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

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.

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.

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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.

But key weaknesses may remain, warns Pape, who says he recently saw "the plan that's floating around." "The big continuity, that I think is unfortunate, is that the center of our strategy is leadership decapitation." That strategy was an important part of the 1991 air campaign and a key to the 1998 Operation Desert Fox, but "failed" each time.

Pape estimates that the ratio of air power to ground force for any new conflict - if Kosovo was a standard with 100 percent reliance on air, and the 1991 Gulf War a 50-50 mix - at a dangerous 80-to-20. A similar miscalculation in Afghanistan helped ensure that Osama bin Laden escaped from Tora Bora.

Besides winning the war, US troops in Iraq will also be tasked with controlling borders to ensure against leakage of weapons of mass destruction, if Iraq has them. That means more combat troops.

"This is really hoping to win," says Pape, adding that ground forces could continue to be deployed as fighting persists. "This is a very high-risk strategy, and is very far from a certain victory."

While details of current administration thinking remain unclear, certain aspects of any new campaign are expected, such as a shorter time - possibly days - between the start of bombing and the deployment of US troops.

"The strategy is to use ground forces as a way of convincing all parties concerned that the US is incredibly serious about going all the way," says Bill Arkin, an independent military analyst and columnist. "So if you don't initiate your ground operations right away, you're not communicating that."

Ullman of CSIS says that the key objective of Desert Storm in 1991 was ejecting Iraq's occupation forces from Kuwait, destroying as much of Iraq's military in the process - neither of which are aims this time. The military, in fact, is meant to be kept intact, so it can turn on Iraq's leadership, or at least surrender. The best way to ensure that is to apply "shock and awe," says Ullman, "to intensely confound through enormous application of force in the right places, to break the enemy's will."

The roots of the idea stretch back to the early 1990s, when a group of Gulf War commanders and military analysts thought about "how to get out of this attrition warfare, force on force," by aiming at changing the "will and perceptions [to] shape the enemy's behavior without necessarily destroying all of his forces," Ullman says.

"The Japanese quit [in World War II], because they couldn't appreciate that one bomb could do what 500 planes did in a night. That was shock," Ullman says. "Now, can you take that level of shock and apply it with conventional weapons? We thought you could."

When Rumsfeld took over the Pentagon, he "was intimately aware of this" thinking, Ullman says, though he cautions that Iraq has many ways of thwarting any US plan - from potentially using weapons of mass destruction to dragging American forces into bloody street fighting in Baghdad.

Still, advances like more precision weapons are likely to coincide with adjusted targeting. "It won't just be working through a target list - it will be much more thoughtful," says Eliot Cohen, director of the US Air Force's five-volume Gulf War Air Power Survey, who is now at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

"We have an enormous amount of military power, and I think we will see it on display." says Mr. Cohen.

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