Iraq War Plans V: Operation Desert Thunder

11 MINS READSep 14, 2002 | 02:06 GMT

Operation Desert Thunder is a plan that depends entirely on airpower. It avoids the problem of taking Baghdad and promises extremely low casualties. Its basic weakness is that no nation has ever been defeated solely by the application of airpower. But airpower has never been as effective as it is today.


The first three war plans we considered involve using ground forces in increasing numbers and intensity, from limited Special Operations forces to a multidivisional attack. All three depend on the incapacitation of the Iraqi military by various means. All the previous plans have a basic challenge: an assault and occupation of Baghdad if the Iraqi military is not incapacitated. In all three plans, U.S. ground forces could find themselves engaged in attritional warfare under disadvantageous circumstances.

There is a fourth war plan to consider. Operation Desert Thunder involves no ground forces, except for potential blocking forces around Iraq's frontiers and a force to occupy Iraq after the collapse of its government. It is a plan that depends entirely on airpower, using Special Operations troops for targeting but no other ground forces whatsoever. It avoids the problem of Baghdad entirely, and if it works, it promises extremely low casualties. Its basic weakness is that no nation ever has been defeated solely by the application of airpower. On the other hand, airpower has never been as effective as it is today.

One should remember that airpower has been a tremendous temptation in the past, particularly for civilian leaders seeking military victories without being able or willing to devote sufficient resources to the operation. Hermann Goering, commander in chief of the Luftwaffe, convinced Adolph Hitler that he could force British capitulation without invasion. Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara convinced President Lyndon Johnson that the United States could force Vietnam to abandon its operations in the south through an air campaign. The promise historically has been greater than the reality.

This is not an argument about Iraq so much as an argument about the nature of modern warfare. Ever since the writings of the great theorist of airpower, Giulio Douhet, there has been an ongoing argument that the path to victory on the ground passes through control of the air. During World War II, advocates of airpower argued that, with the sufficient application of aerial bombardment, the allies would be able to defeat the axis without needing to invade. Indeed, some made the argument that this is precisely what happened with Japan, albeit requiring the application of nuclear weapons.

There have been two general concepts put forward for the application of airpower as a decisive, war-winning strategy. The first, heavily advocated by the British, was the concept of counter-population bombardment. In this theory, attacks on population centers by massed formations would achieve two ends. First, they would completely disrupt industrial production, thereby undermining the war-making effort. Second, it would devastate morale, driving a wedge between the population suffering under the attacks and the regime trying to continue the war in spite of the attacks.

A second concept of aerial warfare was the American doctrine of strategic bombardment. Strategic bombardment is built around the idea that modern warfare, the modern state and modern society are built on technological foundations. If destroyed, these technological foundations — from power generation to telecommunications — can shatter a war-making capability and, indeed, a modern society. The goal of strategic bombardment is the destruction of these facilities. Under this theory, a successful strategic bombing campaign can defeat an enemy before they are engaged on the ground.

Strategic bombardment was attempted in North Vietnam with limited success. A campaign against economic facilities was mounted, but the problem in essence was that the time needed for the facilities to recover from attacks was shorter than the amount of time needed to destroy them. Obviously, serious political limitations on the target set made evaluating the campaign difficult. However, the argument that a bombing campaign would compel the North Vietnamese to curtail their operations in the south clearly proved incorrect.

Operation Desert Storm represented a dramatic evolution in airpower. The pre-invasion air campaign created a situation in which the Iraqi command was unable to manage its forces and in which the combat formations had been so heavily damaged that they could not function. The use of new technology shattered Iraqi war-fighting capabilities. The use in particular of advanced space- and air-based sensing systems to detect targets and precision-guided munitions gave attackers a high probability of destroying those targets. As a result, the ground campaign was completed in only 100 hours.

During Desert Storm, the air campaign was focused on shattering the operational capability of the Iraqi armed forces. The air campaign attacked the economic infrastructure, such as the electrical grid, to the extent that these were enablers of immediate Iraqi military capability. The infrastructure was not attacked, as was the case in World War II or Vietnam, as an end in itself designed to impose a high cost on the enemy population in order to compel capitulation or political settlement. The attack was linked directly to the operational level of the armed forces. We could say that as precision increased, ambitions contracted. They meshed as perfectly as possible given the friction of war.

In the decade since Desert Storm, the capabilities of airpower have improved substantially. New generations of precision-guided weapons, new intelligence and reconnaissance systems and new integration between sensors and munitions have increased precision and therefore decreased the number of munitions required. This means that the logistical burden on the air campaign has been reduced so that an aerial deployment on the order of Desert Storm would be substantially more effective now than in 1991.

In 1991, the air campaign focused on the operational level. In part, this was the lesson drawn from Vietnam, where the focus was more strategic but the technology was incapable of achieving the goal. Operation Rolling Thunder, the main air campaign against North Vietnam, failed. The issue is whether a strategic air campaign might succeed now. Operation Desert Thunder would be more ambitious than Rolling Thunder. The latter sought to change a regime's policies. The proposed Desert Thunder would be intended to destroy a regime. The issue is whether technology has advanced to this point.

