By JAMES ROSEN
January 17, 2006
Starting in the predawn hours of Jan. 17, 1991 (the afternoon of Jan. 16 in the United States), the 38-day air campaign decimated Saddam Hussein's army and left Iraqi troops easy prey for a brief ground war that drove them from Kuwait.
Many military experts and active-duty officers believed they had seen the future of warfare: a cleaner and even more humane form of fighting based on tactical air strikes using precision-guided bombs that would spare widespread civilian bloodshed and other "collateral damage."
That vision was fortified in 1999, when U.S.-led planes dislodged Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic from Kosovo in a 78-day aerial assault that again showcased the unmatched technological prowess of American bombers and fighter jets.
Today, more than four years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and almost three years into the Iraq war, those displays of U.S. air power seem like faint echoes.
In Iraq, about 160,000 U.S. troops are hunkered down in a grinding counterinsurgency war as politicians back home argue over whether there are enough "boots on the ground" to succeed.
While Air Force and Navy planes still fly important support missions and make scattered bombing raids, their offensive presence in Iraq is negligible.
Elsewhere around the globe, small bands of Special Operations forces and CIA agents prowl mountain passes in Afghanistan and other remote outposts. U.S. military snipers perch on rooftops in pursuit of warriors who wear no uniforms, drive no tanks and melt into civilian populations.
"When you do an occupation war where you're patrolling neighborhoods, and your opponent isn't a tank division but it's a suicide bomber or a few people with small arms, air power cannot play the primary role," said Steve Kosiak, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, in Washington.
"You can't do counterinsurgency warfare without a large army," Kosiak said. "The operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are largely army affairs."
As they pursue a new type of enemy in President Bush's war on terror, U.S. forces have returned to an older, grittier form of warfare based on the ground instead of many miles above it.
"The paradox of war is that it has always been both glorious and terrible," said John Pike, founder of globalsecurity.org, which tracks military and security issues. "What we had with air power in the first Gulf War and in Kosovo was the glory without seeing the horror. What we have now with the insurgency is the horror without the glory."
In the very different budget wars on Capitol Hill, Air Force generals complain of aging aircraft, object to reductions in promised new planes and warn against future cutbacks in programs to build new generations of fighters and bombers.
But with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars draining $6 billion a month from Pentagon coffers already strained by exploding health-care and pension costs, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is trimming multibillion-dollar requests for new planes and ships.
In the White House budget Bush will send to Congress next month, and in the Quadrennial Defense Review now being finalized by Rumsfeld, the Air Force is facing cuts in both personnel and some of its most prized weapons systems, according to drafts of the documents: The number of F-22 Raptor jets, the new Stealth fighter just ready for initial deployment, is limited to 183, less than half the amount requested by Air Force leaders, and one-third the fleet size of F-15 Eagles, the 1970s-era fighter they will replace.
"The Air Force of future years will be smaller and less capable," Robert S. Dudney wrote in the current issue of Air Force Magazine.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, architect of the air-attack plan in Operation Desert Storm, said many of the service's F-15s operate under flight restrictions because of concerns about their age.
"Our force needs to be recapitalized," said Deptula, now commander of the Air Force Pacific Warfighting headquarters at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. "I'm flying F-15s today that are over 30 years old. Every time you go out in one of them, you don't know what will happen because these planes are flying longer than they've been flown before."
Kosiak said other armed services also are being required to cut back on expensive weapons modernization.
Kosiak is less concerned than many Air Force leaders that the Pentagon is ordering far fewer F-22 Raptors than the current number of F-15 Eagles because he said the new planes are so much more capable and technologically advanced than the old ones.
Loren Thompson, director of the Lexington Institute military think tank outside Washington, expressed concern that with their current focus on fighting terrorists and insurgents, Pentagon leaders might be taking their eyes off potentially larger future threats.
"History tells us that one day we're going to face another major threat," Thompson said. "I'm concerned that we won't be ready for the really big threats of tomorrow like a China or a resurgent Russia or an Iran that is armed with nuclear weapons."
Already, Thompson said, Indian air force fliers are besting U.S. pilots in joint exercises in which their planes outnumber U.S. aircraft and have been upgraded with digital electronics.
"It's a situation you could easily imagine if we were flying against China in their own airspace," Thompson said. "The Air Force fears that its equipment is aging so fast, one day soon it will not be able to beat enemy air forces. Both the air defenses on the ground and the fighters in the air of our enemies are much better than they used to be. A handful of F-22s won't be enough to police the whole world."
Fifteen years ago, on the eve of Operation Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein made what turned out to be a fatal miscalculation.
"The U.S. relies on the Air Force," he said. "The Air Force has never been the decisive factor in the history of war."
Pike believes that Saddam applied the lessons of the first Gulf War as he prepared for the U.S. invasion in March 2003. Pike cited a recently disclosed Iraqi intelligence document showing that Saddam and his top aides planned the current insurgency months before the invasion.
"They recognized that our air power was just going to brush aside their conventional forces, which is what happened in the early part of the ground campaign," Pike said. "They knew that the only chance they had was to wage a struggle against us that marginalized our air power."
The result, in Pike's view, was an insurgency soon to enter its fourth year. For all its power and prowess, he said, American air power has a limited role to play in the U.S. military response to the insurgency.
"It's somewhere between irrelevant and counterproductive," Pike said. "Since the Iraqi army disintegrated, the weapon of choice has become a sniper. That's the ultimate in precision firepower."
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