Thursday, March 01, 2007

Airpower in the Gulf War

In The Myth of Air Power in the Persian Gulf War and the Future of Warfare Daryl Press says that the role of airpower was insignificant in defeating the Iraqis. He challenges conventional interpretations of the Gulf War by contending that the six week pre-invasion air campaign did not seriously weaken Iraq’s warfighting capabilities. His evidence, however, is inconclusive.

Press writes that the air campaign failed to impair Iraqi forces in five key aspects: it did not critically damage or restrict maneuver, C3I, supply lines, or Iraqi morale, nor did it critically attrite Iraqi forces. If the Iraq military retained all these capabilities up to the beginning of ground operations, Press argues, the Coalition victory cannot be attributed to the air campaign. This conclusion leads Press to downplay the importance of airpower. However, the evidence he cites is questionable and can support contrary interpretations.

First, consider the attrition of Iraqi forces. About forty percent of Iraqi armored vehicles were damaged during the air war. Press asserts this says little about air effectiveness: Iraqi defensive forces still had favorable force ratios when they were routed by Coalition forces. This is true, but losing forty percent of ones armor (well over one out of every three vehicles), especially when ones military is already outclassed, is still a crucial diminution in warfighting and logistical abilities. Furthermore, Press notes that Coalition commanders missed key air strike opportunities, such as against redeploying Republican Guard divisions during the “left hook” invasion. A well executed air assault on these divisions could have yielded results on par with al-Khafji and the Highway of Death. Thus, rather than demonstrating the inherent limits of airpower, the Gulf War shows both its utility (forty percent attrition is big) and even a greater potential for lethality through improved battlefield awareness.

In addition to forty percent attrition, the six week air strike discombobulated Iraqi forces. Press argues that the Republican Guard and the regular army gave no indication of low morale but fought bravely. However, what appears to be feats of bravery—individual surprise attacks, hopeless forays, etc.—can also be the actions of a befuddled, desperate enemy. The Republican Guard and the regular army may have been quite fazed by the air campaign and simply kept fighting because it was the best alternative option to surrender.

The Front Line Iraqi forces at least were clearly demoralized. They likely caught the worst of the air campaign in terms of supply disruption and attrition, and it was they who in mass either turned tail or surrendered to the (decoy) Marine invasion. At the close of the second day of ground operations, before any major battles had been fought in the “left hook” invasion, Baghdad announced its withdrawal from Kuwait. Thus the Coalition in a sense achieved its primary goal through the complete disintegration of the Iraqi Front Line--the place where the prewar air campaign had been most intense.

In sum, Press is correct to eschew overconfidence in airpower and assert the enduring importance of ground force deployment. However, his argument that the prewar air campaign contributed only slightly to the Coalition’s stunning success rests on inconclusive evidence and may, in fact, be wrong.

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