If Kuwait is to be liberated and the war brought to a conclusion, the temptation to follow an illusory "bloodless" offensive relying exclusively on air power alone must be avoided. At some point a ground offensive will be required. In fact, victory in a ground war would put the coalition in a strong position in terms of resolving the conflict.
The effectiveness of air power is greatly diminished when used against dug-in troops. One thing emerging from the bits of information provided during the Pentagon briefings is the feeling that air strikes against Iraqi forces deployed in the field are less effective than strikes against buildings and fixed military sites. The ability of bombers to collapse buildings is impressive, but the damage from even the heaviest bombers on fortifications built of sand is remarkably limited.
To cut Iraqi supply lines leading into Kuwait and keep them cut would require thousands of sorties during a period of months. Against dispersed troops and tanks, the effectiveness of even laser-guided munitions is much diminished. Iraq will refuse to mass its ground forces and provide allied pilots with inviting targets. Instead, it will dig deeper holes and make extensive use of cover and camouflage to mitigate the effects of even the most intense air attacks. If attacked by coalition ground forces, however, Iraqi troops would be forced to come out of their holes to repel the attacks, exposing themselves to extensive air attack.
Air power cannot seize and hold ground. The primary war aim in the Gulf is to retake Kuwait. That will inevitably require the movement of ground troops. In the war against Saddam Hussein, the seizure of ground is particularly important. Apart from being the single most undisputed war aim, the seizure of Kuwait would also facilitate the end of the fighting. Unlike the destruction of much of his war machine and the killing of Iraqi soldiers by a high-tech air force, the retaking of Kuwait would confront Saddam Hussein with a tangible defeat, recognizable to all observers, particularly his supporters in the Middle East.
A total dislocation of the Iraqi military requires ground attacks. Aerial interdiction is aimed at destroying the enemy's critical supplies behind the battlefield, which have a direct impact on his ability to conduct battlefield operations. For interdiction to be successful, however, those troops at the front have to be consuming a lot of material; otherwise, the lack of it won't have much effect. Without exchanges of firepower, Iraqi troops at the front will be able to conserve war material. Iraqi forces on the ground are currently confronted with attacks from only one direction, above. Air attacks coupled with an armored offensive would overload the Iraqi military system and have a much greater effect than air attacks alone.
There are limits to the destruction that should be rained on Iraq. U.S. war aims do not include the total destruction of the Iraqi nation. For air-delivered firepower to leave Iraq's military and industrial infrastructure in complete shambles will merely create a power vacuum that may be filled by one of Iraq's hardly less belligerent neighbors. It is much better to leave the Iraqi military defeated rather than totally destroyed.
Air power cannot take prisoners. In the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal and placed a large force on the eastern, Israeli side of the canal. After initially containing the Egyptian force, the Israelis responded by moving a force of their own over the canal to the Egyptian side. Israeli armored units broke through Egyptian defenses on the western side of the canal and surrounded and cut off the main Egyptian army bottled up on the opposite side of the canal. Faced with the destruction of such a large portion of their army, the Egyptians asked for an immediate cease-fire.
Entrenched behind a formidable line of prepared fortifications, the Iraqi army is vulnerable to attack from a highly mobile allied ground force with tactical air superiority. Coordinating air and rapid ground attacks, U.S. forces would attempt to isolate Iraqi units and force them to fight for their lifelines, straining Iraq's battered command and control system. By moving a strong armored force around the western border of Kuwait and the flank of the Iraqi defenses, Iraqi communications and supply lines would be cut. Iraq would be forced to either withdraw its forces or face encirclement. If a few hundred thousand Iraqi prisoners were seized, the coalition would be in a strong position to end the fighting and to dictate the terms of any conflict resolution.
Though the casualties in a ground war would certainly be higher than those experienced during the air campaign, they could be limited by exploiting Iraqi limitations. By placing the bulk of their forces in defensive fortifications, Iraqi commanders have forfeited mobility. Against a doctrinally rigid and inflexible opponent such as Iraq, a war of maneuver would be particularly effective. Air power and land power are dependent on one another for overall success.
The writer is a strategist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.