If the United States and Iraq go to war, the U.S. military plans to unleash a relentless air campaign designed in part to “decapitate” the Iraqi leadership by targeting President Saddam Hussein, his family, his senior commanders, his palace guard and even his mistress, according to senior U.S. military planners.
A recently completed Joint Chiefs of Staff targeting review concludes that the most effective way to drive Iraqi troops out of Kuwait is not with a ground attack, but through the use of massive air strikes to kill Hussein and decimate his war-making capacity by destroying scores of critical military and industrial sites.
The Joint Chiefs publicly acknowledge that U.S. ground forces in the region, which currently number about 100,000 soldiers and Marines, are not sufficient to dislodge the 265,000 Iraqi troops and 2,200 tanks now in and near Kuwait.
“Air power is the only answer available to our country in this circumstance,” Air Force Chief of Staff Michael J. Dugan said after touring U.S. air bases on the Arabian Peninsula.
Dugan would not divulge whether U.S. officials know the precise whereabouts of Hussein or members of his inner circle, nor would he say whether senior Bush Administration officials had signed off on the plan to target them in an air attack.
An air strike deliberately aimed at the Iraqi president and members of his family could prove controversial because attacks on civilian leaders are generally considered out of bounds, even in wartime.
The United States bombed Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi’s home and other targets in Tripoli in 1986, but Kadafi escaped serious injury. U.S. officials defended the raid as an effort to punish and deter terrorism, but a number of nations condemned it as a violation of international law.
To support the U.S. war plan in the Persian Gulf, which revolves around the massive use of air power, the Air Force alone has ringed Iraq with an air armada of 420 combat planes, nearly equal to the fleet dedicated to defending Europe against the Soviet Union.
In all, the United States has 1,000 Air Force, Marine and Navy aircraft poised to strike Iraq from three aircraft carriers and 30 bases in the region. The available facilities are so taxed that even if the United States and its allies wanted to bring substantially more aircraft into the region, they could not, Air Force officials said.
Gen. Dugan and his senior deputies, in several hours of interviews on his aircraft traveling to and from Saudi Arabia, said that U.S. military commanders from all services agree that air power is the best option for defeating Hussein and his million-man army.
“I don’t see us making a big (ground) invasion” of Kuwait, Dugan said, noting that attacking forces generally need a three-to-one advantage in manpower to dislodge an entrenched defensive force.
To attempt to beat Iraq on the ground risks “destroying Kuwait in order to save it,” Dugan said.
By using air power against targets in Iraq, on the other hand, “you would attempt to convince his population that he and his regime cannot protect them,” Dugan said. “If there is a nation that cannot defend its people against these intruding foreigners--protect their lines of communication, their means of production, their cities--that brings a great burden for their ruler.”
Dugan, a fighter pilot with more than 4,500 flying hours and 300 combat missions in Vietnam, acknowledged that air power has its limits. One cannot predict how a population or its leaders will respond to a bombing campaign, he and other Air Force officers said.
Nor can air power drive people out of jungle sanctuaries, Dugan said. “But there’s not much jungle where we’re going. You don’t have to get within a few yards to attack them, intimidate them, kill them.”
The effect of air power can be diluted, even negated, by constraints placed upon its use by civilian leaders, senior Air Force officials noted. Most Air Force officers believe to this day that if they had been allowed to bomb North Vietnam without limits the United States would have won the war.
Dugan said that American political authorities had learned from Vietnam and would approve unfettered air strikes against a broad range of Iraqi targets. “This wouldn’t be a Vietnam-style operation, nibbling around the edges. The way to hurt you is at home, it’s not out in the woods somewhere. We’re looking for centers of gravity where air power could make a difference early on,” Dugan said.
There is a long and bitter debate among military officers and historians outside the Air Force over the utility of strategic bombing. While air power advocates argue that the bombing campaigns against Germany and Japan won World War II, that contention is still in question. Many officers contend that only “ground pounders"--the infantry--can take and hold ground and ultimately end a conflict.
But, the Air Force chief argued, “Air power, in peace and war, brings a special kind of psychological impact. . . . I would not argue that air power alone can be decisive. But air power is irreplaceable and absolutely essential.”
