A New Kind Of Warfare

A mighty air armada strikes Iraq, and war technology seems to cross a threshold to a new generation.

It seemed almost too easy. With eerie precision, "smart" bombs dropped down air shafts and burst through bunker doors. Cruise missiles, lethal robots launched from warships in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, slammed into the Defense Ministry and the presidential palace in Baghdad. Hot streams of antiaircraft fire lit up the night, while bomb explosions bloomed above the skyline. Out in the desert, the Iraqi Air Force hid in its hardened shelters; the few pilots who came up to challenge the intruders were quickly shot down or turned tail and fled to the north. To television watchers back home, the bombardment of Baghdad seemed like a kind of video game, at once impersonal and fantastic. It was intensely real to the pilots who had to fly through the Iraqi flak, but even they brimmed with confidence about their high-tech toys. "You pick precisely which target you want...the men's room or the ladies' room," said Col. Alton Whitley, who commands a wing of F-117A Stealth fighters.

When Desert Shield turned into Desert Storm last week, aerial warfare seemed to cross a threshold into a new generation. High-tech weapons, maligned in the past for their stratospheric cost and earthbound fallibility, suddenly seemed to work almost flawlessly. The Navy's Tomahawk became the first cruise missile to be used in battle, and of the first 150 that were fired, more than 85 percent hit their targets, Pentagon sources said. The Army's Patriot became the first missile to shoot down another missile under combat conditions, destroying what was thought to be an Iraqi Scud launched toward a base in Saudi Arabia. Electronic countermeasures befuddled Iraq's air defense. Bombs and air-launched missiles, guided by laser bemas, infrared images and television pictures, slammed into target after target, erasing memories of embarrassing misses in earlier attacks on Libya and Panama. It is in the nature of war that some missiles will go awry and some weapons misfire in the campaign ahead. Already the edge has been taken off Desert Storm's triumph by the inability of the air campaign to prevent Iraq from firing Scud missiles at Israel, which raises the specter of a wider regional war. But with most of the technology working well, the strategists' dream of the decisive "surgical strike" may now be one step closer to reality.

The early successes heartened an American public that had dreaded the outbreak of war against Iraq. In a Newsweek Poll taken just after the fighting began, George Bush's approval rating soared to 83 percent, the highest of his highflying presidency. Approval of his actions in the gulf surged to 85 percent. The president and his advisers kept pinching themselves: the long-awaited war against Saddam Hussein had to be tougher than this. "We must be realistic," Bush cautioned at a news briefing on Friday. "There will be losses. There will be obstacles along the way. And war is never cheap or easy."

"We're into euphoria control around here," said one to the president's closest advisers. "It's going to get a lot worse." Even as the air war seemed to be going almost entirely their way, American officials worried that perhaps Saddam was holding back, absorbing the first blow from the allies and saving his strength for a bloody land battle later on. "The guy's doing a rope-a-dope on us," fretted a top U.S. strategist.

Bush tried to keep everyone's eye on the goal: to force Iraq to withdraw unconditionally from occupied Kuwait. But Saddam soon muddied the waters with an old-tech weapon of his own. On Friday and Saturday, his forces fired Scuds into Israel from launchers in western Iraq. Straining at the limit of their range, the obsolescent missiles exploded almost harmlessly and hurt few Israelis. Saddam's intention was to provoke, hoping that Israeli retaliation would transform the fight over Kuwait into an Arab-Israeli conflict, a crusade he would be only too happy to lead. But Israel held its fire (page 25). Bush said allied warplanes were conducting "the darnedest search-and-destroy effort that's ever been undertaken in that area" to eliminate Saddam's remaining Scuds.

By the end of the week, however, the job still had not been done. Air Force officers believed that Saddam still had about 50 percent operational Scud launchers. The preliminary air bombardment of Iraq had been planned to go on for nine days before the ground war began, Newsweek learned. Now, bad weather in the region and the failure to knock out the Scuds had prolonged the aerial campaign.

That was the only known setback of the campaign's first few days. But in the opening stages of the conflict, the Americans and their partners in the air war--Britain, Saudi Arabia, France, Italy, Canada, and exiles from Kuwait--had been lucky. Several factors made the allied forces much more successful than they might have been in another setting. Among them:

The night on which the war began was clear and dark, with a new moon just arrived. Those are the best conditions for the night-vision equipment used on allied fighter-bombers and for their smart bombs. The climate also was ideal for cruise missiles. The optical scanner that guides a Tomahawk in its final approach to the target can get confused if it has to look through fog, clouds, smoke or dust. After the first 36 hours, however, the weather turned cloudy, and some allied jets were forced to return to base without dropping their bombs, even though some of he warplanes were loaded with "all weather" devices.

