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Air Power Can't Dislodge Iraq

AIR power has become the central issue in the Iraq crisis. A chorus of influential policy elites - apparently including senior Air Force officers - urges President Bush to rely on air power if economic measures fail to dislodge Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Flattening Baghdad, decapitating Saddam and his loyalists, obliterating strategic targets (oil, chemical, nuclear plants), destroying the Iraqi army - all these are offered as quick and easy solutions to America's dilemma. The talk is tough, but the analysis is faulty. Bombing to compel Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait would be a dangerous and uncertain undertaking. Two questions must be addressed. First, what are the conditions under which air attack can coerce states to alter their behavior? Second, are these conditions present in the Gulf?

History teaches that attacks on civilian targets, either limited and gradual or massive and violent, never produce coercive leverage in conventional disputes. British civilians were harassed in World War I; British, German, and Japanese civilians were slaughtered in World War II; and Egyptian civilians were threatened in the 1970 war of attrition. Yet, in no case did wreaking havoc on civilians unravel the social basis of resistance or initiate grass-roots pressure to surrender.

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History teaches that air power can have significant coercive impact, but only if it dramatically reduces the opponent's hopes for success on the battlefield. Simply destroying some of the enemy's military forces is not enough, as the Vietnam War illustrates. Both the Johnson and Nixon administrations bombed military targets in North Vietnam. While the Nixon campaign compelled the north to sign the cease-fire accords, the earlier effort failed completely. The difference lay in the effect of the United States air offensives on Hanoi's military strategy. During the Johnson years, the North Vietnamese pursued a guerrilla war strategy that air power could not seriously hinder. By the early 1970s, Hanoi had shifted to a conventional offensive strategy that relied on vulnerable supply and reinforcement lines. US air power could and did thwart this strategy.

How does this lesson apply to the present crisis in the Gulf? We can compel Iraqi withdrawal only by drastically diminishing its ability to hold positions in Kuwait.

So long as Iraq remains on the defensive, the military balance strongly favors it. When current deployments are complete, the US will have perhaps 200,000 ground troops. Iraq has reportedly stationed 430,000 battle-tested ground forces in Kuwait. In addition to numerical superiority, Iraqi forces would enjoy the advantage of fighting from prepared positions. Kuwait has become a hornets' nest.

None of the air strikes on military targets favored by Washington pundits is likely to change this soon. First, there is little evidence that air ``decapitation,'' a euphemism for assassinating Saddam and his loyalists, would work. A prerequisite for this operation is a major intelligence success enabling the US Air Force to pinpoint Saddam at a specific place and time. Even if Saddam could be located and hit, we have no reason to expect a moderate leader, willing to cooperate with the US, to take his place.

Second, limited air strikes against Saddam's nuclear or chemical weapons programs would not compel retreat either. Although such attacks would demolish Saddam's ability to threaten civilians in the region, they would in no way weaken his army at the front. Still worse, initial strikes might prompt Saddam to launch any missiles left intact before they could be destroyed in follow-on raids.

Third, the US could wage an air interdiction campaign to isolate the forces in Kuwait from their supply sources in Iraq. Limited by the sparse desert road network, supply convoys should be easy to target. However, even nearly complete interdiction might have little impact. The main supply requirements of a modern mechanized army are fuel and ammunition, whose consumption rises dramatically during combat operations. In the absence of a US ground offensive, the maintenance requirements of the Iraqi forces would be modest. Supply shortages could force front line troops to limit patrols, training, and other activity as well as to run down local stockpiles slowly, but their ability to remain in position would not be seriously impaired. As a result, coercion would likely fail.

Finally, an air campaign could be directed against Iraqi forces in Kuwait. This option is no more likely than the others to compel withdrawal and presents its own challenges. Dispersed and entrenched front line forces would be difficult targets. Inflicting significant damage would require an uncertain, but certainly large, number of sorties over a considerable period of time. Most important, complete obliteration of forces at the front would be historically unprecedented and unlikely. Consequently, an air attrition strategy would not undermine Iraqi occupation of Kuwait unless the US also threatened a ground assault.

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Air power alone cannot compel Saddam Hussein to retreat from Kuwait. If the embargo fails and the US remains determined to force him out, we must be prepared to commit immense ground forces as well as air forces for a protracted campaign, and be ready to pay a high price in blood and treasure.