The goal of Desert Thunder would not be limited to the destruction of the Iraqi armed forces. It would extend to the destruction of Iraq's ability to function as a society. The target set certainly would include strategic military targets, such as command and control facilities, and would extend down to the operational and even tactical level. But its main goal would be the paralysis of the Iraqi economy by the systematic destruction of its transportation, communications and industrial system. Targets would include bridges, power plants, warehouses and the like.

During World War II, operations like this involved enormous loss of life. There is no question that Desert Thunder also would involve substantial civilian casualties. The argument, however, would be that the number of casualties would be tremendously reduced because of the increased precision of weapons and the number killed would be substantially less than those who would be killed in urban fighting in and around Baghdad. That at least would be the presupposition of the campaign.

Like the original proposals for Rolling Thunder in Vietnam (but not the target set actually attacked), Desert Thunder would be an extremely intense attack over a relatively compressed time frame, designed to shatter Iraq's economy with enough simultaneity that the recuperative period would be massively extended. In other words, it would seek to collapse Iraq so quickly that reconstruction would be impossible.

The counterargument is that Saddam Hussein, like Hitler, is insensitive to the suffering of his people and so an attack would not induce him to change his strategy. The argument against this view is that Desert Thunder does not depend on any policy shifts by Hussein. Its goal is to impose a paralysis so absolute that Hussein's ability to control events would not extend beyond the range of his voice. The disruption of Iraqi society would be so complete that Hussein would be rendered ineffective and helpless. Once that happened, ground forces could move in carefully to secure the country and begin reconstruction.

There are three challenges to this strategy:

1. Target identification: In essence an intelligence problem, this consists of two parts.

A) First, from a theoretical standpoint, identifying those elements of infrastructure that, if destroyed, would collectively incapacitate Iraq.

B) Second, having conceptually identified the targets, there is the problem of locating them physically. Some, like power plants, would be readily identifiable. Others, like communications nodes and warehouses containing key industrial products, pose huge challenges. Imagery is excellent for identifying certain facilities, but it does not tell you what is inside a building. Since the destruction of stocks of certain items is critical to success, Desert Thunder could be doomed from the start by an intelligence problem. As was learned during Kosovo, effective camouflage is a counter to airpower.

2. Attacking the targets: Here again, there are two challenges.

A) The first is logistical. Regardless of accuracy, a certain number of aircraft and munitions have to be moved into attack position. It is unclear whether the United States has enough of either in its inventory to carry out this strategy. In part that depends on the number of targets that need to be hit and on the accuracy of the munitions. Moreover, an air campaign of this magnitude requires massive facilities in-theater for tactical aircraft. This poses both a logistical and political challenge. Bases in Qatar, Kuwait and Turkey will be essential. However, bases in Saudi Arabia are critical as well, along with aircraft from coalition partners.

B) Second, there is the question of effectiveness of munitions, measured not only in terms of precision but also in terms of destructiveness. Some infrastructure targets are so massive, so well-designed or underground that they can't be readily attacked. Germany moved factories underground to protect them. Iraq appears to have hardened at least some sites. If this is more extensive than anticipated, this could cause the campaign to fail, at least partially.

3. Target recuperation: One of the weaknesses of air campaigns is the recuperative ability of targets. For example, during World War II, the allies discovered that some targets had to be revisited constantly because they were being repaired continually. One of the problems of the extended, low-intensity air campaign is that not enough targets are ever incapacitated simultaneously to achieve social breakdown. Near simultaneity is needed if damage is to surpass recuperative powers. In North Vietnam, for example, the intensity of the air campaign did not approach this point except for possibly during the Christmas bombing campaign of 1972.

Intelligence, logistics and coordination are the practical limits to Operation Desert Thunder. Airpower advocates who point to the advances in the technical capabilities of aircraft and munitions frequently ignore these dependencies that are outside the immediate technical capabilities of aircraft. These challenges include:

1. Understanding how to cripple an economy — what is essential and what is not.

2. Finding the essential targets.

3. Having sufficient capability to strike at all these targets.

4. Coordinating the operation, which is probably the least trivial.

The great advantage of Operation Desert Thunder is that it does not require the use of U.S. ground forces. If the technical capabilities of airpower in fact have advanced to the point where a nation can be defeated from the air, Iraq is the place to show it. Iraq is sufficiently advanced to have a vulnerable technology but not so advanced that its air defense system or infrastructure redundancy makes an attack impractical. In general, its terrain makes targeting easier than elsewhere and its weather is helpful, providing clear skies for long periods of time. If the technology exists, this is where it can work.

Of course, all of this is a huge "if." The temptation of airpower has always been the dream of cheap victory — for the attackers. The failure of airpower is that while it has been a great enabler of ground combat, it has not managed to replace it because the obstacles always have been too great. Therefore, as Goering or McNamara discovered, airpower has been a trap.

But its greatest advantage is that it is the lowest risk operation possible. If the attack fails, it is simply cancelled. There is little question that U.S. airpower can achieve control of the air in a matter of days. Once that control has been achieved, it is primarily a matter of target identification, generating air-tasking orders and delivering munitions. If it doesn't work, the attacks can be called off. Of course, in that case, the political costs of failure would dwarf the military consequences.

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