U.S. Air Raids in '02 Prepared for War in Iraq
By MICHAEL R. GORDON
York Times" - - LAS VEGAS, July 19, 2003 — American air war commanders carried out a comprehensive plan to disrupt Iraq's military command and control system before the Iraq war, according to an internal briefing on the conflict by the senior allied air war commander.
Known as Southern Focus, the plan called for attacks on the network of fiber-optic cable that Saddam Hussein's government used to transmit military communications, as well as airstrikes on key command centers, radars and other important military assets.
The strikes, which were conducted from mid-2002 into the first few months of 2003, were justified publicly at the time as a reaction to Iraqi violations of a no-flight zone that the United States and Britain established in southern Iraq. But Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, the chief allied war commander, said the attacks also laid the foundations for the military campaign against the Baghdad government.
Indeed, one reason it was possible for the allies to begin the ground campaign to topple Mr. Hussein without preceding it with an extensive array of airstrikes was that 606 bombs had been dropped on 391 carefully selected targets under the plan, General Moseley said.
"It provided a set of opportunities and options for General Franks," General Moseley said in an interview, referring to Gen. Tommy R. Franks, then head of the United States Central Command. While there were indications at the time that the United States was trying to weaken Iraqi air defenses in anticipation of a possible war, the scope and detailed planning that lay behind the effort were not generally known.
The disclosure of the plan is part of an assessment prepared by General Moseley on the lessons of the war with Iraq. General Moseley and a senior aide presented their assessments at an internal briefing for American and allied military officers at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada on Thursday.
Among the disclosures provided in the internal briefings and in a later interview the General Moseley:
¶New information has shown that there was not a bunker in the Dora Farms area near Baghdad, where American intelligence initially believed Mr. Hussein was meeting with his aides. The site was attacked by F-117 stealth fighters and cruise missiles as the Bush administration sought to kill Mr. Hussein at the very onset of the war. Still, Iraqi leaders were believed to be in the Dora Farm area, General Moseley said.
¶Air war commanders were required to obtain the approval of Defense Secretary Donald L. Rumsfeld if any planned airstrike was thought likely to result in deaths of more than 30 civilians. More than 50 such strikes were proposed, and all of them were approved.
¶During the war, about 1,800 allied aircraft conducted about 20,000 strikes. Of those, 15,800 were directed against Iraqi ground forces while some 1,400 struck the Iraqi Air Force, air bases or air defenses. About 1,800 airstrikes were directed against the Iraqi government and 800 at suspected hiding places and installations for illicit weapons, including surface-to-surface missiles.
¶Allied commanders say precision-guided weapons made up a greater percentage of the strikes than in any previous conflict. But the military experienced great difficulty in obtaining reliable battle damage assessment about attacks against Iraqi ground forces. There were also differences between Army and Air Force commanders about the best procedures for carrying out the strikes. As a result, airstrikes against Iraqi forces that fought the Army were not as effective as commanders would have liked.
The air campaign began as a response to the Iraqis, who deployed additional surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft artillery south of Baghdad beginning in the late 1990's. Their maneuvers thickened the defense of the Iraqi capital. The air defense systems had the range to hit allied planes that were patrolling some portions of the southern no-flight zone.
Gen. Charles Wald, General Moseley's predecessor as the top American air commander in the Middle East, proposed a major attack to disable the beefed-up Iraqi defenses in early 2001. But the newly inaugurated Bush administration was not looking for a confrontation with Iraq at that time, and General Wald's recommendation was not approved.
After General Moseley assumed command toward the end of 2001, however, the American strategy began to change. General Moseley and General Franks believed that the American military needed a plan to weaken the Iraqi air defenses, initially because of the threat to the allied patrols and later to facilitate an offensive.
The first step was to use spy satellites, U-2 planes and reconnaissance drones to identify potential targets.
One major target was the network of fiber-optic cable that transmitted military communications between Baghdad and Basra and Baghdad and Nasiriya. The cables themselves were buried underground and impossible to locate. So the air war commanders focused on the "cable repeater stations," which relayed the signals. From June 2002 until the beginning of the Iraq war, the allies flew 21,736 sorties over southern Iraq and attacked 349 targets, including the cable stations.
"We were able to figure out that we were getting ahead of this guy and we were breaking them up faster than he could fix them," General Moseley said of the fiber-optic cables. "So then we were able to push it up a little bit and effectively break up the fiber-optic backbone from Baghdad to the south."
During that period before the war, American officials said the strikes were necessary because the Iraqis were shooting more often at allied air patrols. In total, the Iraqis fired on allied aircraft 651 times during the operation. But General Moseley said it was possible that the Iraqi attacks increased because allied planes had stepped up their patrols over Iraq. "We became a little more aggressive based on them shooting more at us, which allowed us to respond more," he said. "Then the question is whether they were shooting at us because we were up there more. So there is a chicken and egg thing here."
The air campaign also provided an opportunity for American war commanders to try new military technologies and tactics.
One experiment involved arming Predator reconnaissance drones with Stinger antiaircraft missiles so they could engage in dogfights with Iraqi planes. A few months before the war, an Iraqi MIG-25 jet fighter fired two missiles at a Predator in one engagement and managed to shoot it down.
The remotely controlled Predator also fired two missiles before it was destroyed. It also transmitted video of the engagement. American officers were impressed that the Iraqi pilot was able to attack such a small target and did not turn away after he was fired upon.
As full-scale war approached, the air war commanders had five goals. They wanted to neutralize the ability of the Iraqi government to command its forces; to establish control of the airspace over Iraq; to provide air support for Special Operations forces, as well as for the Army and Marine forces that would advance toward Baghdad; and to neutralize Iraq's force of surface-to-surface missiles and suspected caches of biological and chemical weapons.
Once the war began, air war commanders adopted an aggressive posture to keep up the pace of the attack. Unarmed refueling tankers and radar planes flew into Iraqi airspace early on, and combat search and rescue teams set up bases inside the country. For the first three weeks of the air war, there were never fewer than 200 aircraft aloft.
According to the internal briefing, 73 personnel were rescued who would have died if they had not been extracted.
Problems in obtaining reliable bomb damage assessment, the fast pace of the Army advance and differences between the Army and the air war commanders about the best way to provide air support limited the effectiveness of the strikes carried out on behalf of the Army's V Corps, according to internal assessments.
Improving bomb damage assessment, coming to a common understanding with Army commanders about the best procedures for providing air support and increasing the capacity to provide digital information to aircraft on targets would improve the performance of air power in future conflicts, air war commanders say.
The American air campaign had a vulnerability that the Iraqis failed to exploit: a four-mile-long line of fuel trucks outside one Persian Gulf base. They were in a region in which Al Qaeda was believed to operate but they were never attacked.
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