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US mulls air strategies in Iraq

Experts are divided over the use of a "shock and awe" plan developed in the early 1990s.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 30, 2003


Air war strategists call it "shock and awe": Bombard your enemy with such force that the battle quickly tips in your favor - or never has to be fought on the ground at all.

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Just as the Gulf War in 1991 rewrote military history with its unprecedented air campaign, war planners are set to raise the bar even higher, and may incorporate "shock and awe" elements designed to bring swift defeat to Iraq.

But as another Gulf war looms and final plans are being floated, experts are divided about how a new war will shape up, and what lessons apply from air wars in 1991, Kosovo, and Afghanistan.

One thing is for certain: The initial attack will be substantial. "You'll see simultaneous attacks of hundreds of warheads, maybe thousands, so that very suddenly the Iraqi senior leadership, or much of it, will be eviscerated," says Harlan Ullman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"At the same time, you'll see forces put into Iraq" to set up forward bases to both protect oil fields and "make the situation look virtually hopeless for Saddam Hussein and the leadership," Mr. Ullman says, noting that he has not seen the current US war plan but is familiar with some of the thinking behind it. "The pressure will continue until we run out of targets." Ullman helped develop the concept of "shock and awe" in the 1990s as a way to wield US firepower and win a war without deploying as many troops as traditionally required.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, an early convert to the idea, was one of four former defense chiefs to sign a letter to the Clinton administration in 1999 spelling out the strategy. How much the original concept has been applied to current US war plans is unclear. Last year, after months of demanding that Pentagon top brass come up with more imaginative plans to invade Iraq, Mr. Rumsfeld has ordered the deployment of some 150,000 troops.

But not all are convinced that the concept is very different from old strategies that had mixed success in Iraq.

" 'Shock and awe' is what air forces have been doing since World War I - that is always the plan," says Robert Pape, an air war specialist at the University of Chicago. "This is the 'same old,' " Mr. Pape says, adding that he believes the Pentagon is using the same targeting model it used in 1991. "We want to believe it is something new, because we want to believe we are always bigger and better. But the fact is, if there are new twists and turns, this won't be it."

In addition to launching 325 cruise missiles on the first day of the Gulf War - the only ones that were fired in the conflict - the US struck 254 leadership and other strategic targets in and around Baghdad in the first three days. The war plan then was called "Instant Thunder." But it was 39 days - 21 more than war planners had banked on - before allied troops launched their ground offensive. This time, the US has the added advantage of unmanned vehicles that can loiter over sensitive spots like potential Scud missile launch sites. And the percentage of "smart" bombs used will likely jump from less than 10 to more than 80 percent.