War Stories

Bombing by Numbers

The Iraqi air war wasn’t as modern as it looked.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

With no fanfare, the U.S. Air Force recently released the official statistics on what it did during Gulf War II—how many planes of what sort flew how many sorties and dropped how many bombs of which types on what kinds of targets. The numbers confirm much and dispel much else of what we’ve assumed or been told about this “high-tech war.”

The unclassified report—titled Operation Iraqi Freedom by the Numbers, signed by Lt. Gen. Michael Moseley, commander of CENTAF (Central Command Air Forces), and available on John Pike’s wondrously useful Web site globalsecurity.org—confirms that the part of the war concerned with intelligence-gathering, target-acquisition, and real-time battlefield command-and-control was very high-tech indeed.

However, many of the weapons used were quite old—some of them nearly antique—and most of their missions were not in the least bit exotic.

These numbers have significance not just for war-wonks. Read closely, they contain lessons about the true nature of warfare and about what kinds of weapons we should—and should not—be buying.

The myth of shock and awe. The original Air Force war plan, at least as suggested by Air Force doctrine, called for massive airstrikes on key “nodes” of the Iraqi “leadership,” which would disrupt Saddam Hussein’s ability to command his military, thereby toppling his regime. Shortly before the war started, U.S. officials seemed to confirm this notion, saying 3,000 smart bombs and cruise missiles would fall on Baghdad the first night.

It turns out, however, that of the 18,898 targets hit from the air in this war, just 1,799—fewer than 10 percent—were related to the regime’s leadership or the military’s command structure.

War means killing the enemy’s soldiers. The vast majority of targets struck—15,592 of them, or 82 percent of the total—were Iraqi troops, tanks, and other weapons concentrated on the battlefield. In other words, the U.S. Air Force spent most of its resources doing what its officers least like—not bombing “high-value assets” in the capital, or achieving “air supremacy” by shooting down enemy warplanes (there apparently were none, or at least none that took off), but rather supporting the U.S. Army troops and Marines as they slugged it out on the ground. This mission is called “close-air support,” and the Air Force, which is run mainly by fighter pilots, has never been wild about it; it’s an implicit acknowledgement that the real contest is going on way down there with the grunts, not above the clouds with the flyboys.

The Warthog rules. Just as close-air support dominated the Air Force task orders, so the A-10 Warthog—the only Air Force plane ever built for the dedicated mission of close-air support—dominated the skies. The A-10 is a relatively large, slow beast of an airplane, with a titanium-shielded cockpit, so it can fly in low and fire its armor-piercing 30mm shells from twin-barrel gun mounts. [Correction, May 28, 2003: The A-10 gun has seven barrels.]

Of the 1,801 airplanes sent to the region (not including helicopters), 60 were A-10s, more than any other single type of combat plane (except for the Navy’s F/A-18). While the report does not say how many “tank kills” can be credited to those A-10s, it does say that they fired 311,597 rounds of 30mm ammunition.

Just as the Air Force brass has never liked close-air support, it has always loathed the A-10 and tried to kill it from the moment it was born. The last one was built in 1986. And although they performed superbly in both gulf wars, the brass is now trying to retire the Warthogs that remain.

Is stealth necessary? The Air Force would rather spend tens of billions of dollars on a new generation of stealth aircraft, made of radar-absorbing material that can fly virtually invisible to enemy anti-air defenses. But the report indicates that, while a little Stealth can go a long way, we probably don’t need any more than a little.

The Iraqis fired their anti-aircraft artillery 1,224 times and launched 1,660 surface-to-air missiles. As a result, they put out of action six helicopters and a single A-10 (the only attack plane that flies at altitudes measured in hundreds or even dozens of feet, not tens of thousands).

The Air Force planners knew this from the beginning. Of the current stealth planes in the arsenal, they sent just 12 F/A-117s and only four B-2s.

By comparison, they sent 28 B-52s—bombers originally designed to carry nuclear weapons, all converted in the past decade to hold conventional bombs—most of them older than the pilots flying them.

The fact is, in this era of precision-guided munitions or “smart bombs,” the airplane matters much less than the weapons and electronics inside. You could take a 747, snap on a bomb bay, fly it at 10,000 feet—and it would do just fine.

How smart were the smart bombs? During the war, most analysts assumed the majority of bombs were smart bombs and the majority of smart bombs were the new, cheap Joint Defense Attack Munitions or JDAMs. The old smart bombs, the ones used in Desert Storm, were laser-guided. In other words, a crew member would shine a laser on the target; the bomb would follow the beam. However, the beam could be deflected by dust, smoke, rain, even humidity. And the laser-guided bombs were expensive—around $100,000 apiece. JDAMs are guided by Global Positioning Satellites. The pilot punches the target’s coordinates into the bomb’s GPS receiver andthe bomb homes in on the spot; environmental conditions aren’t a factor. And they’re cheap—a JDAM kit can be strapped onto an old-fashioned “dumb bomb” for $18,000.

However, it turns out that of the 19,948 smart munitions fired during Gulf War II, 8,716—two-fifths—were the ‘90s-era laser-guided bombs. Substantially fewer, 6,642, were JDAMs. The other 4,590 smart weapons were GPS-guided but much more expensive models than the JDAM.

More surprising, another 9,251 bombs—or one-third of all the bombs dropped during this war—were unguided, unmodified dumb bombs. It would be good to know where these dumb bombs—and the less-reliable laser-guided bombs—were dropped: on the battlefield, in cities? In other words, was “collateral damage” a greater problem than our vision of a JDAM-dominating war suggested?

In this regard, Operation Iraqi Freedom was still far different from Operation Desert Storm, when just 9 percent of the bombs were smart and none of those were guided by GPS. Still, the picture has not advanced quite as far as we had been led to assume.

Smart video. The war’s smartest technology, which didn’t even exist in the preceding war, was the surveillance technology—the drones that hovered over the battlefield, taking pictures of targets below and streaming the imagery back to headquarters in real time. According to the report, ISR (“intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance”) aircraft flew 1,000 sorties, taking 42,000 battlefield images, 3,200 hours of “full-motion video,” and 1,700 hours of images that indicate moving targets. (There were also electronic-intelligence aircraft intercepting 2,400 hours of Iraqi signals intelligence.)

The report notes that this war marked the first time that four Predator drones flew simultaneously in support of combat missions—and the first time that six U-2 spy planes (which, apparently, were also busy picking out targets) orbited all at once on the same “air tasking order.”

These devices let the commanders know the precise locations of Iraqi tanks and troops, so the A-10s, B-52s, F/A-18s, and so forth could go attack them with smart bombs, dumb bombs, and 30mm shells. They’re worth spending a lot of money on. So is the idea of buying more JDAMs. As for much of the other high-tech air dreams, especially the new generation of multibillion-dollar stealth planes, it’s not clear how much we need them in the real world of war.

Correction, May 28, 2003: The A-10 airplane’s gun has seven barrels.