Iraqi army should it continue south into Saudi Arabia. They resented the fact that "Washington" was planning a campaign for them. After a tense briefing by the colonel, a confrontation ensued over the importance of long-term versus short-term objectives. Horner did not invite Warden to participate further in war planning and the Riyadh staff assumed control of preparations against Iraq.
A special planning group, or "Black Hole," was created to develop the super-secret offensive plan. Warden's early Checkmate confederate, Lt. Col. Dave Deptula, would become Horner's head of strategic targeting.
Horner brought in Brig. Gen. Buster C. Glosson to direct the overall air war rewrite. "Eighty-four targets [are] unrealistically few," Glosson wrote in his diary after Deptula briefed him on Instant Thunder.
The Instant Thunder name was changed to read "Offensive Campaign Phase I" to match the evolving four-phase air and ground war being planned in Florida. It was impolitic to claim the Air Force would win the war singlehandedly, and Glosson amiably accommodated competing theories of how to win by merely adding missions and targets to the Desert Storm plan. The 84 list grew to 174 targets by mid-September and expanded to 237 by early December when more aircraft arrived in the theater.
Phase I settled on 12 inter-related target groups or sets. Horner's planning group (with Warden and his staff quietly assisting from afar) remained captivated with leadership strikes, focusing on the Saddam Hussein regime and internal control organs, such as intelligence, security, and the Baath party apparatus.
Ground war planners urged making the Iraqi army, Republican Guards, and transportation higher targeting priorities. Washington pressured for more focus on Scud missiles and Iraq's other weapons of mass destruction. As the end of the year approached, the "final" list ballooned to 487 targets.
According to the Gulf War Air Power Survey, a U.S. military assessment of Desert Storm published after the war, "The aim was not destruction of one particular target set ... but rather a synergistic degradation of the whole, in which friction, confusion, and uncertainty would combine to make the defenses generally ineffective."
To spread the attacks as widely as possible, Horner's "Black Hole" group reduced the number of Stealth-delivered bombs that would be used for each individual target. The planners wanted just one or two bombs per target for "functional" impairment.
Schwarzkopf's four-phase design persisted; the elements now formally called Phase I (Strategic Air Campaign), Phase II (Air Supremacy in the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations), Phase III (Battlefield Preparation), and Phase IV (Ground Offensive Campaign). Phase I, the Desert Storm air war, was no longer a discreet affair entailing just 84 targets and seven days.
Baghdad remained the symbolic and visual centerpiece, even as the capital lost out to the many competing demands of a broad-scale war.
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