Some Air Force officers and air power experts are pressing for a more aggressive air campaign against Iraq that would accept greater risk of damage to civilian property -- and possibly civilian casualties -- to escalate pressure on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his supporters.
Airstrikes to date have been largely confined to government and military facilities and troops in the field, sparing many economic and civilian targets that aid Hussein but that war planners are trying to preserve in order to facilitate postwar reconstruction.
Top Air Force authorities and the Pentagon's senior leadership continue to express confidence in "leadership targeting" and the requirement to limit collateral damage. And other defense experts contend no amount of air power can by itself trigger the collapse of Hussein's government.
But Iraq's continued refusal to capitulate after days of airstrikes is fueling fresh debate over whether high-tech U.S. bombs and missiles could be applied more effectively.
War planners initially had held out the hope that a thunderous opening round of bomb and missile attacks would shatter the government's will to resist and precipitate its sudden disintegration. That Hussein is still standing has been taken as a defeat for the idea of bringing about swift victory through intense strikes on leadership targets, which have included Hussein's palaces, his security and intelligence services, command posts, communication nodes and many Republican Guard positions. It has bolstered the more traditional school of attrition bombing, which argues for prolonged strikes at a broader range of targets to wear down enemy forces.
Much of the criticism of the current approach comes from advocates of leadership targeting who argue that the air war in Iraq so far has not provided a true test. They say the targets have been more limited than they need to be, and the pace of the attacks stretched out in a way that has given Iraqi authorities time to recover and rally support.
"In any modern conflict, there's a conflict between mission accomplishment and meeting political aims," said one active-duty senior officer frustrated with the war plan's constraints. "We need to make sure that the balance doesn't get out of kilter, that collateral damage considerations do not hinder mission accomplishment. Some people think that's what has happened."
Similar criticisms arose in the early days of the 1999 war against Yugoslav forces in Kosovo, which eventually led to an expansion of the target list to include businesses associated with supporters of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. In the 1991 war against Iraq, electricity and phones in Baghdad were knocked out the first day, and Iraqi television also was hit early.
In Baghdad now, the lights remain on, state-run television continues to broadcast and the phones worked until Thursday, when two 4,600-pound, laser-guided bombs destroyed a telecommunications center.
Several senior Air Force officials at the Pentagon and in the field yesterday reiterated backing for the current approach and reported no shift toward a more aggressive plan.
"It's not like Kosovo yet, when there were raging fights over what to do," one senior Air Force insider said. "There isn't any revolt going on."
Said another high-ranking officer, referring to the commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region: "We've agreed this is Tommy Franks's war, and we're going to support him. I think it's too early to be critical."
But John Warden, a retired colonel who was involved in drafting the 1991 air war plan, warned that the conservative nature of the air campaign will continue to restrain its effectiveness. He urged a broadening of the target set to encompass what he called other "centers of gravity," including "system essentials" such as power stations and television transmitters and "infrastructure" such as bridges.
"If you want to have the maximum effect, you try to hit as many of those centers of gravity as you can, as fast as you can," he said. "When you exclude some and you attack targets serially, as they've been doing, you reduce tremendously the effect on the system."
Acknowledging the importance of having such services as electricity and television readily available in a postwar Iraq, Warden said they can be targeted now in ways that would reduce the time to rebuild them later.
"If you don't take some of these things out now, there won't be a postwar later," he said.
The notion that air power, if applied forcefully and cleverly enough, can win wars quickly has long been promoted by many in the Air Force. Advances in precision weapons and in systems that speed targeting information to pilots have bolstered arguments that airstrikes can topple governments rapidly without running up casualties.
But skeptics abound. In the case of Iraq, they argue it was wishful thinking to expect that any kind of air campaign -- and especially one concentrated on leadership targets -- could have brought the government's sudden disintegration.
"The advocates of leadership targeting wanted to believe you can win this way, and this was an experiment, but it failed," said Robert A. Pape, who teaches political science at the University of Chicago and who wrote "Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War." "In fact, it's the same pattern we've seen in the past decade. Leadership targeting has never panned out."
Over the past 17 years, Pape said, this strategy has been tried six times and has been ineffective or has backfired in each instance. He cited U.S. air attacks in Libya, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq and a Russian attempt to bomb Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev, the leader of the Chechen rebels.
Daryl Press, an assistant professor and military analyst at Dartmouth College, said Iraq is not well-suited to a high-tech targeting campaign, given Hussein's ability to employ low-tech measures to control his forces.
"If we're fighting a sophisticated enemy who has modern command-and-control systems and intends to wage closely coordinated, maneuver-style warfare, then interfering with his communications systems can shatter his effectiveness," Press said. "But if the adversary is one who wants to mount a static defense and fight guerrilla warfare, then air power is likely to have limited effect."
In recent days, an increasing share of the airstrikes has concentrated on hitting Republican Guard forces in the field rather than leadership targets. Yesterday's plan called for 700 strikes, about 80 percent of them aimed at the Guard's Medina, Hammurabi and Baghdad divisions, a senior official said.
"At the end of the day, air power's biggest contribution may be in attriting the Republican Guard," Press said. "That's air power helping the war effort the old-fashioned way."