The current Persian Gulf war plan calls for an intense allied air campaign, probably beginning at night, to quickly establish absolute air superiority, officials said. The immediate military targets, in order, would be air defense installations; airfields and aircraft; ballistic missile launchers; communications, command and control centers; munitions depots; arms production plants, including chemical, biological and nuclear weapons facilities, and concentrations of tanks and other armor.
At the same time, Air Force officials said they would like to take the fight to Baghdad, to central command centers, to Hussein’s suspected redoubts and to other targets specifically chosen to break the Iraqi spirit.
“Hussein would realize very shortly into hostilities that he wouldn’t have his air power over the battlefield. Then it’s all over. It’s a matter of how much pain you want to take before you quit,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas R. Ferguson, commander of the Aeronautical Systems Division.
The primary targets are predictable military objectives, but wars are not usually won by blowing up airfields and bomb factories, Dugan explained.
“That’s a nice list of targets, and I might be able to accept those, but that’s not enough. I want to know what is unique about Iraq. What is unique about Iraqi culture that they put very high value on? What is it that psychologically would make an impact on the population and the regime in Iraq?” Dugan asked.
He said that about two weeks ago he assigned a team to find Iraqi military defectors, knowledgeable professors, Iraqi expatriates and journalists who recently have visited Baghdad to learn more about Iraqi culture and the mind of Hussein.
As a result of that effort, Dugan said “a better list” of high-value targets in Iraq was developed. The list stressed the importance of attacking Hussein and his inner circle, but beyond that, Dugan would not detail the potential Iraqi leverage points he intends to try to destroy.
If an attack is ordered, the full Air Force arsenal would be brought to bear: B-52s, Stealth attack planes, F-15E ground attack fighters, F-111s, F-16s, F-4G anti-radar jets, A-10s, all carrying the latest armament. The battle would be coordinated at central command headquarters and a number of tactical control stations in the field, all receiving data from AWACS, RC-135s, RF-4s and other reconnaissance aircraft.
Several B-52s have been equipped with a new Israeli 50-mile-range cruise missile known as Have Naps, and the Air Force has requested accelerated delivery of hundreds more of the highly accurate weapons, officials said.
Navy and Marine Corps air and sea power--as well as forces from numerous other nations who have joined the United States in Saudi Arabia--would also be used to suppress Iraqi air defenses and destroy the 550-plane Iraqi air force, planners said.
Estimates of the time required to accomplish the mission vary. Some pilots assert that the job can be done in a matter of hours; more circumspect commanders plan on several days to as long as two weeks.
The optimism, some might say arrogance, about the superiority of allied air power stems from several key assumptions about the Iraqi air force, its weapons and its tactics. U.S. officials discount the quality of the force based on its performance in the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, saying that Iraqi pilots bombed from 20,000 or 30,000 feet and often missed their targets by that much.
They also contend that Iraqi pilots, largely trained and equipped by the Soviets, are heavily dependent on ground controllers and aren’t allowed the lethal “free play” practiced by American fighter pilots.
Thus the Air Force intends to locate and destroy the Iraqi ground control stations and leave their pilots blind. The Air Force has deployed four RC-135 electronic intelligence-gathering planes in Saudi Arabia to locate these installations and eavesdrop on all kinds of Iraqi voice and data communications.
The RC-135s, modified Boeing 707s jammed full of sophisticated computers and electronics gear, have traditionally been used to gather strategic intelligence on the Soviet Union.
Dugan said “it won’t take very many minutes” to destroy the Iraqi air force--if the planes come up to challenge American pilots. But he and other officials acknowledged that the Iraqis could be troublesome for many weeks if they disperse their planes and send them up in small numbers to harass allied fighters. There is already some evidence that Hussein has ordered his aircraft moved to widely separated airfields to avoid being destroyed on the ground.
Iraqi missiles, too, could present an “irritant” if the Iraqis conceal them and launch them in small numbers, the general said.
“I don’t mean to tell you we won’t lose airplanes, but it’s a manageable risk,” said Lt. Gen. Jimmie V. Adams, Air Force deputy chief of staff for plans and operations. “We have wall-to-wall, no-kidding fighter pilots in Saudi right now.”