The early air raids were extremely complex, but commanders of the international coalition had plenty of time to plan and practice during the five months they spent waiting for the war to start. They had time to coordinate different forces so that their planes would not be jamming or shooting at one another. They had tome to build new airfields in Saudi Arabia to accommodate ground-based aircraft and to provide refueling facilities for carrier-based warplanes committed to the battle in Kuwait and Iraq. American commanders also had time to prepare the elaborate digital maps that have to be programmed into cruise missiles in advance of an attack. Such maps did not exist in early August. Incredulous, the regional commander, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, used his considerable temper to get them made. In a faster-starting, more fluid war, the cruise missiles might have been much less effective.

Iraq and Kuwait are open country, where guidance systems and night-vision devices can readily pick out targets. In forests or jungles, the same targets might be harder for pilots and some of their sensors to locate. And the war is being fought in a relatively small area, close to allied air bases and launching platforms. "You have to wonder if the technology would appear to be working so well against the Soviet Union," says Col. Andrew Duncan, a military-affairs expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London. The Soviets have much more sophisticated air defenses than Iraq, deployed over a much larger arena. "Think of a battlefield stretching all the way from northern Norway to Turkey, at least 10 times the current area," says Duncan. "There might simply not be enough technology to cover all of that. In a larger theater, you eventually run out of resources."

When the Americans hit Baghdad, television recorded the high-tech blitz. Allied warplanes made their own visual records, as well, and when U.S. generals played some tape for the press, they selected highlights from the most successful missions. Reporters were not shown tapes of bombs or missiles that went astray. And no one, except the Iraqi victims, witnessed the old-fashioned onslaught of the giant B-52 bombers dumping loads of bombs on troops cowering in their bunkers. The B-52s attacked the targets that were outside the range of television's prying eye.

In the final analysis, Iraq is a dictatorship run by a leader who may be mad in the clinical sense--and whose notions of modern warfare are somewhat quaint. Armies led by tyrants often lack effective officers, because strong opinions and individual initiative are not encouraged. This was apparent during Iraq's war with Iran. IN eight years of fighting against one of the world's most disorganized states, Iraq managed to gain only slivers of territory. iraqi commanders appeared hesitant and insecure, failing to assert themselves in the most obvious ways, such as pursuing shattered Iranian columns. Last week the Iraqis once again seemed unsure of themselves, except for the diversionary attack on Israel.

Last Tuesday morning, more than 12 hours before the United Nations deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, President Bush signed an order for the war to begin the next day. Wednesday morning, when the deadline had passed without any concessions from Saddam, Bush saw no reason to change the timetable, which called for an air attack to begin shortly before 7 o'clock that night (3 a.m. Thursday in Baghdad). The allies were notified of the pending air war, and doubters climbed on the bandwagon. France, which had failed with a peacemaking effort at the last minute, put its forces in the gulf region under U.S. command--though not for airstrikes deep inside Iraq. Turkey, which had hedged on the question of a second front, eventually decided that bases on its territory could be used for attacks on Iraq by American warplanes.

One strategic target on the first night of war was Iraq's command-and-control system, the network of telephone lines and microwave communications that connects Baghdad to outlying Army headquarters and to the country's four air-defense centers. The capital itself was protected by surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), antiaircraft guns and fighter planes, none of which had been knocked out yet. Thus American planners chose to attack the main telecommunications building in Baghdad with an F-117A Stealth fighter-bomber, the angular, slow-flying plane that is nearly invisible to radar. One of the F-117s neatly dropped a 2,000-pound, laser-guided smart bomb onto the building. In a videotape shown to pool reporters later, the cross hairs of the plane's targeting system focus on the telecommunications building and then the bomb hits it, showering debris from all sides (chart, page 23).

Other targets on the first day included air defenses, missile launchers and troop concentrations. Some allied planes jammed Iraqi radars or knocked them out (page 20). Others, including the British Tornadoes, cratered the runways of Iraqi airfields, temporarily closing them down. United States Navy A-6Es and F/A-18s bombed Scud missile platforms in western Iraq, where they threatened Israel. Iraqi troops in or near Kuwait were attacked by tankbusting A-10s and Apache helicopters and by the ponderous B-52s.

Some of the most sophisticated attacks were carried out by single planes delivering single, precisely targeted bombs or missiles, rather than by waves of attack planes, which might have caused enough smoke or dust to confuse one another's guidance systems. To get to the target, however, each attacker was enfolded in what the planners call a "force package," a team of aircraft playing various roles. Standard U.S. tactics against a defended position call for the first players onto the field to be the "defense suppression" aircraft. An EF-111 would jam the Iraqis' long-range radar, forcing the SAM crews to turn on their own battery radar. Then an F4-G Wild Weasel would fire a missile to knock out the radar, grounding the SAMs.

Next would come the fighter planes, such as F-15s or F-16s, to protect the attack aircraft. Finally the bombers would come into play--any of a half-dozen models, depending on the mission. The planes in the force package, which come from different bases and travel at different speeds, would not have to fly all the way to the target together. Instead, they would arrive there in a precisely timed pattern, with AWACS command planes acting as traffic cops in the crowded and unfriendly skies.

