Air power comes in for a hard landing

Fifteen years ago, the United States and allied forces launched
Operation Desert Storm, unleashing the most dazzling display of
military air power in history.

Starting in the predawn hours of
Jan. 17, 1991 (the afternoon of Jan. 16 in the United States), the
38-day air campaign decimated Saddam Hussein’s army and left Iraqi
troops easy prey for a brief ground war that drove them from Kuwait.

Many military experts and active-duty officers believed they had seen
the future of warfare: a cleaner and even more humane form of fighting
based on tactical air strikes using precision-guided bombs that would
spare widespread civilian bloodshed and other “collateral damage.”

That vision was fortified in 1999, when U.S.-led planes dislodged
Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic from Kosovo in a 78-day aerial
assault that again showcased the unmatched technological prowess of
American bombers and fighter jets.

Today, more than four years
after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and almost three years into
the Iraq war, those displays of U.S. air power seem like faint echoes.

In Iraq, about 160,000 U.S. troops are hunkered down in a grinding
counterinsurgency war as politicians back home argue over whether there
are enough “boots on the ground” to succeed.

While Air Force and
Navy planes still fly important support missions and make scattered
bombing raids, their offensive presence in Iraq is negligible.

Elsewhere around the globe, small bands of Special Operations forces
and CIA agents prowl mountain passes in Afghanistan and other remote
outposts. U.S. military snipers perch on rooftops in pursuit of
warriors who wear no uniforms, drive no tanks and melt into civilian

“When you do an occupation war where you’re
patrolling neighborhoods, and your opponent isn’t a tank division but
it’s a suicide bomber or a few people with small arms, air power cannot
play the primary role,” said Steve Kosiak, a defense analyst at the
Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, in Washington.

“You can’t do counterinsurgency warfare without a large army,” Kosiak
said. “The operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are largely army affairs.”

As they pursue a new type of enemy in President Bush’s war on terror,
U.S. forces have returned to an older, grittier form of warfare based
on the ground instead of many miles above it.

“The paradox of
war is that it has always been both glorious and terrible,” said John
Pike, founder of, which tracks military and security
issues. “What we had with air power in the first Gulf War and in Kosovo
was the glory without seeing the horror. What we have now with the
insurgency is the horror without the glory.”

In the very
different budget wars on Capitol Hill, Air Force generals complain of
aging aircraft, object to reductions in promised new planes and warn
against future cutbacks in programs to build new generations of
fighters and bombers.

But with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars
draining $6 billion a month from Pentagon coffers already strained by
exploding health-care and pension costs, Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld is trimming multibillion-dollar requests for new planes and

In the White House budget Bush will send to Congress next
month, and in the Quadrennial Defense Review now being finalized by
Rumsfeld, the Air Force is facing cuts in both personnel and some of
its most prized weapons systems, according to drafts of the documents:
The number of F-22 Raptor jets, the new Stealth fighter just ready for
initial deployment, is limited to 183, less than half the amount
requested by Air Force leaders, and one-third the fleet size of F-15
Eagles, the 1970s-era fighter they will replace.

“The Air Force
of future years will be smaller and less capable,” Robert S. Dudney
wrote in the current issue of Air Force Magazine.

Air Force Lt.
Gen. Dave Deptula, architect of the air-attack plan in Operation Desert
Storm, said many of the service’s F-15s operate under flight
restrictions because of concerns about their age.

“Our force
needs to be recapitalized,” said Deptula, now commander of the Air
Force Pacific Warfighting headquarters at Hickam Air Force Base in
Hawaii. “I’m flying F-15s today that are over 30 years old. Every time
you go out in one of them, you don’t know what will happen because
these planes are flying longer than they’ve been flown before.”

Kosiak said other armed services also are being required to cut back on expensive weapons modernization.

Kosiak is less concerned than many Air Force leaders that the Pentagon
is ordering far fewer F-22 Raptors than the current number of F-15
Eagles because he said the new planes are so much more capable and
technologically advanced than the old ones.

Loren Thompson,
director of the Lexington Institute military think tank outside
Washington, expressed concern that with their current focus on fighting
terrorists and insurgents, Pentagon leaders might be taking their eyes
off potentially larger future threats.

“History tells us that
one day we’re going to face another major threat,” Thompson said. “I’m
concerned that we won’t be ready for the really big threats of tomorrow
like a China or a resurgent Russia or an Iran that is armed with
nuclear weapons.”

Already, Thompson said, Indian air force
fliers are besting U.S. pilots in joint exercises in which their planes
outnumber U.S. aircraft and have been upgraded with digital electronics.

“It’s a situation you could easily imagine if we were flying against
China in their own airspace,” Thompson said. “The Air Force fears that
its equipment is aging so fast, one day soon it will not be able to
beat enemy air forces. Both the air defenses on the ground and the
fighters in the air of our enemies are much better than they used to
be. A handful of F-22s won’t be enough to police the whole world.”

Fifteen years ago, on the eve of Operation Desert Storm, Saddam Hussein made what turned out to be a fatal miscalculation.

“The U.S. relies on the Air Force,” he said. “The Air Force has never been the decisive factor in the history of war.”

Pike believes that Saddam applied the lessons of the first Gulf War as
he prepared for the U.S. invasion in March 2003. Pike cited a recently
disclosed Iraqi intelligence document showing that Saddam and his top
aides planned the current insurgency months before the invasion.

“They recognized that our air power was just going to brush aside their
conventional forces, which is what happened in the early part of the
ground campaign,” Pike said. “They knew that the only chance they had
was to wage a struggle against us that marginalized our air power.”

The result, in Pike’s view, was an insurgency soon to enter its fourth
year. For all its power and prowess, he said, American air power has a
limited role to play in the U.S. military response to the insurgency.

“It’s somewhere between irrelevant and counterproductive,” Pike said.
“Since the Iraqi army disintegrated, the weapon of choice has become a
sniper. That’s the ultimate in precision firepower.”