The first thing to understand about the air campaign in Iraq is that what we see on television is but a small fraction of it. And the fraction we do see is doubly misleading: Images of spectacular explosions in downtown Baghdad play into deep-seated preconceptions, myths and even cultural beliefs about air power. But such images do not reflect the true character, tactics or purpose of air operations in modern conflict.

U.S. military officials have provided only minimal details about coalition air strikes so far, but it is already evident that, news footage notwithstanding, the overwhelming weight of the air effort is being directed against Iraqi military forces in the field: tanks, missile launchers, supply trucks, command posts, air defense units. For the past week, coalition aircraft have been flying more than 1,000 sorties a day, with three-quarters of those missions directly targeting Republican Guard and other Iraqi military forces. While a few dozen bombs hit government buildings in Baghdad each night, thousands of precision munitions are systematically wiping out the Iraqi army on the battlefield. In one little-noted but significant development last week, U.S. forces seized the Tallil airfield outside Nasiriyah and began flying fighter-bomber missions from this forward base in support of the ground advance. This has allowed a force of some 150 jets to be in the air over the battlefield 24 hours a day, ready to take out Iraqi tanks and troop positions as they are identified.

The misleading focus on the strategic targeting of Baghdad to the exclusion of the real air war repeats what occurred in the first Persian Gulf War. Mesmerizing video clips of bombs plunging down the airshaft of a government building lined up in cross hairs came to epitomize the new high-tech air war in many people's minds. Yet, in the end, only 2 percent of all air sorties were directed against "leadership" targets in downtown Baghdad in the 1991 war, while 67 percent were devoted to what U.S. fighter pilots irreverently called "tank plinking" and other missions designed to pick off Iraqi armored forces on the ground.

U.S. defense officials have noted that this time, the vast majority of the munitions used are precision-guided; in Gulf War I, only about 7 percent were. Already, in the first two weeks of Gulf War II, U.S. Air Force and Navy jets have dropped more than 14,000 precision-guided bombs and more than 750 Tomahawk cruise missiles have been fired -- exceeding the number of laser-guided bombs (about 9,250) and Tomahawks (300) used in all six weeks of Gulf War I.

More important than the greater quantities of precision weapons, however, is the fact that this time virtually all coalition aircraft are equipped to carry them. That has especially made a difference in the campaign to destroy tanks and other notoriously "hard" military targets on the battlefield. In the past, the only way to kill a tank with an airplane was to get low and close, which historically had proved exceedingly dangerous. And even then, achieving the necessary accuracy required overcoming almost astronomical odds. In World War II, Allied fighter-bombers on average had to drop 800 bombs or fire 3,500 rockets to score a single tank kill.

In Gulf War I, coalition fighter-bombers were also frequently forced to choose between staying above 10,000 feet to avoid antiaircraft fire -- at which altitudes an unguided bomb dropped on a tank would typically miss by 200 feet -- or go in low and risk getting shot down. Meanwhile, a lack of laser targeting equipment meant that only three types of Air Force aircraft -- the F-117 stealth fighter, the F-15E fighter and the near-obsolete F-111F fighter-bomber -- were able to deliver precision weapons in any quantity. The F-117s, with their radar-evading capability, were reserved for heavily defended targets around Baghdad; the F-15Es were occupied with Scud-hunting in the western desert; so that left only the 60 F-111Fs (plus Navy A6-Es) for "tank plinking." Still, even this limited force achieved spectacular successes, sometimes destroying more than 100 tanks in a single night.

Now, in Gulf War II, real-time radar and targeting systems like the JSTARS radar plane, combined with satellite-guided bombs that can be carried by almost all Navy and Air Force fighters and bombers, have greatly increased the ability to destroy even small, hard targets from a safe altitude. Coalition forces can spot Iraqi armor on the ground, immediately convert its location to a digital map coordinate, and relay that to an aircraft equipped with satellite-guided bombs. In a week of concerted effort, U.S. air strikes have reportedly already destroyed 1,000 Iraqi tanks and reduced the combat strength of several Republican Guard divisions by 50 percent or more -- a feat that took six weeks of air strikes in Gulf War I.

