The Unseen War: Allied Air Power and the Takedown of Saddam Hussein

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By: Benjamin S. Lambeth

The Unseen War: Allied Air Power and the Takedown of Saddam Hussein. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013. 435 pp. $59.95. ISBN: 978-1612513119. Pbk: 480 pp. $39.99. ISBN: 978-1612513119. Ebk: Amazon Digital Services, Inc. 2359 KB. ASIN: B00EGWFLBQ.

Volume: 1 Issue: 8

December 2013

Review by:

Seth J. Frantzman, PhD

Hebrew University of Jerusalem


The first Iraq Gulf War of 1991 included a prolonged air phase and has been studied thoroughly. However, the air power contribution to the second Gulf War of 2003 has largely been ignored. As Benjamin S. Lambeth notes in the opening to this important volume “the major combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom conducted in the spring of 2003 was a true joint and combined campaign by American, British and Australian air, land and maritime forces to bring about a decisive end to Hussein’s regime” (p. 1). The author also argues that “the campaign that brought down Saddam Hussein was an all but flawless undertaking” (p. 2). The book seeks to shed light on the planning and execution of the air war, as well as providing insight into the major operations and what shortcomings can be identified.

On its surface, analyzing a war that was so one-sided, especially in the air, may seem superfluous. That it was conducted in a flawless manner is interesting, but it is like a professional boxer fighting a blind man—if he doesn’t have a flawless fight, that would seem to be the only real news. CENCOM’s air component commander was Lt. General T. Michael Moseley. When he presented his plan for air operations, the major difference with 1990 would not only be combining the attack with a land invasion, but also the increased efficiency and accuracy of targeting.

The initial plan called for allied attacks against 1,000 targets a day. Vice Admiral Timothy Keating, who headed the carrier groups involved, recalled “never before in history [had] one naval force projected such a concentrated amount of firepower” (p. 37). The logistical side of the buildup was astronomical. Approximately 32,000 combatants were flown to the region on some 475 missions. They also ran into trouble when Turkey denied the United States the use of its airspace on the eve of the war. In the end 1,800 aircraft would participate, 863 from the Air Force.

According to this account, the Iraqi air force was far from passive in the lead-up to the war. They “had continued to fly as many as a thousand training sorties a month in the airspace between the two no-fly zones” (p. 69). These no-fly zones were set up in the aftermath of the previous war, and in the later Clinton years. The first years of George W. Bush saw activity by the Iraqis aimed at interdicting this imposition on Iraq’s sovereignty. The Iraqis still had some 60 SAM weapons and hundreds of combat aircraft. However, as with the first Gulf War, these forces seem to have performed miserably, if at all. This was always the big question about the Iraqi army; although on paper, it had large numbers of tanks and other supposedly advanced weaponry, it was totally defeated by the coalition forces in 1990 and 2003. Benjamin provides a narrative of these facts without asking to what extent resistance was expected from the Iraqi air force, or if allied planners exaggerated its abilities and numbers.

The air war opened early with the momentous decision by the United States to aim for a decapitation strike of Iraq’s leader and his two sons, who, according to intelligence, were at a place called Doha Farms near Baghdad. Benjamin concludes that this attack “initially appeared to stiffen the regime’s resolve” (p. 113). Two F-117’s stealth aircraft were tasked with dropping bombs on the location. “Early reports that Hussein had been killed proved to be false” (p. 79). On the night of March 21, the main attack began with the “shock and awe” bombing of Iraqi commander centers in Baghdad (p. 83). As the author explains, some of these operations were “largely symbolic” while others sought to “attack specific nodes in or underneath government structures” (p. 89).

On March 24, a huge sandstorm enveloped Iraq, grounded aircraft and helicopters, and disrupted missile guidance systems. On March 26, the army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade was dropped into an airfield near Tikrit. This was “the largest [drop] since the combat drop into Panama in 1989” (p. 111). As in the first Gulf War, friendly fire bedeviled the air force. In one instance, a Patriot missile downed a British plane, and in another incident, an F-16 fired a missile into a patriot battery that had locked onto it. “We had no idea where the Patriots were and those guys were locking us up on a regular basis,” commented one pilot (p. 115).

The commander sought to minimize civilian casualties among Iraqis. This decision to make the lack of “collateral damage” a priority resulted in a change in the type of weapons used. “The great availability of precision guided weapons and the heightened imperatives of collateral damage avoidance also drove a progressive trend toward the use of smaller munitions in Iraqi Freedom” (p. 231). This is an interesting observation, but as with much of the book, the jargon laced details on the munitions make it hard to distinguish them. For instance, the author discusses a “AGM-154A joint standoff weapon (JSOW), a gliding submunition dispenser carried exclusively by the F/A-18 that was intertially guided and GPS aided, and could, under ideal conditions, be released twenty miles away from the target” (p. 232). This is a fascinating description, but for most non-professionals or industry insiders, it doesn’t convey the weapons’ capabilities. What is a “submunition”? One might assume “intertially guided” means that it simply falls from the sky, guided by gravity, but actually the definition is “Inertial navigation is a self-contained navigation technique in which measurements provided by accelerometers and gyroscopes are used to track the position and orientation of an object relative to a known starting point, orientation and velocity” (Wikipedia). Readers get lost in the TLAM, JDAM, CENTCOM, JFCOM and the more than 200 acronyms for various ordinance and command structures. There is nothing wrong with this in a book published primarily for military or professional personally, but it makes some of it hard to penetrate even from an academic standpoint.

Nevertheless, this crisply written book will remain a standard in describing the air war in the second Gulf War for years to come. The author identifies some problems the pilots faced, such as the inability to receive good battle damage assessments of targets attacks, and difficulty in finding tankers to refuel at the end of mission. In one of the worst near disasters of the war, a contingent of 30 Apache helicopters attempted to fly 50 miles to attack a Republican Guard unit. Half of the helicopters were badly damaged, one was downed and the unit was put out of action for a month in order to repair their helicopters. Only a few Iraqi vehicles were damaged, one Iraq commander having used a cell phone in order to warn his comrades of the attack. This is one of the more interesting accounts of a fact filled, but colorless book on an important conflict.

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