Gulf War: The Air Campaign
By Mad Medic
On the 17th of January 1991, America saw something on CNN that still induces freedom-chubbies to this day. Through grainy night vision videos we saw Iraqi air defenses in Baghdad shooting every caliber of anti-aircraft weapons imaginable blindly into the sky and not hitting a thing. Without warning massive explosions would occur amongst the buildings of Baghdad. Terrified reporters would comment on what could only be described as a Ninja’s wet dream.
What followed was an epic mauling. Like the varsity starting line beating up the fat kid in a candy shop. The air arms of the various allied nations devastated the Iraqi military in a systematic way that left the world shocked. Of the over 100,000 sorties flown only 77 aircraft were lost. What’s even crazier is that only one allied aircraft can be counted an actual honest to god air-to-air kill. Rarely in the history of warfare had such a lopsided victory been seen.
By the time the ground campaign kicked off the Iraqi military was effectively leaderless, unable to communicate, unable to resupply, and scared shitless. It was so bad that at one point a whole company of Iraqi troops tried to surrender to two AH-64 Apache helicopters.
The real question is how did we pull it off? How did we perform so flawlessly? How did we manage to destroy the right targets without destroying whole cities and killing hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians in the process. In WWII only 2% of bombs actually hit their intended targets, and often as not whole cities became the targets. In the Gulf War the hit rate was almost 90%, and as we saw during press briefings, a 500 pound bomb could be guided into a window. What drove this advance?
Well, believe it or not, the answer is actually Vietnam. If there’s one thing a giant clusterfuck can teach you, it’s not to repeat your mistakes. We learned that fighters had to be agile, that ground attack aircraft are best when specifically designed for ground attack, and destroying a whole city to destroy a bridge makes you look bad in front of the newsies.
You see, the fighters we had in Vietnam. . . sucked. They sucked donkey balls. The F-4 was a flying brick. In dogfights with older, out dated Mig 17’s
and Mig 19’s the F-4 was often at an extreme disadvantage when it tried to turn with the more agile Migs. The raw power of the twin J-79 engines could save a pilot, but, they also used a lot of fuel. Fuel management became a serious issue. It also had missiles that had a truly astounding fail rate, and most amazingly, only had missiles for most of its service life. Several ariel kills were denied to Americans because they didn’t have a gun or their missiles failed to track.
As a bomber it wasn’t much better. You were just as likely to hit your own men, as the enemy. When troops are in contact in a jungle, dropping bombs “in that general area,” was a really bad idea. This is why somebody had the bright idea “hey, what if we had them guided in?” There was some effort with FAC’s circling in small Cessna type aircraft and using smoke rockets that to mark targets, but they were vulnerable. The holy grail were bombs that could be dropped at altitude and “guided” in. Amazingly this worked, and even saw use at the end of the war. These bombs, the TV guided Walleye, and laser guided Paveway, actually saw action in Operation Linebacker at the end of the war.
The end of Vietnam forced us to rethink a lot of our positions on air power. We needed agile, fast, versatile aircraft, and we needed well trained aggressive pilots to fly them. Preferably pilots with mustaches. What we got were the F-14, F-15, F-16, and F/A-18, and A-10. Each was purpose built for a specific mission and in one case (the F-15) two different models were created for ground attack and air superiority. We even got a nifty school to teach these hot rods, how to properly play shirtless volleyball.
The cherry on top of all of this were the stealth air craft. The angular F-117 Nighthawk, and shapely B-2 Spirit. Designed int the 70’s by Lockheed and Northrop-Grumman respectively, they were truly a revolution in how combat aircraft are designed. Each were designed to defeat radar in a different way, allowing them to appear as nothing more than a small bird on a radar screen. A very deadly bird. They both captured the imagination of the American public, and more than that, crippled the enemy. Without them, everything that followed would not have been possible.
There was also a method to the madness that was those boner inducing videos of bombs exploding in Baghdad. We weren’t just blowing shit up for the hell of it. See the Air Force had done some serious naval gazing and come up with a tactic called the OODA loop. By destroying the Iraqi sensing capabilities and destroying command and control nodes we caused things to happen faster than they could sort out what had happened and figure out what to do about it. By the time the sun rose on the 18th of January the Iraqi high command wasn’t able to efficiently communicate with their military, and they couldn’t see the waves of non-stealth fighters and bombers that followed.
The training paid off too. Even when the Iraqis were flying better aircraft (the Mig-29 is slightly better than the F-15) they were often out flown. The tactics the American pilots employed left the Iraqis so off guard that several times while desperately trying to evade US fighters, Iraqi pilots flew right into the ground. Sadam Hussein was so desperate to save what few fighters he had, he actually send several to Iran (who he’d fought an 8 year bloody war with). Within the first week the Iraqi Air Force existed in name only. What followed was a literal decimation of the Iraqi Army.
Without a doubt one of the reasons the ground war was so amazingly short was precisely because the Iraqi army had suffered incredible, staggering losses to American and Coalition air power. By the time Iraqi forces actually made contact with American ground troops, only the Republican Guards had any fight left in them. Most of the conscript troops would surrender at the first sign of Coalition troops.
We like to think now that the Gulf War was a forgone conclusion, but it really wasn’t. Some had made the case that the US casualty rate could be as many as 160 American troops dying per day probably totaling about 10,000 troops and estimated as many as 100,000 total battlefield casualties. Many American planners worried Iraqis would load chemical weapons in their scuds and artillery and kill thousands of troops. In the end America only lost 292 killed, and over a third of that was from friendly fire.
We forget now, that the Iraqi army had survived 8 years of bloody battle against a fanatical enemy. We also tend to forget that they had pretty good Soviet equipment and tactics which actually work pretty well. Most of the Americans that fought had never heard a shot fired in anger. We had aircraft and weapons systems that had never been used in combat. More than that we were still regaining confidence from our disastrous adventure in Vietnam. It’s easy to look back now, shout “MERICA” and decree with beers held high, that they didn’t stand a chance in hell. But hindsight is always 20/20
The Air War went a long way to restoring our confidence as a nation. Beating up the Iraqis seems now like beating up on the kid with downs syndrome, but in reality it was a well thought out victory that grew out of bitter defeat. The air forces of the Coalition didn’t win the war, but if not for their efforts, the ground war might well have been nasty. The Airdales and Zoomies deserve high praise for a job well done.