This kind of air power -- the kind that does not show up on our television sets, but which in fact is the focus of the modern U.S. air effort -- is precisely why Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other proponents of military "transformation" have argued that smaller ground forces can now do the job that once required multiple heavy-armor divisions. This kind of fast, extremely lethal and extremely flexible battlefield air power can definitely substitute for some of the battlefield firepower traditionally supplied by artillery and tanks. Significantly, in Gulf War I, U.S. tank crews ended up firing only 2 percent of the massive stocks of tank ammunition that had been moved into the theater in anticipation of intense ground fighting. Air power not only directly obliterated Iraqi ground combat power but proved devastating to enemy morale. Iraqi soldiers abandoned their tanks in droves when they realized that night after night their vehicles would be incinerated by an enemy they could not even see or hear coming.

The relative invisibility to the public of the true nature of modern air power has lent specious credence to highly publicized accusations by some retired Army officers last week that Rumsfeld, in an effort to "prove" his theories, had refused to provide adequate ground forces for Operation Iraqi Freedom. The most vocal of these critics was retired general Barry McCaffrey, who said that Rumsfeld was operating from a "flawed" assumption that modern air power can take the place of tanks, fighting vehicles and artillery. Other questioners accused the defense secretary of being "too enamored of air power."

This, however, is where the burden of history and myth -- and old festering interservice politics -- comes to bear. The Army has always been skeptical that the Air Force would really be there when help was needed on the battlefield. It has also naturally wanted to justify its own weapons programs and protect its roles, missions and force structure by claiming as much of the job for itself as it could. Historically, the Air Force has also done its bit to foment suspicions; for decades its leaders scorned battlefield support as a "misuse" of air power, a "diversion" from its true mission of striking directly at the seat of enemy power through the strategic bombing of cities, government headquarters, arms factories, transportation systems and economic infrastructure. Using airplanes as "mere flying artillery" (as Air Force Gen. Curtis E. LeMay once dismissively described it back in the 1950s) was to squander air power, according to the strategic bombing proselytizers. They were convinced that swift victory would follow from an obliterating attack on enemy political and economic targets alone.

By Gulf War I, however, these old strategic bombing theories had already lost much institutional favor even within the Air Force. Retired Col. John Warden, a Pentagon planner who hatched and tried to peddle a strategic-bombing scheme that he said would "incapacitate" the Iraqi regime by taking out 84 critical targets in Baghdad, is still often called the architect of the 1991 Gulf War air campaign. In fact his superiors, notably the Gulf War I air commander, Gen. Charles Horner, came close to throwing Warden bodily out of a briefing room when he tried to sell his plan. "Air power airheads," Horner sarcastically called proponents of such theories. Horner insisted that wiping out Iraqi armor would be the Air Force's primary mission -- and it was.

The unfortunate catchphrase "shock and awe," widely used by the media to describe the start of the Gulf War II air campaign, may have inadvertently played into the old Army fears of an Air Force go-it-alone, strategic-bombing mentality. Yet it is clear that, from the start, the plan envisaged a series of preplanned opening salvos, to be followed quickly by a shift to more flexible missions in direct support of coalition ground troops. Even those opening salvos were less "strategic" than they looked, for in addition to the highly visible strikes on presidential palaces in Baghdad, hundreds of bombs and missiles struck air defense sites, Iraqi surface-to-surface missile launchers and command posts that might have been used for chemical attacks, and other targets of immediate military significance for the ground advance. The strikes that have been directed against urban targets in this conflict bear more relation to special forces operations in their conception and purpose than they do to traditional strategic bombing theories.

There may well be a need for additional manpower on the ground in this war, notably in the form of military police and security forces to protect rear areas. But the claim that vastly greater quantities of traditional Army heavy firepower is needed flies in the face of the way modern air power is now being brought to bear on the battlefield. The results speak for themselves. Even in urban ground fighting, precision air power has already proved invaluable, locating and taking out military vehicles or missile launchers parked near bridges and houses without damaging those structures. And the stunningly rapid advance of U.S. ground forces toward Baghdad -- and even yesterday's incursions into the capital itself -- is continuing testimony to the soundness of the concept that modern air power, applied to the battlefield with devastating speed, accuracy and lethality, is indeed a revolutionary force that has fundamentally changed the way wars are fought and won on the ground.

Stephen Budiansky is the author of a book on the history of air power, forthcoming from Viking. He is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly.

Getting help from above: Iraqi Kurds watch U.S. bombers overhead just outside Kalar in northern Iraq on Thursday.