After 36 hours of almost trouble-free bombing, the weather turned cloudy, and some coalition aircraft with daytime roles were unable to complete their assignments. Their commanders preferred aborted missions over the risk of hurting innocent civilians. So instead of jettisoning their bombs and missiles in the desert or the sea, the pilots returned to their bases and made dangerous landings with the weapons still attached to their planes. Some pilots said cynically that the bombs and missiles were too expensive to dump. While the weather hampered pilots based to the south of Iraq, American warplanes began to attack from Turkey, presumably aiming at northern airfields that had provided sanctuary for Iraqi pilots in earlier battles.

As the war continued, the coalition gradually shifted to new targets. On Sunday, Gen. Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the attacks would begin to concentrate more heavily on the elite Republican Guards and other Iraqi ground forces stationed in or near Kuwait. But one original objective of the air war still had not been achieved: to knock out the Scuds. Although most of the fixed launchers apparently were destroyed, some mobile launchers--no one knew exactly how many-- survived the onslaught and were able to hurl rockets at israel. The threat posed by Scuds tipped with conventional or poison-gas warheads may continue for the rest of the war. "They're parked indoors," said Col. Duncan of IISS. "No matter how many satellites you have overhead or how many search-and-destroy missions you do, nobody can see through a roof."

Even though they held the upper hand technologically, most of the coalition's young pilots found their first experience of combat to be as frightening as it was exhilarating. "It was the most scary thing I have ever done in my life," Flight Lt. Ian Long, the pilot of a British Tornado, told pool reporters. "We were frightened of failure, frightened of dying," he said. Inevitably, a few of them died, despite the weakness of Iraqi air defenses. American, British, Italian, and Kuwaiti planes went down in the first two days. The first American plane to disappear was an F/A-18 from the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga, piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher, a 33-year-old father of two from Jacksonville, Fla. His plane was hit by a SAM, and by late last week he was still listed as missing.

It may have been some consolation to the pilots of high-tech attack planes that their bombs and missiles produced little "collateral damage"--the military euphemism for death and destruction among civilians. The accuracy of modern munitions permits makers to give them relatively small warheads. The Maverick air-to-ground missile, for example, can knock out a tank or a bunker, but its "destructive radius" for that purpose is only about 10 feet, which means that it may cause no widespread destruction if it lands in a suburban street. After the pounding of Baghdad on Wednesday night, some eyewitnesses were surprised by the lack of damage to civilian areas of the city. "You expected to see, the following morning, a devastated landscape, but what you saw in fact was a very surgical operation by the Americans," said Nigel Baker, a producer for Britain's Independent Television News, who traveled overland from Baghdad to Amman after covering the first night of the war.

Some of the best examples of precision bombing were collected in a videotape shown to the press last Friday by Lt. Gen Charles Horner, the Air Force commander in the Persian Gulf region. One clip shows two smart bombs slamming into a Scud missile bunker; in another, a bomb is directed straight down the air shaft in the middle of "my counterpart's headquarters in Baghdad," according to Horner. In the examples shown, there was no smoke or bad weather to disorient the guidance systems, and the Iraqi air defenses were not energetic enough to keep the pilots away form the targets. There was no footage of the 20 percent of warheads that missed the target, by official reckoning. Still, the videotape showed emphatically, as Norman Friedman, an American weapons analyst, put it, that "The stuff works. It works unbelievably well."

In the right conditions, unmanned weapons can work even better. The cruise missiles achieved a slightly higher success rate than the bombers, without any risk to pilots. Tomahawks are best suited to stationary targets in situations that allow time for elaborate guidance programs to be written. In such circumstance, live air crews are probably a needless risk. The success of the Patriot anti-missile was equally impressive. Before dawn last Friday morning, ground crews at the Dhahran air base saw the sky light up with the bright flash of a midair explosion. "They said, "Oh my God, it's a Scud'," transportation Sgt. Robin Milonas, 38, a reservist from Tacoma, Wash., said later. The thunderous boom she heard next was the sound of the patriot intercepting the Iraqi missile thousands of feet above the runway. "People cheered," said Milonas.

The improved accuracy of high-tech weapons may take warfare into a new era of truly surgical airstrikes. In World War II, the typical accuracy of US bombing put explosives within about a mile of the target. By Vietnam, the circle had shrunk to about a quarter mile, and at the time of the Libyan raid in 1986, it was down to perhaps 500 feet. That sounds impressive, but for many military targets, a 500-foot miss is as bad as a mile. If recent advances have brought the margin of error down to 30 feet or less, as appears to have been achieved during parts of Desert Storm, and if the electronics are now as reliable as they are said to be, then the age of surgical bombing is finally at hand.

To their admirers, smart weapons can seem downright humane. They spare civilians lives, limit destruction and promise quick results. yet they hold a darker promise, as well. After the gulf war, dozens of other countries will scramble to acquire the technology employed by the United States and its allies. Almost all of it, unfortunately, can be used with nuclear, chemical or biological warheads or with the ballistic missiles that many nations are now adding to their arsenals. In the regional conflicts to come, smart bombs and missiles may be the weapons of choice for any country that can afford them.