Research Brief

As the book proceeds, it takes on a number of widely accepted but misleading claims about what policymakers can learn by studying Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm (ODS). One such claim is that the conflict served as a demonstration that a strategic air campaign can be used to win a war. The authors contend, however, that the strategic phase met with only mixed success. Major disappointments included the failure to locate and destroy mobile Scud launchers and to identify and target production facilities for Iraq's nuclear and chemical weapons programs. The authors point out that such failures underscore one of the major limitations of air power: While all forms of military power are critically dependent on intelligence, the air weapon is particularly vulnerable to inadequate intelligence and poor battle damage assessment.

However, the strategic phase did have its dramatic successes. The campaign against Iraqi air power — its air defense system and its air force — was swift and effective. Perhaps the most important feature of the entire air campaign was the establishment of air superiority in the first hours of battle. The Iraqi Air Force was blinded, then pinned down, then parts of it were chased to Iran while other parts were destroyed when they chose to hunker down in shelters. This achievement was a precondition for the unhindered pursuit of the rest of the air campaign, including attacks on the enemy's command and control facilities and supply routes. The strategic phase, therefore, contributed important "spillover" effects — disrupting supply lines and hampering the enemy's battle movement — which weakened Iraqi forces even before the start of the battlefield preparation phase that immediately preceded the ground war.

Strikes on enemy ground units were the air campaign's most significant contribution to the war. This use of air power — which did not rely on the spectacular new "smart weapons" but on traditional "dumb" iron bombs employed in mass — reduced the Iraqi army in Kuwait to a frightened and ineffectual fighting force. The result was light opposition, nonengagement, or surrender by Iraqi units and low casualties on both sides during the ground war. Air power had demonstrated most convincingly that — skillfully employed under the right conditions — it can neutralize, if not completely destroy, a modern army in the field.

The Role of New Technology

Another common claim about the Gulf War is that the coalition's victory was based primarily on a revolution in weapons technology. The authors point out, however, that much of the technology was not all that revolutionary. The average age of the air systems used in ODS was close to 14 years. Many of the older systems — the A-10 Warthog, the F-4 Wild Weasel, the venerable B-52 strategic bomber — contributed significantly to the overall effort. As much as anything else, the air war demonstrated how effective a maturing technology can be in the hands of exceptionally well-trained and highly motivated airmen and their support crews. And although the F-117A stealth fighter and the Tomahawk missile received most of the attention, perhaps the most significant advances in technology came in the form of information systems. Such developments as space support of battlefield commanders and global communications networks made ODS the first modern "information" war in which every aspect of military operations depended to some degree on complex information systems that had until then not been available or effectively integrated into such operations.

The Effectiveness of Joint Operations

A third claim taken up by the book is that the air war demonstrated an unprecedented level of effectiveness in joint operations. The authors dispute this assertion, arguing that the role of the Joint Force Air Component Commander was never put to the test. The sheer mass of air power available allowed the command to employ it inefficiently at times and to cater to the doctrinal preferences of the various services. Had air power been scarcer — a possibility in a future conflict as the defense drawdown reduces force structures in all of the services — the situation would have demanded more efficiently integrated employment. Furthermore, it was fortunate that some of the systems — the stealth fighters and the Tomahawk missiles, for example — were not competitors but neatly complemented each other. Finally, although an elaborate close air support command and control system was negotiated among the various air and ground commanders, it was only partially used. Relatively few close air support sorties were needed because much of the enemy strength had already been neutralized before the start of the ground campaign, because rapid and fluid ground movements characterized the campaign, and because coalition ground units appeared to have sufficient firepower, including helicopter support, of their own.

Unsung Heroes

The authors find that, along with U.S. information dominance, the unsung heroes of the air war, and in many respects the actual air war "winners," were two highly developed capabilities of U.S. air power:

  • Mobility, both strategic and operational. Air power was the first fully usable power on the scene. It arrived quickly and in strength to a theater half way round the world. Once there, it was able to strike effectively at long range.

  • Logistics. It is not enough to reach globally and to deploy power quickly; power must be sustainable after it arrives. The establishment, on short notice, of a massive support system for such a large force over an extended time was unique in the history of warfare.

Air Power's Achievement

In analyzing the role of air power in the desert war, A League of Airmen ultimately probes into every important aspect of the air campaign. It examines the contributions and the problems of the air forces of the Navy, Marines, and the Air Force and does not allow any of the air services to come through the examination unscathed. Yet, in the end, it is clear that the authors admire air power's achievement. They see that air power was, for the first time, an equal partner of land and sea power in modern combat. Indeed, given the special circumstances of the war, the performance of air power made it first among equals. It eliminated the Iraqi air weapon, it cut off and immobilized the Iraqi Army, and it helped coalition ground forces achieve their objectives in a very short time. As the book's authors sum it up, air power in the Gulf War performed "the critical enabling function" that led to victory.

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